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Monthly Archives: September 2013

I’ll sit this one out

“Technically it’s impressive.”

Technically. As my friend spoke of her experiences with GTA her qualifier was damning with faint praise. With my developer hat on I can definitely appreciate the technical quality found within GTA V: the world chocked full with life; Rockstar’s ability to make ailing consoles sing; and their satirical look at modern America. It’s undeniable that the world of Los Santos is truly remarkable but for all the plaudits I’m not interested in immersing myself in it. Technically it’s great but for me it lacks appealing substance.

There’s myriad reasons why I can’t jump on this band wagon, from fundamental disagreements with its core concept through to the feeling that I’ve played through its campaign many times already. That’s not to say I’m against the game, in fact I admire what it does and the aplomb with which it achieves it, but you’ll have to forgive me if I sit this one out.

Strangely, the primary reason is actually nothing to do with the gameplay itself. Some of this apathy harks back to GTA IV, which I left feeling disenfranchised. They had again woven an incredible city but I thought it was a waste as the move to a far more serious mood left me cold. It felt as though they had missed an opportunity with the playground they had created, as if more realism had meant a more sombre tone and an end to the antics of GTA III. I could have forgiven this if they had delivered on the dramatic potential but Nikko was such an unlikeable character that I never cared a jot about what unfolded. There are plenty of good anti-heroes in modern media but he missed the mark by a long way. Forever moaning about the injustices he had suffered and how he wanted away from a life of crime and yet choosing to commit countless brutal acts. He was a disjointed character that impossible to relate to.

The introduction of three leads addresses some of this, not putting undue pressure on a single character to lead a story arc that would otherwise fill two or three whole series of primetime television. In fact the interplay between the trio seems interesting to me as the unlikely gang cross paths and join together for criminal shenanigans. There is potential there as each of their disparate life styles clash and interweave, but the story issues go deeper than simple setup.

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Since the beginning GTA has stuck to a formula. Every world has been painted as one where males dominate and women come out as merely secondary characters, there to nag husbands or sell themselves on street corners. I can understand the marketing importance of casting a male lead but the lack of supporting females is disappointing.

After a recent debate on Twitter with a former colleague I now refrain from labelling it misogynistic – literally the hatred of women – but there’s a level of disrespect there that I find if not distasteful then lazy. The theme of men being powerful and women there simply to be either the butt of their jokes or their trophies has featured so heavily that I struggle to remember a single interesting female. There may have been a brief dalliance with an Irish-American wife for Nikko but as she was only introduced to ultimately be killed off I hardly think that counts.

Despite not having played I have consumed a large number of reviews and gameplay videos trying to get a handle on my feelings and from all that I can discern the latest release does nothing to overturn this precedence. I understand that parody needs a stereotype to work from but this one is wearing a little thin and for the sake of variety it would have been a welcome surprise to see the alleged weaker of the sexes playing a larger role.

It’s not alone as feeling familiar. The radio station’s once grand poke at American society now sounds tired, replacing the issues of 2008 with references to fracking and the mounting national debt. I can remember spending hours driving around town or parking up by the side of the road to listen to Ladlow’s radio show, now they are like a comedian whose set desperate needs refreshing.

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Admittedly there are some fantastic additions that add to the already brimming world. The heists in particular sound superb. No longer just a simple mission, the act of putting together a gang and balancing skills against cut could be a whole game in itself. It’s a shame they’re a comparatively small part of the whole which still appears to be mostly driving long distances to either drop off a package or to shoot someone (occasionally both) before driving an equally long distance back.

I miss the verve found in Vice City, where it readily paid homage to cinema set-pieces at the same time as adding its own twist of fun. Whether it was the neon colours or joyous soundtrack that makes me look on it more fondly, the more easy-going approach seemed far more enjoyable and varied. Today the additions of golf and darts are noble efforts to distract players when criminal life gets them down, but I can’t help but think that more effort should have been focused on the core missions.

Of course all this could be is because I’m growing old. Once upon a time I used to liven things up by holding down a crossroads with a boot full of guns and pockets full of ammunition, trying to get my star rating as high as possible and coaxing out the army with their tanks. When GTA III came out this was the height of emergent gameplay as the city would react and their retaliation was always a surprise. It was a challenge – it was the challenge – but I feel as I’ve grown older so have my tastes. Or maybe I’ve just seen it all before.

This familiarity is somewhat comforting; knowing that I could slip straight back into it should I so wish. But equally I’m sad that it hasn’t moved on to any great degree, especially when you consider the current set of rampage missions. If anything they show a further moral slip as where once was a silent protagonist simply causing chaos now there’s a psychopath visibly taking glee from his actions. Again this is subjective but it makes me feel deeply uneasy.

