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OCULUS RIFT LAUNCH SPECIAL EDITION

R I FT THE GAMES. THE HARDWARE. THE VISION. THE NEW VIRTUAL REALITY HAS ARRIVED

REVIEWED DARK SOULS III THE DIVISION HITMAN SUPERHOT POKKEN TOURNAMENT PLANTS VS ZOMBIES: GARDEN WARFARE 2

#292 M AY 2016

HANDS-ON WITH THE MINDBENDING NO MAN’S SKY


Keep your eyes on the watch as it moves back and forth… We’ve known for a long time about the unusual effects VR hardware can have on some of us – disorientation, nausea, and so on – but it also seems to have the power to inspire strange behaviours among the people driving these technologies. Take Jeff Stafford, senior staff software engineer at Sony Computer Entertainment America, for example. As one of the key people behind the forthcoming PlayStation VR, Stafford shares responsibility for building hype around Sony’s hardware in the face of fearsome competitors. And yet he was happy to admit recently that the product his team will ship in October is suboptimal. “[In the future] we’re going to try and improve every aspect of it,” he said. “Get it lighter, smaller form factor, easier to use. Of course people want wireless – that’s a challenge. There’s so many things…” His colleague, PlayStation group executive vice president Masayasu Ito, was at it, too: ”If you just talk about the high-end quality, yes, I would admit that Oculus may have better VR.” It is impossible to imagine words like these tumbling out of Ken Kutaragi’s mouth at the launch of the original PlayStation. Marketing offensives are supposed to obscure uncomfortable truths, not push them out into the open. These are, appropriately, strange days. With VR, not only does the thinking behind traditional videogame industry marketing disappear out of the window, but a whole lot of other things with it. As Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Andrew House puts it, “The most fascinating thing is how VR has rewritten the rulebook of what game design should be.” It presents a particular opportunity for smaller studios, unburdened by the ways of old-fashioned industry heavyweights, to stand out. Beginning on p62, we visit Oculus HQ to see how Palmer Luckey and his team are confronting the challenges presented by this new era; set up an HTC Vive ourselves in order to properly test its room-scale approach; and take a look at Sony’s console-powered strategy. There is a lot to unpack in the crazy new world of VR. If you stare hard enough at the concentric circles on the cover of this issue, your brain may be able to get ready to take it all in.

Exclusive subscriber edition

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games 54

Hype

Play

36

104 Dark Souls III

No Man’s Sky PC, PS4

42

PC, PS4, Xbox One

Ratchet & Clank PS4

46

Deliver Us The Moon PC

50

Vampyr PC, PS4, Xbox One

52

Umbrella Corps PC, PS4

54

Monster Hunter Generations 3DS

56

Hype Roundup

108 Tom Clancy’s The Division PC, PS4, Xbox One

112 Hitman PC, PS4, Xbox One

116 Superhot PC, Xbox One

118 Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 PC, PS4, Xbox One

120 Pokkén Tournament Wii U

122 Devil Daggers PC

123 Moon Hunters PC

Explore the iPad edition of Edge for additional content

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Follow these links throughout the magazine for more content online

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#292

sections

86

MAY 2016

Knowledge 8 Lionhead: Game Over Former staffer Tadhg Kelly pays tribute to the charismatic studio

10 Maker’s mark

24 This Month On Edge

80 PlayStation VR

The things that caught our eye during the production of E292

With a comparatively low price and some innovative software, Sony’s VR ambitions are serious

Dispatches 26 Dialogue

86 Collected Works

Ubisoft’s annual dev conference sets new directions for its future

Edge readers share their opinions; one wins a New Nintendo 3DS XL

Warren Spector looks back over a life spent redefining games, from D&D to Deus Ex and Disney

14 Reanimating R-Type

28 Trigger Happy

92 The Making Of…

How a UK animator is bringing Irem’s classic shooter back to life

Steven Poole really misses the graceful, capable old Lara Croft

16 Fergus McGovern

30 Big Picture Mode

How procedurally generated steampunk caper The Swindle proved that crime can pay

A salute to one of UK game development’s favourite sons

Nathan Brown mulls over the problematic world of eSports

18 Cover game

129 Postcards From The Clipping Plane

Hidden Folks offers a new twist on the Where’s Wally? formula

106

James Leach unpacks his trust issues, then turns off fog of war

Game commentary in snack-sized mouthfuls, featuring Todd Howard

Features

22 My Favourite Game

Palmer Luckey’s long-he eld vision for VR is no longer a dream. How does the reality hold h ld up??

20 Soundbytes

Will Wiesenfeld on Sonic The Hedgehog’s excellent music taste

98 Studio Profile Inside Sumo Digital, the UK studio behind LittleBigPlanet 3 and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

124 Time Extend How World Of Warcraft, the greatest MMO of them all, fed on the toil and tears of its players p y

62 Oculus Rift

74 HTC Vive We find out how Valve e’ss ro e room-l VR plan l willll chan h nge n hhomes scale e forever – for better and d worse

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622

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EDITORIAL Tony Mott editor in chief Nathan Brown deputy editor Ben Maxwell writer Andrew Hind art editor CONTRIBUTORS Elizabeth Elliott, Will Freeman, Ben Griffin, Tadhg Kelly, James Leach, Angus Morrison, Emmanuel Pajón, Simon Parkin, Steven Poole, Chris Schilling, Tom Senior, Chris Thursten, Alvin Weetman Thanks to Pelle Jansson (Cowmob Photography) for E288’s Studio Profile photography

ADVERTISING Steven Pyatt account manager (+44 (0)1225 687713 steven.pyatt@futurenet.com) Michael Pyatt advertising manager Andrew Church advertising director Clare Dove commercial sales director

CONTACT US +44 (0)1225 442244 edge@futurenet.com

SUBSCRIPTIONS UK reader order line and enquiries 0844 8482852 Overseas reader order line and enquiries +44 1604 250145 Online enquiries www.myfavouritemagazines.com Email edge@myfavouritemagazines.co.uk

MARKETING Laura Driffield group marketing manager Kristianne Stanton marketing manager

CIRCULATION Juliette Winyard trade marketing manager (+44 (0)7551 150984)

LICENSING Regina Erak senior licensing and syndication manager (regina.erak@futurenet.com) Tel: +44 (0)1225 442244 Fax (yes, really, fax): +44 (0)1225 732275

PRODUCTION & DISTRIBUTION Mark Constance production manager Nola Cokely production controller Jo Gay ad production controller

MANAGEMENT Matthew Pierce editorial director, games, photography, creative & design Rodney Dive group senior art editor Joe McEvoy managing director, magazine division Nial Ferguson content and marketing director Printed in the UK by William Gibbons & Sons on behalf of Future. Distributed in the UK by Seymour Distribution Ltd, 2 East Poultry Avenue, London, EC1A 9PT (+44 (0)207 4294000). Overseas distribution by Seymour International. All submissions to Edge are made on the basis of a licence to publish the submission in Edge magazine and its licensed editions worldwide. Any material submitted is sent at the owner’s risk and, although every care is taken, neither Future Publishing Limited nor its agents shall be liable for loss or damage. While we make every effort possible to ensure that everything we print is factually correct, we cannot be held responsible if factual errors occur. Please check any quoted prices and specs with your supplier before purchase. Remember, kids: if we ever catch you appropriating nerd culture, we’ll have to come and kick your arses. All contents copyright © 2016 Future Publishing Limited or published under licence. All rights reserved. No part of this magazine may be reproduced, stored, transmitted or used in any way without the prior written permission of the publisher. Future Publishing Limited (company number 2008885) is registered in England and Wales. Registered office: Quay House, The Ambury, Bath BA1 1UA. All information contained in this publication is for information only and is, as far as we are aware, correct at the time of going to press. Future cannot accept any responsibility for errors or inaccuracies in such information. You are advised to contact manufacturers and retailers directly with regard to the price and other details of products or services referred to in this publication. Apps and websites mentioned in this publication are not under our control. We are not responsible for their contents or any changes or updates to them. If you submit unsolicited material to us, you automatically grant Future a licence to publish your submission in whole or in part in all editions of the magazine, including licensed editions worldwide and in any physical or digital format throughout the world. Any material you submit is sent at your risk and, although every care is taken, neither Future nor its employees, agents or subcontractors shall be liable for loss or damage.

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Specialist Magazine Of The Year


KNOWLEDGE LIONHEAD

Lionhead: Game Over In this guest editorial, former Lionhead staffer Tadhg Kelly looks at the passing of one of gaming’s most charismatic studios

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meant falling into two consistent patterns: s a band of knights approach over-promising and under-delivering. Camelot in Monty Python And The “Black & White combines the best Holy Grail, we see their leader change elements of a strategy game, a his mind. “On second thought,” King roleplaying game, along with all the Arthur says, “let’s not go to Camelot. elements of a story-based game in which ’Tis a silly place.” It’s a description that the player can choose to do almost fits many of the older UK studios. You anything,” said Peter Molyneux in an know the ones I mean: the Frontiers, the August 2000 interview. This kind of Rebellions, the Codemasterses. They are statement was typical for the designer, silly places, amusing places, inspiring geeing up the press to write optimistic and occasionally aggravating places. stories about what was to come. But They’re places caught between the past the actual products rarely matched up. and the future, places whose signature Lionhead’s first title, Black & White games we remember fondly and whose spoke of a marriage of the gameplay transgressions we often forgive. of Populous with the creature-caring Why? Because they’re the places with popularised by devices such as Bandai’s spirit in a modern industry that often lacks Tamagotchi. The promise of the title it. Modern studios are factories, was grand, but the actual measuring every interaction game proved to be thin. and mathematically tuning Lionhead may It was a pattern the studio their games like a Vegas would often repeat. casino might. Many have have had its wild Another Lionhead title, forgotten (or never learned) years, but at least BC, dragged on for years the virtues of charm, and never saw release. humour, story, curiosity in those days The Movies had a great and more that make up a it had a lot of pitch but was very rounded game. And so, fragmented to play. Fable with a heavy heart, we sizzle to sell became an industry legend must speak of the passing for its tall promises, and then a deep of one of the few that didn’t forget those disappointment on release. 2005’s B Black virtues: Lionhead Studios. & White 2 simply came and went, sell elling Lionhead began life in 1996 as the disappointingly to middling reviews, successor of Bullfrog Productions, which despite high internal expectations. To had enjoyed success with titles such as hear Molyneux tell it, at regular Fridayy Populous, Syndicate and Theme Park afternoon gatherings, each of these before being bought by Electronic Arts. e games was going to revolutionise the At first, EA’s acquisition bore fruit, notably universe. But often the reception beyo ond with Dungeon Keeper, but eventually it the walls of Lionhead HQ at Occam stalled. And so Bullfrog’s founders left and Court was mute, even angry. got the band back together under a new name, but that story of success wasn’t the same. Between the time of Bullfrog and Yet it wasn’t all a story of frustratioon. that of Lionhead the economics of the After Fable the studio hit a high note industry had changed and put huge strain will with Fable II, the game for which it w on developers. And for Lionhead that probably be most fondly remembered d.

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Game design consultant and former Edge columnist Tadhg Kelly is currently working on a new book, entitled Core Game Design. He worked on The Movies at Lionhead from 2004–2006

In many ways Fable II was a blessing, a repeatable franchise for a company often at odds with itself. The game also positioned Lionhead well when it needed a patron, which it found in a Microsoft undoing the console dominance of Sony. But the partnership did little to fix the mismatch between dreams and execution. I had left Lionhead by the time of Milo & Kate, a title that was part of Microsoft’s Kinect ambitions in 2008. It was shown at the Game Developers Conference and TED, and reportedly involved a huge amount of technical work and creative struggle. But it went nowhere, and was ultimately cancelled. In its wake, Molyneux was promoted to oversee creative across all of Microsoft’s European studios, but soon left the company to form a new studio that became synonymous with controversy. For Lionhead, the story was no better. When a studio is bought by a publisher, it usually evolves into a singletitle operation, which eventually dooms it. Lionhead may have had its wild years, but at least in those days it had a lot of sizzle to sell. But when it became the Fable studio, its days were probably numbered. Fable was a worthy franchise but never a breakout hit. It was quirky and very British – a silly place, you might say – but never a must-have. And, after the lukewarm reception of Fable III, the franchise started to wane. An attempt to make Fable work via Kinect flopped, as did a family-friendly edition, Fable Heroes. Then Fable Legends promised to re-energise the brand with co-operative multiplayer and a new hero/villain dynamic. But by that point it seems that Lionhead had become adversely affected by the situation in which Microsoft found itself. Unlike its predecessor, Xbox One was


not a success. Multiplayer-focused games also failed to prove as sticky as the industry at large had hoped, Microsoft instead laying down big money for Minecraft. The move seemed to involve cuts being forced elsewhere, meaning that there was no future for a quirky, RPG-focused studio from Guildford.

Experts no doubt believe that Lionhead’s problems came from a poor product/market fit, from Molyneux, or from forgetting that it was a business. But those experts have no idea what running a creative videogame studio in the UK is like. Every studio struggles with the need to sell visions versus the practicalities of realising them. Every studio has leadership, creative and business challenges. The spirit business is tough. That Lionhead survived in such an environment, developing several notable games and providing the foundations for the careers of hundreds of developers, is to its credit. That it was a place that fostered its staff, providing learning space from which other studios – such as Media Molecule – would be spawned is notable. Perhaps this is why its alumni mourn its passing. Because, beyond anything else, Lionhead had spirit. It may have been a silly place, a maddening and occasionally even cultish place, but Lionhead Studios will be deeply missed. Q

ABOVE Shortly after the now-cancelled Fable Legends featured on the cover of E277, Microsoft revealed that the game was being transformed into a free-to-play title. The shift is said to have been a source of no small frustration within Lionhead. LEFT Fable II may have suffered at the hands of Peter Molyneux’s Magnificent Hype Machine throughout development, but the game emerged as Lionhead’s finest, most well-rounded work. BELOW Black & White, released in 2001, was an easy game to like thanks to the creatures that lumbered across its landscapes, but with hindsight it’s clear that Lionhead’s debut title wasn’t a top-to-bottom success

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KNOWLEDGE UBISOFT

Maker’s mark At the Ubisoft Developer Conference, a vast global workforce comes together to build a better (open) world

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peers, but colleagues: they are able ou’d be forgiven for thinking you to speak openly about how they are know Ubisoft inside out. This, after meeting the specific challenges facing all, is a company with a reputation for them at that very moment. And given the announcing its games early and then way Ubisoft is structured – with studios doing its best to make it impossible for around the world working together on the you to forget about them. Those that it same project – many of those problems does intend to keep under wraps, are of course shared. meanwhile, still find their way into the As such, irritatingly, much of what we news through leaks. And there is such hear is under NDA, though the event still obvious connective tissue linking its provides insight into how, and why, games (particularly open-world ones) that Ubisoft is structured in the way it is, the after a while everything about Ubisoft unique problems such a structure presents, begins to feel a little too familiar. But we and the support systems the publisher has don’t know it all, a fact made clear when had to build to ensure the whole thing we’re told shortly after walking through ticks along as intended. There are central the doors of Ubisoft Montreal that 80 per frameworks designed to bind that global cent of projects in development at its workflow together, such as the Parisflagship studio are yet to be announced. based Editorial team, It’s made even clearer which sets content by the reason for our visit. Ubisoft’s global guidelines for teams The Ubisoft Developer Conference is a four-day 24-hour production around the world to follow. The technology group is an networking event that is schedule means internal team of consultants now in its seventh year, that assesses the needs of and this year has been enormous games each particular project and opened up to press for the can be made much suggests which tools – first time. Over 150 staff whether Ubisoft’s own or from Ubisoft’s global array more quickly made by a third party – of studios braved sub-zero are most appropriate. Montreal temperatures to Then there’s David Lightbown, user attend this year, and the thousands that experience director for the technology stayed at home can either watch live group. UX is vitally important in game streams or catch up later, since video of development, of course, but Lightbown is every presentation and panel is archived not involved in Ubisoft game’s UI, tutorial on the company intranet. flow or learning curve. The user he serves Commonly abbreviated to UDC, the is not the player, but the developer; he event’s comparison to GDC is obvious, helps teams understand how to make but there’s one crucial difference. GDC their tools more accessible, speeding up talks tend to be either retrospective – a iteration in the hunt for greater quality. look back on lessons learned on a “It’s not a role you hear about a lot,” particular project, revealing secrets that Lightbown tells us. “It’s something that’s need no longer be kept quiet – or only really possible at a company like theoretical, discussing possible solutions Ubi, that tries a lot of different things to problems that loom on the horizon. At when it comes to improving productivity UDC, presenters are not just speaking to

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FROM TOP Olivier Dauba, VP of Ubisoft’s Paris Editorial team; David Lightbown, user experience director for the Technology Group

for game production. It helps us make our tools accessible for people around the world for cross-collaboration. When we’re working multi-studio to make these triple-A games, improving the productivity of our tools helps other studios get up and running much faster. “Ubsoft is one of the few companies doing this kind of thing, because of the approach they take in terms of development. I don’t know if the sort of work I’m doing now would be possible anywhere else, and I really think we’re seeing the benefits of it.” The benefits to Ubisoft of this global, multi-studio approach are obvious. At the peak of full production, 1,000 developers will be working on a big Ubisoft project – an Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry or Watch Dogs, for example – at studios spread all across the planet. It’s a global 24-hour production schedule that means enormous games can be made much more quickly than if they were only being worked on by a single studio.

Yet there are further, less obvious benefits to taking this approach. While every project has a lead studio, those supporting it are gaining valuable experience of how to make top-tier Ubisoft games, enabling them to later take the lead role themselves. Ubisoft Massive, for instance, went from making the multiplayer component for the Montreal-helmed Far Cry 3 to leading development on Tom Clancy’s The Division. Ubisoft Quebec collaborated on five Assassin’s Creed games before taking the lead role on last year’s Syndicate. Giving a remote studio responsibility for a complete system or aspect of a large project ensures they are seen as, and feel like, collaborators, rather than simply being there to help


The UDC schedule is shrouded in secrecy: before a ball has been kicked, attendees are politely reminded not to let printed copies out of sight

Much of Ubisoft Montreal is off limits, though we’re shown round its in-house audio production unit, which handles audio mixing and localisation, and employs a full-time Foley effects artist

FIGHTING SPIRIT

Collaboration and competition needn’t be mutually exclusive

The Division, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and Far Cry Primal are three recent projects made possible by Ubi’s global collaboration

UDC’s sharing spirit is all well and good, but no studio wants to run the support role forever. Teams working on small components of games being led by a studio halfway across the world use the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of a leading role. “There’s a competitive aspect to it for sure,” Alex Parizeau, MD of Ubisoft Toronto, tells us. “But it’s healthy: you want to prove that you can bring something special. You see it at UDC: when someone’s got an idea they want to come here and say, ‘I’m the one that figured this out.’ There’s competition, yes, but it stimulates debate, and doesn’t go against collaboration.”

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KNOWLEDGE UBISOFT

out while the lead studio is asleep. And while they may be using another studio’s technology for a game system mandated by the Paris Editorial team, over time they will come up with completely different ways to use it for themselves. “It’s important for a studio to have a sense of ownership of something, whether it’s their own game or a collaboration,” Olivier Dauba, VP of the Paris Editorial team, tells us. “When it comes to collaborating we try to make sure the feature is some kind of standalone thing. When it comes to Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft Singapore has been working on everything relating to water and the naval system. They’re not an anonymous developer on something; they’re in charge of an important component. “Another project uses the technology from Ghost Recon – using that tech, the developers have come up with something entirely different for their own game. You benefit from following in another studio’s footsteps; they did the hard work on the technology and you come up with something super interesting while minimising the risk…”

Much of UDC is focused on the present, though there’s plenty of futuregazing on the conference floor too. A dedicated VR track reveals a surprising focus by one of the biggest global publishers on a nascent, unproven space, and two of the company’s first wave of VR games show that Ubisoft is more than just a triple-A hit factory. The Paris-set bird sim (at last!) Eagle Flight is twitchily responsive, prompting a few lurches of the stomach as we crest the summit of Notre Dame before swooping down to ground level and careening through the streets of Montmartre. After all that, the sedate, sedentary Wolves Within, a riff on the boardgame Are You A Werewolf? that’s being developed by original Rainbow Six team Ubisoft Red Storm, makes for a welcome change of pace. A group of villagers sit around a medieval campfire, bluffing and double-bluffing as they try to establish which of the group are in need of a silver bullet. Head-tracking has onscreen avatars look at you while you speak;

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For Honor, like The Division, signals a change in tack for Ubisoft as it transitions from the vast, teeming and singleplayer open worlds of Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry towards shared-world and multiplayer games

understand the affordances of the system. stand up and you command the attention Being around early, and being able to of the group, muting the other players’ learn early, is important. We don’t want voice chat for a ten-second monologue. to jump in and make the same mistakes. Lean in to an adjacent player and, if they “The VR projects we’re making are lean back, you enter a two-person voice of limited risk, but they’re a way for us channel where you can conspire in to learn, to develop new competencies. private. It’s smart stuff, and entirely [In the] next fiscal year maybe 90 per unexpected from a publisher that has cent of our revenue will come from earned a reputation for, and a traditional games, but we’ll have a few tremendous amount of money from, VR experiences. We’ll have built a few sticking to proven formulae. core teams and found a few experts. “VR is an opportunity to be pioneers When it takes off, we’ll be ready.” again,” Dauba says. “Everything you There’s a PR benefit to know about development all of this too: proving that you have to relearn: so “VR right now Ubisoft is still a company much of what we’ve done prepared to take risks, even in the past doesn’t work. is about tons of while it continues to plough VR right now is about user testing. It’s global resources into doing tons of user testing, making chart-topping getting feedback on what what makes it blockbusters. EA is being works and doesn’t. It’s so exciting. It’s cautious, preferring to let what makes it so exciting. the market prove itself It’s a new frontier.” a new frontier” despite its announcement of Yet why take the risk? a Star Wars Battlefront spinoff. Activision Why not let other studios define the new is showing little interest in it either. Yet working standard and jump aboard when while this early commitment to VR will the time is right? Dauba points to the help Ubisoft’s image, there are other, early days of smartphone gaming, lingering concerns about its reputation. recalling how he excitedly downloaded At first glance, UDC 2016 provides the iOS version of Rayman 2, since he little evidence that the company is had worked on the original, only to find it changing the increasingly over-familiar was a mess because of its virtual controls. formula for making its open-world games; “It looked stunning, but it was unplayable. if anything it is the opposite, since the It was designed for a different system. event exists primarily to help streamline It’s the same with VR: you have to


Eagle Flight is a product of Ubisoft’s Fun House, the division that focuses on smaller-scale projects and was profiled in E285

its complex, global way of working. But change is clearly afoot. During a recent investor event, CEO Yves Guillemot laid out a shift in focus from singleplayer open-world projects to “multiplayer-centric” games, evidence of which is already prominent on the publisher’s release slate with Rainbow Six: Siege, The Division, Ghost Recon: Wildlands and For Honor. That, too, will necessitate a shift in working practices, with more staff required to support games post-release instead of moving on to the next project en masse. There’s a commitment to improving iteration speed, giving teams more time to experiment and thereby improving the quality of the final product. That’s evident from David Lightbown’s work, and Massive’s Snowdrop, a live engine that lets developers test out ideas within minutes.

Most encouraging of all is the absence from shelves this year of Assassin’s Creed, suggesting an acknowledgement that, for all the benefits of having teams working around the clock across the world on one game after the next, doing so means you lose the opportunity to step back and look at what a game, or series, really needs. The extra time should also avoid a repeat of the Assassin’s Creed Unity fiasco, where Ubisoft reached for the skies and barely made it up the first flight of stairs.

“The beginning of the new generation was… aggressive in some respects,” Dauba says. “The ambition for Unity was extreme: we were pushing innovation on every aspect of the game. We pushed it too aggressively, so that’s why we want to slow down, to bring some form of… sanity may not be the right word, but a bit more calm, to truly mature what we do. By taking some of the pressure off, you can take more risks, and come back with something stronger.” What might those risks produce? Sadly, the NDA gets in the way here, as does the abundance of tinted glass and curtained-off workspaces that occlude so much of our walking tour of this vast studio with its 3,000-strong staff. But Dauba hints at some substantial change behind the scenes in the way Ubisoft is looking at the worlds it creates. Given UDC’s focus on sharing technical information, it’s an appropriate venue for him to tell us that Ubisoft intends to better use the data it collects – using your history with past Assassin’s Creed games to streamline the tutorial section of a new game, perhaps – and that it’s looking at how data might be shared between players in more than the traditional multiplayer context. “Some of the next steps are more about players being able to leave a bigger mark on the world,” he says. “So what I do leaves a footprint,

and that’s something another player can witness in their game.” The Ubisoft Developer Conference not only provides a look behind the curtain at how Ubisoft steers its global operation; it also reveals a link between the types of game the company makes, and the company itself. Ubisoft is an open, shared world, a complex web of interlocking systems where individual players can leave their stamp on a project populated by thousands of others. It might, like its open-world productions, seem to have settled into too much of a groove, but there is an appetite for change here, and a hunger for risktaking, as well as the desire for it to be easier for Ubisoft to make the games it already makes. It’s difficult to find too much fault in a company that just wants to make it simpler to change the world. Q

Wolves Within developer Red Storm has spent recent years helping out on Far Cry and The Division, but its work in VR will lay foundations for other Ubi studios to follow

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KNOWLEDGE R-TYPE

Reanimating R-Type How UK artist Paul Johnson is bringing Irem’s classic shooter back to life with an anime-styled project that hits every mark

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he legendary shoot ’em up R-Type has reached beyond its arcade origins to land on everything from Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum to Nintendo’s Game Boy, but Irem’s game has never been realised in animation form before. Paul Johnson tells us why, and how, he’s doing it.

I should come up with some ideas and he’d do the same, and then he’d run them by the right people at Channel 4. With the Star Wars project I got a bit of a reputation for focusing on the bad guys and showing what happens if there’s no plot armour for the good guys. So I suggested a three-minute short of Generation 1 Transformers with the Decepticons absolutely crushing everyone. They liked the idea, but they weren’t sure Hasbro would be as open as Lucasfilm to releasing fan art.

Your R-Type animation has attracted a lot of attention as a ‘fan project’, but you’re an animator by trade, right? I guess I am now. I studied Japanese at Sheffield University, and when I graduated I thought that speaking But they obviously liked R-Type as Japanese meant I could become a subject matter. Why was Irem’s game translator of Japanese. I did a few your next choice? games and novels, but unless you want I remember when I was a kid, having to largely take on 50,000-page contracts been born in Lincoln, we for patents for new battery moved to Skegness, and chargers, there’s really not “With the Star suddenly arcades weren’t much work in that space. something I had to go on It was looking like I was Wars project holiday to the seaside for going to have to find I got a bit of a any more. There was no work in data entry or at more waiting for that one McDonald’s. Then this reputation for time a year. Suddenly I animation production focusing on was surrounded by arcade company in Australia, games, and one of the first Planet 55, stepped in the bad guys” ones I played there was and got me working on R-Type. Then, when the Master System character design and ship design for an came out, I played it to death again, animated series, Prisoner Zero. I could even though I could never complete it, do that from home and online, and that because it was way too hard for me. particular project has just finished, but it I had the Commodore 64 version, too. kept me working as an animator, and I think back, and there’s just always that’s what I do now. been a lot of R-Type in my life. How did the R-Type project begin? What are you trying to capture in the Tom [Jenkins, channel producer at animation? Is it the feeling of playing Channel 4’s games YouTube channel that kind of arcade shoot ’em up, or the #Mashed] really liked the Star Wars R-Type aesthetic? thing I did, and because #Mashed works The objective, I guess, was thinking about with content creators, animators and how I could take a 2D horizontal shooter whatnot on YouTube, he seemed to just and imagine it as a fully animated battle like the idea of working with me, and he scene, as if it was from something like didn’t really mind what it was. He said

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Animator Paul Johnson attracted attention in 2015 with his sevenminute, animestyled TIE Fighter short, which has been viewed over 5m times to date. You can see snippets of his near-finished R-Type project via his Twitter account, @OtaKing77077

Macross. That led to a lot of interesting things, because we only really see R-Type from the side, so I was having to think about how wide a piece of scenery might look, or what a particular boss might look like face-on, viewed in a 3D plane. That was really interesting to me, and there was a lot to work out. That was great fun, and quite a challenge. How concerned are you with accurately recreating the famous R-Type universe? That was the charm of the challenge. Some of what I had to go on was stuff like 16bit sprites, I guess. So there are those brown insect-looking things that attack you, but it really could be anything from what you see in the game, so I just interpreted it as some horrible pulsating thing with claws. However, if you look at it from the top, you’ll find it still looks exactly like it does in the game, really. So it’s a work of interpretation of being inside an R-Type level. You’ve only shared a work-in-progress sample so far, but it created quite a reaction. Were you expecting that? No, not at all. I thought it would just be a few old men like me who played it at the arcade. I mean, I got some of that, but I also got an absolute shitload of people in Japan getting really excited. Suddenly my Twitter went crazy, and I think about three-quarters of the reaction came from Japan. That was really nice. When will you be finished? It’s a bit of a test for me. It’s the first thing I’ve done where I haven’t had a year or two to get it finished. So we’re looking at late April on #Mashed at the moment. It should be about three minutes long. So it’s not a huge animation, but there’s potential for other games after this. Q


MAIN Clearly the project wouldn’t feel authentically R-Type if it didn’t feature one of ’80s-era gaming’s most iconic bosses, the Giger-flavoured Dobkeratops, from the culmination of the game’s opening level. ABOVE This sequence, also inspired by level one, demonstrates how Johnson has fleshed out the original game’s 2D backdrops

SUPER DIMENSION INSPIRATION By his own admission, Johnson never quite feels comfortable with 3D animation. “I’m an obsessive old man stuck in nostalgia, so I like my high-budget anime movies from the ’80s, and I’m really not a fan of 3D in anime,” he says. “That’s the way it’s gone now. You see a robot or a car, and it’s made in 3D.” But his R-Type short is an attempt at a 2D animated presentation of the 3D world hidden in R-Type’s original 2D form. So while his creation is rich in hand-drawn craft, it’s draped over a 3D frame, used as a reference point to keep perspective. It’s a technique partly inspired by the 1984 movie of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, where the team used cigarette packets and boxes to build a 3D model, before photographing it and drawing in 2D over the junk modelling rig.

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KNOWLEDGE IN MEMORIAM

FERGUS MCGOVERN 1965–2016

Much-loved Britsoft pioneer Fergus McGovern – pictured here as immortalised via the ‘Fergality’ in the Mega Drive version of Mortal Kombat 2 – passed away in February, aged 50. Often branded as a ‘whizzkid’ in the emergence of the UK game development scene, McGovern’s legacy includes co-founding Probe Software in 1984,

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which thrived bringing coin-ops and film tie-ins to 8bit and 16bit platforms. Later known as Probe Entertainment, the business was sold to Acclaim for $40m in 1995. McGovern later embraced numerous roles, co-creating the plug-andplay specialist HotGen, becoming an associate director of Crystal Palace FC, and pouring his time into charity work.

“Like so many of us of a certain age in the games business, we grew up together and built our careers together,” says Stuart Dinsey, chairman at Curve Digital Entertainment. “I was lucky enough to know Fergus for almost 30 years and, like so many have said, he always had time for others, with smart advice and a focus on living and loving life.” Q


COVER GAME

An experimental designer and an illustrator seek out a new twist on Where’s Wally? Hidden Folks is the younger, cooler sibling of Where’s Wally? (or, as it’s also known, Where’s Waldo?). But while the latest project from Bounden and Fingle creator Adriaan de Jongh is about looking for individuals, his collaboration with illustrator Sylvain Tegroeg is anything but the result of a concerted search. “I accidentally stumbled upon Sylvain’s miniature illustrations at his graduation expo,” de Jongh recalls. “I was immediately drawn to it: taking a close look, discovering all those little scenarios and tiny stories unfolding. That feeling of ‘Wow, what’s happening here?’ was very

inspiring, and I jokingly told Sylvain we should make a game together.” He might’ve proposed the idea flippantly, but it took hold. The result is a series of animated, sprawling and minutely detailed scenes that respond to the probing clicks of players. Your quarry isn’t necessarily hiding in plain sight, but might be concealed within a garage, or behind a trailer stacked high with crates. This interactive element, combined with Tegroeg’s black-and-white line illustrations, results in a fresh-feeling twist on the objectfinding genre. The design has also forced Tegroeg to approach his work differently.

“I’ve never made a game before,” he says, “so it took a while to figure out how to get my drawings from paper into the game without losing their charm or density. I had to buy a scanner and learn how to make sprite sheets, but now we know exactly how the process goes. And being able to quickly translate our ideas from paper to interactive or animated scenarios allows us to focus on stuff like the game’s structure and interface, which have proved more difficult to get right.” There’s still work to do, then, but the pair aim to release the game on Steam and iOS in late 2016.Q


KNOWLEDGE HIDDEN FOLKS


KNOWLEDGE TALK/ARCADE

Soundbytes Game commentary in snack-sized mouthfuls

“I didn’t know how to react to it. It’s an incredible honour, and then it’s like, ‘OK, am I supposed to be done? Is that it?’” Bethesda Game Studios director and executive producer Todd Howard, 45, prepares for a slow walk to the glue factory after receiving DICE’s lifetime achievement award

“We should all applaud when a team does something special. Those who hope for teams to fail due to platform aren’t real gamers.”

“I spent a seven-month period as a board member just falling in love with Zynga… We have all the ingredients for a successful turnaround.”

After praising the PS4-bound Uncharted 4, Xbox chief Phil Spencer shuts down agitators on Twitter

And all the ingredients for a massive payoff when it all goes horribly wrong, new Zynga CEO Frank Gibeau?

“I guess I think of that Sid Meier as another person. It’s another person that I run into… I don’t identify too much with him.” Sid Meier’s Sid Meier muses on what happens when your name becomes a franchise

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ARCADE WATCH

Keeping an eye on the coin-op gaming scene

Game Killer Queen Manufacturer Raw Thrills Josh Debonis and Nik Mikros’s Killer Queen started life as a physical field game, which was played with foam swords, balls and plastic crowns, but graduated to a fully fledged arcade cabinet thanks to a collaboration with Wisconsin-based Fun Company. The machine became a familiar sight at indie and corporate game events, and found its way into a handful of arcades across North America. Now its creators have signed a deal with Raw Thrills in a rare example of a homegrown arcade project getting picked up by a mainstream manufacturer. Played on a pair of giant cabinets, two teams of five – each led by a flying, powerful queen – compete to retrieve a giant snail god, fill their hive with nectar, or take down the opposing queen three times. Each cabinet has a 47-inch 1080p screen, a wide bank of joysticks and buttons, and, most importantly, cup holders. It’s a riotous, fast-paced strategic brawler that promotes smacktalking with complete strangers as the advantage ebbs and flows. The latest version of the cabinet retains earlier builds’ bright blue-and-orange aesthetic, but adds some fantastic-looking retro-styled side art. There’s also now a tutorial to help new players adjust to the relatively complex team-based gameplay, as well as AI teammates. The deal will hopefully mean the game finds its way into many more arcades and sets an encouraging precedent for the introduction of original and outsider ideas to the highly competitive arcade industry.


KNOWLEDGE FAVOURITES

My Favourite Game Will Wiesenfeld The experimental musician on beating The Witness, the beauty of game worlds, and Sonic The Hedgehog’s excellent taste in music

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KA Baths, Will Wiesenfeld is a classically trained musician who layers samples of household noises with falsetto vocals, electronics and synths. Signed to experimental LA-based label Anticon, Baths’ music is intimate, often introspective, and always otherworldly – an aesthetic he looks for in games, too. You tweeted that you had trouble with The Witness – how’s that going? Yes! I’m not any more. I had a great time playing it, and I completed it on my own – I’m proud to say I only had to write down four puzzles. I pride myself on being able to stare at something for long enough and try to visualise it, then make it happen. I should have [made more notes] – it would have made playing the game much faster – but I wanted to make it as challenging as possible.

Is it too much to suggest that there are similarities between your music and The Witness’s atmosphere? I think I write a lot about loneliness because it’s something I’m familiar with and always write about. And that was the first thing I got from The Witness, too. You just walk in and there’s no interaction, and the only things that are remotely human, you can’t even interact with. You get these disembodied voices telling you about meta, intellectual things – and it’s so inhuman at the same time as being really human. Very lonely and strange. And that’s something that appeals to you in games? I think all of my favourite games have that ‘outsider’ feeling, or something different

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SOAP STORIES Wiesenfeld has released three albums as Baths: Cerulean, Pop Music/False B-Sides and Obsidian. He’s currently working on his fourth Baths LP, but is also set to release a new record under his side project Geotic later this year, which will be called Abysma. Wiesenfeld is part of a crossdisciplinary group of creatives in LA who often collaborate on projects – one being Hyper Light Drifter, created by Alex Preston, the trailer for which Wiesenfeld soundtracked. Baths will be touring later this year – see www. bit.ly/bathsanticon for more information and show dates.

and new, but it skips genres. One of my favourite of all time is Silent Hill 2, which is a super-dark, dreadful, scary thing. But it’s also beautiful and otherworldly, so unlike any other horror game that came before or after it. I just recently replayed it with my friends, and it holds up so well – it’s crazy how much better it is than almost every other horror game ever made.

was always something that I felt was exactly my thing – my aesthetic or vibe or whatever. So I think that very much carried over into my music without me even thinking about it. I wasn’t like, “That’s what I have to do – exactly translate the feels I get in videogames to music.” It just happened like that because all my favourite games are like that – they have some prevailing emotional state that’s so unlike my normal life.

Have you played Soma? Yes! And I loved it – that’s such a good And which game stands out most example to bring up. I played it with my among all of those? friend Reed, who’s a writer, and my friend I think it would be the first Mass Effect, Ben, who’s a videogame designer. We which my brother and I all geek on games in a “I think all of played through at the same different way, and love time. It gets a lot of gripe talking about them in my favourite for the weapons system, different ways. It was us games have that which is a little funky. But passing the controller that’s not at all what’s around, and we went so ‘outsider’ feeling, important to me when deep into the plot and I’m playing a game. It’s read every single thing we or something came across. It was so different and new” always story, and how the story is delivered, and how good, we had a great you interact with it. And on those terms time – it’s really smart, well written. it’s by far the greatest game ever – it’s unparalleled in how big and incredible So did that fascination with games feed the story is. The point I was making to into your music in any way? a lot of people at the time – because I mean, I’m thinking of all the games that I finished it and was freaking out about it I really love, and music was always a and wouldn’t stop talking about it – was really big part of that – especially Final that it could only exist as a videogame. Fantasy VIII and Sonic 2. They had these Which is what’s so beautiful about it. really motivationally charged pop things There’s no way to do the 40 to 50-plus going on a lot of the time, even if it was hours that I put into that game in the form the pop orchestral stuff in Final Fantasy. of a movie. You can never get the same There’s a level called Ice Cap Zone in experience out of it. You can never feel Sonic 3, which has the greatest the same way you do about all the videogame song ever – super, super pop. characters you meet, and the gravity But an emotional atmosphere tied in with of all the situations that happen.Q really grandiose fantasy environments


Wiesenfeld’s musical pseudonym is no great mystery: he simply finds his greatest creative moods come to him when he’s having a good soak

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KNOWLEDGE THIS MONTH

HASHTAG

WEB GAME

#いらすとやさんでゲームパッケ ージを再現する

www.bit.ly/irasutoya One small corner of Twitter has been brightened with a selection of particularly joyful recreations of videogame box art. The idea of replacing existing covers with clip art or other simplistic alternatives is nothing new, but in appropriating the royalty-free work of illustrator Takashi Mifune’s from irasutoya.com, these efforts transform even the most po-faced, explosionheavy covers into something that wouldn’t look out of place in Keita Takahashi’s colourful back catalogue. While not every contribution holds up to scrutiny, revisions of F1 2015, Just Cause 3 and Battlefield 1942 are significantly better than the originals. And, as if to underscore the Takahashi evocation, a redo of Katamari Damacy’s cheery cover is all but indistinguishable in its Irasutoya form.

VIDEO

Videogaiden www.bit.ly/vgaiden Rab Florence and Ryan Macleod were making quality video #content about games when today’s hyperactive YouTubers were still in short trousers, and they’re back for a short run on BBC Scotland’s YouTube channel ahead of an iPlayer-bound special episode. It’s a scattershot affair, but the duo are as unafraid as ever to focus on the games that matter to them. That means Nobunaga’s Ambition gets more airtime than Rainbow Six: Siege, while Macleod gets to wax lyrical about beloved indie titles and Florence gets a section on board games. Refreshing, thoughtful, endearingly personal stuff.

Puser Toh www.bit.ly/pusertoh Polish dev Sos Sosowski was inspired by his compatriots’ time manipulation in Superhot for Puser Toh. But Sosowski has applied the concept to a game with even more heritage than the firstperson shooter genre: Pong. As in Superhot, time moves extremely slowly when both paddles are still, but speeds up when either or both are moving. It’s the only addition to the classic game, but profoundly changes the rhythm of play as well as giving players waiting for a return shot a mischievous new focus. Wiggling your paddle (or ceasing the activity) at inopportune moments will force your opponent to deal with a projectile whose velocity erratically changes. The game was thrown together in just a few hours, and lacks refinement, but offers up a fine twist on one of gaming’s oldest concepts.

THIS MONTH ON EDGE When we weren’t doing everything else, we were thinking about stuff like this HEADPHONES

Entrim 4D www.bit.ly/Entrim4D Samsung’s GearVR might currently lack the positional tracking of its more advanced (and expensive) sibling Rift, but the South Korean company has something to make up for it while we wait for inside-out scanning. Revealed at last month’s SXSW conference, its Entrim 4D headphones stimulate the wearer’s vestibular system (which relays information about spatial orientation and balance) to trick their brain into experiencing motion. The technique is like that of the restorative therapy used on recovering stroke patients, in which electric signals are used to restore balance. Samsung stresses that the device is entirely safe, and that users will experience a sense of inertia that matches what they’re seeing on the screen.

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continue quit Tunnel vision Prison Architect’s 3D mode emerges after five months of digging

Stars hole Starjumping trolls block The Division’s doorways. Ubi didn’t see it coming

Import game saves Amazon Japan starts shipping games internationally

Blind ambition Roomscale VR nearly results in a Vivecontroller-augmented TV

Outside the box Microsoft invites PC and competitor console players to its Live show

Liondead Microsoft swallows Molyneux’s pride and closes Lionhead

Power, tripless AMD-powered Sulon Q VR headset eschews cables and base units

Helmet hair It’s the future, sure, but we’re closing the curtains anyway

TWEETS

When I was young, 11–15, I cloned a lot of games. It’s a good way to learn. Same in music. Martin Hollis @martinhollis Game director, GoldenEye Imagine a videogame where aliens invade earth and you control a muscular space marine whose job is to shoot them to bits. Dan Bull @itsDanBull Rapper #AlphaGo wins game 5! One of the most incredible games ever. To comeback from the initial big mistake against Lee Sedol was mind-blowing!!! Demis Hassabis @demishassabis DeepMind CEO Very sad to hear about Lionhead closure. Also love MS saying ‘it has nothing to do with the team’... what else could it have to do with? Alex Hutcchinson son @BangBang ngClickk F Cryy 4 Game direcctor,, Far


DISPATCHES MAY Stay positive

Issue 291

Dialogue Send your views, using ‘Dialogue’ as the subject line, to edge@futurenet.com. Our letter of the month wins a New Nintendo 3DS XL, supplied by the Nintendo UK store

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I’m ecstatic at the gentle shifting of norms in gaming. Simultaneously, I’m frustrated that some things are shifting too slowly. With the releases of The Witness, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, Oxenfree and Firewatch, among others, it seems that games that explore more nuanced, grown-up themes are comfortably slipping into the mainstream consciousness and scoring some significant media coverage. This is very positive, in contrast to less consumer-friendly trends like publishers getting bolder about releasing full-price, feature-light games (Destiny, Hitman and Street Fighter V), punishing early adopting fans with little save a clumsily PR’ed content roadmap to placate them. Some things aren’t changing fast enough. Representation and diversity in blockbuster titles is still woeful, and homogenisation of gameplay among big titles is becoming wearisome. Supposedly this is market-driven, a hangover of console gaming’s preoccupation with young men. Overall I’m positive, though, thanks to a new arrival. I recently sat with my newborn son snoozing in my lap while trying to unlock The Witness’s deepest secrets. I can’t wait to introduce him to the wonderful worlds made possible by the creativity of game developers: colourful concoctions of fun, challenge, discovery, empathy, stress, strategy, puzzlement, wonderment and terror. The little chap couldn’t give a monkey’s about whether Jonathan Blow’s magnum opus is overpriced or the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided preorder scheme was tone deaf; whether this or that version runs at 1080p or microtransactions spoil a game’s economy. I hope that by the time he pops up in publishers’ target market demographic segmentation charts it will be a common occurrence for big mainstream games to

sensitively tackle a wider range of topics than they currently do; and that they will feature a more diverse range of faces. Ultimately, the business bollocks can’t dim my hope for the future of gaming. Thomas Quillfeldt Oh, sure, it’s all sunshine and positivity now, isn’t it? Do drop us another line when he starts shoving jam-slathered fingers into console disc trays. Perhaps we’ll smear your New 3DS with Marmite to help ease you in.

Lord, I’m discouraged The creators of the Xbox are in a unique position this console cycle: Microsoft’s biggest problem is Microsoft itself. The past few weeks have been eerily reminiscent of the initial reveal of the Xbox One. Sony didn’t have to do anything to try and convince people to buy a PS4 instead of an Xbox One. It was like Don Mattrick had been bribed by Sony with some of the howlers he was coming out with. It’s happening again. “It’s not like I’m going to ship a screwdriver set with every console,” Phil Spencer said when asked to qualify what he meant about hardware upgrades to consoles. I understand that a bit of confidentiality is probably in order at these early stages, but you’re not going to win the confidence of your customers with remarks like that. Especially when all your ‘exclusives’ now seem to be getting PC ports. It looks very much like Microsoft is abandoning ship, and the lack of transparency is only going to drive people to its rivals. And now the bigwigs have proposed the closure of one of their most innovative studios and ceased development on Fable Legends, a very promising, platform-exclusive title. Mere weeks before it was allegedly to enter open beta, no less. That a game has been allowed to come so close to completion

“Games that explore nuanced, grown-up themes are slipping into the mainstream consciousness”


DISPATCHES DIALOGUE

– one of their most popular franchises, I might add – only to be shut down in the final weeks of development suggests a company that either makes terrible decisions or pays very little attention to the development of its titles. Possibly both. I think I’ve been far too forgiving with Microsoft. If they go ahead with the closure of Lionhead, I may very well trade my Xbox One in for a PS4. Benjamin Porter

my job and begin my own startup as a videogame developer. Who knows? Jesus Gonzalez

Spencer must have had his head in his hands after all that: you spend two years rebuilding your reputation, then it all comes crashing down in a matter of days. We hope all those affected at Lionhead land on their feet.

As a keen fighting-game player since I starting gaming in the ’80s, I found E291’s Post Script on fighting game AI a very important point. These days, with large tournaments and big prizes, the focus has shifted to ensuring the game systems are balanced above all. This is why Street Fighter V (and also Soul Calibur V) have been released with very little consideration to the single player. Not everyone can be a tournamentlevel player, but with better focus on training modes and AI, the average (or new) player can learn the game without the need to rely on shoddy netcode or getting friends over. I play Tekken predominantly. Tekken 6 had a very interesting Ghost Battle option, where players’ habits were supposedly recorded to make the endless Ghost Battle option more realistic. This was only partially successful. While other players’ combo choices might have been captured, their movement and defence played out as the standard AI – meaning you could still beat any player once you had learned to lure the AI to approach you from a safe distance, and simply start a counter-hit launch combo for an easy win. In my experience, fighting-game AI simply reads the players inputs, then chooses an appropriate counter attack instantaneously. The level of difficulty only adjusts the aggression level. If you land a hit on the AI, it’s because it let you. In order to provide an effective human simulation, the AI would have to have a similar reaction-based delay handicap to a normal person. This could be scaled with difficulty up to tournament-level

Constructive summer Since I was a child, I’ve always dreamt of becoming a videogame developer. I even made my own designs on paper, and wrote my own videogame magazine, which I shared with my cousin in between our long sessions of Master System II games. As I grew up, I began to focus on other stuff, and although I’m trained in technology, I ended up working in the boring world of banking. I use technology that I don’t like each and every day of the week, and I must be ‘thankful’ to the dark world of IT consulting. I recently found two things that re-sparked my dream of becoming a game developer. One was a subscription to Edge, after I realised that the Spanish videogame press had been reduced to almost zero. What I got was a serious magazine, with developer interviews that were very inspiring. The other was the monthly column from Mr Nathan Brown (E285), where he wrote about his time in banking, and that it is never too late to make a change. So, now that I’m 30, I’ve started a Unity course – call it an early-30s crisis, if you want – and I hope this leads me, at least, to make a start in amateur game development. Maybe another monthly column convinces me to definitely quit

We wish you the best of luck, but would like to make it clear that we cannot be held liable for any financial complications arising from a career change. Oh, and also that smoke contains benzene, nitrosamines, formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide.

Slapped actress

cyber athletes. AI should also learn to adopt tactics from monitoring human players (perhaps a cloud-based study could help here), and be able to adapt its own tactics to avoid becoming predictable. I think this subject is worthy of a bigger feature in a future issue, perhaps with interviews from notable personalities in the fighting game community. Fighting games are trying to attract new players. I believe that a quality singleplayer game can help raise a player’s skill and confidence. Without it, we’re leaving players behind. Vernon Moon

A slight discomfort I have a complaint. For years I lived in ignorant bliss of the gaming world. I used to read books, watch films and knit scarves. Then I met my husband, an avid reader of your publication. Overnight, it seemed my life was transformed. I gained not just a Wii and a PS3 but, in time, a Wii U and a PS4. The final straw was your special edition featuring the 100 greatest video games. Imagine my horror to find out about Drop7. Imagine my further horror that I have developed a seemingly unshakable addiction. I no longer tweet along to The Archers. I’m too busy working out how to get rid of that pesky 1 in a row of 6s. So thanks, Edge. Thanks for ruining my life. Hannah Marsh It’s always good to get feedback like this. It makes it easier to deal with, well, this:

One for the cutters The iPad version of E290 had an unstoppable opening cutscene. With audio. Every time the issue was opened. Please don’t. Alex Whiteside Our apologies, Alex. The people behind this quirk were given a copy of Rare Replay and forced to sit through all seven tediously unskippable minutes of the opening of Conker’s Bad Fur Day. And then killed. Q

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DISPATCHES PERSPECTIVE

STEVEN POOLE

Trigger Happy Shoot first, ask questions later

Illustration kaeru.com.ar

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ow do you solve a problem like Lara? As I belatedly play through Tomb Raider, the 2013 reboot, it feels as though she is a piece of character IP which is too potentially valuable — and with too much historical goodwill — to abandon. And yet no one seems quite sure who she should be, even in 2016, 20 years after her first appearance. In 2013’s game, Lara Croft is reimagined as a young, scared, vulnerable woman — until, of course, she settles into her role as heroine of a mass-murder simulator, blowing up hundreds of men and taking especial delight in sticking arrows in their knees, or an axe in their faces. The courage of some of the writing in this version of Lara Croft’s creation myth is not matched by much courage in design. Lara gets a fabulous ranged weapon, the bow, but the game makes sure enemies don’t spawn until you get up close. Eventually it’s all spam attacks by bulletproof wolves, grenade launchers against hordes of armoured men, and simplistic single-path ‘exploration’. Oh, and too much of the worst kind of rubbish in any game — QTE instadeath sequences. This Tomb Raider, then, is yet another symptom of the depressing Unchartedisation of everything. The Uncharted games have been so successful in their weird combination of likeable matinée star in the cutscenes who becomes sadistic mass killer in the game that nearly everything, no matter how serious or ‘mature’ (The Last of Us) now follows the template. Particularly jarring in Tomb Raider is the cutscene in which Lara is made by the writers to do exactly what the game has spent hours teaching you not to do – voluntarily revealing herself to an entire troglodyte army of weirdo cultists in a cave and so getting rightly caught. (Luckily, in this kind of bad-movie game, getting caught doesn’t really mean any more than escaping with ease almost instantly and then having to find your weapons again.) And yet Tomb Raider has glorious moments – when Lara arrives at a new vista

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It feels as though Lara is too potentially valuable to abandon, yet no one seems quite sure who she should be on the island, or when you figure out the clever one-mechanism trick in an optional tomb. The awe and spectacle of this game’s navigation-puzzle environments still thrill, but the designers didn’t trust them to take more of the game’s weight. They should have done. Of course, our Lara was always a photogenically twin-pistolled killer, but what the early games knew was that its glorious spaces were often all the more awe-inspiring for being eerily deserted. The new tablet offshoot, Lara Croft Go, on the other hand, gets a lot of things right about the iconic aesthetics of the series. The

cavernous drips and wind surges on the soundtrack remind you that the early Tomb Raider games were, among other things, masterpieces of atmospheric sound effects, which occasionally became terrifying in themselves – even though Lara was climbing up, as it might be, into the lighting rigging of an opera house all by herself and had no particular reason to feel scared. The new game’s beautiful semi-flat art style for its isometric puzzling also leaves the figure of Lara herself – classically outfitted in blue vest and shorts, with thigh-holsters – pleasingly blank. The very first screen of Lara Croft Go has Lara drop down to hang off a ledge, and the elegance of this one animation has all of Tomb Raider in it. Or nearly all – it is a shame that this Lara can’t jump. The jumping in Tomb Raider – that thrill of thinking you might not make it and then just catching a ledge, which the reboot, to its credit, preserves – is some of the best jumping in videogames, up there with Mario and Miner Willy. Like Hitman Go before it, in any case, Lara Croft Go turns out to be mainly about following set routes and deliberately ‘losing’ moves to get past obstacles; and like the previous game I ended up feeling as though I was playing just another elaborate tile-sliding puzzle. The old Lara, of course, could not only jump but somersault, hand-stand, and swandive at will. From the very first Tomb Raider games, she was never a particular woman but a dynamic fulfilment of our fantasies of grace. The murdering was always incidental. Lara Croft is the avatar through which we navigate around beautiful environments with gymnastic ease. She was less a person, more a dream of physical mastery and freedom. These days, in a time when it’s ever more difficult to tell the difference between an Assassin’s Creed, an Uncharted, or a Rise Of The Tomb Raider, we need the real Lara Croft back more than ever. Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy 2.o is now available from Amazon. Visit him online at www.stevenpoole.net


JUNE 14-16, 2016 | LOS ANGELES

© Entertainment Software Association


DISPATCHES PERSPECTIVE

NATHAN BROWN

Big Picture Mode Industry issues given the widescreen treatment

Illustration kaeru.com.ar

D

espite the fact that I pilfered the name for this page from Steam’s sofafriendly user interface, it is not a column about Valve, though I accept it may feel like it sometimes. The reason I borrowed the name Big Picture Mode was that I wanted this page to offer a zoomed-out look at a particular issue within the game industry, using the breathing room of print to give a rounded perspective on complex matters rather than a hot take within the hour. So it’s no surprise that I’ve written about Valve more than any other company, and almost as much as I have about Street Fighter and fatherhood. Gabe Newell’s company does an awful lot that is brave, fascinating and deeply problematic, for many different reasons and from a multitude of perspectives. All of which is a long-winded and apologetic way of saying that, yes, I’m writing about Valve again. And Street Fighter! If I can crowbar a poop joke in somewhere, we’ll have a full set. Valve’s latest undesired slot in the gaming press’s Top Stories sections came with a candid admission from Crown Prince Gaben Himself that his company had dropped the ball. At a Dota 2 major in Shanghai, panel host James ‘2GD’ Harding decided it was the perfect venue to make a joke about his hotel porn. Newell, in an excellent display of the way Valve’s flat hierarchy means he never has to take responsibility for anything, took to Reddit to call Harding “an ass”. Harding had caused problems in the past, yes, but was brought back on because some Valve staff thought he deserved another chance. It seems he won’t get another. The specifics of the issue aren’t that surprising, but it does speak to a wider issue within eSports: presentation. We understand that games that are expected to be a hit on the competitive scene are built accordingly, with a visual design tailored to both player and spectator, and a suite of features for tournaments and livestreams. Game designers are good at making games, but as

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What makes a good eSports host, apart from not talking about wanking over a wheelchair? Valve’s Shanghai woes illustrate, they don’t necessarily make good event managers. The biggest challenge facing eSports right now is a set of broadcast standards. What makes a good eSports host, apart from not talking about wanking over a wheelchair? What should they wear? Does a shirt and tie give a presenter a veneer of legitimacy, or make them look as if they’re going to a distant relative’s wedding against their will? Most importantly, who are they talking to? The big Street Fighter commentators change their style slightly for Evo every year, conscious that the event’s

profile brings a larger audience that might not know all the jargon. But they never quite dumb it down enough for the absolute beginner, and annoy the cognoscenti by not getting deep enough. You can see why they do it, but then again, FA Cup finals on TV never open by telling you which team is in blue before explaining the offside rule. Valve’s tried to combat this in the past, with a beginner’s stream of its Dota 2 tournament, The International. I watched about half an hour, and barely understood a word. Valve also had problems in Shanghai with its production company, which failed to soundproof the booths in which players compete, as is standard elsewhere. Why? Because commentary is piped out across the arena, and if the players can hear it they’ll get critical info on what the enemy team is up to. The solution was to put the stadium feed on a five-minute delay, which must have been incredibly off-putting for the players, hearing the crowd go out of their minds while they’re fiddling about in menus or scratching their bums. But why should a knowledgeable arena crowd need commentary anyway? I’ve heard the noise they make during a big teamfight, and no one’s hearing anything above that. The very notion of soundproofing goes against the spirit of the whole endeavour, I think. Live sport is a relationship between player and spectator, and there should be as few barriers between them as possible. Why bother putting them in the room if they can’t be cheered on, or intimidated, by the roar of a sweaty crowd? They might as well be sat at home in their underpants. Valve might never again have to apologise for the colourful profanity of a broadcast host. It may never again work with so inexperienced a production company. But there are still lots of problems to overcome – which I suspect is precisely why Valve is so interested in it. And if it keeps me in column inches for another few years, I’m not about to complain. Nathan Brown apologises for the lack of crowbarred-in jokes about baby excrement. Normal service will resume next issue


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#292

THE GAMES IN OUR SIGHTS THIS MONTH 36

No Man’s Sky

56

PC, PS4

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Ratchet & Clank PS4

46 50

Wii U

56

Deliver Us The Moon PC

Vampyr Umbrella Corps

56

Monster Hunter Generations 3DS

34

Metroid Prime: Federation Force 3DS

56

PC, PS4

54

Paper Mario: Color Splash Wii U

PC, PS4, Xbox One

52

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE

Pinstripe PC

56

Strafe PC

Explore the iPad edition of Edge for extra Hype content


Talk is cheap In this issue’s Collected Works (p86), game development veteran Warren Spector says that interactions with videogame characters haven’t evolved since 1989. It’s a sobering statement, especially when a quick sift through our memories reveals little in the way of counterarguments. But while few NPCs effectively mask the branching, often binary dialogue trees they represent, many developers are finding ways to ensure that the process of interaction is at least less predictable. Take No Man’s Sky (p36). Conversing with its alien populace still involves little more than selecting from a list of responses, but by building those interactions around a language system that requires you to piece together what’s being said by learning foreign words, it introduces an additional layer of risk and reward. You might reduce your standing with a race if you accidentally insult them, but inferring the right line to take from your broken understanding of a new language could open up new trading opportunities. Interactions in Deliver Us The Moon (p46) might have less riding on them, but they’re no less rewarding. Your robotic companion isn’t as eloquent as 2001’s HAL 9000 or TARS and CASE in Interstellar, MOST communicating instead through expressive noises. It will WANTED be down to you to interpret what’s being said and learn System Shock Remastered PC As a result of Night Dive Studios’ to interact effectively. And that lack of framing seeps renovation, Citadel Station now has floorto-ceiling windows that take advantage of beyond your relationship with a robot and into the its Saturn-facing aspect. The new view’s delightful, sure, but underscores your operation of everything within the abandoned Moon isolation in this heartfelt reimagining of System Shock, which seems set to be base in which you find yourself. more terrifying than the original. Dontnod’s Vampyr (p50) makes the least effort to The Legend Of Zelda Wii U Series producer Eiji Aonuma has hinted at a new direction for Zelda, saying that conceal its binary choice of friendly and hostile while Ocarina Of Time is the “base of our secret sauce”, the next instalment responses, but in a world populated by unique characters will be more like western than Japanese cuisine. We’re up for sampling a new – each bearing a name, face and role in society – the menu, but please: use plenty of sauce. potential repercussions of your bloodlust are far-reaching. Doom System Shock Remastered might be a Spector may have to wait a few years yet before AI year away, but a new Doom multiplayer trailer is a timely reminder we don’t have interacts with us convincingly, but the small steps being to wait too long to indulge our early-’90s FPS nostalgia. The chance to gib everyone made towards that end feel worthwhile nonetheless. in the office can’t come soon enough.


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NO MAN’S SKY Hello Games makes first contact in revealing more of its universe’s secrets Developer/publisher Format Origin Release

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ean Murray has a problem. It’s the last presentation in a long day of press demonstrations and he’s just discovered, on taking to the stage, that his bottle of water is sparkling. “I might burp,” he warns, “which is also embargoed.” But while a public bout of wind might be on the cards, No Man’s Sky lead Murray is uncomfortable for another reason entirely: despite his excitement at working on a game in which so many have taken a strong interest, the rigmarole of publicising it – and nurturing that public enthusiasm – from behind a necessary veil of secrecy is taking its toll on a man who just wants to code. “We’ve never done something quite to this level before,” Murray tells us when we meet following a belch-free demonstration. “This is the first time we’ve done an event that Sony’s organised and we’ve seen, like, 80 press today. And that’s really strange to me. You end up with what I’d call a very shallow ocean; I’ve given an ocean of very shallow answers. It feels so weird, and everything about it is my least favourite thing – I come away from this feeling like I just want to have a shower and leave it behind. You use talking to somebody as a commodity. Like, ‘Five more minutes. Ten more minutes. This is your last question,’ and stuff like that. And that feels so inhuman to me. Like I’m some weird little asset. It makes me question interactions with people, and you

Hello Games PC, PS4 UK June 24

lose a little bit of your soul. And, y’know, after the game comes out, NeoGAF will probably put a hit out on me or something. We all know it’s coming…”

But Murray’s discomfort shouldn’t be mistaken for ingratitude or arrogance. This is a man who, despite struggling with the monumental task of bringing his ambitious vision to life, remains impishly enthusiastic about the important stuff: coding, creating and the prospect of sharing his game with players. And he can even find some positives within the publicity maelstrom. “I never saw videogames as my vehicle into some PR scenario,” he elaborates. “I always saw it as making games, I just never expected this side of it. And I’m definitely not the charismatic frontman that I should be for this role. But, while I say all that, and while it hasn’t sunk in yet, I got to go on stage at E3. I got to go on Stephen Colbert’s show. It all seems weird right now, but presumably once enough time’s passed I’ll be like, ‘That was cool! Let’s never do that again!’” Of course, the reality is that Murray’s modesty, natural charm (uneasy or otherwise) and candour is what makes him such an appealing spokesman in the first place, and his ability to communicate his enthusiasm for No Man’s Sky is part of what has driven


Unless you have the luck to encounter another player early on, this is the closest you’ll get to knowing what you look like to the creatures you find

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ABOVE The pods that line the side of this freighter can be destroyed, causing them to spill their cargo into space for you to scoop up. TOP RIGHT That space station in the sky is just a short hop away, and you could be on the surface of that looming planet in just a few minutes. RIGHT Ancient monoliths are juxtaposed with advanced alien technology amid the flora on planet surfaces. BELOW LEFT Your ship’s landing gear can cope with most terrain, articulating to accommodate uneven landing surfaces. It’s preferable to look for somewhere flat, though. BELOW RIGHT Bases have landing pads – wait nearby and you’ll see them being used by other visitors, too

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NO MAN’S SKY

such huge public interest in the game. But if Murray feels a little isolated as a frontman, he at least now has some allies in the game thanks to a closer look at the alien races with which you’ll be able to trade. Not that you’ll understand what they’re saying. One of the more intriguing newly revealed aspects of the game is an in-depth language system, which sees every alien race in the game using their own dialect. You can learn alien words by asking the individuals you encounter for help (presumably through a combination of wildly gesturing and speaking loudly) and by studying the monoliths that dot populated planets. Learn a word and it will stand out from among the indecipherable collection of glyphs onscreen and – with any luck – help you to make a more informed decision regarding your response.