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If some of this seems at odds with my positive review of Saints Row, it comes down to two things: approach and setting. Compared to the realism being pushed in Los Santos, the virtual world of The Saints verges on the absurd. With superpowers and aliens it can’t be taken seriously and as such the repercussions are different; in terms of tone GTA is Scarface to Saints Row’s Avengers, though admittedly with more cursing. Furthermore the superpowers add new dimensions to the open world. I still steered clear of rampages or mindless chaos but the ability to fly and scale skyscrapers added more value than any bank heists. They pushed in a different direction and one that I wanted to toy with for hours on end.

It’s as if GTA has settled into a safe rut. Much like Call of Duty it has grown to such a size that it has become scared of change, worried that any alteration would deter its fanbase. It may not come out annually but we’re beginning to see it falling into a similar template of design as the developers know what has made the series successful and quite sanely are reluctant to change the formula.

Unlike Call of Duty however my worry is that GTA will never receive the impetus to change. Annual releases soon show signs of fatigue but there is such a legacy around this series that it seems impervious. It creates its own hype by keeping standards high and releases infrequent – a lesson many others could heed. More so, due to the interval they brings in a whole new generation of players who have never played GTA before and are ready to lap it up.

Given the current schedule I’ll be in my mid-to-late 30s when the next Grand Theft Auto releases and whether I play it or not is very much in the mix. With so few tangible improvements I can’t see myself ever playing this current version but if they decide to refocus and wipe the slate clean in certain areas then I may just join the midnight queue for a return (hopefully) to Vice City.

Will it happen? Probably not. There is a formula that raked in a billion dollars in less than a week and no one in their right mind would alter that.

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Saints Row IV: Review

Over the previous three games Saints Row has evolved from an unashamed GTA clone into a sandbox flagship in its own right. No matter how absurd or twisted you may consider its path, it has forged its own way in the world and has swiftly distanced itself from Rockstar’s opus. It has its own identity now, decked out in purple and supremely confident in its skin.

However, if the previous two courted success with septic tank spray guns, dildo bats and petting tigers, IV takes a somewhat different approach. Though by no means subdued, it instead focuses on ruining all other open world games. Once upon a time driving through a bustling city and causing chaos was the pinnacle of gaming, but since then being stuck in a car for long distances or persevering through shootouts with limp mechanics has become very wearing. Volition hands you an alternative; they hand you superpowers.

Within an hour of stepping back into Stillwater – albeit a digital simulation of Stillwater – I was dashing through the streets at supersonic speed, outpacing any vehicle that I might have been churlish enough to jack. Covering vast distances in seconds, buildings flashed by and pedestrians barreled out the way as I streaked past, yet it wasn’t just the speed that was most welcome. Unshackling such potential from a car removes you from the whim of physics. As such, control is far more reactive, making navigation a breeze; it’s a world away from forcing a bulky van to corner at pace.

Alongside travelling at such a lick that it would make Usain Bolt weep, your reprogrammed legs are also capable of sending you soaring to the rooftops. With huge, exaggerated leaps the Saints navigate the skyline, taking them where no road could lead and causing me to grin with the freedom it offered. Brazenly, the biggest draw up there are glowing clusters – definitely not orbs – that can be collected to enhance you powers. Their glow stands out against the dusk skyline and caused me all manner of detours as I sought to hoover them up. With some avid kleptomania soon I could run up the side of buildings and glide through the city skies, making the world not only more easily navigable but turning it into a playground through which I could skip without hindrance.

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Distances of a couple of kilometres aren’t uncommon between mission checkpoints, and in other games this may have caused irritation. That’s a long way to drive, and even a well decorated world will only go so far. With Saints Row it was an exercise in extreme parkour, dashing headlong down the street through heavy traffic, scattering anything I touched, before leaping majestically across the river. Hitting a skyscraper on the opposite bank causes only a momentary pause before I’d be off again, this time vertically, pelting it to the roof from where I’d hurl myself off and glide towards my target. Time and time again I’d do it, not once getting bored as not only is it fluid but each leap throw you so far that the mini-map lights up with a whole host of trinkets and side missions.

Most are staples of the series, even if under new names. There are turf wars where you have to battle the simulation’s defenders to reclaim a portion of the city, assassinations that throw a series of tough rivals against you, and, my personal favourite, insurance frauds that see you throw yourself into oncoming traffic and then bounce off as many cars as possible. They’re twisted but with so many on offer it’s easy to pick and choose which, if any, you want to partake in. Each is an interesting distraction and introduced in turn along the main story arc too, meaning you’ll get to try each one at least once. As The Saints battle to escape the simulation there are myriad tenuous reasons quite why you have to, for instance, take part in a race against the clock or hijack a car and bring it back to base, though generally it boils down to your resident hacker insisting she “wants to see how the system reacts” as you unleash havoc upon it.