Befriending or impressing these beings will increase your standing with that race. The first alien we meet is from a scientifically leaning race called the Korvex, and with a very loose grip on their language and a little extrapolation we manage to open up a new trading arrangement – and the relationship may eventually lead to us gaining access to more advanced tech, too. We find this individual in a base that is itself set among a small cluster of buildings, including an observatory and a factory, the latter generating some kind of potentially useful product that we can’t yet discern and is securely defended by reinforced steel doors. We could gain access through negotiation, or force our way in by bombarding the door with laser fire – though the latter option will attract drones and walkers, which are tasked with maintaining peace and environmental equilibrium on populated planets. Stealing or buying tech isn’t your only option when it comes to upgrading your equipment, however. Among crashed ships and ruined buildings you can also find blueprints, which you can work from using the resources you mine from planets and asteroids. Upgrades can be applied to your suit, multitool and ship, and you can customise all three to suit your play style. Traders may want to up the mining and scanning capabilities of the multitool, for

instance, in order to more quickly rustle up rare and valuable elements, while explorers will want robust thermal shielding and jetpack capabilities for their suits. We experience the dangers of not having the right shielding on a snow-covered planet whose surface temperature is minus-160 degrees. Our thermal protection holds up for a while, but a display in our suit’s HUD warns us that the extreme cold is degrading its efficacy. With our ship a couple of kilometres away, due to a combination of lack of planning and unchecked wanderlust, we need to take shelter quickly and, in the absence of any nearby buildings, dart into the mouth of a cave. The temperature readout rises to a more temperate double figures and our suit’s systems have a chance to reboot, just as we start taking damage. Encountering aggressive or predatory creatures is far from your only concern, then: some environments – whether

“I come away from this feeling like I just want to have a shower and leave it behind” it’s freezing cold, boiling hot or toxic – are just as likely to kill unprepared players. “It’s generally silly to wander off into the unknown,” Murray says. “What you want to do is know your surroundings and where you can catch you breath for a bit. And maybe think a bit before heading out into the freezing cold.” Health can be restored by sleeping under one of the monoliths, but that seems inadvisable in the current temperatures, so we trek back to the ship and head for another planet, stopping along the way in this solar system’s space station. We’ve seen these stations in earlier gameplay trailers, but now have the opportunity to get out of our ship and wander about. Every space station in the game will have an explorable interior, some of which will be sprawling and complex. But this particular port of call is more modest, sporting only a pair of rooms on each side of the landing bay. Within them we find a save point (which can also be found on planets’ surfaces), an automated trading post, and a covered porthole that opens on approach to

Free space As well as exploring the surfaces of several planets in the demo solar system, we spend plenty of time in space, too. Flight is a much simpler affair than in, say, Elite Dangerous, though there’s still plenty of scope to manoeuvre. There are also two levels of hyper drive available in this build, one that gives us a moderate kick for shorter distances, and one that burns through fuel as it catapults us the larger distances between planets. That doesn’t stop pirates from jamming our drive and attacking, however. But once we see them off, the break is a fine opportunity to mine more fuel from a nearby asteroid field.

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NO MAN’S SKY

Q&A

Sean Murray Managing director, Hello Games You’ve become something of a celebrity – are you finding that difficult? I would question whether that’s real. I think I could easily disappear in six months’ time, and that’ll be fine. How I imagine my life is that I’ll be living in a trailer on some weird trailer park filled with No Man’s Sky advertising materials and T-shirts, and I’ll be that weird old guy who’s trying to entice the kids in, saying, “Oh, you like videogames? Let me show you videogames. This is what we used to play when I was a kid!” Not every planet will be as picturesque as this, nor as populated, but even barren planets can yield useful resources. One world we visit is an unpleasantly gloomy place, visibility reduced to metres due to a thick fog of poisonous, yellow gases

reveal a stunning view of the planet from which we’ve just travelled (“This sounds really sad,” Murray admits, “but my genuinely favourite thing in the game is that you can look out of the windows”). It’s demonstrative of Murray’s desire for players to pause once in a while and take in the view, but also of his hope that every player has a very personal journey. No Man’s Sky is at once a neat fit for streamers and YouTubers who insist on talking over the trip, yet impervious to spoilers (at least until players close in on the centre of the universe) by virtue of its unfathomable scale.

“I think we’re making the ideal game for people who want to stream and do silly things and stuff like that,” Murray says. “But the reality is that, yeah, I’d rather people were playing the game than just watching videos of it. I’ll put it this way: if I’m really excited about a film or game, I just won’t watch any trailers. I’m like, ‘The new Mass Effect… Don’t tell me anything!” I don’t want to watch anything, I don’t want to know anything. It was the same with The Witness: I just didn’t want it tarnished in any way or somebody reviewing the game telling me how to feel about it and pointing out the problems.” There’s little doubt that when No Man’s Sky launches in June there will be plenty of opinions on offer, but – crucially – no 40

two experiences should align. The overriding concern until now has been that the scale of the project could lead to a shallow ocean of another kind, with countless planets to visit but little to do when you get there. The dripfeed of information has mitigated some of that fear, introducing trading, research, tinkering and fighting, and now time spent on a frozen world hints at the potential depth of surviving in unfamiliar environments. But perhaps the most encouraging aspect is the ability to interact with alien races, a component that adds a dose of personality to a game that could sometimes come across as coldly clinical in trailers. And Murray and the Hello Games team are far from done. “We’re not ready yet,” he stresses. “I don’t feel like we should release the game until it’s ready, obviously. But at the same time, I so desperately want to get it out there in a finished form that I’m happy with. There’s a level of quality that you can’t picture right now that I feel we can reach, that will change how you perceive the game – and it’s so crucial that we hit that before we release. But then, when we launch, I still feel like there’s such a massive amount of stuff we’ve had to put in a box and hide away that I’d really like to delve into. Ninety-nine per cent of these star systems will never be visited. That’s either quite beautiful or seriously depressing. But I think it’s cool.” Q

You’ve highlighted the fact that No Man’s Sky can’t be spoilt by guides or people who stream the game. Is that a personal bugbear of yours? I’m like that with some things, but then with Minecraft and The Long Dark I really enjoyed playing it, and the community around it – just watching the stupid things people are doing. One of my favourite things used to be watching mods for Minecraft that I will never install, but I liked that they’re out there and it made me like the game more, even if that doesn’t make sense. And Fallout, too; I like watching the mods, and I think I’ll install them, but then I never do. It’s enough for me to know that I could. It’s become part of the game for me. Presumably you’re looking forward to being able to talk more openly with No Man’s Sky’s community, then? You’re talking to somebody who’s worked so hard on this game for so long, but I can still get excited about the idea of people playing it and me finally being able to talk to them, and everything being a bit more normal. Right now, we live in a world of embargoes… Screenshots leaked from No Man’s Sky recently, and everyone was really upset. Sony was upset; the team was upset. And I was like, “We used to leak screenshots of Joe Danger all the time and no one would put them up! This is a great problem!” We live in this world now, and so we can’t really talk to the community in the way that we’d like to just because the interest in the game is so overwhelming. It would be nice to be freed of that, and to actually be able to say, “Hey, that game that’s out that you’re playing, how are you feeling about that?” And have a normal conversation.


LEFT The chunky ship designs are at once charming and robust, striking an appealing balance between being charismatic and functional. BELOW Encountering alien species that have never been seen before is, initially at least, a consistently powerful experience. Whether the game’s building blocks can throw out sufficient variety to maintain that sensation obviously remains to be seen

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RATCHET & CLANK Insomniac’s rodent hero is reborn, though he’s eager to show his roots Developer Publisher Format Origin Release

Insomniac Games SCE PS4 US April 22


Ratchet & Clank’s PS4 debut is a tie-in to a CG movie that hits cinemas a week after the game’s release. Insomniac has worked on both, and its former senior writer TJ Fixman was behind the film’s screenplay

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ABOVE Sandsharks burrow about underground, bursting up through the surface as you draw near. But they’re not as threatening as those jaws suggest and are easily dispatched with a single swing of Ratchet’s wrench. TOP RIGHT Seeing the world from Ratchet’s ship allows Insomniac to present some stunning wide-angled vistas. Elsewhere, hoverboard races throw up jumps and boost rings that recall Destiny’s Sparrow racing. RIGHT Ratchet’s adventures are narrated in flashback by narcissistic superhero Copernicus L Qwark. At least our hero’s on the move here – tarry too long and our narrator sarcastically repeats his lines. BELOW Ratchet’s longtime voice actor James Arnold Taylor reprises his role in both the game and film. The motion picture boasts some higher-profile vocal talent, including Rosario Dawson, Paul Giamatti, John Goodman and Sylvester Stallone. FAR RIGHT Ratchet’s arsenal is so varied and offbeat that conforming to genre type feels a little bit like cheating. Why bother with a blaster or minigun when you can make enemies themselves to death?

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hat should we even call this? Is it a spiritual reboot, a loose remake, or perhaps the most lavish HD remaster ever created? Ratchet & Clank’s PS4 debut sees Insomniac return to the 2002 PS2 game that started it all, then refine parts of it, replace others, and massively expand upon everything else to the point that it is, at times, barely recognisable from the source material. Was this planet, this gun, this witty cutscene in the original? Probably not, but it makes for a bizarre, feverish trip down memory lane either way. Though there are moments, inevitably, where this relentlessly colourful game takes off its fancy new hat and reveals the patches of grey about its temples. One early section has Clank running into the screen to escape from a chasing warbot, a return to the Crash Bandicoot school of design, which may have served Insomniac in the past but feels jarring in a game hitting shelves in the year 2016. Traversal is basic, dated stuff, as you doublejump up to high ledges and grapple-hook across large gaps. Gunplay, meanwhile, is as woolly and vague as the large, rectangular reticule would suggest, and the strafing-heavy combat means that at times this feels as if Pixar has remade Jet Force Gemini. Or maybe Dreamworks, since the Ratchet & Clank universe has never been one of heart. The tone here is, as ever, sass, sarcasm and toilet humour – this, as in 2002, is a game featuring a character called Skidd McMarx. It’s dry, but cheerful, and while Insomniac’s brand of humour is most politely described as a matter of taste, it’s aware of its position in its genre and its medium. Ratchet thanks a mechanic who’s fixed his ship and is told: “No problem! See you in the next reboot.” Again, ‘reboot’ doesn’t quite cut it. There’s a swathe of new planets to explore, a vastly expanded arsenal, and over an hour of new cutscenes. The visual makeover has been dramatic: it’s astonishingly pretty at times, with PS4’s processing power put to particularly fine use when the screen fills with showers of collectible bolts. The game’s primary currency, bolts can be spent on new weapons, each capable of a different, highly attractive brand of destruction. The Groovitron causes aggressors to

put down their guns and throw some shapes beneath a disco ball and flashing lights, making themselves more susceptible to damage. The Proton Drum deploys a large neon globe that pulses pink and purple every second or so, damaging anything caught in the blast. Even the humble Pyrocitor flamethrower is built as much for spectacle as utility, shrouding the screen in vivid orange flame and decimating whatever’s on the wrong end of it. The Pixelizer, meanwhile, is a shotgun that strips enemies – even bosses – of their 2016 accoutrements and, as the name suggests, redraws them in a way that would even have felt old hat back in 2002. A new weapon-upgrade system, powered by an element, Raritarium, that drops randomly from enemies, offers boosts to rate of fire, ammo capacity, or an AOE blast’s radius and duration. Some spots on a weapon’s upgrade tree show as question marks until you unlock

Gunplay is as woolly and vague as the large, rectangular reticule would suggest all the boosters that surround them, at which point the weapon gains another, bigger boost to one of its stats.

Insomniac has been put in an awkward situation with Ratchet’s PS4 debut, tasked with making a tie-in to a CG movie that retells a story plucked from a 14-year-old PlayStation 2 game, knowing that a mere remake simply wouldn’t do. On the evidence of the game’s opening hours it has done a fine job, at least on the surface – it’s outrageously handsome, greatly expanded and smartly refined. But there are times when its reference to the source material involves adherence to the game design conventions of 14 years ago, and the juxtaposition of 2016 and 2002 can be jarring in the extreme. To those that recognise it, anyway – much of the target audience for both game and film were not even born in 2002, never mind remember it. They’ll be perfectly happy blowing aliens up with ridiculous guns in a game that looks just like the film, and that’s probably fair enough. Q

Card hunters There’s another contemporary addition to Ratchet & Clank’s ageing template in Holocards, a series of collectibles that are dropped randomly by enemies or given as rewards for exploring off the beaten track. Collecting full sets yields bonuses to item drop rates – bolts, Raritarium, even Holocards themselves – while some hard-tofind cards will even yield new weapons. Given the system is entirely governed by RNG, it’s a recipe for frustration – though Insomniac has cannily mitigated it through design by letting you exchange a small stack of duplicates for a specific card you still need.

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DELIVER US THE MOON Saving the planet, one giant leap at a time Developer/publisher Format Origin Release

K

oen Deetman is part of a generation of developers that is increasingly looking upwards for inspiration. Yet Deliver Us The Moon isn’t focused so much on cosmic concerns as real-world disquietude, the search for a new home a pressing worry in light of global warming, the depletion of natural resources, and escalating societal unrest. Set 50 years hence, it centres on the fallout of a mission to find humanity a new home. It’s a survival game of sorts, but at its heart is a very different driving force: yes, it’s about keeping one astronaut alive, but only so that they might be able to perpetuate existence for the rest of us. Its story posits the notion that in the near future all the global space programs assembled to form a single entity: the World Space Agency. They built an extensive network of bases on the Moon to assess its suitability for sustaining human life. Those bases are now deserted; the WSA threw its collective hands in the air, abandoned its assignment and withdrew. Your journey to the Moon is very much off the books: it’s a rogue mission to find out why everyone gave up, and whether it would be possible to resume their research. Desperate times, and so on. It may be a hypothetical scenario, but it’s one that game director Koen Deetman has carefully researched to make it feel plausible.

KeokeN Interactive PC The Netherlands August

“If we carried on as we are today with Earth it would be [finished],” he says. “So I wondered what if we’d got to that stage and we had to take drastic measures. The Moon is the closest object in our space that we know about, that we’ve visited, and because it’s a dead rock it might actually be the perfect test subject: if life can work out there, then we might be able to find a solution here. And that’s what the player is going to find out.”

A dead rock it may be, but you’ll have more than a barren surface to look at. The WSA bases will reflect the cultural diversity of the rescue effort, though you’ll also uncover evidence of the cultural and political differences that may, in part, have resulted in the dissolution of the agency. “At first it’s a rare example of world peace,” Deetman says, “an ideal world where all these superpowers are working together. But of course that kind of thing doesn’t always work out and people end up pointing fingers at each other.” It isn’t just the usual suspects involved, either: alongside the US, Russian and European teams there are South American and panArabian representatives – and the imminent rise of private space travel will be a factor, too. We’ve seen failed utopias before, but it’s a surprisingly convincing piece of fiction, with a global flavour that also serves an aesthetic

Koen Deetman, founder and game director at KeokeN


The European WSA facility is one of the first you’ll visit: it’s named after 17th Century Dutch scientist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens

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H Y P

E

DELIVER US THE MOON

The exteriors of each national base have a distinctive look. This is the US’s Tombaugh Facility

purpose. “The Moon is actually very dull,” Deetman laughs, “so it helps that we can make some cool-looking bases.” There’s plenty of environmental colour, then, but Deliver Us The Moon had a darker inception. It began as a horror game, which KeokeN Interactive was developing in Unity, but it quickly became clear that neither the project nor the engine was capable of doing justice to the original concept. “My brother pitched an idea to us about a guy living on the moon,” Deetman explains. “We were quite interested in the concept alone, and since we loved movies like 2001 and Duncan Jones’ Moon we decided to explore that idea and somehow iterated into this one.” Indeed, as with Sam Rockwell’s astronaut in the latter movie, Deliver Us The Moon will follow a protagonist who isn’t entirely alone. Unlike the Kevin Spacey-voiced GERTY, however, his robotic ally won’t have a

“In space, nothing can help you but technology. But here, it’s also working against you” distinctive voice; rather, you’ll have to interpret its requests (Deetman likens its communication style to WALL-E) and even learn how it operates. Though it’s a game led by its narrative, with exploration your primary mode of interaction, you’ll be asked to solve a few puzzles along the way, too. It is, in Deetman’s words, “a little bit MacGyverish” in parts, presenting problems that require a degree of lateral thinking to overcome. Other obstacles, meanwhile, simply ask you to learn how to be an astronaut. “Maybe the best thing about it is that players keep asking, ‘OK, how does this work?’ But that’s exactly how I want them to feel,” he says. Feedback from an early demo version convinced KeokeN to make the learning process more tactile: players, Deetman realised, wanted to interact with everything they saw. Through trial and error, you’ll grow to learn what’s important and what isn’t, and how everything operates. “[Players] feel very proud of themselves that they fixed something, or they managed to start up the robot,” Deetman says.

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Which isn’t to say you’ll always have time to stop and think. You’ll need to maintain your oxygen supply throughout, and there will be environmental hazards, too – Deetman touches upon a nuclear experiment that has created irradiated areas, which you’ll have to work out how to negotiate. “It’s interesting,” he adds, “a lot of people bind survival to creation: the idea of building stuff up for yourself. But in space, there’s nothing that can help you but technology. And while technology can keep you alive, it’s also working against you here.”

A combination of KickStarter funding and an arts grant has allowed KeokeN to build something with the kind of production values you’d associate with a much larger and more experienced team: the studio currently boasts just seven full-time staff, with three freelancers working on a part-time basis. But to get the game released in a timely fashion with the level of polish Deetman required, he soon realised it would have to be released episodically. It wasn’t a decision he took lightly, but the benefits were immediately apparent. “We really don’t want to release a broken product,” he says. “Players deserve better than that, so we knew that we had to create time in some way. Being episodic lets us focus more on specific parts instead of the complete experience at once, and secondly, it allows us to listen to our community, and find out what they really like about it.” With a fair wind, the first episode should launch in August. Five are currently planned, but Deetman envisages the story stretching beyond that – assuming, of course, players like what they see. “The industry is slowly moving away from games as a product towards games as a service,” he says, “so I’m not actually sure if it would end there. If it’s a successful series we might even carry on, not as a real sequel but a continuation.” Barely has its crowdfunding campaign finished, and Deetman is already imagining a second season. Such talk might sound hubristic, but it comes across as wide-eyed ambition. If it can find the right blend of exploration, narrative and puzzles, Deliver Us The Moon may have a brighter future than the bleak picture it paints of our looming fate. Q

Suit view, sir? Deliver Us The Moon will feature first- and thirdperson cameras. During playtesting, KeokeN noted the latter was favoured by those new to games, while seasoned players preferred an astronaut’s-eye view. It’s been a challenge to make both perspectives feel right, but Deetman believes the choice is valued by a large enough audience to justify the effort. “In Oblivion, for example, the firstperson mode is the one they meant to be played, and while you can play it in thirdperson, you can clearly see they didn’t design it for it. In our case, we’re designing for thirdperson and somehow it works in firstperson.” It’s still, he concedes, a work in progress. “But we’re getting there. But that’s why [an in-helmet view] was a stretch goal in our Kickstarter!”


TOP Your Wheatley-esque robot companion ASE can fly over electrical hazards. You’ll need to use your jetpack. RIGHT Unreal Engine 4 has helped Deetman and his team achieve better visual results than Unity: “My personal preference has always been for big-screen blockbuster games that blow out your speakers, so I always aspired to make something of that quality.”

TOP The ability to drive a lunar vehicle was dropped for being too costly and time-consuming, but Deetman suggests it may reappear in a later episode. ABOVE Deetman says the firstperson mode should make Deliver Us The Moon feel like a shooter – albeit one without guns. MAIN There’s a hint of Dead Space’s blue-collar practicality here: your astronaut carries a portable power tool, which can be upgraded by harnessing the technology of each nation. In other words, yes, you’ll be doing a bit of welding

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Developer Dontnod Entertainment Publisher Focus Home Interactive Format PC, PS4, Xbox One Origin France Release 2017

VA M P Y R Will you be London’s liberator or leech?

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Soldiers suffered in the trenches and people suffered in the streets. The early part of the 20th century was generally rotten for all involved. Unless, that is, you’re an undead monster

wapping sunny Oregon for shadowy London, horror RPG Vampyr marks a dark departure for Life Is Strange developer Dontnod. It’s the Paris studio’s attempt to strip the vampire myth of its accumulated Hammer Horror clichés and present a more classic portrayal of cultural touchstone spectres who crawled from the darkest recess of Eastern Europe. 1918 London makes a suitably vile location. Not only has the Great War ravaged the population, but the Spanish Flu now picks the bones. This pandemic killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, and its parallels to vampirism, a spread-by-bite affliction sparking paranoid fear of contagion, are intentional. In a city bruised and bloodied by a physical foe and now forced to fight an invisible one, you’re the nail in the coffin, a living crossroads between man and nature.

“It was the ideal place for us because people felt alienated by industrialisation,” art director Grégory Szucs says. “It was a weak time for humanity. The war resulted in massive casualties, and with the flu it’s the perfect time for vampires. There were great advances in medicine, and we need those new tools for the character to try and make sense of the situation.” The character in question is Jonathan Reid, a doctor-turned-vampire struggling to accept his scourge. He’s moulded after literature’s great rationalists. Dr Frankenstein, Professor Van Helsing, Dr Jekyll – men at the forefront of advances in psychotherapy, neurology, and blood transfusions. What they call cataloguing, the era’s unenlightened call ‘killing God’, and in choosing whether to help society to its feet by finding a cure or succumb to bestial urges and feed on its

ABOVE CENTRE You’ll want to make a mental note of alleyways like these, the perfect place to commit a secret murder. However, the penalty for being seen isn’t clear at this point. ABOVE The structure is similar to Troika Games’ 2004 RPG, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, in that this is a multi-choice open world relying as much on a sharp tongue as physical prowess


Hospitals at the time were no places to recover. Nurses became infected at such a rate that they had to turn sufferers away. Might the bedridden make easy prey?

FROM TOP Grégory Szucs, art director; Stéphane Beauverger, narrative director

Early 20th century England was on the cusp of breakthroughs in medicine and disease prevention. The Spanish Flu prompted one of the first cases of mass quarantine

corpse, Reid embodies the time’s murky mythos, which sees science butted against superstition. The vampire folklore is, after all, the result of a pre-industrial world trying to resolve mysterious or unexplainable deaths. “You were a doctor a few days before. You were someone who was trained to help people and to save lives,” narrative director Stéphane Beauverger tells us. “You are not playing a very old vampire who had centuries to accept who he is. You are coping with a very new nature. So we made the situation the same for the player… Who are you really? Who created you really? What is the purpose of you being turned into a vampire? The answers will be given to you, but the consequences will be different according to what you did throughout the storyline.”

One early choice pivots on how you decide to treat a war survivor. Reid approaches a man who’s rooting around in a bin for food and engages him in conversation. You can choose between one friendly and one hostile remark, coloured white onscreen, and a speech check highlighted yellow to indicate its potential to fail. In this circumstance Reid mentions his time in the military to gain sympathy from the man, who is now more susceptible to manipulation. Placing a hand on his shoulder, Reid guides him down a deserted backstreet and bites into his neck. The sequence is more sombre than it is gleefully graphic, and this is because kills matter. Each person here has a name and face – they’re unique characters in the world.

“This is the exact contrary of trial and error because you can’t go back; you can’t get your save back,” Beauverger says. “Each time you kill someone it’s definitive, and you will have to face the rest of the game with these consequences.” Survivors could start to look on you with scorn, for instance, or might restrict access to a mission. There’s moral responsibility without the righteous judgement. You can murder everyone or no one, but you’ll have to live with it. For an extreme example of one potential outcome, we’re shown a brief clip of Whitechapel burning down. Try not to eat any firemen, eh? Soon after, there’s a fight. When a gang of vampires ambushes Reid he turns scientific tools into weapons and attacks with a bonesaw. There are also supernatural powers, telekinesis and teleportation, which figure into puzzles and navigation. Bodies leave behind loot you put towards upgrading your

Kills matter. Each person here has a name and a face – they’re unique characters Colt handgun with grips and counterweights, and spilt blood to power up abilities. The brief scuffle underwhelms, sadly, an aimless thirdperson brawl which clashes somewhat with the tone, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer suddenly showing up in Nosferatu. The game works better when you’re skulking around staking victims or witnessing the odd atrocity, like when Reid ducks inside a barn and sees three bloodsuckers feeding on a corpse, claret splashed over wooden walls. Choices really are at the heart of Vampyr, but what’s behind DontNod’s choice to develop such a radically different game, and what’s the throughline binding it to the team’s previous projects? “I really think it’s dedication to telling stories where the player faces the consequences,” Szucs says. “Putting them in situations where they have to make tough choices.” Beauverger agrees: “It can be a future sci-fi Paris, it can be Oregon, America, it can be in London at the beginning of 20th century, but we are always creating the same kind of game.” Q

Paddington scare Vampyr sees DontNod use Unreal Engine 4 for the first time to give the visuals of this partially open world a more realistic quality than the studio’s previous projects. Regions such as Whitechapel are tied together by a universally moody aesthetic long since abandoned by the sun, which is replaced by dingy gaslight and flickering candles. They’re the sources of illumination serving to highlight rows of bodies in quarantine zones, dirty washing, and hospitals stained with blood. Infected were left to fend for themselves (British media censored news on the pandemic to keep up morale), which explains the barren streets and lack of police. This permanent twilight tells of a city lost in groggy confusion.

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Developer/ publisher Capcom Format PC, PS4 Origin Japan Release May

UMBRELLA CORPS Capcom’s shooter is proving a little stiff

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he concept of Umbrella Corps has proven hard for Resident Evil fans to swallow: survival horror has somehow given way to a 3v3 competitive shooter. Trailers are hammered with downvotes on ‘principle’ and the comments read even more like Nostradamus than usual. But really, given the series’ penchant for strange tie-ins like the Gun Survivor series and Operation Raccoon City, and the still more absurd films, this side-step isn’t wholly out of character. What is peculiar given the risk in associating the famous Resi brand with an unproven concept is the noncommittal way in which it draws on the franchise’s 20-year history.

It wants you to jump into the fray, hose down your enemies, bask and reset The headline mode, One Life Match, looks to be positioning itself as the friendly entrypoint into the competitive-shooter genre, riffing on the Bomb Defusal mode made famous by Counter-Strike. Two teams of three face off across a warren of huts, laboratory hardware or tunnels adapted from Resident Evil’s most famous levels. The Village from Resi 4 makes an appearance, as does Kijuju from Resi 5, joined by new settings such as a quarantined Tricell lab. Each player has one life, and the last team standing wins. There’s no talk of ‘eco rounds’, no arcane playbook to memorise before you jump in, and each round is ruled by a strict threeminute timer – Umbrella Corps wants you to jump into the fray, hose down your enemies, bask and reset. There’s no time for dithering about at corners hoping your mark will stick their head out for an easy kill. Umbrella Corps’ semi-sticky cover system does allow you to hunker down, but it’s intended for situational use, like a brief respite at the end of a sprint. Tarry too long and each map’s tangle of

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passages, ventilation ducts and overlooks all but guarantees you’ll be shot in the back. The execution feels at odds with the intention, however: a cover system intended to make smooth use of the environment is sometimes sluggish, making faffing about with cover when the enemy is sprinting towards you a bit of a risk. On the Village map, too, it’s a pity to find that not all buildings are climbable, and figuring out which are is a matter of circling each structure in the hope that a neon-blue indicator flags the surface as interactive. The most obvious nod to the game’s horror roots is an infestation of zombies. Here, you have to feel a bit sorry for them – they’re kept at bay by the zombie jammer each teammate carries, rendering them little more than mobile scenery you could shoot if you wanted to alert the enemy to your position. Take out a foe’s zombie jammer, though, and the infected attack, stacking the odds in your favour. However, as the ponderous cover system conflicts with three-minute flash matches, so is the tactical potential of the zombie jammer made redundant by the ease of achieving a clean kill instead.

One Life Match is joined by a mixedmode playlist of shooter staples, some with a Resi twist: in DNA Hunter, for example, you have to harvest zombie guts for victory. As a pacey multiplayer shooter Umbrella Corps almost works, but these scant references to Resi sit uneasily alongside ambitions of highenergy gunplay. The three-minute rush does not meld happily with a universe in which conserving ammunition and treading carefully is all-important. The zombie jammer feels like a mechanic that would work better in long, slow rounds where attrition is key, but as a consequence of the pace, the infected rarely rise above set dressing. Capcom’s aims feel conflicted, and a competent attempt at an entry-level shooter may well suffer as a result of its association with its famous name. Q

Twenty years later Umbrella Corps was destined to have a rough start in life, announced as it was at the Tokyo Game Show, at the pinnacle of hype for Resident Evil’s 20th anniversary. Where survival horror fans the world over awaited Resident Evil 7, they received a competitive multiplayer shooter doomed never to be judged on its own merits, like the son of a footballer announcing his passion for ballet. With the benefit of hindsight, Capcom is suitably bashful, promising further announcements ‘down the line’, but it desperately needs the goodwill of fans to launch a spinoff successfully – particularly a spinoff which will require a sizeable online community to function. A PR fumble might have cost Umbrella Corps far more than sluggish controls or some halfbaked game modes.


TOP You’ll need to squint to distinguish between the five modes that revolve around the collection of assorted bits and bobs, be they briefcases, dog tags, or, of course, zombie guts. RIGHT Thanks to your zombie jammer, Resident Evil’s most famous enemies are essentially non-entities in all but the two DNA Hunter modes, in which they become strategically important… cannon fodder. BELOW Topographically, Umbrella Corps’ maps do challenge Counter-Strike for strategic options, despite climbing being limited to predefined paths that are applied to buildings on a seemingly random basis

ABOVE Umbrella Corps’ multi-mission playlist is a greatest hits thirdperson shooter package – a mishmash of riffs on staples such as deathmatch, king of the hill and juggernaut

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Developer/ publisher Capcom Format 3DS Origin Japan Release Out now (JP), summer (EU/US)

MONSTER HUNTER GENERATIONS No need to be cross – we’re Felyne fine

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e can’t quite credit that anyone in Japan hasn’t yet encountered Monster Hunter, but evidently Capcom still believes it can cast its net a little wider. Admittedly, this may be with an eye to winning over the western players that, despite the best efforts of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, still find the series to be abstruse or esoteric. Capcom’s solution is something of a charm offensive, this time offering the irresistible opportunity not only to be joined on a hunt by Felyne allies, but also to play as one. An early difference you’ll notice is that their health bar can be depleted three times before they faint, meaning that, yes, only when

new weapon types, seasoned hunters might well wonder what’s in it for them. Happily, four new Hunter styles invite the devoted to get experimental with their favourites, or perhaps try something new. Guild style plays most similarly to Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, while Striker is a simpler approach, more akin to Freedom Unite. Adept is geared towards those with the keenest eyes for reading enemy tells, rewarding successful evades with a bonus dependent upon the weapon type. And where before only the Insect Glaive allowed hunters to mount enemies without leaping from a ledge, the Aerial style lets you launch a jump attack from a dodge roll.

It offers the opportunity not only to be joined by Felyne allies, but also to play as one

There’s an additional gauge to keep an

they’ve expended all nine of their lives will they be carried back to the village. A few purists will no doubt bristle at the inclusion of this Prowler mode, reckoning that it equates to a dumbing-down of a famously inscrutable series. In practice, it’s just a softer, fluffier welcome mat for tentative newcomers. Prowlers handle much the same as their human counterparts in combat; controlling them simply means less fiddling around with menus and items. Their stamina gauge doesn’t deplete, and they can burrow when things get hairy. On the flipside, their attacks deal less damage. Yet with so many lives they can stay in the fight longer; you’ll find yourself retreating from the frontline a lot less, and with a couple of skilful allies, your prey will find themselves on the receiving end of a relentless assault. It might take more hits to fell a beast, but speed and endurance are a pretty deadly combination. With G-rank quests conspicuous by their absence (though between regular and high rank, there are more quests overall) and no

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eye on, too. Hunter Arts add further strategic wrinkles to combat: lucky Strikers can equip three at once, while Guild players get two, and Adept and Aerial hunters are given one apiece. These range from general skills to weaponspecific abilities: Metal Body, for example, prevents you from running, but ensures monster attacks won’t cause you to flinch. Hammer wielders might prefer a Typhoon Trigger to send them into a deadly spin, while Orchestra Soul allows horn users to convey a range of buffs by playing all their songs simultaneously. The Gunblade’s Blast Dash might be the most thrilling of the lot: you’ll fire away from your target to launch yourself towards it, slamming the business end of your weapon down in a gratifying final flourish. Otherwise it’s a matter of minor variations on existing themes. You’ll now fly between areas via hot-air balloon (the presence of a Flight Cattendant who “apurreciates” our custom proves the punning remains strong) while the village bistro now has a fondue fountain to dip your pre-quest meal into. A summer launch gives us a few months to brush up on our Charge Blade and Longsword techniques, but Generations’ number of refinements should ensure its predecessor no longer deserves its superlative suffix. Q

Astalos vista Generations has no fewer than four signature monsters. No prizes for guessing which prehistoric creature Gammoth most resembles, though as the largest Fanged Beast to date, its size at least is noteworthy. Glavenus, meanwhile, wields its huge tail like a Greatsword, while the other two are more physically distinctive. Astalos is a wyvern that is almost insectoid in appearance, with a set of jagged tail pincers and butterfly wings. And then there’s the elegant Mizutsune: part serpent, part fox, it has fur and beautiful, fin-like appendages, and attacks by spitting powerful jets of water. It’s also capable of producing saponaceous bubbles that can slow a hunter’s movement while allowing the beast to move quicker across land; it arrests its momentum by digging its claws into the ground.


TOP There are plenty of variants of existing beasts, but no subspecies – rather than pad out the menagerie with similar critters, Capcom preferred a wider variety. MAIN The Maccao is another newcomer – this bird-like beast will rear up before launching itself forward, or rock back and forth on its long tail, striking out with its strong hind legs. RIGHT Generations benefits from smoother performance and improved textures on the newer models of 3DS, but it’s the right nub which proves most valuable as a way of moving the camera

TOP With returning creatures from past entries and familiar settings, Generations can feel like a greatest hits package. Yukumo Village from Monster Hunter Portable 3rd makes a reappearance here. ABOVE CENTRE The Lavasioth makes its first appearance since 2009’s Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, taking the total roster to 105 beasts. ABOVE Astalos can charge its head, tail and wings with electricity, though breaking or severing these parts will neutralise them. It can also be overloaded with a shock trap when fully charged

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ROUNDUP METROID PRIME: FEDERATION FORCE Developer Next Level Games Publisher Nintendo Format 3DS Origin Canada, Japan Release Summer

TOKYO MIRAGE SESSIONS #FE Developer Atlus Publisher Nintendo Format Wii U Origin Japan Release June 24

Euphemism Of The Year: Nintendo suggesting this spinoff’s E3 debut “left fans with some questions”, few of which were satisfactorily answered by producer Kensuke Tanabe’s Nintendo Direct update. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Next Level Games: this looks a solid multiplayer shooter.

PINSTRIPE Developer Thomas Brush Publisher Atmos Games Format PC Origin US Release August

That’s a sharp, not a hashtag, by the way – because a Shin Megami Tensei/Fire Emblem crossover themed around idol culture evidently wasn’t niche enough. Still, with gaps in Wii U’s fallow release schedule to fill, this unusual collaboration is getting an unlikely western release. Fusing Fire Emblem’s weapon triangle with SMT’s elemental magic, its turn-based combat is dynamically presented, with Avex Group, one of Japan’s biggest record companies, providing the upbeat soundtrack. Glittering and distinctive, it may not be a mainstream hit, but we’re rather in the mood for another J-pop/RPG mashup.

PAPER MARIO: COLOR SPLASH Developer Intelligent Systems Publisher Nintendo Format Wii U Origin Japan Release TBA 2016

Thomas Brush, the man behind Flash game Coma, has spent four years making this short story adventure about a minister who ventures into Hell to rescue his daughter. Yes, he’s got a shotgun, but it’s mostly used to solve puzzles in a narrative-led side-scroller with exceptional art direction.

STRAFE Developer Pixel Titans Publisher Devolver Digital Format PC Origin US Release 2017

A rare leak had many anticipating a follow-up to beloved GameCube outing The ThousandYear Door. Early footage, however, more closely resembled the divisive Sticker Star, and the inevitable online petition duly followed. It’s far too early to judge, though a central mechanic which sees our hero use a paint hammer looks alarmingly simple; likewise the combat, which requires you to flick cards from GamePad to TV to launch attacks. But heavens, it’s pretty.

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Endorsed by the likes of John Romero and Rami Ismail, this crowdfunding success harks back to the fast-paced, singleminded shooters of the ’90s – including its aesthetic. Oculus support has been promised, and now it’s under Devolver’s wing, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a console release.


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#292

VIDEOGAME CULTURE, DEVELOPMENT, M PEOPLE A AND TECHNOLOGY C NO OG 62

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Collected Wo orks:: Warren Specctor

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Of… The Making O … The Swindle

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Studio Profile: e: Sumo Digital

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124 Time Extend: World Of Wa arcraft

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OCULUS

R I FT Palmer Luckey’s VR vision is no longer a dream. How does the reality hold up? BY BEN MAXWELL

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fter several years of enthusiastic, if professionally detached, experiences with virtual reality, it has finally happened. We’re sat behind a desk in a plush winter lodge having just managed to foil a poison-gas attack. An elk’s head sits mounted above the roaring fireplace, and we recline to light a celebratory cigar. In the process, an intriguing panel catches our eye. It’s just out of reach so we attempt to steady ourselves on the desk in order to reach across, and nearly fall face first into the floor as our arm passes through the decidedly unsupportive polygons. Later, as we remove the second-generation Touch controllers from our hands, we also try to take off a virtual hat – snagged a little earlier from a hatstand while pondering a puzzle – before tending to the Rift headset itself. Jesse Schell’s virtual spy simulator I Expect You To Die may be cartoonish and camp, but that hasn’t prevented it – with the help of Oculus’s consumer-ready technology – from achieving virtual reality’s holy grail: presence. In fact, it happens several times during the time we spend with the finalised Rift hardware: an inescapable sense of vertigo while clinging to a rock face; recoiling

from an object or character that looks like it’s going to collide with us; and even accepting as our own an in-game reflection that perfectly tracks our head movements. Rift has come a long way since those first nausea-making, pixelly DK1-enabled steps around a Tuscan villa. And it says much that we spend hours ensconced in the retail headset with very few instances of discomfort. Even when they do occur, it’s down to the game rather than the hardware itself. The headset is sleek and pleasantly weighted (it’s hard to tell if it has shed many grams since Crescent Bay, but its substance feels well distributed), and easy to put on. A comfortable plastic cradle supports the device at the back of your head while three adjustable Velcro straps, one on each side and one on top, make it easy to finesse the fit without having to continually remove and replace the headset. The integrated headphones pivot back and forth to accommodate variously shaped heads, and can even be swung out for those moments when you want hear what’s going on outside of the virtual space – a surprisingly useful consideration. A small slider underneath the screen housing, meanwhile, adjusts for interpupillary distance (ie, how far apart

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OCULUS RIFT

“I WOULD LOVE TO LIVE IN A WORLD WHERE WE COULD MAKE A CUSTOM RIFT FOR EVERY PERSON”

A phalanx of VR-ready PCs are emerging that will ensure you hit those 90fps-minimum refresh rates. Expect to see bundles, too

your eyes are spaced) which, together with correctly positioning the headset vertically on your face, allows you to fine-tune the display’s focus. Compared to older Rift iterations, the resolution is dazzling, allowing us to read all but the smallest text easily and to make out intricate details in the world, such as tiny beds of carrots in platformer Lucky’s Tale and the clockwork-like mechanisms of Defence Grid’s towers. We struggle to find a setup where absolutely everything onscreen is pin-sharp simultaneously, but for the most part an in-game shift in perspective or proximity is all that’s needed to resolve focus issues. The various configurations of the human face – not to mention differences in eyesight – will make for a far broader spectrum of user experiences than is the case with TV usage, but ours is consistently comfortable. Ensuring that such an intimate device works for every player has proven challenging, and Rift games will be labelled with one of three comfort levels depending on what percentage of players are likely to experience issues. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey admits that there have been plenty of problems to solve in order to get to this point (“I don’t want to tell you what they all are; there are just so many things”), but the most difficult aspect of the launch hardware to get right had nothing to do with technical specifications – or those of the machines that it will be tethered to. Rather, it was ergonomics that caused the biggest

“[These are] the earliest attempts at VR,” Luckey says. “As time goes on, people are going to figure out what works and what doesn’t. The games we’ll be playing this year are probably the worst VR games we’re ever going to play”

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headaches. Initially, the company was focused on shedding as much weight as possible from the bulky prototypes, but while that seems like a logical endeavour, years of iteration revealed that carrying a little more bulk was a price worth paying for the additional comfort that could be achieved. “With our headset, a huge amount of the weight is actually in the straps, the spring-loaded arm system and in the back beacon,” Luckey explains. “If we’d just used elastic straps like DK2, we could’ve cut 100 grams off of the total weight of the headset, and it would’ve looked great in a spec war but, overall, the comfort with elastic straps was just so much worse. So we spent a lot of time doing these things to try to figure out what actually matters, rather than what’s obvious and looks good on paper.”

Luckey compares the problem to trying to design a pair of specs that will work equally well for anyone who wears them. “We’re trying to make something that interfaces to your eyes and ears, and also has decent access to your mouth for a microphone. So it needs to be adjusted for multiple input and output systems, and we want it to be usable for the vast majority of people that are out there. I would love to live in a world where we could make a custom Rift for every person that perfectly matched their face, but unfortunately that’s not how the realities of manufacturing work out.” Until that time, Rift makes a pretty good fist of catering for as many people as possible. And once worn, it’s easy to use, too. Games and software are launched from a 3D lobby area that feels like a grander spin on GearVR’s menu: options are clearly presented as floating panels around the space, and selecting something is as simple as looking at it and tapping a button on your controller or Oculus Remote. Pressing the Menu button at any time (either in the lobby or during gameplay) brings up a more traditional-looking menu screen that enables you to make various adjustments, including re-centring your view should you find that it’s drifted during use. In the setup we try, the controller’s View button is temporarily dedicated to this function, which proves more convenient than the three button presses and paused game required by the options-menu route. But while this binding won’t be the default, we’re told that developers are free to reinstate it in their own


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RIFT KIN 01 Easily adjustable and light in weight, the HMD feels fit for purpose rather than flash. 02 Most people will be familiar with the Xbox One controller, which fits well with Rift’s design language. 03 The constellation tracking system is easy to set up, and sits in front of you. 04 The Oculus Remote feels like something Apple might create, and proves intuitive as a way of navigating menus and options. We also spend some time playing Dead Secret with it. In a slow-paced game that uses warping to get around, it works well for the most part. 05 The Touch controllers are the missing piece of the package, which are unlikely to be missed by anyone yet to try them, but which offer a profoundly more immersive experience: seeing your hands in-game, and being able to interact with characters and objects so directly, is spellbinding

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Q&A

JA SON R U BI N Head of Oculus Worldwide Studios

games if they choose, and in any case we rarely need to use it during our extensive time with the hardware. What we play during that time looks great, but the sheer processing effort required to run a VR title means that particle effects, polygon counts and post-processing filters need to be dialled down a little. The first wave of VR users will have to come to terms with the fact that donning an HMD isn’t quite like wrapping a 1080p display around your head – at least not yet. The novelty of being placed inside a gameworld should do much to ease the transition, however, and the resultant need for developers to prioritise stable, high framerates over graphical grandstanding is having some positive knock-on effects, too. “In the past, games have focused a lot on the graphics,” Luckey notes. “People are going to keep doing that in VR, but if you have a PC that’s running a game in VR, where you’re having to render at 90 frames a second with lots of antialiasing in stereo 3D, and make sure you don’t drop frames ever, versus one that’s running it in 2D at 30 or even 60fps on a 1080p display, the graphical fidelity is obviously going to be lower for the virtual reality version. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll be less impressed by it, and I think we’re seeing a lot of people making games that are carried by the gameplay rather than graphical fidelity [as a result]. Even some of the best VR games, you don’t look at them and say, ‘Wow, compared to modern PC titles, that’s a really stunning-looking title.’ So developers really do have to focus on the things that matter. They have to focus on interactivity, they have to focus on depth, they have to focus on replayability. And that sense of ‘Wow – there’s depth and motion, and it’s all around me’ kind of wears out once you’ve played in VR a lot. Once you get past the demo stage for people who are trying VR for the first time, you can’t have a game carry itself on whizzbang graphics.” “It’s made developers far more rigorous,” agrees Oculus head of worldwide studios and Naughty Dog co-founder Jason Rubin. “When you’re making a videogame and are trying for 30 or 60fps, if you drop a frame you probably don’t even notice. If you drop a lot of frames you will, but you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be mostly there. With VR, missing a frame is noticeable by most people, and that changes the way developers think about making games. They leave a lot more headroom, and they have fewer explosive moments. Because when you do something

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Having made his mark on videogames as the creator of Crash Bandicoot and co-founder of Naughty Dog, Jason Rubin dabbled in social games with Monkey Gods before taking over as president of then-ailing publisher THQ. Today, he heads up Oculus Worldwide Studios. How does Oculus Studios’ focus differ from the company’s thirdparty relations? So, there’s actually a lot of grey area. Every developer has a different story, and different needs, and we basically do whatever it takes to get those games to come out. AirMech, for example, started as a thirdparty group that was making a game but wanted some financial and production help. And so they went from our thirdparty group to my group and became an internally funded and helped title. How about firstparty projects? I came in and saw everything [Oculus’s two game researchers] had worked on and there was a little game that explored how to do thirdperson in VR. It was awesome. I found an external group that I’d worked with before, called Gunfire, and they fleshed that out into a full-fledged game called Hero Bound [for GearVR]. Then, inspired by this room-to-room thirdperson character, Gunfire said it could do better for Rift and had new ideas about room transitions to solve some of the issues that Hero Bound had, and the second generation of that is Chronos. Can the problems of firstperson VR locomotion be solved? There is an inherent challenge in VR and locomotion, just like you can’t make a boat that won’t make people sea sick. Having said that, over time we’ll figure out how to create something that’s like locomotion. We won’t take Call Of Duty and literally translate it and solve that problem, but we’ll figure out how to make a game that plays like a firstperson shooter that allows you to traverse without warping. What exactly that looks like, I don’t know. The next generation of warping is tunnelling, which is where you can look all around you while standing still, and as soon as you start moving you only see a small amount of the screen in front of you move and the rest of your periphery stays still. Then when you stop, you see all around you again. I don’t think that’s the end, but it’s the next step. How have the lessons you’ve learnt fed back into hardware design? On this hardware there hasn’t been a huge amount of impact. Software’s taking what it’s given and figuring it out. However, things that everyone thought would be incredibly important actually turned out to be less important – I can’t say exactly what those things are – and there are other things that software would really like to see that will probably be accelerated into sequels of the hardware. But the Rift is a fantastic device and we won’t get to a point where we feel like we’ve maxed it out for a long, long time.


OCULUS RIFT

LUCKY’S TALE

ADRIFT

CHRONOS

Developer Three One Zero Publisher 505 Games

Developer/publisher Gunfire Games

Developer/publisher Playful Corp

We’ve played Adrift before, of course, on one of those old-fashioned flatscreen monitors, but it’s no match for experiencing the game in VR. The moment we venture outside the orbiting wreckage of an erstwhile space station and look down, the view slightly obscured by the inside of our helmet, we wonder what tiny fraction of the life-changing experience astronauts describe we’re currently getting. Profundity aside, another realistic addition is the nausea you’ll feel as you try to acclimatise to moving in zero-G. It’s quite horrible, in fact, but Three One Zero has built in a helpful stabilisation button to get you upright and still again, and another that offers effective ‘VR relief’ by limiting your view to the centre of the screen. Once acclimatised, however, Adrift becomes a claustrophobic wonder in VR.

Evocative of Ico, Dark Souls and Infinity Blade, Chronos is a moody action RPG set in a bleak postapocalyptic future stalked by terrifying creatures. Predominantly played in thirdperson, it uses fixed camera points as you run about its world solving puzzles, opening shortcuts and slaying enemies. The viewpoint switches to firstperson during cutscenes or when, for example, you’re reading a document or using a computer screen. Combat is deliberate and methodical, requiring shrewd use of your shield and rolling, and the towering bosses are an imposing presence. Portals between dimensions open the way to a fantasy world (enabling a clever use of firstperson that lets you peek through to see where you might end up), and each time you die every enemy will respawn and your character will return to the most recent checkpoint a year older.

The most striking thing about your first moments in Lucky’s Tale is how evocative of N64-era Rare platformers it all is. The world’s packed with colour, the game’s design and animation is instantly appealing, and the threateningly cute enemies rhythmically strut about the place guarding gold coins. And then there’s the music, which brazenly pays homage to Mario’s best themes. It’s an appropriate sensation for one of the first wave of games to usher in a seismic shift on a par with the introduction of 3D graphics. The revolution might not feel so profound in this particular platform game, at least from the early levels we try, but surveying the busy, living world, discovering new paths, and craning to look up through towering tree trunks as we ascend their interiors makes for an inarguably beguiling journey.

I EXPECT YOU TO DIE

THE CLIMB

PROJECT CARS

Developer/publisher Schell Games

Developer/publisher Crytek

This firstperson puzzle game casts players as a spy in a spot of bother. Each scenario places you at the mercy of various merciless traps, and challenges you to emerge from each situation shaken but not interred. Compatible with Touch controllers, the game keeps you seated in one position but grants you the useful power of telekinesis to grab or place objects in the distance. In the game’s first scenario, for example, you can use it to retrieve a screwdriver from outside of the car you find yourself in, which is parked in the gas-filled belly of a plane. On another mission we use it to light our cigar in a winter-lodge fireplace and manipulate a concealed lever. We don’t, however, recommend experimenting with holding the gun to your head.

With some bouldering experience and a steadfast case of moderate vertigo, the prospect of our session with The Climb is as daunting as it is appealing. Clambering out of a cave in the Alps – the second of the game’s locations to be revealed – and then out into the blinding sunshine over a perilous-looking drop is nerve-wracking, and the combination of needing to keep the triggers gripped to stay on the rock face with the stress of looking for the next handhold proves genuinely physically exhausting. But while the pad mapping works well, The Climb feels stymied by the absence of Touch controllers – leaning your head closer to a hold in order to reach it feels considerably less intuitive than stretching out an arm.

Developer/publisher Slightly Mad Studios

Project Cars has been compatible with DK2 for some time now, but the game’s car models are done greater service by the final hardware. Yet even when afforded the ability to look around, it’s remarkable how little you’ll tear your eyes from the road ahead when racing in VR. Even so, the benefits of wearing an HMD are obvious: while the violent buffeting and stench of burning carbons might be absent, the sense of being sat in a physical vehicle is a considerable leap closer to taking part in a real track day or race. The feeling of sitting low in a bucket seat with the car’s protruding form around you dramatically increases the sense of speed and acutely changes the way you judge oncoming corners.

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OCULUS RIFT

AIRMECH COMM AND

R ADIAL-G: R ACING REVOLVED

BL A ZERUSH

Developer/publisher Carbon Games

Developer/publisher Tammeka Games

Developer/publisher Targem Games

AirMech is a fast-paced action RTS in which you control a transforming robot and direct armies of AI-controlled tanks and soldiers. Like Defense Grid (below), it existed for some years before its creators had the opportunity to realise their ambitions with the addition of VR. In this instance, Carbon Games wanted to create the sensation of playing with toys that come to life, a fiction rendered convincing once placed into the world via a headset rather than looking into it through a monitor. Stood inside a bunker, you play on a map that represents the action taking place outside and attempt to defend your position from other players while building units and taking control of other facilities. AirMech is immediate, satisfying fun and in its new form fits into a category of VR games termed ‘tabletop’ that’s becoming increasingly well populated.

DEFENSE GRID 2: ENHANCED VR EDITION

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Simultaneously developed for monitors and Rift, Radial-G: Racing Revolved is a dizzying sci-fi racer that pitches you into terrifyingly fast races along the outside of metallic, tubular tracks. If you think that sounds nausea-inducing, you’d be right. However, the reassuring presence of your cockpit goes some way to mitigating the effect, and only sudden sideways sweeps prove unbearable – something you’ll be doing often to avoid the frequent red energy barriers that slow your craft – while most other manoeuvres simply take a little getting used to (although we certainly don’t recommend racing on the outside edge of a bend for any significant amount of time). To top it all off, the game – which is clearly in thrall to Nintendo’s F-Zero – clips along at a blistering pace even on easier difficulties.

ALBINO LULL ABY

Another tabletop effort, though this time in the form of raucous multiplayer kart battler BlazeRush. A relatively simple port of a game that was originally released on PC and PS4 in 2014, Targem’s racer shows how well some existing concepts can translate to VR with little tweaking. Structurally, the game remains the same, offering three gameplay modes (Race, King Of The Hill and Survival), a selection of tracks filled with weapons and boosters, and a large fleet of unlockable vehicles with varied characteristics. The only dramatic difference is the fact that you can now look about the place as you track alongside your vehicle, floating just above the course. But you do feel a greater connection to your diminutive vehicle, which somehow feels more vulnerable as it’s jostled about in a miniaturised death race.

DEAD SECRET

Developer/publisher Hidden Path

Developer/publisher Ape Law

Developer/publisher Robot Invader

The Defense Grid series began life in 2008 with The Awakening, and spawned a 2014 sequel. This is a version of the second game refitted for VR, and it’s had an extensive makeover. The controls and UI have been rebuilt from scratch to allow you to choose towers simply by looking at the spot you want to place them, and you can now zoom into any tower to get a close-up view of the action as you obliterate waves of tactically inadequate drones. There are hidden powerups dotted about levels that will require you to lean in and search behind objects, and a handful of new levels take advantage of Rift with multitiered, convoluted map designs, which also force you to move about in order to keep a track of the invading armies.

Albino Lullaby is one of the few games we try that feels ill-suited to VR – at least in its current form and for our innards. The surreal horror game does little to ease VR players into things, its lurid colour scheme and standard FPS controls combining to quickly turn the stomach. Taking a short break from dashing about the ever-shifting mechanical levels provides relief, and the feelings of nausea quickly subside, but they return in step with the very next circle strafe manoeuvre. Which is all a great pity given that Ape Law’s unnerving world is exactly the kind of place we’d like to spend some VR time in. For now we’ll stick to the vanilla PC build, but hopefully the studio can find a way to ensure that all of its stomach-churning content is intentional.

Dead Secret is a firstperson horror thriller in which you investigate a recent murder, encountering a series of creepy supernatural phenomena in the process. Robot Invader solves the issue of uncomfortable movement by allowing players to warp between key points, and rotate through the compass points when they get there. It makes for a pleasant, if staccato, way of gadding about the place, and ensures that the business of sifting through evidence and solving puzzles is entirely nausea-free. Robot Invader employs plenty of horror clichés along the way – crows at the window, a TV that switches itself on, an eerie figure appearing behind you in the mirror – but they’re given a fresh lick of fright by the new perspective.


Included in the Rift box along with Lucky’s Tale, EVE: Valkyrie is a bold, convincing justification for your new purchase

“90FPS SEEMS TO BE THE POINT AT WHICH THINGS JUST KIND OF WORK FOR THE HUMAN EYE” like a huge explosion, there are a lot of translucent polygons, and that’s when the framerate goes down. Having said that, all the developers that are working on this stuff get to a headspace where they’re totally fine. It just takes a different way of thinking; you’re just more careful. And I think over time it will become a non-issue – it will just be the way you make games. “Also, 90fps seems to be the barrier. It seems to be the point at which things just kind of work for the human eye. We don’t need 1000fps, so as processors get better and as all of our computers get more powerful, it becomes easier to hit that target. That’s not to say that developers won’t take every inch that they can of that extra processing power to make it look better, but it will become easier. Processes will change, the way code is written will change, and processors will get better. We’ll just get to the point where it won’t matter as much and we’ll get better at it. And there’ll be systems that kick in when we’re going to miss a frame to help us make it; we’ll create new ways of guaranteeing the framerate.” Indeed, everything we try maintains a rock-solid framerate throughout, and we only run into serious problems when, for example, our space suit snags on some polygons in Adrift, causing our position to quickly oscillate between two points for a moment, and when horror game Albino Lullaby lets us loose

with full FPS controls and we can’t help but circlestrafe around corners with the run button firmly depressed. In both cases keeping still for a moment afterwards rapidly subdues any sensation of motion sickness. But Adrift also lets you close the view down to a myopic tunnel by holding the B button, the effect offering immediate relief without requiring you to stop moving about in the world. It’s a rudimentary implementation of a technique known as ‘tunnelling’ (see Jason Rubin Q&A, p66), a conceptually complicated but mechanically simple idea wherein you enclose the player’s peripheral view of the world when they move, but open it up again when they stop.

But clever visual chicanery and reduced rendering ceilings aside, the fact still remains that you’ll need an extremely powerful PC to run any of this properly – a minimum specification that, according to Nvidia, only one per cent of PCs currently in use can meet, the company estimating that the average PC will require a “sevenfold increase in raw performance” to run top-tier VR. Mobile-based devices such as GearVR and Google Cardboard might provide cheaper alternatives, but they lack the comfort, positional tracking and processing heft that a full Oculus setup provides. To a company attempting to catalyse a VR revolution, you’d expect

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“WHAT WE’RE SHOWING WITH THE RIF T IS AT THAT MINIMUM BASELINE FOR GIVING A GOOD VR EXPERIENCE”

If you buy a Galaxy S7 to go with it, GearVR will cost you nearly as much as a Rift. For untethered VR today, though, it is the best option available

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that Nvidia’s estimate would be an unnerving statistic, but Luckey isn’t perturbed. “Rift is an early-adopter product, but that’s still a huge market – there are lots of devices that never leave the high-end PC gaming market and still sell millions of units,” he says. “And there are at least a few million [GTX] 970s out there, let alone competitors’ cards or Titans. Those are just the people that have it today – in six months or a year, it’s going to be a very different figure. And if you look two years from now, the lowto-mid-range cards will be beating a 970. So that number’s going to increase really rapidly. What we’re showing with the Rift is about at that minimum baseline for giving a good VR experience, and that’s one of the reasons you see a lot of VR headsets all being pretty similar when it comes to specifications. It’s the best that can be done today and it’s right around that bareminimum experience – it’s only recently the technology’s become possible to provide good consumer VR. But if you look two or three years into the future, that minimum bar isn’t going to change. Yes, the best-looking games are going to go up in power and require the best graphics cards for the best fidelity. But even in five years from now you’ll still be able to run a good VR experience, one that runs at 90fps or higher, in stereo 3D with good graphics, on 970-level graphics which, by then, so many computers are going to have.” As bare-minimum experiences go, few are as enchanting. The aforementioned sense of presence that engulfs us as we play through a number of Oculus Rift games leaves a lasting impression. But just as striking is the breadth of game styles and perspectives on show. Firstperson efforts are well represented, of course, but we also try tower defence and realtime strategy games, isometric kart battlers and brawlers, h rdperson adventures and platformers, a headthi ontrolled spin on bullet hell, and even a couple of co projects that don’t neatly fit into any existing genre efinitions. Crucially, all feel like smart fits for VR. de “We’re at this unique point in history where we’re arting over with everything that we’ve done before in sta ame development,” says Anna Sweet, Oculus head ga off developer strategy and former senior business evelopment manager at Valve. “We have all these de ames that we’re shipping to players, and developers ga are redefining [existing] genres and creating new ones

that we’ve never thought of before. In the future, when we look back at the moment that VR really took off and got to customers for the first time, these are the developers who [we’ll think of as] making the Pongs or the amazing NES titles that we all remember. They’re the creators who are writing that history. And it’s super fun to be a part of that.”

One aspect that this first wave of titles will lack is Oculus’s Touch controllers – due for release later this year – and it’s telling that the games that stray the farthest from traditional genre labels benefit most from their inclusion. Does Luckey worry at all about potentially fracturing Rift’s market before it’s even established? “You have to remember that people have been developing VR games for gamepad for over three years now,” he says. “I think if we had bundled Touch controllers with the Rift, you’d have a much stronger case for saying, ‘Aren’t you fracturing the marketplace by bundling motion controllers after years of development for this other input device?’ I don’t want to seem biased, but I want to point out that it’s more like motion controllers are fragmenting the huge content base that’s existed, rather than the other way around.

Rift comes in an imposing black box, packaged alongside the Oculus Remote, constellation tracking system, and an Xbox One controller


OCULUS RIFT

Q&A

A NNA SWEET Head of developer strategy, Oculus VR

Anna Sweet started in the game industry at Microsoft, designing user-research and testing tools for Microsoft Games Studio titles before spending six years working on Steam at Valve. As Oculus head of developer strategy, she now looks after thirdparty studios working with Rift. Given the requirements of VR, how do you approach working with studios? We’re not very prescriptive. We generally think these developers are amazing and way smarter than us. They come to us with an idea, and we’re like, ‘OK, let’s enable you with hardware.’ We have a really great team of engineers who can help them solve their problems with performance issues. We’re happy to help them at any point that they need, but we generally let them do their awesome, amazing, creative, inventive things, and then when they’re ready we work with them to get the game in the store in front of customers. And we announced the $10 million fund for indie developers to help them jump in and start building for VR back at E3. Are there any concerns about the comfort-level labelling? There’s going to be a really broad spectrum of gamers [using VR]. We see it within our own team – we all have different things that make us a bit more or less uncomfortable, but there’s a game for every single one of us. What are the standout VR development lessons you’ve learned? It’s all being rewritten right now. Everything from where a menu should go and how it should work, to hand collision and understanding how we’re going to interact in space. And with movement everyone was like, ‘Firstperson motion will never work,’ but now we have a whole bunch of firstperson games that are really comfortable and really fun to play. And the [developers we work with] are the ones that are getting to invent all this cool stuff. There’s a big need for the industry to start thinking about players in different ways, right? I think so, and I hope so. I hope this is a platform that’s going to reach all different kinds of gamers and consumers. I think you already see that in the spectrum of games and breadth of content. Virtual reality is just a completely different medium that will attract a completely different set of people than we’ve had in the past. What are the challenges of growing VR’s initial audience? I think that our first customers are going to be some of our best sales people. They’re going to take it home and show it to their partners and friends. VR gets people really excited and makes them want to show it to people. We also have a really great marketing team here who are thinking about what are the right experiences at retail, and how do we really get this in front of people? Because the best way to experience it and really see the magic is to just try it.

Many GearVR games are getting Rift ports, which add positional tracking and, in some cases, improved visuals. Hero Bound 2 (top) and EVE: Gunjack (above) are among the first wave of games to step up

And in our best practices guide, for years we’ve been telling people how to develop for gamepads. They’re relying on every person that buys a Rift being able to play their game with the hardware that’s included. And a lot of genres just don’t benefit from motion controls at all. They’re very beneficial to certain genres, but they’re not a universal input tool. We’re able to include the gamepad because almost all of the games made for the Rift support it, and it wasn’t a huge cost to add. Adding Touch would’ve significantly raised the cost of the Rift.” Even without Touch controllers, Rift remains a confident package and an utterly convincing case for VR’s eventual widespread adoption. That it’s just the first step towards that future does nothing to undermine the profound effect of stepping into a game and forgetting yourself. But Luckey isn’t ready to celebrate the company’s monumental achievement just yet. “There’s more pressure than there’s ever been,” he says. “I mean, especially when you’re early on, it’s important to support developers and ship our devkits, but it isn’t until you make a solid commitment to shipping your final product that the pressure really starts to crank up.” Q

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Q&A

PA L M ER LUCKEY Founder, Oculus VR

P

almer Luckey is disarmingly confident for his age. And with good reason: the 23-year-old Oculus VR founder has spent the past five years working up to this moment, from building a prototype in his parents’ garage to being the head of a company that was acquired by Facebook for $2bn, and which now employs star industry names such as John Carmack.

How does it feel to have reached this point? I don’t want to be flippant, but it mostly feels exactly the same right now. We’re still getting there. When we launched the preorders, a lot of people said, “Wow, what a weight off your shoulders this must be!” And I’m like, “We haven’t even launched – this isn’t a weight off my shoulders.” It’s the final commitment, it’s a stake in the ground where you say, “We now have to ship on this date we promised and everything has to work. Everything needs to be good.” So right now I’m not standing here saying, “Wow, we did it. We made it.” Do you think your current pace of iteration can be maintained post-launch? Remember that we started shipping DK2 in July 2014, so it’s been a while since then. [Launching] might slow us down a little bit, but I think we’re going to keep seeing pretty rapid advancement – I don’t think you’re going to see the Rift come out and then it’s the same thing for the next five years. Part of that pace has come from the open collaboration within the industry, but how do you square that with the need to be commercially successful? There are two things that we’re trying to do. The first is trying to make ourselves successful, obviously. The second is trying to make virtual reality successful. And so the question is, who’s our bigger opponent right now? Is it other companies in the VR space, or is it public perception or ignorance of virtual reality? We’re all working together to try to convince the public that it’s worth wearing something on your head to use a computer. And so if someone becomes convinced by us or any other company, that’s OK – it ends up being a net win right now. Because it’s not like we’ve saturated the market and now we’re fighting over market share. We’re not even going to capture a tiny fraction of the total potential VR market in these next few years.

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What are your thoughts on Vive and PlayStation VR? Different people have different incentives for collaboration, and to what extent they want to collaborate. Some companies want to be in the hardware game; some want to be in the software game. Some companies, like Sony, want to be in both and controlling the entire stack. We’ve talked about the fact that we don’t make money selling the Rift – we make money selling software. And we want to work with everybody in the industry so that we can sell more games to more people – there’s no reason for us to want to limit it to our hardware. Which is different from Sony’s model. And so everyone has conflicting motivations. It’s unfortunate that everyone can’t have the same motivations and be perfectly aligned, but that’s the real world... I think the Vive is more difficult, because it’s a partnership between HTC, which is a company that wants to make money from selling hardware, and Valve, which wants to make money from selling other people’s software... It’s two parties that maybe have different motivations, which don’t necessarily align with each other’s. What does John Carmack bring to the company? He’s one of the smartest programmers out there. He has a deep understanding of hardware and software. He’s been building realtime 3D applications pretty much longer than anyone else. His contributions are huge. John works in Dallas in his own office and is primarily focused on mobile virtual reality, so while he’s involved to some degree in a lot of things, he’s mostly been focused on mobile VR. That’s what he came to Oculus to work on, because he believes in the long run that’s where a lot of this stuff is headed. Not necessarily towards mobile-phone-based headsets, but towards headsets that render everything themselves. Looking back, how do you feel about that Time cover? I loved the cover. I thought it was great. There were a lot of people who imagined I must be devastated or embarrassed, but the reality is I have no embarrassment at all. I thought it was incredible. A lot of people thought that it was a little hokey, but it got more people talking about virtual reality that week than any other cover could have. If it had just been me smiling on a cover – who cares? But you show something that piques people’s interest and more people start thinking about virtual reality, so that can only be a win. Q


HTC

VIV E Valve’s room-scale VR arrives in the home and changes it forever – for better and worse BY NATHAN BROWN

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ell, if you thought clearing off the coffee table for a Wii Sports session was an inconvenience, or that 20 minutes of pre-party Rock Band kit setup was too much like hard work, you’re in for a heck of a shock. The problem with HTC Vive’s ambitious, often brilliant room-scale VR is that, as the term implies, it needs an entire room. Rarely has the phrase ‘disruptive technology’ been meant so literally. You’re not clearing the coffee table, but picking it up and taking it out of the room; every piece of furniture and potential obstruction must be pushed right up against the perimeter of your chosen play space, or removed from it entirely. Vive requires full floor-to-ceiling coverage, too, so any location featuring fancy light fittings is a no-go. You also need two high, diagonally opposite surfaces on which to mount its base station sensors – if you’ve no bookshelves, you’ll need to get your drill out to install the provided mounting brackets. Oh, and we assume you’ve got at least three spare power points in the right places – one for each base station, and another for the junction box that sits between HMD and

PC. And if you connect your PC and TV over HDMI, and your GPU only has one HDMI slot, you’re going to have to rethink that, too, because Vive needs it. The arrival in the home of room-scale virtual reality means half a day’s head-scratching, furniture-moving and cablechasing, a displeased frown from your significant other, and disappointed offspring asking why their playroom’s been transformed into a health-and-safety nightmare. Sorry, kids, but the future comes at a cost, and we’re not just talking about the hefty £689 price tag. Things improve markedly once everything is installed, though the workflow for Valve’s browser-based setup tutorial could do with some improvement. If we’re being kind, perhaps the decision to not have you download 2GB worth of SteamVR files until after you’ve rearranged your entire living room is Valve acknowledging that you could probably do with a sit down. (If only we had anywhere left to actually sit.) Once that’s done, though, the fun begins, as you use a wireless Vive controller to trace the perimeter of your play space – the haptics inside rumbling near solid surfaces like a Ghostbusters PKE Meter – and show SteamVR where your floor is by simply putting the

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HTC VIVE

T HE T HICK , T HREE-WAY C A BL E THAT TE THERS HMD AND PC IS THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM HERE

Vive is fullyy integrated g into Steam, with installation, tutorials and driver updates handled through the PC client

controller down. If only the entirety of Vive’s setup process could be so playful. Just as things are looking up, however, it quickly becomes apparent that Valve and HTC’s minimum recommended play space of 1.5m x 2m isn’t really enough. Valve’s flagship demonstration of the hardware is Aperture Robot Repair, a single-room experience set in the Portal universe. It immediately asks you to reach for an object that’s outside the boundaries of the playspace unless your setup significantly exceeds the recommended minimum, your real-life boundaries shown on the display in gridlines and your objective a foot or so beyond. You can teleport around the room by pointing the Vive controller at the floor and squeezing the trigger, but it rather defeats the entire purpose of the hardware’s USP: freedom of movement. The Abbot’s Book, an episodic indie horror game, uses a similar solution to the player’s movement through a large area – squeeze a Vive controller trigger and a soft glowing light shows the next pre-ordained step along the way. Release the trigger, and you warp there. It should be an immersive, atmospheric game – and at times it feels like it, as you venture into the depths of some pitch-black catacombs with only a torch and a rather unsettling accomplice at your side. Instead you

have to reorient yourself every two seconds to work out in which direction the teleport has left you facing, and where you were headed next. This is an accepted design practice in VR, but it seems to benefit the creator more than the player. You shouldn’t be spending your first hour with room-scale VR pining for a comfy chair and a controller, and it’s a little deflating to realise that a VR solution that should, in theory, afford you more freedom than the sedentary experiences offered by Rift and the rest frequently feels more limiting. Not that you’d want to walk around too much anyway. The thick, three-way cable that tethers HMD and PC is the elephant in the room here, and it’s got its trunk wrapped round its legs. Jeeboman, a 360-degree firstperson shooter, is more suited to a swivel chair than standing play, and within minutes we’re getting shot to bits after taking off the headset in order to untangle the cable from our ankles, as concerns about the real world impinge once more on our sense of being in a virtual one. These are software issues as much as hardware ones, and it’s worth noting that Jeeboman is in development for Rift as well as Vive, despite the devices offering different capabilities. The best games on both will be built around their particular strengths rather than simply what functionality they share.

On early evidence, however, room-scale isn’t

Despite its rudimentary visual style, Modbox is a sandbox of great power and flexibility, but it’s playfully presented and easy to use. It’s made by Alientrap, the Canadian studio behind Greek-mythology-inspired side-scroller Apotheon

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Vive’s USP. It’s the headline feature, perhaps, but what really makes this device tick is the bundled pair of wireless controllers. Those who have used a Steam Controller will be immediately at home with the functionality: the circular, clickable touchpads beneath the thumb, the two-stage trigger under the index finger, the extra button under the middle finger, and the haptic rumble within. But they won’t be prepared for the Minority Report-style fantasy that awaits when they first pick them up. Hold the System button, which sits just below the trackpad, and Steam’s Big Picture Mode overlay appears, allowing you to open and close games, access your friends list or browse the web. Click a touchpad in certain apps, such as the sandbox building game Modbox, and a menu appears on your wrist; move your other hand across and a pointer appears with which to make your selection. Rotate your left wrist this way and that and you’ll find another menu, then another and another.


ROOM 101 Vive’s wireless controllers 01 aree essentially souped-up Steam Controllers split in two. The ring gs at the top are covered in sensors for one-to-one tracking by the basee ed stations 02, which must be place diagonally opposite each other. wards Ideally they’ll be angled downw by 30–45 degrees, but they work fine on the horizontal. The HMD D 03 3 is weighty – heavier than a Rift – but comfortable, though the thick ck cable running down your back is an unavoidable distraction. Dials on either side can be used to move the display closer or farther away, while another adjusts how far apart the two lenses sit depending on the distance between your pupils.

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HTC VIVE

FELT TIP CIRCUS

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APERTURE ROBOT REPAIR

JOB SIMUL ATOR

Developer Alpha Wave Entertainment Publisher AAD Productions

Developer/publisher Valve

Developer/publisher Owlchemy Labs

The name may imply artistry, but Alpha Wave Entertainment’s game is no looker. There’s plenty of charm here, however, both in setup (the circus in question is a plaything come to life on a living room floor) and execution. Knife throwing has you fling spiky balls at balloons on a rotating target; higher difficulty levels complicate things with gymnasts cartwheeling in front of you. Elsewhere you tame paper lions with chairs, guide acrobats across complex courses, and walk tightropes in an attempt to impress a fickle crowd. Alpha Wave admits that the audience is unbalanced right now – a single miss in a perfect run prompts a chorus of boos – but the developer’s bigger challenge will be fleshing this out into something that feels like more than just a VR semi-sequel to Wii’s Carnival Games.

We’d have expected more than a barely interactive ten-minute spectacle from Valve given its role as pseudo-platform holder for Vive and SteamVR. As delightful as it is to be back in the Portal universe and on the wrong end of GLaDOS’s brutal wit – we’re a “sweaty sack of ham”, apparently – the action, if you can call it that, fades to black within minutes. You don’t do much, either: opening a drawer is about as involved as it gets. Yes, it’s a convincing display of room-scale VR. Yes, it’s sort of Portal. But the overriding feeling, even after the GDC unveiling of The Lab, is disappointment at what might have been. Valve will get back to what it used to do best. For now, it feels odd that a company with so much to gain from VR’s success has offered it so little software support.

The comedy ‘Something Simulator’ label has been so overused of late that we’ve got an email filter set up to delete them on sight, but Owlchemy Labs’ wry musing on the drudgery of cubicle life can be a delight. This subgenre’s signature trick – having you struggle through a series of basic tasks while wrestling with comical physics – reaches a new plateau in VR: we defy you not to open your mouth when you tip a coffee mug to your lips, or chomp on a doughnut. Room size was a problem when we were expected to reach through an exterior wall to plug in a computer, but the biggest concern is whether Owlchemy can craft a full game out of real life at its most mundane. But it’s a fine proof of concept, and almost enough to make us open up our inbox again.

FINAL APPROACH

FANTASTIC CONTR APTION

NINJA TR AINER VIVE

Developer/publisher Phaser Lock Interactive

Developer/publisher Radial Games, Northway Games

Developer/publisher Atomic VR

Phaser Lock’s Vive exclusive doesn’t exactly have the most inspiring of openings: you’re in an office, with a desk, and a muzak version of Girl From Ipanema is being piped through a speaker. But it’s just a fancy mission-select screen, and seconds later you’re overlooking a small 3D island, in the middle of a busy city, or out on the open sea looking down on a military fleet. Using the Vive controllers you trace flight paths for approaching aircraft, deploy choppers to aid those in need, and even get down to ground level to put out engine fires and aim gun turrets at wayward drones. As effective a demo of Vive’s capabilities as Flight Control was for the smartphone touchscreen, Final Approach is one of SteamVR’s few current highlights.

What began life in 2008 as a Flash game was picked up by Inxile Entertainment and brought to iOS, and now finds a new home in VR as a Vive launch game. There are whiffs of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts about it, as you build a device capable of carrying a balloon through a goal across the stage. Using the wireless controllers you can resize and rotate stretchy objects with sticky edges, then hit the Play button and watch as they inevitably drift off course and fall over within a couple of seconds. Vibrant, playful and creative, Fantastic Contraption is ideally suited to Vive despite its age and origin – and it’s already hoovering up plaudits, including a nomination for the IGF’s innovationfocused Nuovo award.

Given Steam’s recent abundance of mobile ports and quick knockoffs it’s perhaps appropriate that Vive’s software lineup should include a brazen copy of Fruit Ninja, but it’s an effective showcase of what Vive offers that the handheld screen can’t. Full 3D means you have to be more precise with your swings than on a touchscreen, while the visible sword in your hand can only cut through flying groceries with the sharp end of the blade – a tennis-style backhand will simply ping your target across the screen unharmed. It’s quite a workout, too. It may not be the most imaginative of Vive games, but Ninja Trainer is an immediate, accessible way of showing the uninitiated what HTC’s VR device is capable of.


TheBlu: Encounter, a demo featuring a giant whale, is a great early example of how VR can emphasise scale

W H I L E T H E F U T U R E O F G A M E S M AY W EL L H AV E JUS T A R R I V E D, W E’R E NO T E N T IR E LY S UR E W H AT I T L O O K S L IK E Modbox is Vive at its best: you’re mostly stationary, moving only on your own terms within your own, real-life boundaries. Crucially, you’re left to create your own fun, rather than following instructions. Steam Workshop support means the lazy can instantly load up a game of darts, basketball or ten-pin bowling, but with a couple of clicks you’re able to start spicing things up, putting tight walls and a low ceiling around the hoop and going for improbable bank shots, or seeing how many pins you can knock down with a well-flung pool ball.

And it’s through Modbox that we understand why VR is a cause of so much excitement from those outside the game industry. Few of the 19 entries in the VR section of our Steam library can be strictly classed as games, and but for a couple of exceptions (notably the excellent Final Approach – see opposite), Vive’s current highlights are abstract playthings, not traditional games. Writing your name in midair using Google’s wonderful Tiltbrush software feels far more like the future than opening the wrong drawer in Aperture Robot Repair and being berated by GLaDOS for it. Fashioning a makeshift car from stretchy balloons in Fantastic Contraption is a much greater thrill than warping

between pre-ordained markers in The Abbot’s Book. On this evidence, Vive’s appeal lies in doing what you want to do in a virtual world of your own making, rather than following a list of instructions left by someone else. This goes some way – but perhaps not far enough – towards explaining Valve’s disappointing lack of involvement in Vive’s software lineup. The company has built its business around the concepts of partnership and delegation, whether getting the community to curate Steam’s catalogue through Greenlight, or asking PC hardware companies to help coordinate its move on the living room with Steam Machines. With SteamVR it has done both, getting HTC to deliver on the hardware proof of concept and other developers to provide the software aspect. At launch, Valve’s vision of the future of games comprises a set of tutorials, the fun-but-lightweight playpark of the GDC-announced The Lab, and a ten-minute, vaguely interactive rollercoaster set in the Portal universe. It’s perhaps the most hands-off launch from any platform holder in history. It means that, while the future of games may well have just arrived in our living room, we’re still not entirely sure what it looks like. And what about our poor coffee table? It can’t stay in the hallway forever. Q

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P L AY S TAT I O N

VR

With a comparatively low pricepoint and some in innovative software, Sony’s VR ambitions are serious BY SIMON PARKIN

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hen the announcement of a peripheral that, at £349, costs significantly more than the hardware on which it runs and yet could be considered to be something of a bargain, you know we’re living in unusual times. But then PlayStation VR’s rivals cost hundreds of pounds more than Sony’s hardware, annd that’s before you even factor in the ccost off the hig gh-end PCs that are required to make them work prroperly. In that context, PSVR’s pricepoint, a d at announced a a press event held in San Francisco a e Game Developers Conference, feels alongside the al almost miracuulous – especially when you consider that l Sony claims iit will make money on each unit sold. d House, CEO of Sony Computer Andrew H Entertainmentt, who strode onto a small stage in front of a packed room to reveal that the PSVR will launch g October, seems only too aware of the coup globally in O the company has pulled. “The pricepoint has been far from an easy task,” he says, smiling. Nevertheless, as

the most affordable serious VR option, Sony’s hardware may have the best chance, at least in the short term, of luring consumers to invest in the nascent medium. It’s a tough job. While a battalion of developers and investors appear fully on board with VR’s potential (exhibit A: the unprecedentedly long, serpentine queues lining up for the Game Developers Conference’s VR-themed talks), many traditional videogame fans seem less convinced of its relevance to their interests. “Excitement for delivering VR reminds me of the anticipation when building the original PlayStation,” House says, undeterred. “It’s a natural evolution of the experiences we strive to deliver at PlayStation.” Sony certainly has firepower. The company says that more than 230 studios are working on games for the device, with commitment from publishers such as EA, which has revealed that it will release a dedicated PlayStation VR version of Star Wars Battlefront. As yet, however, there are no details on how many titles will launch with the headset, which will be available in various bundles,

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P L AY T I M E 01 Unsurprisingly for hardware designed by Sony, the PlayStation VR HMD is a handsome piece of technology, even if it looks a little self-consciously ‘sci-fi’ when compared to its competitors. 02 The processing unit handles 3D audio processing, mirrored social screen and ‘separate mode’ TV outputs, and displaying 2D content in PSVR’s cinematic mode. 03 A PlayStation Camera isn’t included in the basic box, but is essential to PSVR. The hardware currently retails at £40. 04 Move controllers provide your in-game hands, but unlike Rift and Vive, using the 05 standard controller doesn’t preclude you from reaching into gameworlds. 03

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PLAYSTATION VR

THE FINAL UNIT IS CONSISTENT WITH PROTOT YPES, A VISOR-LIKE HMD STUDDED WITH LIGHT BARS the most expensive packing in a PlayStation Camera (which PSVR needs in order to function) and two Move controllers. At least Sony is able to commit to the release of over 50 PSVR games before the end of 2016. Sony’s HMD may not match up to its PC-based competitors when it comes to particular hardware specs, but it has several immediate advantages over Rift and Vive. Thirty-six million PS4s have been sold to date, and all of those devices are VR-ready, while the average player’s PC is simply unable to cope with the demands of the hardware offered by Oculus and Vive. And perhaps certain Sony execs have downplayed how well its hardware measures up: PSVR is capable of a 120Hz refresh rate, with a 100-degree field of view. Latency, meanwhile, is measured at less than 18 milliseconds, while audio is engineered to deliver 360-degree sound that shifts dynamically according to the player’s head position. While the base PS4’s limited power relative to

high-end PCs may restrict the vision of certain game developers, this drawback is outweighed by the console’s consistency. As House puts it, “Developers can be assured the exact experience they’re working to create will be the same for all [PSVR] players.”

In product design terms, PSVR is arguably the best we’ve seen to date. The final unit is consistent with early prototypes, a white visor-like HMD studded with blue light bars. It’s easy to put on your head, with a band that can be adjusted with the simple press of a button, while a high-quality microphone set into the headset allows for easy communication. Sony has worked hard to reduce the weight of the device, and it doesn’t feel particularly heavy even with prolonged use. PSVR also integrates well with existing PS4 features: most system options are available while using the headset, and a cinematic mode allows you to play standard PS4 games or

Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Andrew House

The London Heist is now part of the PlayStation VR Worlds game compilation

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The Playroom VR riffs on Nintendo Land’s asymmetric multiplayer, pitting four controllers against one headset

“SONY IS BEST POISED TO BRING VR TO THE MAINSTREAM DUE TO THE MOMENTUM OF THE BRAND” watch video on a virtual cinema screen whose size can be scaled according to the user’s preference. House is, however, in no doubt that the road to success will be long and winding. PSVR users will, he concedes, be a subset of existing PS4 owners. Mainstream adoption is far away and, besides, developers must first work to nail down the new language and rules of the medium, which don’t entirely mesh with those of traditional videogame styles. “This is a new medium that requires new thinking and new ideas,” House says. Despite the vast challenges that lie ahead, he maintains that Sony is in the strongest position to spearhead the medium’s advance. “Sony is best poised to bring VR to the mainstream due to the PSVR’s value, the strength of the ecosystem, and the momentum of the brand.” Crucially, with PSVR being launched at the price of a new platform, Sony must support it as one, with all of the requisite software such ambitions demand. For the hardware to succeed in the long term, even at such an attractive pricepoint, it will need the kind of ongoing game support the company and its partners weren’t able to provide for previous PlayStation innovations such as EyeToy, Move and PlayStation Eye. Q

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TOP Tumble VR is a remake of puzzler Tumble, in which you arrange and stack blocks. ABOVE Also from Supermassive Games, Until Dawn: Rush Of Blood should test how quickly you can remove your headset


PLAYSTATION VR

WAYWARD SKY

GOLEM

Developer/publisher Uber Entertainment

Developer/publisher Highwire Games

Developer/publisher Kokoromi

Golem’s heritage is impeccable, bringing together former Bungie composer Marty O’Donnell, former Bungie game designer Jaime Griesemer, and former Airtight Games programmer Jared Noftle. You play as an injured child who, after falling from their bed, crawls along the floor to discover a world beyond the floorboards. One of the great challenges in VR is clearly character movement – the disconnect you feel when walking in a gameworld while standing still or sitting in reality causing motion sickness – and Highwire addresses the issue by having you lean forward to crawl. It’s an effective technique that works just as well once you’re transformed into a hulking stone golem. Combat works like a slow-motion Punch-Out, using the Move controller to position your huge stone sword to block, parry and counter with lingering swings.

After years in the desert, Fez creator Phil Fish is set to return to game development, albeit within the larger collective Kokoromi, with the dazzling Super Hyper Cube. If Fez perfected a nostalgically twee indie aesthetic, Super Hyper Cube veers the other way, toward futuristic chic. You twist and flip clusters of cubes to fit through shapes in an endlessly approaching series of walls. Squeeze through the gap successfully by moving your head, and a new cube joins the cluster, adding difficulty but also a score multiplier. Misalign and you lose a life. Configurations are random during each playthrough, so you won’t be able to learn patterns, while daily challenges aim to encourage online competition. The game would stand out without a VR component, but descending bodily into its abstract space accentuates its power.

SOCIAL VR

RIGS: MECHANISED COMBAT LEAGUE

Wayward Sky is one of the most joyfully inventive games in PSVR’s early stable. You play as Bess, a young girl who crash-lands on an exotic continent with her father, who is summarily kidnapped. Dubbed a ‘look and click’ game, the action switches between a tabletop-style perspective, where you point the PS Move controller to direct Bess toward interactive objects, and firstperson mode, where you interact with those objects as the girl. You might direct her to climb a crane, for example, and, once inside the cockpit, use its controls to clear a crate that’s blocking her path. Back in the tabletop perspective, you must time Bess’s movements to avoid being captured by the robots that patrol the world, resulting in a game of hide and seek where the urgency is heightened by your brief spells playing from her perspective.

HEADM ASTER

SUPER HYPER CUBE

Developer/publisher Frame Interactive

Developer/publisher SCE

Developer Guerrilla Cambridge Publisher SCE

Ben Throop’s football-themed game is unusual in that it’s one of the few PSVR launch titles that doesn’t require a controller. Instead, it’s entirely controlled with your head: you attempt to angle balls launched from cannons into an array of different goals. But this is more than a mere sports minigame. Your quest is set within the prison-like Football Improvement Center, where failing professional football players are sent for remedial training (despite being an American game, Throop has opted to refer to the sport as football, rather than soccer, a distinction that’s referred to throughout the script). In this way you header your way through increasingly farcical situations to earn your freedom. At first, your targets are empty goals. Later, these progress into goals that are guarded by cardboard keepers and, eventually, piñata. You’re awarded up to three stars for each round while the warden issues wounding jibes.

Sony’s Social VR demo is one of PSVR’s most inventive launch apps. Set on an island, players can work and play together in the virtual space, trampolining, dancing in a disco, hurling snowballs at one another on top of a mountain, and even using space hoppers to bounce hundreds of metres in the sky. Through tracking your head and hand movements, a surprising amount of your personal character is conveyed in each avatar; it’s possible to recognise people from their movements alone. Talk using the PSVR mic and the avatar’s mouth flaps open and shut according to the amplitude of your voice. Using button combinations on the Move controllers, you can issue a thumbs-up or thumbsdown gesture, which also affects how your avatar’s face smiles or frowns. The dev team has plans to allow players to design their own avatars, which could work as an online project, no doubt complete with more intimate griefing than we’re used to.

Rocket League’s influence is both clear and welcome: Guerrilla Cambridge’s RIGS: Mechanised Combat League combines mecha with basketball, as players hurl themselves bodily through an oversized hoop in the centre of the field to score points against the other team. This is more than a pure physics game, however, as each member of the three-person teams (you play as either the Dynamos or the Cobras) packs two weapons and a lunging melee attack, all aimed with an elegant look-and-shoot control scheme. Each of the mecha, branded with eSports-y names and garish colours, can switch between three modes – ‘attack’, ‘repair’, and ‘speed’ – adding some nuance to the team play as, for example, two team members cover the third who is recovering their shields. It’s scrappy, knockabout fun, so long as you can move past the hyperactive, faux-American-sports aesthetic.

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C O L L E C T E D W O R K S WA R R E N S P E C T O R

W ULTIMA VI: THE FALSE PROPHET Developer/publisher Origin Systems Format PC, SNES Release 1990

WING COMMANDER

Developer/publisher Origin Systems Format PC, Amiga, Mega CD, SNES, PlayStation Release 1990

SYSTEM SHOCK

Developer Looking Glass Technologies Publisher Origin Systems Format PC, Mac Release 1994

DEUS EX

Developer Ion Storm Publisher Eidos Interactive Format PC, Mac, PS2 Release 2000

THIEF: DEADLY SHADOWS

Developer Ion Storm Publisher Eidos Interactive Format PC, Xbox Release 2004

DEUS EX: INVISIBLE WAR

Developer Ion Storm Publisher Eidos Interactive Format PC, Xbox Release 2003

EPIC MICKEY

Developer Junction Point Studios Publisher Disney Interactive Studios Format Wii Release 2010

The 60-year-old director on a life spent redefining videogames, from D&D to Deus Ex to Disney BY SIMON PARKIN

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COLLECTED WORKS

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t the age of 13, Warren Spector decided he wanted to be a film critic. It was a dream he pursued with diligence; in 1980 he earned his MA in Radio-TV-Film at the University Of Texas, producing a critical history of Warner Bros cartoons as his thesis. In 1983 Spector, a fan of tabletop RPGs, received a call from a friend with whom he’d played Dungeons & Dragons, alerting him to an editorial position at the RPG designer Steve Jackson’s company. This set Spector on a different path, first creating tabletop RPG rulesets, then working with Richard Garriott on the Ultima series of computer RPGs. At Looking Glass Games, Spector helped pioneer so-called immersive simulation games with his involvement in System Shock, Thief and Deus Ex. Then, almost 30 years after joining Jackson’s company, Spector had the opportunity to work with Disney on a loving tribute to the company’s mascot, Mickey Mouse. Now director of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at the university at which he earned his MA, Spector is poised to return to game development with a forthcoming revival of System Shock. Here, he describes his journey, and the games that have defined his life’s work to date.

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ULTIMA VI: THE FALSE PROPHET Developer/publisher Origin Systems Format PC, SNES Release 1990

I was hired at Steve Jackson Games as a rules developer. I’d take the work of a designer and turn it from a bunch of notes

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The False Prophet was the final part of Ultima’s ‘Age Of Enlightenment’ trilogy, and a half-forgotten classic

into a playable game. At the same time, I was editing Space Gamer magazine for the company. I’d been doing design as an amateur for years before that. Most Dungeons & Dragons players at some point graduate to becoming dungeon masters and running their own games, and, once you’ve done that, you graduate to coming up with your own ruleset and fiction. I’m sure that’s why Jackson hired me. I was always into design, and knew that was where I wanted to be. I interviewed at Jackson’s house and had a great time taking to him. Next thing I knew, I had a job as a professional game developer. I went from Steve Jackson games to TSR, the company that made D&D, and while there I would occasionally attend game conventions. At one convention I was on a panel with Richard Garriott. I listened to him talk about the computer game he was making, enthralled. I was playing digital games pretty obsessively by that point – Ultima IV and the Wizardry games in particular. There was a day – it sounds like fiction, but it’s true – we were working on a new game system and I had a 20-sided dice in one hand and a percentile dice in the other hand, and I was trying to decide which one to use and I had a realisation that, if that was the biggest decision I had to make, I needed to find a new career. That dissatisfaction, combined with the idea that Richard was making games that captured the essence of shared authorship between player and designer in digital games, made me want to work with him specifically, because his games made me feel like I was playing D&D. One day, out of the blue, I got a call from someone I’d worked with at Jackson. He told me that Origin, Garriott’s company, was looking for an assistant producer and asked me whether or not I was interested in applying. That started off the interview process. I got lucky. The interviews went well. I had a nine-hour interview with Dallas Snell. The next day, I interviewed with Richard himself and Chris Roberts. They offered me the job! I’d made the leap from tables to computers. I was a fan, I guess, and when I arrived it met my expectations entirely. It sounds Pollyanna-ish, but Origin was special. I


was the 26th employee. We were small and there was a real attitude that we were going to change the world. It was competitive, exciting. It was a young medium and everyone was making things up. But we weren’t going to make little games. Our motto was grand: ‘We create worlds’. My first project was Ultima VI. I worked with Richard extensively on the game. He was an amazingly creative guy, but this was the first project on which he was working with a reasonably sized team. I was a pretty good people/project manager by that point, so I handled a lot of the team coordination stuff as well as some design. We spent a number of weeks working together on the basic design; it was like my graduate school education during those weeks. I learned so much. I got to Origin and had already been working on tabletop games for six years. I thought I’d teach them a thing or two. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I knew almost nothing. The biggest difference between digital and tabletop games – and it’s still true today – is that digital games are a literal medium. In a tabletop game, if a player does something unexpected there’s a human DM who can adapt to the player’s behaviour. If you leave out a critical combat table from a ruleset, a DM can just make up their own table. In a digital game, if the designer doesn’t plan for every eventuality, the game just stops. The need for precision and perfection was probably the major thing I learned in those early days, on Ultima VI.

the number of branches in each mission; what the cover art should look like; even the title! It was all in the service of making something special. We didn’t hate each other, and I still talk to the guy today. I think the game became pretty spectacular, but argument was a big part of it. We were at a CES show, pre-E3. It was the year we were showing Ultima VI and Wing Commander. LucasArts was doing a lot of combat flight sim stuff and I saw a member of their team walk past our screen and shrug his shoulders. An hour later, there were three Lucas guys there. An hour after that, there was 20 of them, looking at what we’d made. Chris argued for a more compelling presentation. He made Origin rent a movie theatre sound system, and we cranked the volume up on that thing. The game area of CES was really quiet. We were like this punk operation, playing our sound so loud. Everyone around us complained and the organisers kept coming over and telling us to turn it down. We would turn it down and as soon as they left we’d turn it back up. The following day, every booth had hired a sound system. You can probably blame us for the volume of today’s E3.

C Despite your character looking like a motorcycle courier, Wing Commander was a hit, spawning a hefty franchise

“ W E P L AY E D

OUR SOUND SO

LOUD. YOU CAN

SYSTEM SHOCK

Developer Looking Glass Technologies Publisher Origin Systems Format PC, Mac Release 1994

PROBABLY BLAME US FOR E3’S

V O L U M E T O D AY ”

WING COMMANDER

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Developer/publisher Origin Systems Format PC, Amiga, Sega CD, SNES, PS Release 1990

My role on Wing Commander was basically to keep Chris Roberts from going mad. Chris knew what he wanted to do, but we would have ten arguments a day. I said to myself, ‘If I win three of these, I’m doing my job’. He was uncompromising in his need to build something very specific. We clashed on everything. We argued about the number of missile types there should be. Chris wanted ten. I said three. We argued about budget, about how many missions there should be in the game;

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System Shock is often remembered now for inspiring BioShock, but the reboot will change that

At that CES show Paul Neurath, who founded Looking Glass Studios, came by and showed a demo of the very first realtime firstperson textured 3D game. I remember looking at it, and I think people didn’t want to show how impressed they were or something, but I looked at that and thought: the world has just changed. Ultimately I got to produce that game, which was known as Ultima Underworld, and work with the Blue Sky team that made it. One member of that team was Doug Church. We’ve worked on many games together. He makes me better. We were in my office one day, talking about how sick we were of making fantasy games. We decided to make a sci-fi game. We started talking about how pathetic conversation systems are in roleplaying games. We thought, ‘Why not just kill

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blew the dust off and started working on Deus Ex. At that point I had left Looking Glass and founded a startup. I had a deal to make a Command & Conquer RPG, and the deal was almost done. It was going to be what Deus Ex became, frankly. Before I could sign the contract, John Romero from Ion Storm called me up and told me he wanted me to sign with him and make the game of my dreams. He said there’d be no creative interference, and that I’d have the largest budget ever. I told him it was too late. He said, “Let me drive down from Dallas to Austin and change your mind.” He did, and he convinced me. I mean, how do you say no to all of that? He was as good as his word. No one interfered. Well, Ion Storm was funded by Eidos and the only hint of creative interference I ever had was Eidos executives asking me: “What percentage of your audience will play the stealth style in Deus Ex?” I made it up and said, “Maybe 30 per cent – the rest will play it like a shooter”. They suggested I drop the stealth stuff and make a straight shooter, but I said no, and they backed off. John Romero lived up to every promise he made.

everybody off?’ So we set the game in an abandoned spaceship to save hassle. Even today I’d argue that we’ve made no progress in terms of NPC interactions. It’s an incredibly difficult problem to solve but we have made literally no progress since 1989. Anyway, that’s how System Shock started. I think we knew the game was unique, but I don’t think anybody knew it was special per se. We called the game an ‘immersive simulation’ to differentiate it from other types of games. I was talking to Doug the other night and he described it as making open-world simdriven games in corridors. We weren’t making traditional roleplaying games or shooters. We knew we were doing something unique, but I don’t think any of us thought people would be talking about those games 20 years later.

DEUS EX

Developer Ion Storm Publisher Eidos Interactive Format PC, Mac, PS2 Release 2000

I remember that we’d have conversations at that time, asking, ‘Why isn’t everybody making games like this?’ Not to humblebrag here, but Thief came along and that was clearly the next logical step. I was inspired by that to make Deus Ex. I get way too much credit for Thief. That game took about three years to create and I was there for the middle year. It was a critical year and I was there at the right time, but I was playing a build and got to a point in the game where I couldn’t advance. There was an encounter that was just too difficult, so I sat down with the team and told them to make it easier for me to fight when I couldn’t sneak. They rejected my idea. If we made the combat too strong, nobody would bother sneaking, because combat is always the easier option. That was the moment when I said, “That’s probably the right decision for Thief, but I’m going to show these guys that you can fight, sneak or talk your way past any problem.” That’s where Deus Ex came from. When I was working at EA, I put together a pitch for a game called Troubleshooter. You’re Jake Shooter, ex-CIA: the guy they call in when they have a problem nobody else can solve. I got nowhere with the idea, so I shelved it. It was only years later that I pulled it out,

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Would Assassin’s Creed have proved such a hit had it not followed in the careful footsteps of Thief?

“ E V E N T O D AY

THIEF: DEADLY SHADOWS

I’D ARGUE THAT WE’VE MADE NO

Developer Ion Storm Publisher Eidos Interactive Format PC, Xbox Release 2004

DEUS EX: INVISIBLE WAR

PROGRESS IN TERMS OF NPC

Developer Ion Storm Publisher Eidos Interactive Format PC, Xbox Release 2003

INTERACTIONS”

Deus Ex sat atop many ‘best PC games ever’ lists for a good while after its release in 2000



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After Deus Ex, Ion Storm Dallas went away. Ion Storm Austin continued as an Eidos studio. We started work on Invisible War. An Eidos exec called me and said they wanted to make a Thief game, so I grew two teams – one led by Harvey Smith, which was the chance for him to step up from lead designer to game director – and then I went out and hired as many original Thief team members as I could. Then I took Randy Smith and asked him to be director on Deadly Shadows. I took a step back from game direction on those two projects to run the studio. The key to success, I think, is to always hire people who are better and smarter than you. I’ve always tried to do that, and I think I’ve been successful in it.


I guess it’s not been too difficult to find people who are better and smarter than me. I knew Randy from Looking Glass – he had been a senior designer on earlier Thief games. He knew the games inside out, and I knew the team would trust his decisions. I knew that I could work with him to ensure the game would be all that it could be. With Harvey it was a different situation. Harvey was a tester on System Shock. I loved hanging out with the QA guys. A lot of people look down on testers in the business, but not me. They’re the people who keep you from looking like an idiot. There would be days at two or three in the morning when Harvey and I were the only ones there, and we’d speak for hours about design philosophy. I got to know his design sensibility. I knew he bought into the same things that I did. I stole him from QA and realised we weren’t taking full advantage of his creative talents. We built a small team and worked on a game idea that he had. It didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. But when Deus Ex: Invisible War came around I knew that Harvey would be the ideal lead designer to run the project.

I got a deal to make Sleeping Giants, which fell through. That pattern repeated three times. To keep the studio going, Valve stepped in and gave us some concept work. We spent a year doing that and I got some concept development work from Disney, to work on what became the Epic Mickey game. While we were working on [Valve projects], Disney said that they wanted us to make Epic Mickey. They loved the concept work but they said, “The only way you can make this game is if we acquire your studio.” I wasn’t ready to give up my independence yet. We hadn’t built anything yet. They made me an offer and I rejected it. The guy couldn’t believe I’d said no. Another year passed and we were still working on the Valve stuff, so we kept going. Then Disney called again and made a better deal. I went back to my team and told them the news that we weren’t making Deus Ex but were making a Mickey Mouse game. We lost a few people as a result of that. The ones who remained were Disney fans, or became Disney fans. I probably shouldn’t say this, but working for Disney was both the best professional experience I had and the worst professional experience I ever had. There’s a lot of bureaucracy, and I don’t think anyone at Disney at that time had a clear direction. They didn’t know if they wanted to compete in blockbuster games or mobile games or online. The lack of clear strategy made it hard to do a game like Epic Mickey. I spent a lot of time on the phone, and on planes, playing defence, doing what I need to do. But I’m so proud of what we did. The first Epic Mickey game is probably the one of which I’m most proud, alongside Deus Ex. It sold way better than anything else I ever worked on. I also got more heartfelt fan mail from that game than anything I ever worked on. The letters were so moving. Someone sent me a picture that her autistic daughter had drawn of the game. The woman said that the child didn’t interact with the world, but had found a way to express herself through the game. She’d come out of her shell and drawn this picture and insisted that her mother send it to me. A kid with cerebral palsy asked his dad if he could use the game as his physical therapy after a round of surgery. Games don’t touch people like that. Epic Mickey did. Q

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EPIC MICKEY

Developer Junction Point Studios Publisher Disney Interactive Studios Format Wii Release 2010

I left Ion Storm after about seven years. While they’re better games than people give them credit for, Invisible War and Deadly Shadows didn’t perform as well as people had hoped. I was looking for a different challenge. I’d built a team I trusted, and there were key people at Ion Storm I knew would keep it going if I left. I needed a change from the big studio, so I started Junction Point in 2004. I had a grand plan to do digitally distributed content in collaboration with people in Hollywood. The short version was that I was ready to do a fantasy game again. My wife is a writer. She writes with George RR Martin. We’d created a fantasy world. I worked up a concept based on that called Sleeping Giants and another title called Necessary Evil, which was a basically Deus Ex with the serial numbers filed off and what I thought was a more relevant fiction, away from conspiracy theory.

By no means an all-round success, Epic Mickey still stands out as a game that shows genuine affection for its subject matter

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T H E M A K I N G O F. . .

T H E S W I N D L E The steampunk caper that proved crime can pay BY CHRIS SCHILLING Format PC, PS3, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One Developer Size Five Games Publisher Curve Digital Origin UK Release 2015

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urglary is an inherently high-risk profession. There is a chance you’ll make a clean getaway with all your loot, but if you’re spotted you might be forced to make your escape with only a meagre haul to show for your efforts – or, worse, you might get caught. By its very nature, then, a game about breaking into buildings and stealing as much cash as you can has a roughly equal chance of leaving you fulfilled or frustrated. Well before The Swindle’s release, Dan Marshall was well aware it wouldn’t be a game for everyone. “Oh, I knew some people would hate it,” he tells us, “I could see that immediately. And that’s perfectly fine, because it is so difficult and unforgiving. So some people love it and some hate it. That’s videogame development, isn’t it?” He laughs. “Show me a game everyone loves universally.” The Swindle began development after Marshall had finished Privates, a sex education game for Channel 4. He had a completely blank slate, but his mind kept returning to an idea he’d had around two decades earlier. As a teenager, he’d made a prototype – “a cyberpunk game about a bloke in a long, flappy trenchcoat breaking into buildings” – and now he began to envision that with a slightly different theme. Cyberpunk quickly became steampunk, and Marshall started to experiment with what he self-deprecatingly calls “a silly revamp of a teenager’s stupid idea.” As with most games, the embryonic version of The Swindle was very different to the finished title. Indeed, Marshall kept encountering design and technological roadblocks: having spent some time working in XNA, he attended the Develop conference, only to be told categorically that XNA was dead, and that it wouldn’t be supported by Windows 8. “I’m not entirely sure if it turned out to be true,” Marshall says, “but it basically felt like the game was on thin ice from the start.” Marshall moved the game over to the Unity engine and began to refresh it. It was, at heart, the same game, but a little more polished in its new form, with Unity’s immediacy allowing him to quickly get back up to speed. At the time, the levels were hand-crafted, expansive environments designed to offer a number of different points of entry, and to cater to a range of approaches. “The idea was that there would be eight or so buildings that you would keep on breaking into in different ways,

Many original art concepts went unused, but were useful for capturing what Marshall calls “a wacky steampunk London”

and finding different areas of them each time,” Marshall says. These sprawling stages were essentially guarded by an AI director who would respond to your actions on the following attempt. “Let’s say you broke in, and you did something stupid like laying a bomb at the front door,” he continues. “So you blasted your way in and stole what you could and then ran out again. The AI

MARSHALL STARTED TO EXPERIMENT WITH WHAT HE CALLS ‘A SILLY REVAMP OF A TEENAGER’S STUPID IDEA’ director would think, ‘OK, there’s a vulnerability’, and would install security cameras and put guards on the door and bolster [security] with blast-proof doors and stuff like that. And when you went back, you’d see that and maybe go through the sewers and up through the service elevator instead.” It sounds like a great idea. In practice, Marshall was unable to make it gel into a satisfying mechanic. The results were the same each time: upon facing extra obstacles, players would invariably give up on trying that entry point and simply find another path, making the AI director all but redundant. “I was constantly shifting it around and trying to make it work, and it just never really clicked,” Marshall admits. He knew it was time to step back, and essentially cancelled the project. He made the most of his free time, developing co-op shooter Gun Monkeys in four months to clear his head.

It was here that Marshall began to play around with procedural generation, a technique he’d considered during the The Swindle’s formative stages of development but dismissed once he realised it meant he would have had to scrap six months’ work and start again. “But by this point there was nothing to lose,” he laughs. “I put together a very simple building generator and thought I’d give myself a week to make a fun prototype. And it immediately worked. I mean, it looked awful – it was just rectangles hitting rectangles with rectangles, and made absolutely no sense visually. But it was fun to navigate the environments and run around the buildings stealing stuff.”

With the decision made to use procedural generation to build the stages, The Swindle had finally started to take shape. This did, however, result in some tough choices for Marshall, including the excision of the game’s narrative. Marshall had imagined a storytelling device he likens to Half-Life 2: just as Dr Wallace Breen delivers exposition via TV screens, so The Swindle’s antagonist would sporadically appear to chide and belittle the player. But it was now an arcade-style game, and the plot was starting to get in the way of the fun. In the finished title, you quickly mash a button or key to start a new heist; back then, Marshall says, players would do the same to skip the story. “It was infuriating,” he says. “It wasn’t a game about stopping and watching plot unfurl, it was a game about telling your own story in some small way. The stories I could write about your heists were never as good as the stories you were telling yourself about what was going on and why.” In the end, it was a cathartic process for Marshall to get rid of it all. “Just think how much writing and voiceover and bug testing and stuff that completely saves!” he laughs. “From a practical point of view as an independent developer, it was a lovely decision to make, because I could suddenly put a big red cross down a colossal column of things that needed doing. It was actually a relief that it worked better as instant gratification, a telling-your-ownstory kind of thing.” Marshall based the building tech on a topdown Roguelike dungeon generator, which would carve out rooms and use corridors to connect them, the key difference being that they would be viewed from the side rather than 93


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above. It was so successful in its execution that game designer and computational creativity researcher Michael Cook invited him to speak at a conference about procedural generation. Marshall had to turn the offer down. “I couldn’t stand in front of a load of people and teach them to suck eggs,” he says. “I was still making it up as I went along and I didn’t really have any grandiose things to say about it. I’d just read an awful lot about an awful lot and done my best.” If The Swindle’s random elements made it more unpredictable and surprising, it also led to problems Marshall hadn’t foreseen, some of which he says made a few people “quite angry”. By removing any kind of guidance, the early game encouraged players to experiment with the systems; this became a tutorial after a fashion, generating rooms players couldn’t access without bombs. “So you need to blow through that wall to get to that computer,” he says. “That was my way of doing a tutorial; a more interesting tutorial. I mean, I could bring up a little text box to explain that you can destroy walls with bombs if you’d bought them. But isn’t that much less interesting than having the player work that out themselves?” And yet some players, aware of the game’s procedural element, would simply assume it was broken because it had generated a computer in a room they couldn’t reach. Marshall spent some time wondering whether or not he should address this, eventually concluding that it would harm the game to do so. “One of the ace things about making games is that you can take risks like that. Most people are probably just going to ignore it and not even realise it was [an issue]. But I sat there and sweated and sweated over it, because people were leaving negative reviews about how bad it was, just over this one thing.” He laughs, paraphrasing a representative Steam user’s appraisal: “‘I really enjoyed this game and played it for 45 hours, but it generated a building once where I couldn’t get to a computer’.”

This was, perhaps, a corollary of the intense pressure the game puts you under from the off. With a time limit of 100 in-game days hanging over them, some players resented feeling as if they’d wasted any of that time. It was, Marshall says, intended to evoke a similar sensation to a first, failed attempt at XCOM, with countries having pulled out of the council and your squad overrun by aliens. “The Swindle is not a massive 94

Q&A

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Dan Marshall

Founder, Size Five Games

Does the procedural tech ever throw up unfortunate scenarios where players really can’t reach something? In the early days, right at the start of the game you could get yourself trapped. It was generating levels where you could drop down into a room, but until you got the double-jump boots you couldn’t get out again. I took it out, and it immediately killed a really exciting sensation when you’re playing it. Because you’re basically naked in those first levels. You’ve got no special tools, and there’s something really nice about studying your environment and making sure before you get into a room that you can definitely get out of it. You’re supposed to be a thief and be intelligent about the way you approach things. In the end, I left it, and put in a little tutorial box that says, ‘Look, you can get yourself into a position you can’t get out of, so be careful’.

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Are you a big fan of procedural generation? Well, the games I’m starting to enjoy more and more these days tend to be procedurally generated. I think there’s something exciting about not playing the same game every time. Put it this way: I’d rather play Sonic The Hedgehog with a randomly generated Green Hill Zone than play the same old level. Do you find it an easier approach? I don’t think it’s easier, it’s just different. When you’re doing something that’s procedurally generated, you think, ‘Oh, it’d be so much easier if I was hand-crafting everything’, and when you’re doing hand-crafted stuff, you think, ‘Hmm, it feels a bit flat’. I think we’ll look back on procedural generation and realise what a turning point in videogame development it was. It’s something that books and TV and movies can’t do, something that can really define videogames even more as a standout medium.

game, it’s not a huge burden to restart it,” he begins. “Like when you restarted XCOM and you blitzed through those first few levels, because you suddenly understood flanking and you understood how to use grenades and all this sort of stuff. It was supposed to be that kind of thing.” He’s right to insist that the 100-day limit is vital – and, more importantly, that it’s actually rather generous. One player on the Steam forums has recorded a completion time of 13 in-game days. Additionally, you can purchase an upgrade that

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1 The first iteration had a daynight cycle, allowing players to time their heist when guards were most bleary-eyed or would least suspect a break-in. “They ended up having so many different icons above their head for ‘I am tired’ or ‘my shift is about to end’ that it just didn’t work,” Marshall says. 2 Initial environment concepts were more complex but didn’t fit with the level generation tech. “I’d have loved to have done more stuff like this,” Marshall admits. “Ehh,” he frowns. “Sequel!” 3 A glimpse of Marshall’s first Unity prototype upon first resuming game development. 4 Seasoned London-based artist Catherine Unger contributed most of these early designs. 5 More of Unger’s designs for balloons, lifts and cameras. “The bendy camera type – is that the technical term? – with the accordion-like design was one of the first pieces of art that I really hooked into,” Marshall says. “That sums up the entire concept of the game. It’s modern technology with a very old-fashioned feel”

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allows you to hack into Scotland Yard and buy more time. The countdown is simply there to stop players from cutting and running at the first sign of trouble; otherwise, there’s nothing to prevent you from stealing the first bag of loot you find and scarpering. This way, failure really means something, and as the deadline nears, there’s an even stronger disincentive to cowardice. Not that players didn’t try to convince Marshall to relent: he received numerous requests to add an endless mode, but without the time pressure, the game lost one of its biggest hooks. “So much of The Swindle is standing on a ledge, looking at too many bots below you, but knowing that you need to [jump down] to hack the computer to get the next upgrade, because you’re already running low on days,” Marshall says. “It’s such an overarching thing that [the thought of] taking it out was awful. I couldn’t do that to the game.”

Marshall is happy to admit that The Swindle is a demanding game, but that, he says, is the secret of its success. “When I first started making it, everyone was talking about how difficult Dark Souls was, and then Hotline Miami came along about the same time. That’s what spurred me on to [realising] this game would be better if it was really unforgiving. That’s why there’s no safety net.” The addition of one-hit kills were another turning point, and a response to the popularity of more challenging games: prior to that, there was a regenerating health system. “It just upped the tension even more,” Marshall says. “I mean, there’s tension in every aspect – the 100-day limit, the health, the security cameras, the police turning up. It just worked so much better that way.” After The Swindle was released, there was one further complication: the controls. A small handful of complaints had Marshall doubting himself, as he wondered how he might fix a problem of which he’d not previously been aware. After all, he’d taken the game to PAX East and watched attendees play it for four days straight, without once seeing anyone struggle. Distribution service GOG.com soon put his mind at ease. “They sent me an email, saying, ‘Dan, the controls are fine. No one brought it up.’ Because they have this filtering process, and no one mentioned the controls at all.” Marshall was still concerned enough about a potential technical issue that he began to solicit data from these players, only to discover that it was really a matter of assumptions being

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GRIME SCENE The Swindle’s distinctive aesthetic is grungy and somehow wonderfully British – despite its art assets being delivered by a Canadian. “When I first started making the game, Michael Firman sent me some concept art of these two little steampunk characters,” Marshall tells us. “And when I eventually brought it back, that really stuck in my mind and I thought I should see if he fancied doing art for it.” Firman hadn’t produced art for a videogame before, but Marshall loved his expressive approach enough to offer him the job. His style had to be tempered somewhat to make it work in a game, not least since the procedural tech meant everything had to be built within squares. After some back and forth, the two managed to make it work. “The art is all Michael, and his style led everything so beautifully,” Marshall explains. “He would send me a character in parts, and I was the one that built it all up and animated it, and added all the post-processing effects: the dirty grime, the colours and the scaling. “I don’t know why it looks British,” he continues, “but you’re right, it does. I guess because Michael’s Canadian, and he knew it was set in London, so perhaps sometimes he was drawing stuff that was a half-remembered image of what Britain looks like. So maybe the reason it feels that way is because it’s a Canadian doing a caricature of Britain and then being filtered through my very British eyes.”

challenged. “Basically, people were expecting it to be a stealth game,” he says. But it’s an arcade game; it’s got quite old-school controls. Perhaps they were expecting something like Mark Of The Ninja’s controls instead of the BBC and Mega Drive platformers I had in mind when I was making it. Do I put up a big splash screen at the start that says ‘The Swindle is not a stealth game – adjust your expectations accordingly’? I haven’t got the luxury of endlessly tinkering with it. Eventually, you have to [concede] that, OK, you’re just going to have to not like it.” Fortunately for Marshall, plenty did. It’s happening less and less, he says, but in the weeks after launch, he would receive tweets on a daily basis from people who had screengrabbed their scorecard upon completion. The reward, it seems, was well worth the risk. “People are so overjoyed at having completed The Swindle that they feel the need to tell me. That’s amazing, right? I’d much rather some people say, ‘This is awful’, and then have people at the polar opposite utterly loving it than make something safe that everyone thinks is all right.” Q

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1 Some ideas were just too ambitious – Marshall had neither the time nor the art budget to realise everything he wanted. 2 Artists Tom Boot and Sophie Humphries worked on the UI, and contributed this early concept for the game’s airship hub. 3 “In the final game, the thieves all wear the same uniform. Earlier, they had various clothes and hats. One of the things Michael sent was this purple Victorian dress. It looked ace, but it didn’t really make any sense that you had a ‘duchess’ running around stealing money.” 4 M Michael Firman submitted these dessigns as fan art. Marshall: “He sent them after I’d mentally pretty much can ncelled the game. Once I had the Unity pro ototype running, I contacted him off the t e back of these. I didn’t even entertain the idea of anyone else doing it”

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STUDIO PROFILE

SUMO DIGITAL How the Pinewood Studios of videogames carved itself a wider niche BY CHRIS SCHILLING

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here’s rarely a dull moment at Sumo Digital, but the Sheffield-based developer is perhaps busier now than it’s ever been. Having recently appointed Ian Livingstone CBE as its non-executive chairman, it’s in the process of opening a new studio in Nottingham. It’s planning to hire 50 additional staff for the new venture, as well as an additional 50 for its remote office in Pune, India. There is, too, the small matter of developing Crackdown 3; running an internal game jam; producing downloadable content and post-launch support for LittleBigPlanet 3; and continuing its work with the Disney Infinity series. And there’s more. Upon our arrival, we learn, with Yager having been relieved of its duties, that Sumo will now be making Dead Island 2. It’s a studio in exceptional health and determined to prove its agility: in the circumstances, you wonder whether Sumo is really the right name any more. The company’s founders may have plenty to occupy them, but there’s something else they’re particularly determined to address. The general public impression of Sumo is that it’s primarily a racing-game studio. The likes of LittleBigPlanet may have done something to shift that perception in recent years, but it’s keen to no longer be pigeonholed as such. “Lots of people in the studio love making racing games,” co-founder and COO Paul Porter tells us, “but lots of people hate making them, and like making firstperson shooters or thirdperson shooters or platformers. So it was an objective of ours to be more diverse in the types of work that we did.”

A more undesirable perception is that Sumo is a work-for-hire studio, which dramatically undersells its involvement with well-known publishers and recognisable series. Creative director Sean Millard shakes his head: “It’s a terrible [tag],” he says. “Work for hire suggests that we’re given work based on a specification,” CEO and co-founder Carl Cavers adds. “We don’t get given a specification. We get handed a brand. We define what that world is going to be going forward and then agree that with the client. And then we own that, and the client represents it. And that’s why, when we talk about the organisations we work with, we talk in terms of being a partnership. It’s not ‘them and us’ – we get each other through that process.” Sumo takes its responsibilities to the publishers it works with very seriously indeed. It’s partly why it has earned such a strong reputation within the industry. Having worked at Gremlin Interactive

Founded 2003 Employees 280 Key staff Carl Cavers (co-founder/CEO), Sean Millard (creative director), Darren Mills (co-founder/studio director), Paul Porter (co-founder/COO) URL www.sumo-digital.com Selected softography OutRun 2, Virtua Tennis 3, Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, LittleBigPlanet 3, Disney Infinity 3.0 Current projects Crackdown 3, Dead Island 2, LittleBigPlanet 3 DLC, Snake Simulator

FROM LEFT Co-founders Carl Cavers, Paul Porter and Darren Mills all previously worked together at Gremlin Interactive

a round peg and a round hole, and Sumo was quickly brought on board to refine the driving element of the third game in the series. Such was the increase in quality that Toy Box Speedway was developed into its own subgame and released as premium DLC. If that deal was a no-brainer, the same can’t be said for Sumo’s involvement with Dead Island 2. In July of last year, publisher Deep Silver revealed that Spec Ops: The Line developer Yager would no longer be developing the game, with Yager citing creative differences for the split.

and then Infogrames Sheffield, Sumo’s directors were naturally accustomed to dealing with large organisations, and that experience has served them well ever since. “We offered something different in terms of our service than what [publishers] were used to,” Cavers explains. “I think that’s because we very much understood and were aligned with what they were trying to achieve. At the time, there was a barrier between development and publishing and [some] developers didn’t value publishing at all. We came into it and said we really understand

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publishing – we know how difficult it is.” Since then it has worked with many of the biggest names in the business: Sega, Microsoft, Sony, Activision, Electronic Arts, Konami, Disney and the BBC. “Ian Livingstone said the other day that essentially we’re the Pinewood Studios of videogames,” Cavers says. “We’re the go-to studio for getting triple-A videogames done.” Which isn’t to say that it’s always the publisher doing the chasing. Sumo’s involvement with Disney Infinity, for example, came about thanks to a fortuitous meeting between Disney Interactive’s VP of production John Vignocchi and Millard at GDC. “He kind of cornered me and I kind of cornered him,” Millard laughs. “I was buzzing about Disney Infinity and wanted to talk to him as a bit of a fanboy, really. But it turned out he wanted to talk to us as a bit of a fanboy of all our work with Sega, especially the racing stuff.” The subsequent conversation became rather animated: Millard was critical of the original game’s driving model, and Vignocchi expressed his desire to improve it. Here was

DONE”

Dr Klemens Kundratitz, CEO of the publisher’s parent company Koch Media, invited Cavers and Porter to a conference call to discuss the project. Within a week, several key staff from Sumo had flown out to Germany to meet Koch, and outlined what they would do with the game should they be given the job of resurrecting it. “We were so much on the same page with what their ambitions were creatively that we all gelled around that table,” Millard recalls. “It was a brilliant meeting. We all got really excited by each other and started talking about the cornerstones of the game that we wanted to [implement], not only to differentiate it from the competition but to push the franchise forward.” Though that initial conversation was productive, Sumo realised it still had something to prove. “And rightly so, I think,” Cavers adds. “They had to know that we were the right partner for that game. It wasn’t a case of, ‘Oh, Sumo are a safe pair of hands – we know they can do it.’ It was, ‘We need to knock this game out of the park.’” After a long and drawn-out process,

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STUDIO PROFILE

LEFT Crackdown 3 is Sumo’s biggest ongoing project, with approximately 90 staff currently working on the game alongside Reagent Games. ABOVE There’s an international approach at Sumo HQ, not least because nowadays the company has a satellite studio based in India

Sumo got the job, with Koch admitting that the studio’s evident enthusiasm was one of the reasons that made its offer so attractive. “We wanted it badly enough to fly out to Germany and basically demand a meeting about it,” Millard says, “and that resonated with them, and has continued to do so throughout the last six months. We’ve instilled that confidence in them, and that’s great, because to me that’s Sumo [in a nutshell]. If we want something enough we’ll go out and get it, and we’ll ram everything out of the way to achieve that.”

As much as Sumo wanted to impress Koch and Deep Silver, Dead Island 2 represents a landmark opportunity for the studio to prove to itself and to a wider audience that it’s more than capable of diversifying. “I’ve been in every [business development] meeting we’ve ever had, trying to push us out of this corner of driving games that we’d painted ourselves into,” Millard says. “So when we get an opportunity like this, I’m all over it. Along with Crackdown 3, it’s defining the fact we can do anything. I think it’s going to be looked at as a really important moment.” Indeed, it says much for Sumo’s selfconfidence that it isn’t merely thinking of this as a one-off. “We didn’t look at this as just needing work,” Cavers explains. “We didn’t need work! But we wanted the project. We really, really want to work on this game, and we want to become the developer for this game going forward. That’s the approach we’ve taken.” We suggest that perhaps Sumo’s reputation within the industry isn’t reflected by its status in the eyes of the wider gaming audience. “It’s a very valid observation,” Cavers admits. “Essentially we’ve been a business-to-business organisation, and we’re in the process of migrating, to some extent, towards business-to-consumer.” Not that fans aren’t already keen to communicate more

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directly: Sega fans will badger Sumo to make another Sonic racing game or another OutRun, believing it has the power to make that happen. “It’s very flattering,” Cavers says. Indeed, studio director and co-founder Darren Mills is keen to highlight the studio’s active efforts to increase awareness of its brand, ensuring it becomes known for everything it’s good at, not just as a specialist in a single genre. “Since we went independent last year, we’ve rebranded and we’ve got a new website,” he explains. “We’ve finally got rid of that 12-yearold horrible corporate site and got something that people want to look at and tells people who we are and what we do. It’s up to date, we tweet,

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interesting is the people who’ve been delivering these ideas aren’t necessarily the people you’d expect,” Millard tells us. “Like someone who’s usually really quiet on a team, and they’re delivering these brilliant ideas, so you think, ‘Shit, why didn’t you speak up earlier?’ And it’s good to know – whether or not the games go forward, you start understanding a little bit more about what makes all these people tick creatively.” It’s just one of a number of steps Sumo is taking to broaden its horizons, the new Nottingham studio being a case in point. With its Sheffield base predominantly concerned with those ongoing collaborations with big publishers, this represents an opportunity to branch out and

V E R S AT I L I T Y. DRIVING

SOMETHING

we go on Facebook, and we do all that sort of stuff that historically we’ve been terrified to do.” Or that it hasn’t had time to. Sumo had been considering an internal game jam for some time, but Millard admits it was reticent to go ahead with the idea until it found the time and resources to do it right, citing its “belt-and-braces” approach to new initiatives. But that changed after a conversation with Ian Livingstone, who convinced Sumo simply to do it. The results were a revelation: the winning entry, a physics-puzzler with the working name Snake Simulator, was the product of a lone staff member, and will likely see the light of day later this year. It encouraged Sumo to invest more resources in another jam, which took place in late February. This time, entrants were invited to work collaboratively to produce even better results. “What’s been

WE’LL

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try new things without interfering with the core business. “If we tried to do that in Sheffield,” Cavers explains, “there’s a danger of magpie syndrome, where everyone wants to get involved because it’s a new shiny thing.” Nottingham is the ideal location: close enough to manage, distant enough to not become a distraction, and with plenty of industry connections in the area. Again, it stems from Sumo’s desire to escape its niche – though Millard believes that it’s already found another. “I think our niche is our versatility,” he says. “We’ll do a first-class driving game, then we’ll move onto something like LBP3, which is a first-class creative platformer. We’ll go back to things like Forza [Horizon 2] and we’ll leap forward with something like Crackdown 3. That’s what we’ve got that no one else has got. And that’s important.” Q


1

1 Sumo’s strong ties to David Jones from his time as Gremlin’s creative director, and Microsoft’s endorsement for its work on Xbox Fitness and the 360 version of Forza Horizon 2, made it the ideal choice to work on Crackdown 3. 2 LittleBigPlanet 3 was a significant coup for Sumo. 3 Sumo built Disney Infinity 3.0’s Speedway addon, which features nine tracks themed around Disney properties, from Wreck-It Ralph to Big Hero 6. 4 It’s still early days for Snake Simulator, winner of Sumo’s first game-jam challenge.

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3 4

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REVIEWS. PERSPECTIVES. INTERVIEWS. AND SOME NUMBERS STILL PLAYING Street Fighter V PS4 By the time you read this, Capcom will have added some of the features that should’ve been made available at launch. Hopefully it’ll also have found a solution for the ragequit problem, which lets players duck out of a loss with their ranking points and win streaks intact. A month after release, the lingering sense is that SFV will be wonderful when it’s finally finished. Lego Dimensions PS4 It was only a matter of time before Lego moved on the toys-to-life genre, and the results were twofold. Building things and watching them spring to life onscreen is an unremitting delight, but the game itself, adopting the same old jump-and-thwack routine that TT Games has been pumping out a couple of times a year for a decade now, doesn’t feel quite so fresh. You wonder how it may ever deviate from the formula, given its apparently evergreen success. Broforce, PS4 Now that Free Lives’ daft, rousing salute to the action-movie heroes of yesteryear has arrived on PS4, there’s a whole new audience ready to miss the point of its central play mechanic and complain about not being able to simply rinse through the entire game with their favourite character. Of more concern are performance issues: should our shiny Sony hardware really be creaking this much when all it’s being asked to do is push 2D objects around?

Explore the iPad edition of Edge for extra Play content

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REVIEWED THIS ISSUE 104 Dark Souls III PC, PS4, Xbox One

108 Tom Clancy’s The Division PC, PS4, Xbox One

112 Hitman PC, PS4, Xbox One

116 Superhot PC, Xbox One

118 Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 PC, PS4, Xbox One

120 Pokkén Tournament Wii U

122 Devil Daggers PC

123 Moon Hunters PC

www.edge-online.com Up-to-the-minute reviews and previews


Shut up and play the hits There’s a certain tension between the person that creates a game and the one that plays it. Game designers are, like all creatives, restless: in an ideal world they would be prolific, certainly, but would never do the same thing twice. Yet the videogame business has been built on a foundation of incessant sequel-making. We players say we want innovation, but if there’s none to be found we’ll happily take more of the same. As such it’s with some sympathy for Hidetaka Miyazaki that we sit down with Dark Souls III (p104). FromSoftware has released an entire trilogy of games in a shade over four-and-a-half years, and given that it’s also delivered Bloodborne in the same time, you’d understand if the studio had finally run out of steam. The final product suffers a little for its familiarity, though From is far too classy to simply put out a greatest hits compilation. Still, we suspect change is in the air at the Tokyo studio. You can’t keep doing the same thing forever. Elsewhere in this month’s Play lies proof of that aplenty. With Tom Clancy’s The Division (p106), we see evidence of a Ubisoft in the midst of change. After a half-decade of vast, strikingly similar singleplayer open-world games, here’s a multiplayer example that has plenty of new tricks up its sleeve. Pokkén Tournament (p120) sees The Pokémon Company take a break from top-down RPGs and turn out a deep yet accessible fighting game. And the team behind Superhot (p116) simply takes every long-held FPS convention in the book and blasts them to bits. But Hitman (p112) is a return to the fan-favourite, systemsdriven murder simulators on which the series made its name. It’s something players have been clamouring for since Absolution’s misguided blockbuster ambition, and is all the better for it. Sometimes the player really does know best. 103


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Dark Souls III

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here are times, especially early on, when it all feels a little too familiar. From the moment you first set foot in Firelink Shrine, Dark Souls III feels like a work of fan service, and the feeling simply intensifies as you push deeper and deeper into Lothric. Almost everything in the opening third of the game is a contrivance, a reminder of something from another FromSoftware game you already know inside out. The run-up to one particular boss fight has enemies with origins in New Londo Ruins and Hemwick Charnel Lane. It’s the final stretch of an area whose geography and bestiary have variously reminded us of Darkroot Garden, Blighttown and Shaded Woods. And the boss that awaits us at the end of it invokes comparisons with three or four fights from across the Souls lineage. At its worst, Dark Souls III feels like a musician delivering the final album of a long, multi-record deal. OK, you wanted a hit: we don’t really do hits, but here you go. Please can we go off and do something else now? At first it feels like an unavoidable consequence of this series’ staying power. There is, as many have said, nothing quite like a Souls game – but there are quite a few of them now. Here, Hidetaka Miyazaki and team pluck their favourite bits from across the Souls oeuvre and mash them all together for one final outing. Five games in, is the crown finally slipping? For 15 hours or more, you’ll think perhaps it has. You’ll be wrong. There is a point, one a little too long in coming, when you realise that Miyazaki has been playing with you once again; that the early sense of familiarity bordering on weariness was deliberate. Eventually he will show what’s in his hand, and hit you in the head with it. Minutes later, he’ll break your heart with it. If this is to be the final Dark Souls game – and it certainly feels like it could be – it’s a heck of a way to run out a contract. It’s just that Dark Souls III’s majesty takes a little longer to become apparent than we’ve come to expect of FromSoftware. Bloodborne’s sharp stylistic turn made it clear from the off that it was meant to be played in a different way, the horror of its setting and the aggression of its denizens in perfect harmony with the pacy, front-footed design of its combat. Being back in a Dark Souls world – playing as your favourite class, fighting recognisable enemies with familiar gear – means you quickly fall back into old habits. That means you may not engage with the new Weapon Skill system, powered by the new, blue FP meter, for some time. Yet skills sit at the heart of Dark Souls III’s design. To users of hulking Strength weapons they offer quick, enemy-tracking moves that are certain to open an opponent’s guard or break their poise if they hit home. For Dexterity builds they provide fast, powerful and, crucially, deliciously flashy ways of putting down an enemy. Magic users, meanwhile, gain tremendous,

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Developer FromSoftware Publisher Bandai Namco Format PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Release Out now (JPN), April 12 (EU/US)

transformative benefits – a temporary boost to poise to ensure miracle casts aren’t interrupted, perhaps, or a brief damage buff for sorceries. Even shields have skills, be that a damaging bash, a parry or, most usefully of all, the ability to use your right-hand weapon’s skill without two-handing it. Weapon Skills, despite their obvious benefits, come at a risk. Anything you can do to mitigate that is welcome indeed.

Yet, whatever your playstyle, skills are easily

There is a point, one a little too long in coming, when you realise Miyazaki has been playing with you once again

ignored early on. A glug from the new Ashen Estus Flask will top up your FP meter, but you start the game with just four swigs and must choose how to split that total between regular, health-regenerating Estus and the FP-filling Ashen variety. Early on, you find you have a far greater need for HP top-ups than fancy swordplay. The bar can only be extended by levelling up Attunement – a magic-user’s stat that’s a wasted investment for the melee-minded. Magic builds, which always have a rough time of it at the start of a Souls game – a consequence of being underlevelled with minimal tools, an acceptable tradeoff given how powerful you become later on – have it even rougher here. Use too many spells on the rank and file and you’ll get to the boss with no FP, two empty Estus flasks, and must face it down with your weedy melee weapon and a shield that barely absorbs half a blocked attack’s damage. In the past, a sorcerer or cleric could use their weaker spells on the grunts, saving their more powerful options for the boss. Now, all are bound to the same meter. It nudges the magic user down an unfamiliar path, suggesting that they level up melee stats early on instead of focusing solely on what they were designed for. Tough it out, if you can. The game reprises the Estus Shard mechanic introduced in Dark Souls II, and they’re both plentiful and a little easier to find here, typically in heavily guarded dead ends off the beaten track. Long before the game’s end you’ll have a large enough stock to be able to tailor the split between regular and Ashen Estus to suit your playstyle – though you’ll realise, gradually, that your style needs to change too. Poise has always been a central, vital mechanic in the Souls games – it defines who gets to hit who, and when, and for how long. In Bloodborne, Miyazaki dialled back its importance. You’d be happily whaling away on an enemy when they’d suddenly start attacking, forcing you to think more on your feet, using those wonderful flighty dashes to get in, slice off a chunk of a health bar, then retreat to safety before the reprisal came. Now we’re back in the land of the greatshield, the heavy armour set and the fat roll, poise is back, yet all but the weediest of enemies are able to start attacking when they feel like it, no matter the pressure they’re under. At first this seems like an unwelcome, perhaps even


ABOVE As in Bloodborne, enemies move around, rather than simply waiting for you. This one is a stern foe, but can be avoided. LEFT The forward roll is still your best friend, though backrolls feel like they have more invincibility frames. One of Vordt’s attacks necessitates a sideroll, however

BELOW It’s a beautiful game in places, but From has largely used the processing power of modern consoles to make scenes more detailed, rather than just prettier

ABOVE This fellow helped us appreciate the importance of weapon skills. Later on, a boss battle reminds you that you don’t always need to lock on

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unintentional holdover from Bloodborne. In fact, From is gently nudging you towards weapon skills, showing you that despite all the familiarity, not all of your old techniques will work. It’s emblematic of this studio’s peerless approach to design, to the invisible tutorial, not teaching you through text pop-ups but letting you learn from your own mistakes. We’ve made plenty. Enemies are relentlessly aggressive and often scarily fast, and many deaths have come not from running out of health top-ups, but an inability to create enough room for a safe chug from the flask. Some may be familiar, but every enemy type is tough for a different reason, requiring a subtly different approach. Crucially, almost every fight is fun, in that classic Souls way – desperate and tense with little room for error. And the bosses? Suffice it to say there is no repeat of Souls II’s onslaught of straightforward fights against humanoid foes with melee weapons. Bosses are far apart, and every battle is different to the last. All are dramatic, set in beautiful arenas and soundtracked by the finest Souls music to date. Many are staggeringly, will-sappingly difficult. A couple nearly broke us. Are they the best in the series? Perhaps.

There are problems, inevitably. Familiarity is the worst: for all the sense that Miyazaki is building towards something with his abundance of calls back to his studio’s past, that he is doing it with so many recycled ideas, and takes so long to show you why he’s doing it, does take the shine off things a bit. The world, while astonishingly handsome thanks to From’s Bloodborne tech, and as vast and varied as we’ve come to expect, lacks a little of the complexity of Miyazaki and From at their best.

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Remember those guys in Dark Souls II that would throw themselves at your feet and blow themselves up? Apropos of nothing, watch out for this thing

HOLLOW POINTS

Failure has always been a feature of the Souls games, and it has always had severe consequences. Dark Souls III retains some of its predecessors’ post-death punishments: beating a boss or consuming a certain item triggers the Ember state, which boosts health and lets you summon co-op partners. Die, and it’s gone. But here, death can be an asset: we don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that Dark Souls’ most onerous status effect can, when combined with the right materials and a willingness to persevere, dramatically boost your chosen weapon’s damage output. As a way of sweetening the bitter pill of death after death, it knocks Dark Souls II’s despawning enemies into a cocked hat.

Individual areas are tightly designed, but we know all of the shortcuts by now – one-way doors, empty lift shafts, ladders that need kicking down – and we’re yet to loop back to an earlier area and actually be surprised by the discovery. Well, once, but not in the manner to which we’ve grown accustomed: deep in a forest we opened a door that took us back about half an hour’s worth of progress, with three bonfires about a minute’s walk away. Checkpoints aren’t quite as plentiful as they were in Dark Souls II, but there are certainly more here than in its predecessor, where bonfires were always a few tough encounters farther away than you’d like. Here, they have a habit of turning up just when you’re starting to feel like you need them. We’re picking holes, admittedly, but that we even feel the need to speaks volumes about the way FromSoftware’s games have ascended to a higher plane than most. When you have a seat at the top table, you naturally invite greater scrutiny, and your little flaws matter more than everyone else’s big ones. With Dark Souls III, Miyazaki has ensured his studio’s reputation remains intact, and delivered on our expectations – albeit a little too closely at times. He can’t help it, really: there’s nothing like Dark Souls except for itself, and there’s more of it out there with every passing year. This, though, could be the last of it, and in the end there’s a sense of closure. Not just for a creator bound to a contract that’s maybe run longer than he’d planned, but for the player too, a warming send-off for an old friend who’s moving on to pastures new. We 9 can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.


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Post Script Borrowed but never bettered: a look back at one of gaming’s most influential series

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idetaka Miyazaki comes across as surprised – even a little embarrassed – at the success of the Souls games. If you’re the type to generalise, you might think that’s just an expression of the kind of humility for which his countrymen are renowned. Were he a westerner, meanwhile, we might suspect false modesty, a media-training sheen designed to keep the customer base sweet. But in his case, it can only be genuine. He cannot possibly have known, when he was sat sketching out Demon Souls’ Tower Of Latria or dreaming up its World Tendency system, that his game would become a cult hit around the world. That it would lead to one of the finest trilogies in videogame history, or give the maker of the best-selling console in the world its fastest seller to date. He certainly must never have thought that his ideas would permeate across the industry, finding their way into games of all stripes, but that is precisely what has happened. The Souls games haven’t been influential in the same way as other era-defining games. Super Mario Bros sparked a wave of side-scrolling copycats; Resident Evil 4 ushered in the era of the thirdperson shooter; Call Of Duty 4 gave the world the short singleplayer campaign and the multiplayer perks-and-unlocks system. FromSoftware’s influence has, appropriately given the subject matter, been a lot subtler: Souls is not reference material, but a source of inspiration. That is largely because From’s games are too distinctive to imitate wholesale. Deck-13 tried that with the quickly forgotten Lords Of The Fallen, which showed the world that a direct comparison with the Souls games could only ever be unflattering. Souls is about more than a single system, style or setting; it’s very hard to classify, and therefore impossible to copy without being blatant about it. It is, however, ripe for pilfering from, and the industry has happily obliged. Ubisoft, weirdly, is perhaps the biggest culprit. In 2014 Watch Dogs arrived with an ambient multiplayer system that allowed other players to intrude on your singleplayer game. For Ubisoft, and the big-budget, open-world action game, it was presented as some wild innovation by the creative dreamweavers at Ubisoft Montreal. It was in reality a repurposed Miyazaki idea. The publisher has carried on. For Honor might as well be called Dark Souls Team Deathmatch. Far Cry Primal styles bonfires as safehouses: they’re rest areas, respawn points and fast-travel destinations. Primal and Tom Clancy’s The Division are vanguards of a new Ubisoft approach to open-world design, in which you begin the game by rescuing a team of experts in various disciplines, who’ll take up residence at your base of operations and pass on their expertise. Just as Big Hat Logan comes to Firelink to show you advanced sorceries

If, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, staff must walk From’s halls with permanently flushed cheeks

and a de-petrified Rosabeth teaches pyromancies by the Mejula bonfire, so The Division’s Dr Kandel returns to Madison Square Garden and teaches you healing skills. Primal’s shaman Tensay, meanwhile, joins the Winja village and shows you how to tame wild animals. This wasn’t exactly a From invention, admittedly, but we doubt Ubisoft took the idea from Skies Of Arcadia. One of Ubisoft’s major rivals has also got in on the act, though EA seems to spend more time coming up with fancy new names for minor upgrades to its preexisting features than worrying too much about what other people are up to. Yet in Need For Speed Rivals it at least nodded to the Souls game’s progression system: XP earnings would be lost forever if you failed to ‘bank’ them at a safehouse before you were busted by the cops. Big companies can’t comfortably admit to borrowing ideas from elsewhere – they fancy themselves as leaders, after all. When we put the Souls question to Watch Dogs’ creative director Jonathan Morin at E3 a few years ago, he ducked it with the grace and poise of a man who knew it was coming. Others are more honest about it. Often – and increasingly – it’s obvious. Eitr and Salt & Sanctuary are essentially Souls demakes. British-made pixel-art boss rush Titan Souls even borrows the name. Capy’s forthcoming Below bears an obvious Souls influence, and the studio’s creative director once admitted to being heartbroken when he first saw Demon’s Souls because From had made the game he’d had swimming around in his head for a couple of years. Others simply pay tribute to it. Destiny hides its Dark Souls homage away in an inventory screen. The Warlock armour Heart Of The Praxic Fire describes someone as being “as wholly luminescent as the Sun”. It’s a fairly obvious nod to Solaire Of Astora’s famous line, “If only I could be so grossly incandescent,” but if that’s not clear enough for you, the chest-piece’s final unlockable perk spells it out. It’s called Praise The Sun. Never has a single series of games cast so wide a net, but it’s fitting that the Souls lineage has had such a wide effect on people who make games, since it’s had one on players too. This is a game that inspires almost unmatched devotion: the SL1 invaders, the pants-run players, the wiki admins and PVP buildmasters. The guitar-controller conquerors of Ornstein and Smough, for heaven’s sake. Everyone who loves Dark Souls loves it in their own, unique way, for their own different reasons, and expresses it in a different way. If, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, staff must walk From’s halls with permanently flushed cheeks. Much as he would decline to admit it, it means Hidetaka Miyazaki will be remembered as the most influential game designer of his generation – and likely for a few more generations to follow. Q

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Tom Clancy’s The Division

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he Division is two things. It’s a thirdperson, open-world action game that tasks you with ridding a city of foes, district by district. It’s also an online RPG with heavy cooperative leanings, this initial release representing the vanguard of a promised run of updates and expansions. The setting is New York in the aftermath of a man-made viral outbreak. Your character, who you create, is a sleeper operative for The Division – a secret government agency whose members are seeded among the civilian population to be ‘activated’ in the event of a catastrophe. (It doesn’t make much sense, but don’t dwell on it.) After being taught the basics of shooting and looting in Brooklyn – ironically, you’re mostly shooting looters – you’re delivered to midtown Manhattan. You have a base, which you upgrade with resources earned from completing missions, side-missions and ‘encounters’ in the open world. These earn you new skills, which normally take the form of Clancyappropriate future-military tech: extending shields, drone turrets, etc. You’ll also gain talents, gear, crafting materials, and more. Your actual business in the city is rather by-the-numbers, however. In each district there’s a safehouse, discovery of which will populate your minimap with new things to do: reconnect a broken antenna, assassinate an enemy leader, and so forth. These objectives repeat, area to area, until you reach the level cap. Ubisoft clearly believes there’s something optimal about this basic structure, but its weakness is that, if you’ve grown bored of it in other contexts – and it has appeared in plenty of them – then you’re likely to get bored of it even more quickly here. An enormous investment has been made in the city, UI, and narrative. The Division’s New York is extraordinary. It’s astonishingly detailed, from its streets of uncollected trash and abandoned cars to the sometimes-spectacular places you visit in the course of key missions. Massive has managed to build a varied and evocative gameworld out of a single location, and its efforts do an enormous amount to mask the familiarity of The Division’s basic structure. The UI is gorgeous, rendered in-world as if you’re wearing Tom Clancy’s Google Glass. Among its more traditional functions is the ability to summon ‘echoes’ – still moments from the city’s collapse, ostensibly pieced together using satellite and Internet data. These accompany a main narrative thread that’s delivered through cutscenes as well as unlocked video and audio clips. The tone and plot is standard Clancy fare, but suffers for the silence of your mute main character. The Division doesn’t stray far from the cover shooter formula, but combat with a group of friends is one of the game’s strengths. Encounters often take place in open areas with flanking routes, and flushing an enemy out of cover with a coordinated action is gratifying.

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Developer Ubisoft Massive Publisher Ubisoft Format PC, PS4 (version tested), Xbox One Release Out now

Unfortunately, challenge doesn’t increase based on the intelligence of your enemies but by the raw amount of damage they can take before going down. A boss enemy – who may well just be a man in a hoodie with a rifle – might require several clips of ammunition from several players to drop. This is an understandable way to design an RPG, but a bizarre way to design this RPG, with its Tom Clancy licence and ‘it could really happen’ posture.

The Division’s standout multiplayer conceit is

It’s asking you to hunt gear with no tangible reward in terms of what you can do, how you do it, or what you look like doing it

the Dark Zone, a walled-off area in the centre of the map patrolled by the game’s toughest enemies. This is the only place where multiplayer isn’t optional, where you can fight alongside or against other players without any matchmaking. It’s also the best place to earn loot, at least until you reach the end of the game, but doing so carries risk: every item you find is contaminated and must be extracted by helicopter; friendly fire is on; and other players can kill you and take your winnings before you can return to collect them. There’s a genuine thrill to the danger you face, to the uncertainty of meeting another player and not knowing their intentions. Taking down a ‘rogue agent’ – a player who’s killed another player – earns you rewards you’ll feel you’ve earned, while discovering that the strangers you’ve met are trustworthy is gratifying in its own way. This is as close as The Division gets to ‘DayZ for the mainstream’, which was clearly one of the guiding principles of its design. It’s not perfect, however: the Dark Zone is heavily weighted towards cooperation, with the punishment for going rogue outweighing the potential benefits. Experienced players understand that quiet cooperation serves everybody best, meaning the promised drama manifests less the more you play. There’s also the question of whether The Division needs to be an RPG at all – whether it needs loot and stats and levels to furnish this particular experience. It works in other games, but frequently the system feels artificial here. You might stop using your favourite rifle, for example, because it stops being effective as enemies gain more health. Then, a few levels later, you’ll find another one – the same – but with a more appropriate attack value. You’re still shooting the same enemies with the same gun, but the numbers involved are larger. That’s the essential nature, and essential problem, of The Division’s underlying structure. It’s asking you to hunt gear with no tangible reward in terms of what you can do, how you do it, or what you look like doing it. It’s a shame, because it’s a capable tactical action game that gets better when it’s played with a group, and in the Dark Zone it showcases some entirely new – albeit imperfect – approaches to mainstream multiplayer. Its interface and setting are both extraordinary, enough to ensure that Ubisoft’s first MMOG 6 becomes a phenomenon, if only temporarily.


LEFT In addition to the inherent risk/reward involved in looting the Dark Zone, there are also vendors that will sell high-end gear in return for Dark Zone funds. BELOW The rewards for taking down a rogue player in the Dark Zone are high – arguably higher than going rogue yourself. This makes conflict relatively rare

ABOVE As you progress, your HQ grows. It’s a mostly cosmetic touch, but it feels rewarding to see NPCs move in and new stores open up as you invest more resources into a place where you spend a considerable amount of time

You can move seamlessly from cover to cover by holding the X button (on PS4), but the game is strict about what does and doesn’t count – and you’re not allowed to crouch out in the open

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Pulling loot out of the Dark Zone via helicopter is one of The Division’s genuine innovations – a rare example of something that suits its subject matter

Post Script The Destiny question

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bove all else, the game with which The Division invites comparison is Destiny. Both represent attempts by major publishers to create a sustainable mostly-multiplayer online shooter. Where Bungie set out to prove that Halo could also be World Of Warcraft, Ubisoft Massive is attempting to show that Splinter Cell can also be World Of Warcraft and DayZ. The community has noticed, too. As Bungie’s MMO struggles to recover from the loss of momentum it suffered in the months following The Taken King, unhappy players have looked to The Division as a replacement. Here are many of the same ideas: a shooter with a meaningful progression element, featuring both cooperative play and the ability to challenge other players. While Destiny’s future is uncertain, The Division has a healthy roadmap – at least for the next 12 months. That said, it seems likely that those who enjoyed Destiny are those most likely to be disappointed by The Division. It isn’t simply that Destiny has had the benefit of 18 months of updates. At launch, Destiny was better and more feature-rich than this is, with a clearer sense of what it was and more space to grow. Despite receiving similar criticisms – for their repetition and bullet-sponge enemies in particular – the two games diverge in ways

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that, retrospectively, highlight the intelligence of many of Bungie’s decisions. This is most notable in the setting, particularly the decision to refactor space marines as farfuture knights errant complete with liveried starships. This gave players space to meaningfully customise themselves, to feel their progression in terms of the way they looked. Bungie exploited every opportunity to get players to invest: your ship may just be a loading screen, but it’s your loading screen. The Division, by contrast, is hamstrung by the Clancy licence. Here a coveted cosmetic item might be a pair of jeans – something to differentiate you from the sea of identical agents in drab pastel winter gear. Massive’s commitment to verisimilitude is effective, but it’s better suited to a traditional singleplayer experience than an MMO that somebody might play for thousands of hours. Bungie learned that player investment on that scale requires variety: tonal, visual, mechanical. Similarly, Destiny earns its more cynical attempts at user retention with best-in-class shooter design. Again, this is assisted by the setting. As a sci-fi shooter, Destiny can incorporate abilities, weapons and strategies that provide lasting and meaningful mechanical variety over the longterm life of the game. Even as the rate of updates has

slowed, the community’s continued to share videos of surprising interactions between players, their abilities, and each other. The Division simply can’t do that. It isn’t designed that way, the Clancy licence doesn’t work that way, and reality doesn’t work that way. It feels grounded to a fault – the fact you can’t jump is the most literal expression of this issue – and combat feels rote and transactional within hours. Destiny is repetitive, too, but it’s also spectacular. And when Destiny needs to offer a stiffer challenge, or a more meaningful co-op experience, it has room to grow: many memories were created in the early days of Destiny’s Vault Of Glass, and it’s hard to imagine how The Division could achieve the same. That The Division loses out in this comparison so badly doesn’t entirely cancel out its qualities, but it does raise concerns about its longevity. The most concerning issue is how many of these problems stem from the decision at the very core of the game – to make an MMO in the Tom Clancy universe. The Division simply doesn’t make a good case for this idea. It demonstrates it’s a hard problem to solve, and its developers have invested extraordinary resources and skill in cracking it, but not – crucially – into why you would want to solve it at all. Q


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Hitman

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nce you’ve run Hitman’s first (and at present only) mission a few different ways, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of sadness or frustration. Not because there’s too little of it to go around, nor because it under-delivers on its promise to distil the best of Hitmans past into a pure assassination sim – that much it does with aplomb, displaying rare insight into the strengths and weaknesses of its own source material. Frustration is a side effect of grand technological ambition, moments of emergent brilliance and a true understanding of what makes the hitman fantasy a turn-on marred by recurrent roughness that speaks to a simple lack of time. More time, however, is something Io has given itself, having switched from a three-episodes-at-launch model (followed by one per month) to a fully episodic plan. Hitman’s Intro Pack comes with Parisian mission Showstopper and two tutorial levels at an International Contract Agency training facility. Each month will bring a new mission, starting with the Italian seaside town of Sapienza. The window between each release is Io’s opportunity to sweep away bugs and scruffy edges, arriving, in time, at the definitive first season. The question of how you perceive Hitman’s shortcomings, then, is this: are these the teething problems of an ambitious ongoing service, or has Io treated the launch of Showstopper too much like a beta build? Paris is an undeniably remarkable place. The palace that hosts the Sanguine fashion show is lavish in the extreme, a Baroque entrance hall filled with hundreds of guests (that sometimes forget to make any sound) giving way to an ultra-modern catwalk belching dry ice. Above, dust and grime rule in the attic that security has temporarily made its home. Showstopper is a complete location that feels more like the setting for a real highstakes hit than anything Io has done before. The same is true of the training missions, with the ICA mocking up a yacht and a Cuban airbase out of plywood – Io makes you feel as if you’re actually being put through your paces by an international spy ring, not racing through an inconsequential first hit with a tutorial overlay. ‘Spy ring’ is underselling it – this is espionage. Gunning for Viktor Novikov and Dahlia Margolis, co-chiefs of knowledge-broker IAGO masquerading as fashion brand manager and former supermodel respectively, is a grave matter requiring the world’s best hitman. In the training level, you’re after a US defector and chess prodigy in a mockup of a Cold War hit. Io has mastered Hitman’s new tone, which makes it all the more jarring when Sheikh Al-Ghazali or German supermodel Helmut Kruger speak like frat boys on spring break – or when their vocals issue from somewhere to the side of their head and the closing line echoes from elsewhere entirely. That no one in Paris speaks French is something of a puzzle, too.

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Developer Io Interactive Publisher Square Enix Format PC (tested), PS4, Xbox One Release Out now

Showstopper is a location that feels more like the setting for a real highstakes hit than anything Io has done before

AIDING AND ABETTING

Hitman’s Opportunities, which guide you to perform signature kills such as bringing down a lighting rig, concerned Hitman veterans who wanted to assemble the pieces without assistance; the same is true of Instinct, which reveals target positions through walls. In the beta, toggles were already in place to limit these hints, but Io realised it would need to signpost the system in Hitman’s tutorial before launch. This is the sort of flexibility Io hopes will distinguish its ‘live’ game from Hitmans of yore. To appease the purists, however, Elusive Targets will be making time-limited appearances in existing levels. These don’t show up on Instinct, and it’s when Hitman lets go of your hand that you truly experience the thrill of the hunt.

The initial urge is to forgive these slip-ups on account of the vast tangle of rules and mechanics on top of which Hitman is built. It takes the best of the previous games – the disguises, allowing you to hide in plain sight; the gadgets, from coins to remote explosives that abet free-form stealth; the ‘accidents’ by which targets can meet their innocuous end – and hands you the lot in one huge open level.

There was concern that one level per month would be too little to keep the voracious Hitman fan occupied, and if you’re just in it for the drip-fed story that bookends each mission, that’s likely true. But Hitman appeals to the perfectionist in you, asks you to explore every corner and dream up a hit in which 47 is no more than a shadow in the night. The finest example of this more cerebral aspect is the Escalation contract, more of which will follow as the season progresses. You approach the training level five times, each time with a new constraint on your behaviour, culminating in the near-impossible task of killing two targets with set weapons, hiding their bodies within a time limit, and doing it all without knocking out bystanders. Under such a system, it’s easy to laugh off the screaming flight of civilians from 47 picking up a poker next to a fire (while dressed as staff) as a quirk of Hitman’s many layers. But other faults are less easily brushed off. NPCs often see through walls, screaming about a body they couldn’t have noticed. Key stages in scripted kills – Opportunities, as they’re styled – sometimes trigger out of order, or don’t trigger at all, leaving you with no idea what NPCs are on about. The Contracts mode by which players create their own hits is woefully underpowered at present, interpreting crafty environmental kills as an ‘any weapon’ constraint. Challenges – in-level achievements that unlock new starting positions, gear and supply drops – are prone to checking off completion criteria prematurely, leading to one Sniper Assassin challenge that required us to go unnoticed being awarded while guards were emptying their assault rifles in our direction. The difficulty is that Paris is still one of the best Hitman levels ever designed. The opulence of the palace itself, the possibilities it presents and the self-motivation it demands of you conspire to offer a peerless assassin fantasy caught somewhere between Ian Fleming and the Bourne trilogy. But how willing you are to engage in that fantasy will depend on the degree to which you resent being ripped out of it by a guard’s X-ray vision, or by wrestling with the game’s underfed online features. Doubtless, bugs will be squashed and features improved upon as the season progresses, but the faults are present at the glamorous, high-stakes launch party and, as a result, Hitman 8 is once again prevented from defining the genre.


RIGHT Hitman’s training missions take place 20 years before the events of the main game, and tie 47’s new story into the existing lore of the franchise. MAIN The level of detail on display in each nook of Showstopper is a technological marvel, capturing in one building the excesses of both Versailles and the nouveau riche. BOTTOM Completing challenges unlocks new entryways for a level, such as starting in the kitchen already disguised as staff. With the appropriate getup, 47 can blend in by doing outfit-appropriate tasks

ABOVE The staple Hitman pastime of stashing your victims in wardrobes and chests returns in force, although the act of getting them there has become more risky thanks to guards’ omniscience this time around

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Post Script Interview: Christian Elverdam, creative director, Io Interactive

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he episodic structure Hitman was intended to launch with proved controversial, and when Io announced it was splitting Hitman’s introductory three-episode package into still-smaller chunks, a vocal component of the community turned feral. But creative director Christian Elverdam anticipated it, and it didn’t dampen Io’s enthusiasm to face the challenges of a live studio. Here, Elverdam explains what Io means when it invites us to enter ‘a world of assassination’. How have you felt about the public reaction to Hitman adopting an episodic model? We were expecting people to be sceptical up front – there’s this old quote: ‘Everyone loves progress, but no one really likes change.’ We can’t really persuade anyone that this is a good idea, I think. We’ll have to let the game speak for itself. I recently toured around with the preview code for Sapienza, our next episode, and the feedback was really good. When I look at forums and general chatter about it, I see much less worry about it after Paris came out than before. Before, people were really talking about how much content there would be, and I think if you really dig Hitman and you turn off the hints you don’t need, there are a lot of hours in Paris, and I think it starts to click with people why it’s a good idea that the next episode then comes out and there’s a new, fresh level instead of just barrelling through. When did you decide that a live game was something you wanted to try as a studio? That decision actually goes back a long while. There are so many words these days – to me, ‘episodic’ became more about how to tell the story, because way before we started talking about episodic ‘content’, we knew we wanted to try to build a digitally distributed game. We saw that Internet connections were reaching a critical mass where it could be done, and we saw, talking to Sony and Microsoft, the policies they have around patching games – you couldn’t have done it with the previous generation. That allowed us to modify and work with the game when it was out, and we knew we wanted to do that. I want to see that happening with the rest of the season: that we identify stuff that could be better and actually work with it. What prompted the jump from the initial threeepisodes-at-launch format to a single episode on a monthly basis? There was no doubt that it felt more natural to us, because it meant we could absolutely polish Paris and Sapienza more, so it was a very clear decision for us. As in any sort of complex sandbox game, there’s the odd glitch and the odd bug, but Paris feels like a game that

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knows what it wants to be. You can judge it and say, ‘Yeah – that’s a Hitman game.’ It was already meant for that structure in the first place, because we were talking [about doing] episodes for a long time.

“I hope if you’re in it for the story it’s going to be good enough that you want to go back and check what happens”

Obviously it’s early days, but Contracts mode is quite non-specific: kill this person with whatever you choose, wearing whatever you like. How do you hope to see Contracts evolve in the long term? We need more player agency. When you think about the difficulty settings in the game, at the moment they’re governed by the Opportunity system and simple rules like ‘a guard can carry any weapon’ because that’s a good starting point. But when I’m thinking in my advanced mode, is that really what we want? Isn’t that a bit suspicious? Who would ever carry a silenced pistol if not to be an assassin? We may introduce a setting called Advanced Weapon Rules, or, if I shoot a guy and I leave holes in his outfit, can I actually then use the disguise? I would love to see, a few Escalation contracts in, which elements people like. Do you think there’s a risk that in building fewer, but deeper puzzles, you put off some of the Hitman fans who are in it for the story? There’s always risk when you do something like this. I hope if you’re in it for the story it’s going to be good enough that you want to go back and check what happens. I have to say I think we’ve found a good tone for the universe this time: it’s a little bit more serious and I actually think a lot of people will appreciate it. But I think if you’re a really story-driven player – if that’s your most important prerogative – you always have the option to wait. We’ve kept that option open all the way. So Sapienza is up next – how does it differentiate itself from the challenges we faced in Paris? Sapienza is different on many levels. If Paris was busy and high sophistication, this is about the laziest town you can come to. It’s a small town in Italy and it’s just after lunch. It has this vibe of a real holiday location – you would actually want to go there and have some time to yourself. And that’s a theme we’ve worked with because on the surface you have this charming Italian mansion, and then you have Silvio Caruso, a brilliant scientist who has tragically lost his mother, and you have this feeling that everything is pleasant, but then under the surface there’s a lot of mad, dark stuff going on. That’s true of the mark and the level: it’s a very vertical level because the town’s on a mountainside, and as you dig into the level you’ll need to find where Silvio keeps his secrets. Meanwhile, Silvio has a very fragile psyche, and there’s a psychiatrist in town. Q


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Superhot

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uperhot is a game about choreographing dazzling ten-second action sequences. One minute you’re navigating a bar brawl, hurling cue balls at shotgun-toting enemies. The next, you’re battling a small army at a border crossing. A prison break; a deal gone bad; a moving train battle: Superhot’s brawls need no context, they’re just setups for absurd violent exchanges that thrive on action movie logic. Take the cue ball as an example. On impact, it sends an enemy reeling backwards. At the same time, the recipient flings a shotgun forwards. You can catch it, shoot the weapon’s former owner and then throw the gun at someone else, dislodging their weapon and starting the cycle again. This split-second sequence of improbable movements is enabled by Superhot’s clever central conceit: time only moves when you move. Once you’ve thrown the cue ball you can stand still and watch it freeze. Enemies pause mid-canter. Turn right and you might see a bullet hanging in mid-air, milliseconds away from burying itself in your head. By removing the twitch challenge of realtime shooters, Superhot becomes a game about choosing which enemy to eliminate next while plotting routes through webs of bullets. Really, it’s a puzzle game masquerading as a shooter. As a puzzler, it’s short, shallow and overly reliant on trial and error. Bullets kill instantly and death comes frequently. Enemies spawn in a flash of red light in ways you can’t possibly anticipate, and the game does little to evolve or play with its central time-manipulation conceit. It is, nonetheless, deeply satisfying. Every step is a risk. Even grabbing a weapon out of the air moves time forward a little, which creates nervy faceoffs as you try to secure a weapon and shoot an enemy before their gun goes off. The three guns have their own characteristics: pistols are limited by their slow-motion recoil, shotgun spray can hit multiple enemies, and the burst rifle lets you quickly direct a cluster of bullets to multiple targets. None can be reloaded, which encourages you to toss weapons regularly. There’s an unusual physical integrity to the world that is fascinating to watch. Bullets can be sliced apart or obliterated with other bullets. Weapons and thrown environmental clutter breaks on impact with bullets or enemies. Superhot understands the simple pleasure of objects flying and colliding in slow motion, and accentuates that with a beautiful, sparse palette. Usable objects such as guns, baseball bats and cue balls are polished black glass; enemies and bullet trails are bright red. The matte white environments throw every broken fragment into sharp relief. Enemies – crystalline figures, known only as ‘Red Dudes’ – are particularly fun to smash. When shot, sliced, punched or clubbed they shatter and dissolve in a spray of glass. The effect cleanly communicates

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Developer/publisher Superhot Team Format PC (tested), Xbox One Release Out now

It’s a victory for style over substance, in which style smashes substance’s head into a million pieces

THE GIFT OF GIFS

At the end of each level you have the opportunity to edit a replay and upload it to an official database, or capture and publish it using your own means. The plot encourages sharing with a code phrase that creates a rapport among fellow players while encouraging them to market the game. It helps that the gifs look so good, and show off some unconventional tactics. One player decided to play the bar level by vaulting the counter and throwing every single bottle of wine on the wall at attackers. Another player who was stuck in a long corridor chopped their way out through a window and ran along window ledges to launch a clever surprise attack.

a violent sense of impact, and it’s hugely rewarding. Halfway through the two-hour campaign we picked up an achievement for making 100 headshots, for which there’s no systemic reward – a shot to the arm would be just as deadly. But it’s the best-looking way to complete a level, and in Superhot that is as important as winning. Superhot’s hero moments happen at the end of each round, when the game plays back your run in real time. You’re rewarded with a flurry of thrown weapons, punching, perfect headshots and exploding enemies. In a game about authoring the perfect action sequence, the instant-restart key is a gift. A missed shot looks messy, and must be corrected. Instead of firing the shotgun, it might look cooler to throw it… Time to restart, again. It’s a victory for style over substance, then, in which style smashes substance’s head into a million pieces with an obsidian baseball bat.

There is a story of sorts, which unfolds in chat logs between rounds. Mashing the keyboard types out your avatar’s lines as you chat about the game, at first with friends, and later with more sinister forces. The menus resemble an old MS-DOS file structure that contains a scattering of digital curios. In one folder there’s an animated ASCII cube, in another a series of basic minigames, in another a voiceover advertising a new VR game set to grimy footage of people writhing around screaming. It’s effective: Superhot feels like a sinister counter-cultural art project, accidentally downloaded from some dark corner of the Internet. The ominous mood is more interesting than the specifics of the story, a shallow metacommentary on the nature of the player’s subjugation to the designer. Hardly BioShock, but it’s another unexpected element in a memorable package. Things start to slip once Challenges and Endless modes are unlocked, after the end credits. The former lets you replay missions with ruleset modifiers. The katana-only run demands that you master the art of cleaving bullets out of the air; speed runs pit you against times set by the designers, and ask you to learn every spawn point so you can blow up foes before they fire a shot. Endless mode pits you against infinite waves in unlockable arenas. The varied levels deserve a revisit, but the more we engaged with Superhot’s systems in longer bursts, the more its flaws grated. Enemies witlessly run into the open and stop to take a shot, seemingly unwilling to fire on the move. Unpredictable spawn points are a blight in Endless mode, where runs are most commonly ended by a bullet from an unseen enemy. After a while you run out of inventive ways to play, and that’s when the game dies. For all its initial creativity, Superhot cools too quickly. It’s an ultimately limited exploration of a clever time mechanic, executed with tremendous style. It’s worth a visit for that, 7 so long as you’re not expecting it to last.


ABOVE Certain varieties of enemy are unarmed, and therefore have to charge in close to land a killing punch – and it seems you have something of a glass jaw. An unarmed prison brawl is one of the game’s best levels

TOP Enemies don’t need to enter levels through doorways; they can appear in an empty corner in a flash of red light – one of Superhot’s most irritating tricks. MAIN Superhot’s Red Dudes are brainless fodder, but they’re a great example of how a shooter can deliver satisfying feedback without resorting to gore. RIGHT Completion isn’t everything – Superhot is about finishing levels in style. The black pyramids are the easy option here, but you could try to aim for the katana visible at the very end of the hall

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Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2

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opCap’s second foray into arena shooters fulfils many of the requirements that a dutiful sequel should. It’s certainly bigger, introducing new modes, characters and an open-world hub area. And it’s discernibly louder, too, with an expanded arsenal of organic and undead ordnance. But like creeping knotweed stubbornly resisting treatment, many of the original Garden Warfare’s problems remain. But problems aren’t the only thing to be carried over. The first game’s penchant for gorgeous visuals and its easy charm are very much intact. And you can also import all of the character variants that took so long to earn the first time around – a welcome headstart given the glacial pace of individually levelling up characters here, and the not-inconsiderable task of collecting all the available variants by buying blind sticker packs in the returning between-round metagame. Buying stickers also constitutes one of the many activities available to you in the hub world (though here they’re accessed via vending machines dotted about the place). The large area is split into plant- and zombiecontrolled sections (each home to a walled-off base of operations that provides access to the game’s various modes) separated by a contested no-man’s land in the middle. There are plenty of hidden areas to explore, loot-filled chests to find and even some distracting minigames – shooting at gnomes on a pirate ship proves particularly enjoyable. The hub area also serves as one of the locations for the newly introduced singleplayer campaign. That title is something of a misnomer, since missions (which are handed out by a variety of characters you unlock along the way) are predominantly made up of quickly tedious fetch quests and a diluted, single-location take on the tower defence Garden Ops mode, both of which are wholly unsatisfying when played alone. Fortunately, the online multiplayer component of the game is far more successfully fleshed out. The lumbering undead now have their own equivalent of Garden Ops: Graveyard Ops, while the plants get to go on the offensive in their version of Gardens & Graveyards, called Herbal Assault. While both are little more than reskins, the ability to play two of the game’s better modes as either side is welcome. Beyond this, not much has changed in the rotation. The character roster gets a more thorough overhaul, introducing six new classes. On the plants’ side, Kernel Corn brings ranged devastation, wielding machine cobs, a timed bomb and the ability to call in airstrikes, while Citron is a six-legged citrus tank with a sci-fi shield, a powerful beam weapon and the option to fold into a Samus-style ball, which can also boost into enemies. Finally, Rose brings some debuffing options to the battlefield, slowing enemies’ movements to a crawl or transforming them into goats.

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Developer PopCap Games Publisher Electronic Arts Format PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Release Out now

Garden Warfare 2 offers an alternative, lighthearted take on a genre that can often feel po-faced

The zombies’ additions are a little harder to classify. Captain Dreadbeard wields both a sniper weapon and a shotgun, he can become a walking explosive barrel (the potential damage from which decreases the longer you wait to detonate), and he can launch a parrot drone. Super Brainz is far from the boffin his name suggests; instead he’s a caped superhero with a robust health bar, hand lasers and an extensive selection of devastating melee attacks (we quickly learned to dread his arrival while playing as the plants). The third newcomer is Imp, a playable version of the American-football-kit-wearing All-Star zombie’s Imp Punt ability. Imp has a gravity grenade that will suspend enemies in the air for a short time, a powerful all-guns-blazing breakdance that damages any enemies in range, and he can call in a hulking mech to mitigate his diminutive size.

Far from overcrowding things, the new additions mean that both sides now feel better balanced, and there’s almost always an effective retort available when you pick your next character after death. The preexisting roster retain the abilities they had in the first game, but all have benefited from a facelift as part of the overhauled visuals. PopCap’s beguiling art direction continues but there’s significantly more detail in the stages and a sometimes overwhelming amount of colour and lighting effects onscreen as busy encounters explode into muddled firework displays. But getting into the thick of battle continues to be a laborious task – depending on who you’re playing as. Characters move with unappealing lethargy by default, faster travel reserved as a cooldown-limited special ability for certain plants and zombies. It’s not so much of a problem when you’re at the centre of the action, but slowly making your way back across the large levels after dying can prove frustrating – especially since there’s no option to spawn on teammates. One map is set in a segmented theme park where the areas are linked by teleports, and we found ourselves spending minutes chasing the fight. But a more significant problem is the lack of satisfying feedback from firing weapons or killing opponents – weapons feel light and disconnected, combat never quite thumping like it should. As a result, the accompanying selection of forthright audio cues come across as if they were added to cover the shortfall in weapon feel, rather than bolster it. While these issues frustrate, Garden Warfare 2 isn’t trying to compete with the likes of Battlefield or Call Of Duty, but instead offers an alternative, lighthearted take on a genre that can often feel po-faced. In that respect it certainly succeeds, and PopCap has built on its predecessor’s co-op-focused strengths. But, as with tending to a real garden, not everyone will have 7 the patience required to persevere.


LEFT The game’s pyrotechnics have been dialled right up, making for a delightful (if sometimes confusing) mess of colour and particle effects. BELOW The new arenas are much larger than the first game’s, and exquisitely designed – though the additional space highlights the characters’ sluggish movement. MAIN The expanded character roster makes for a more nuanced spread of abilities when the two sides clash. It also increases the opportunities for cooperative play

ABOVE Unlike in the first game, every character’s suite of special abilities is unlocked from the off, meaning that new players aren’t disadvantaged to the same extent. There’s still a Welcome Mat playlist to ease you in, though

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Pokkén Tournament

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his, Capcom, is how it should be done. Just weeks after Street Fighter V launched, promising to welcome new players before slamming the door shut in their face, Pokkén Tournament is a shining, timely example of how to explain to a beginner the complexities of one of the most impenetrable genres in gaming. The tutorial is gentle, light-hearted stuff, split into sections by difficulty so that even if you can’t handle the high-level techniques, there’s still a ‘cleared’ badge or two on the menu screen. A tab on the pause menu suggests a few handy combos and the AI in the sprawling singleplayer mode is an effective tutor, unafraid even during the early stages to bust out a few tricks, and growing in skill alongside you as you work your way up the ranks. Which is just as well, because even old hands will need a gentle leg-up for what is, even by genre standards, a thoroughly unusual game. This is a game whose core intended audience – the centre of the Venn diagram between Pokémon lovers and skilled Tekken players – would likely not be able to help Namco and Nintendo recoup their investment if they each bought it twice. Suck in the vast Pokémon audience, though, and you’re laughing. The desire to appeal to an audience that may never have picked up a fighting game is not just evident in the tutorials, or the generous solo component; it runs right through the game’s design – and is both its greatest asset and biggest drawback. Fourteen fighters are available at the outset, and together comprise a roster that ticks all the necessary fighting game boxes (fast and weedy; strong and slow; rangy all-rounder) while drawing up a few new ones (lucha libre Pikachu; possessed chandelier-ghost). Accompanying you into battle are a duo of support Pokémon, one of which is chosen at the start of a round to be summoned into the fray for a single, cooldowncontrolled move. At first, you only have a few sets to choose from, and those on offer fill simple, necessary roles, but you unlock more as you progress, and before long you’re refilling health while turning all your attacks into critical hits, slowing the opponent, or stealing some of their (Super-meter-like) Synergy bar. All support Pokémon are designed to give you a reliable, one-button way of tilting the odds in your favour, while also helping Bandai Namco feature a few more selections from the Pokémon bestiary than the meagre base cast allows. This simplicity of control extends right through the moveset design, with every move performed via button presses and single D-pad directions. When your Synergy meter’s full, a simultaneous press of L+R puts you in a powered-up, speedy state; tap the buttons again to trigger a hefty Synergy Burst move. Tekken’s combo-building blocks of launchers, juggles and wall bounces are all present and correct, and the timing on some attack strings may be

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Developer Bandai Namco Publisher Nintendo, The Pokémon Company Format Wii U Release Out now

Even old hands will need a gentle leg-up for what is, even by genre standards, a thoroughly unusual game

tight, but beginner button-mashers are certainly guaranteed a good, empowering time of it. However, while Tekken fans might quickly feel at home with the nuts and bolts of the combo system, the structure of a fight itself is a different matter, since play is split into two phases. The Duel phase is the familiar one, set across a single 2D plane and the backdrop to the real damage-dealing. The Field phase is cagier, affording you full freedom of movement through a ringed 3D arena, the Duel mode’s light and heavy attack buttons instead performing ranged projectile attacks or risky homing blows. Matches start in Field, and make for a tense opening, players chipping away at each other in the hope of gaining an advantage before the real action begins. Then someone lands one of their phaseswitching moves, the camera zooms in, and health bars start to melt away. It’s an excellent idea, splitting apart and more rigidly defining the two crucial components of a fighting game’s ebb and flow: the neutral game, and the scramble. And it almost, almost works.

Pokkén Tournament is ultimately undone by its desire to be beginner-friendly. Acknowledging that the most likely thing to put a fighting game newbie off for life is being on the wrong end of a total pasting, Bandai Namco has sought to actively design against it. And it’s gone too far. While the players get to decide when to switch from Field to Duel phase by performing an attack designed for the purpose, the switch back to Field is automated. Cause a lot of damage a little too quickly for Namco’s liking, and you’re back in the neutral game. It’s especially frustrating when you’ve finally pushed an opponent into wall-bounce territory and are a few hits into your favourite combo, when your done-for adversary flips out automatically and floats gently down to the centre of a gigantic arena. Fighting games are ultimately a battle of territory between two combatants, not two combatants and a heavy-handed creator. Throws – your most reliable option against an adversary who just sits there blocking – are an instant phase-switcher too, punishing you for doing the right thing against an overly defensive foe. The game’s biggest downfall, however, is the counter-attack, performed by holding down two buttons and designed to absorb an infinite number of hits during its wind-up animation. It’s used excessively by late-game AI opponents and, we must shamefully admit, abused relentlessly in our defeat of them. Pokkén Tournament is a bold, thoughtful experiment in accessibility, the fighting game’s biggest, most enduring problem. But at times, in crucial moments, it goes just that bit too far, like a boxing referee stopping the fight after a couple of quick jabs. A helping hand is all well and good, but sometimes the best way to 6 learn is to take the beating you deserve.


RIGHT The cinematic Synergy Burst moves are powerful, but damage scaling (where attacks do less damage the longer a combo continues) is excessive. MAIN The A button performs special moves, modified with a D-Pad direction, that are best used at the end of combos. They’re easy to perform, but to discourage spamming them, some moves consume a little of your health. BOTTOM The decision to sit each players’ health, Synergy and support bars at opposite corners, instead of sharing the top of the screen, may make sense in such large arenas, but it can be hard to keep track of what’s going on

ABOVE You can customise your avatar with hairdos and outfits earned through battle. You’ll also unlock costumes for Nia, your cloyingly chirpy advisor, though it’s a good idea to change her vocal track to Japanese

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PLAY

Devil Daggers

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evil Daggers is an unusual creature: part twitchy firstperson score-attack shooter, part horror game. It’s compulsive and repulsive at the same time, working both as an expertly designed test of skill, but also a test of nerve set in a dimly lit circle of hell. When the game asks you to seize the floating dagger to start the round, it’s a fraught moment. It’s a chance to add a few precious seconds to your best time, but it places you moments away from a traumatic death. The dagger is your only weapon against the hordes of hell. Seize it and the small circular arena starts to fill with floating egg-sacks that vomit roaming skulls into the air every few seconds. You fend them off with an infinite stream of daggers – fired rapidly from your fingers – but only for a short time. Soon, new tentacled creatures spawn on the edge of the dark circle. Hordes of spiders begin hatching from eggs. Huge snakes start arcing overhead. The horde pursues you relentlessly. A single touch means death, but the effect is more profound, like being swallowed by a nightmare. Devil Daggers creates this intense response with the careful use of old rendering techniques. Sorath’s bespoke engine is designed to replicate the polygon jitter and texture warping of early 3D games, and these

Flying skulls are Devil Daggers’ most common enemy. They’re a constant threat that must be mopped up quickly between attacks from spider-egg throwers and the dreaded laughing skulls, which will haunt your dreams

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Developer/publisher Sorath Format PC Release Out now

CUTTY RANKS

Leaderboards let you compare your times against players globally and across your friends list. Any run can be downloaded and watched, which is the only way, for a while, that you’re likely to see advanced enemies such as the demon monolith that explodes from the centre of the stage after a set amount of time. In the upper echelons, players have managed to survive ten minutes, but a reassuring number are still cracking two minutes. It’s a long, hard climb to the top.

unnatural distortions give the creatures a disturbing, grimy quality. Sound design is also exceptional. The compressed, digitised screams and enemy death rattles manage to be both unsettling and functional. Horned skulls – one of the few homing enemy types that can move faster than you – can be pinpointed by their laughter before they bite your head off. The gurgling noise of a fresh spawn lets you keep track of the moment a flood of new enemies enters the arena, which is useful, because crowd control is essential if you want to survive for more than 60 seconds. Movement is smooth and fast, recalling the fluidity of seminal arena shooters such as Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament 2004. Bunny-hopping and blast-jumping also nod back to this era, but are applied in a hordesurvival context that feels fresh. It’s a mistake to think of Devil Daggers as a nostalgic throwback when it does so much to refine what it borrows. Instead of multiple weapons, you access different fire modes through mouse technique: hold down the button for a stream; tap sharply for a shotgun spray. More layers emerge as you push past the minute mark. Specific enemies drop gems that power up your daggers, encouraging you to leave spawn sacks alive to keep your gem supply open. After a while, bosses start to appear, adding greater terror and difficulty to a 8 stark but focused and entertaining action game.


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Moon Hunters

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ow embarrassing. The Sun Cult have burned all of the forests, and we’ve been preparing to fight their leader, King Mardokh. But having already seen two warriors vanquished, we didn’t really fancy our chances in battle, and so opted to charm rather than attack him. Now he’s fallen for us and is imploring us to run away with him. Our fellow moon worshippers will be displeased, and we’re rather sabotaging our own legend, but how can we stand in the way of true love? Kitfox Games’ mystical RPG adventure gives you only about an hour to forge a lasting legacy through your actions, in a world where the stars are no longer in equilibrium. A feast to celebrate the arrival of the lunar queen goes awry when she fails to show up, leaving the Sun cult to take over. You’re given three dawns to settle your affairs before Mardokh arrives to annihilate the tribes who would defy his rule. It’s a narrative with a fixed destination, but regardless of the outcome, you have plenty of say in how you’ll be remembered when it’s all over. Journeys end, as the game tells you, but stories live on – and not only in a written post script. The myth of your chosen warrior will endure in physical form: over several Knowledge gained across multiple playthroughs will inform the choices you make in familiar scenarios – and the traits you’ll obtain afterward. But learning how to play the system rather cheapens the romance of the fable

Developer/publisher Kitfox Games Format PC Release Out now

MYTHING IN ACTION

Four characters are available from the start, with another two unlocking later. The Ritualist is a standard mage, chipping away with projectile spells or drawing foes in with dark vortices, though the Witch is anything but archetypal, as a melee warrior who shoots streams of blood. The shape-shifting Druid’s special attack sees him transform into a wolf, while the Spellblade relies on his speed and evasiveness. Yet even with four players, combat feels scrappy and simplistic.

attempts, the night sky will steadily fill with commemorative constellations, and you may even find a statue heralding the achievements of a previous hunter. It’s structured as a Roguelite, as you move between nodes on the map, making discoveries and mowing down enemies until you either reach a safe place to camp or run out of health and are forced to prematurely call it a night. The key difference is that rather than gaining a deeper understanding of a world and its systems over several plays, your actions make it a bigger, richer place. You’ll discover new recipes that can be used at rest stops to boost your character’s stats (on one run, we concocted a broth that increased our energy regeneration for the subsequent adventure) and open up new area types, moving from forests and deserts to mountains, swamps and rivers. It’s a novel and moreish hook for a while, and if your actions don’t prompt an immediate response, they’ll often result in an amusing footnote: how were we to know that bringing a bird to a village would curse it with ten years’ bad luck? But all too soon the same vignettes recur, and the myths blend into one – indeed, you’re forced to choose which hero should be honoured by a single constellation. There’s something to be said for a game that lets you elope with the final boss, but otherwise Moon Hunters’ light wanes a little more 6 quickly than we’d hoped.

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How the greatest MMO of them all fed on the blood, toil, tears and sweat of its players

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World Of Warcraft Developer/publisher Blizzard Entertainment Format Mac, PC Release 2004

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Vanilla WOW had no such philosophy. Without determination and time to burn, you would never make it off the starting line, never mind to the endgame raids. As a fresh Troll on a private server, you spawn into the Valley Of Trials, the starting zone shared with the Orcs for reasons of budget behind a veil of lore. Your first mission is to slay ten mottled boars or, for the other races, some similarly arbitrary conjunction of number and creature – the quest structure that launched a thousand memes. If you’re a spellcaster, these level-one boars present a genuine threat to life. You stand stock still, pressing the hotkey for your sole spell once, twice, thrice, and you’re out of mana. The boar isn’t dead, so you club it repeatedly with your puny weapon – a weapon in which your skill is so low that many swings miss. Nevertheless, the boar will drop after a good 30 seconds’ hammering. A clean kill. At this point, your health is perilously low and your mana, as established, is spent, so you’re obliged to eat and drink until you’re back in fighting form. Nine more boars to go, assuming that enough have spawned to satisfy the murderous population. If not, you’ll need to queue in the European style, sprinting madly for each creature that pops into existence and trying to tag it first. Far from the slip-up of a fledgling MMO developer, this is all by design. One

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The culture shock starts at the character creation screen. If you want to play a Paladin, the armoured spellcaster, you have to play on the Alliance side as a Human or Dwarf. If you’d like to be a Shaman, you’re stuck as a Troll or Orc. On paper it might look like a minor issue, but imagine a modern MMO splitting friend groups or denying users their preferred class for the sake of lore. In fact, can you imagine today’s MMOs daring to refuse players access to anything they pay for? World Of Warcraft certainly doesn’t. Since the introduction of the Dungeon Finder in Wrath Of The Lich King any player could jump into any dungeon with an automatically assembled group and blitz through for a pat on the back and some shiny rewards. Later, the Raid Finder did the same thing with endgame content, a declaration that all players were entitled to see all that WOW had to offer.

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atch 1.12, Drums Of War, is the build of choice for the majority of private servers running the original World Of Warcraft. It was just an interim patch between the introduction of Naxxramas, the notoriously vicious 40-man final raid, and WOW’s first expansion, The Burning Crusade. The logic goes that it’s vanilla WOW’s final and best incarnation, for in the two years between World Of Warcraft’s release and version 1.12, myriad fixes and quality-of-life improvements had turned a rickety, spit-and-glue MMO into a real cultural phenomenon which was fast approaching ten million subscribers. By this time, you could have more than one action bar on the screen. The Looking For Group chat channel had come into existence to help organise dungeon runs. Caps had been placed on each dungeon’s player count to stop people zerging tough fights. Player-versus-player became ranked, heralding fiercer clashes over the Horde and Alliance haunts of Tarren Mill and Southshore, and Battlegrounds were patched in. Shortly afterwards, the ability to queue for Battlegrounds from the comfort of capital cities was added, while top-tier gear no longer had placeholder textures. By patch 1.12, it was clear World Of Warcraft had reached completion, incorporating features that a modern MMO designer wouldn’t dream of leaving out. Patch 1.12 was also the build during which South Park’s seminal Make Love, Not Warcraft episode aired, and though it set out to poke fun at the acne-ridden, wristbrace-wearing, Dorito-huffing brand of WOW players, the attention of Matt Stone and Trey Parker was also validation of the view that Blizzard’s work was a landmark social happening as much as a game. However, unless you’re driven by nostalgia, 1.12 is unplayable by today’s standards, actually offensive to the modern sensibility in a similar manner to corporal punishment. It was all quite acceptable at the time – a mantra among historians is that we mustn’t judge the past by modern standards – but if you find yourself at a loose end, go ahead and log on to the likes of Nostalrius, Warcraft’s largest private server. You will be appalled.


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spectacular example of a vanilla legendary quest structure can be found in Silverpine Forest, titled A Recipe For Death: “He mentions a very rare Hardened Tumor that he discovered on a Vile Fin murloc,” the quest text reads. “Apparently the tumor is so rare Berard was only able to obtain one.” Raptors in WOW are renowned for dropping fewer than one head when killed, so when a quest states explicitly that a MacGuffin is rare in the extreme, you know there’s a long day ahead of you. World Of Warcraft was always brazen in making you sweat for the simplest of rewards – in this case a soonto-be-replaced cloak and a potion than makes you run a bit quicker. For 60 levels, most monsters are an effort to dispatch, unless you invest serious gold in rare gear. And that’s no trivial thing: before hyperinflation set in, in The Burning

Everyone was expected to play their part. World Of Warcraft demanded sacrifice of you as a player, and therein lies its brilliance. We know why most people stopped playing WOW, and why many swear off MMOs altogether: the grind, the sensation of having a second job, the hours of commitment even low-level dungeons used to demand. Fair reasons, all, and cited even by Ion Hazzikostas, WOW’s lead designer,

W O R L D O F WA R C R A F T WA S A LWAY S BRAZEN IN MAKING YOU SWEAT F O R T H E S I M P L E S T O F R E WA R D S

When WOW’s monsters and spawn rates weren’t tedious, they were brutal. Grouping up to tackle standard quests was preferable, and, in many areas populated by elite mobs, vital

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Crusade, each gold piece was hard-won. At 1,000 gold, high-level mounts that took the hassle out of traversing the world were out of reach for many players. Perhaps the most retrospectively egregious decision was how hybrid classes were treated in the late game. The appeal of Druids and Paladins lay in their flexibility. Shapeshifting Druids in particular had the ability to tank, heal, cast spells or batter the enemy, the natural trade-off for a jack of all trades being mastery of none. But in a time when WOW’s raids left no room for error and a few points of health or damage dealt could mean the difference between success and 40 dead players, who would want a master of none on their team? Raiding Druids had to heal, because that’s what they were best at and other classes could make better use of the damage-dealing gear.

as driving later expansions’ push for accessibility. But why don’t we see WOWlike success from the MMOs that pledged, however honestly, to eliminate the grind? Games such as Warhammer Online: Age Of Reckoning, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and WOW as it exists today. Naturally there’s an element of timing to it. When WOW launched in 2004, EverQuest and its sequel (released a month prior to Blizzard’s game) were its only real competitors. WOW was technologically ambitious, its near-seamless open world a stark contrast to EverQuest’s jarring zone transitions. The great bulk of lore Blizzard had thanks to the Warcraft strategy games was also refreshing in contrast with EverQuest’s D&D staples, while the cartoon style disguised graphical sins where EverQuest II’s realistic approach could not.

In the days when you had to form groups through chat, make your way to dungeons or travel between the game’s vast continents, public transport bustled


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Strange though it might seem, however, it was WOW’s ease of access that gave it muscle. The saying goes that in EverQuest you couldn’t scratch your nose without help from about 40 people and a resurrection afterwards. At the time, WOW was the player-friendly option, but no MMO that has tried to be friendlier has found success.

The sensation of having a second job was what distinguished the MMO from singleplayer RPGs. It’s what distinguishes vanilla WOW from the theme parks that constitute modern MMOs, in which you rush from exciting encounter to high-design set piece, the game desperate to outdo itself at every opportunity. World Of Warcraft gated off basic pleasures. If you wanted to start raiding with your friends, you had to work, with all

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It was possible to inflict too much pain on players. Naxxramas, the final 40-man raid, became known as the guild breaker. In the US, only 23 guilds from a pool of 895,000 max-level characters cleared Naxxramas. All 40 people needed the best gear from Blackwing Lair or Ahn’Qiraj, whose bosses would drop just three items per week. Potions and food were also mandatory – your days would be spent farming ingredients in competition with every other raider, and good luck if you were a healer, because vanilla WOW didn’t allow you to change specialisation without spending a fortune. Progress was so slow and punishing that infighting, and later indifference, set in.

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the suffering the word connotes, to buy, craft or farm the necessary gear, complete the quests, and then commit four hours of your evening. Today, we can walk away and play another game if we’re not entertained, but in its day World Of Warcraft was kind. You wouldn’t have it easier elsewhere. Let’s be clear: killing boars, farming ingredients and grinding loot were never considered fun in and of themselves. No one flew out of bed in the morning propelled by anticipation of a day’s toil. Rather, you sat down to the grind with steely determination because it made the reward worth it. To put in the ground work, to do what must be done, to sweat for the chance to battle alongside your friends and face challenges greater still made a hero’s reward of the scant handful of gear from a raid boss your guild had spent weeks defeating. The agony of the journey made the end sweeter. It’s only after the hard day’s hike that you can look back and be proud of what you overcome. At a gym, you pay to grunt and sweat, to eventually better yourself. You tackle Dark Souls’ Bed Of Chaos yet again because victory has become its own reward. The original World Of Warcraft would never survive as a subscription game these days because we’re well equipped to avoid hard work – WildStar’s subscription model collapsed for just that reason. But in opting for games that promise us instant entertainment, the sheer exhilaration of overcoming hard labour is confined to private servers running patch 1.12. Q

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DISPATCHES PERSPECTIVE

JAMES LEACH

Postcards From The Clipping Plane

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f you can keep your head and focus on your short-term goals when all about you are losing theirs; if you can retain a sense of the overall direction in which you wish to travel while doing the above, it doesn’t automatically make you a man, my son, but it does mean you’re capable of telescoping. Telescoping is when you solve immediate problems in order to progress to a defined goal. Pretty much every game does it, and apparently it’s a skill which the youth of today have mastered because they all play games. I’ve done my fair share of work on education software, and although it’s hugely worthy and well-meaning, what it tends to amount to is a load of curriculum which you click through. If you’re lucky, it’s animated and you might even get to interact with it. But frankly it’s a school lesson on a screen. What is more interesting to me is how gaming affects us, and what, as developers, we can do with this information. Another example is pattern recognition. Sit any gamer in front of a title they haven’t played, and one of the first things they’ll do is subconsciously categorise what they’re looking at. After blowing up two crates, they’ll know that you can blow up crates. Oil drums are inert, so they’ll stop trying to shoot those. It’s a very quick and instinctive process, and it relies on the fact that we ‘know’ how games work and can make general assumptions about them which usually prove to be correct. If, in a game, you can’t hit someone with a stick, you’ll treat that as a universal truth because the game doesn’t let you even try. In real life, hitting someone with a 14-foot branch is practically impossible, but, even after trying and failing, you’d happily pick up a four-foot one and hit someone with it. Especially if it was Mr Bowen across the road, with his stupid caravan. What I love about getting immersed in a game is how, so long as it conforms to its own rules, those rules can be as odd as you like. Eating whole roast chickens can instantly prevent one from bleeding out after being

Turning the computer setting to fog of war is like telling a human chess opponent to pretend he can’t see my rooks shot, for example, while drifting the back end of your vehicle out will definitely make you go twice as fast. Imagine a game where, after being shot, your body went into shock and food was the last thing on your mind. If for some reason you did eat, you were immediately sick because of the trauma you’d just suffered. It’d be realistic, but probably not add a great deal to the gameplay. But it’d only take trying this twice and you’d know it’s not something the game wants you to do. It’s odd how much satisfaction you can achieve from working out such rules and applying them. If every third roast chicken was

edible and restored health, we’d keep count and use that information quite happily. However, if about half were, and it was random whether you’d get one you could eat, it’d be very irritating, and even when you got what you wanted, there would be no joy in it. The trouble with randomness in games is that I, personally, as a player, don’t trust it. I know that it’s all pseudo-random; I know that true randomness isn’t possible. That’s not what I mean. I mean that I always, deep down, suspect the game to be cheating. When I’m bored I sometimes play a tiny Risk-type game on my tablet. Every time I do, though, there’s a point at which I’m convinced that the dice the AI is rolling is skewed to help them. They just get the rolls they need in the nick of time too often. I feel like I sometimes do, but they always do. I’m aware that actually altering the dice rolls in favour of the AI player is not only possible but extremely easy, but deep down I don’t believe that’s actually happening – I think it’s confirmation bias. I remember with pain every time the enemy lucks out on a roll and defeats me, but I don’t remember all the times I crush him by rolling higher numbers myself. It doesn’t matter, though. I still think they’re cheating. They’re breaking the rules and I am angry. The other one is fog of war. When playing against a computer, I will always disable fog of war – not to make the game easier, but simply because I can’t dislodge from my head the notion that the computer doesn’t ever adhere to fog of war. It can’t: by default, it knows where everything is. Turning the computer setting to fog of war is, in my book, like telling a human chess opponent to pretend he can’t see my rooks. So I’m not saying I don’t trust computers. I’m saying I don’t trust programmers. But thanks to my telescoping skills, I can work with them on a daily basis while keeping a clear view of my long-term goal to run a polecat sanctuary in Devon. James Leach is a BAFTA Award-winning freelance writer whose work features in games and on television and radio

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Illustration box-kite-curve.com

Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development


#293 April 29

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PLAYSTATION VR VA MPYR R ATCHET & CL ANK

VIV E IS VALVE’S UNIQUE VR PLATFORM WORTH THE INVESTMENT?

REVIEWED DARK SOULS III THE DIVISION HITMAN SUPERHOT POKKEN TOURNAMENT PLANTS VS ZOMBIES: GARDEN WARFARE 2

A FAREWELL TO BRITSOFT PIONEER LIONHEAD STUDIOS

#292 M AY 2016

WARREN SPECTOR: FROM D&D AND DEUS EX TO DISNEY


Edge 292 2016