The main story missions are far meatier and revolve around rescuing your crew from their own corner of this imaginary creation. They also allow the designers to stretch beyond simply plotting missions round Stillwater. The joy of setting a game inside a bizarre computer simulation is that the levels can take you anywhere, and when you combine that with Volition’s devilish sense of humour there’s a potent combination. In the opening act there’s a recreation of a 1950s Stillwater, complete with all its bygone sensibilities, whilst at the other end of the scale worlds consisting of nothing but a series of floating, metallic platforms exist solely to test your speed and platforming prowess. Along the way parodies of Call of Duty and Metal Gear appear, poking fun at them with a beautiful selection of well-constructed jibes and often inappropriate soundtracks, whilst everything from 200-foot tall soda cans to bobble-headed cats are thrown against you. You may still be wielding a gun in a robust if uninspiring third-person shooter but with a combination of a good script and a continual change of set dressing the missions don’t feel as repetitive as it might otherwise be.

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More so than that, however, it was there where the real challenge was offered. Out in the open of the main simulation superpowers soon include icy blasts and fiery explosions, both of which make short work of any group out to stop The Saints. Toss in a few fire balls, hoover up the health left behind, rinse and repeat, and the only real challenge was how quickly the grunts could be mopped up. Very soon only truly massed ranks or complacency cause issues. Strangely though the powers verge so close to feeling exploitative that there’s a sly glee about using them, as if you’ve somehow found a loophole and that the devs never meant you to be so dominant. Together with the verticality made possible by your superjump and the myriad ridiculous weapons, the focus switches more to that of a toy box and exploring what it has to offer rather than any hardcore test of your combat prowess. It grants a sense of power, one that is often taken away during primary missions, forcing you to remember what it’s like to have to find and use cover or, even more shockingly, something as primitive as a gun.

The story itself peeks into each Saint’s own personal idea of hell and is strangely nostalgic. For a game well-known for featuring porn stars and Burt Reynolds it demonstrates a sentimentality about its cast that I wasn’t expecting. Much is made of the past of the characters, harking right back to the almost unrecognisable original, the journeys they’ve been on and how they found themselves running the United States of America. It never strays into schmaltz, preferring rather to pull back with a heavy dose of crudity or violence should it every edge too close.

Saints Row IV isn’t revolutionary but a continued refinement of its brand. Originally slated as an expansion pack for the previous game before THQ went bust, this strong footing has helped greatly as it has afforded it the time to be polished and honed, which is evident by how quickly you get into the meat of the game and the lack of bugs that usually plague its kind. There’s a focus on instant fun as opposed to depth, and whilst this may hamper longevity while the spark’s still there it’s a hoot.

At its core there is still a traditional sandbox adventure full of potential chaos and passable mechanics, but – more so than ever – this is greater than the sum of its parts. Continually throwing variety at you in every possible aspect and backed by a strong sense of humour, Saints Row IV provides a definite alternative to a certain rival. It might not have the level of polish or finesse of a GTA, but the Saints have upped their game in other areas. It has ruined open world gaming for me, and the prospect of just driving around town or just entering a shootout now seems horribly mundane.

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Memoria: Review

With many point-and-click adventures opting to use humour as a key selling point, I have often found that they undersell one of their genre’s greatest strengths. With the emphasis on jokes their ability to tell a story and weave you into its heart often goes begging. In first-person shooters you may be in the centre of the action but you’re usually a mere passenger being funnelled from checkpoint to checkpoint; with point-and-click you are there unpicking the tale and at the crux of each twist and turn.

Set in the Dark Eye world – a German series of pen-and-paper RPGs – Memoria plays it relatively straight, with characters only pulling out the jokes when in keeping with their role and situation. It’s a world that would seem familiar to anyone who has played a Western RPG before, full of magic, mythical races, and hideous beasts, and the tone is well suited. With such a rich lore to draw on it makes sense that Daedelic have chosen to focus on telling the tale of an adventurer, even if our hero is not your typical sword-wielding dragon-slayer.

We open on Geron, a supposed bird catcher, searching the woods for a merchant who he has heard can cure his ailing friend. Geron is no ordinary bird catcher however, and it transpires that in recent times he saved the kingdom of Anderghast from assured destruction. Not through great physical or magical prowess mind you, but by his wits and a few basic spells.

Upon finding the merchant, the jolly traveller shares with him a vision from the past, promising Geron that if he can solve the mystery within it he will help him. He sees a young Princess, Sadji, setting out to turn back a demon invasion. Geron witnesses her break into an ancient tomb hoping to find an ancient weapon that will turn the war in their favour, only to see her become trapped deep underground. However, this is no cutscene. Although you controlled Geron up to and into the merchant’s tent, as soon as he begins his vision you take control of Sadji, complete with her own unique inventory and talents.

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What proceeds is a tale of a tale, as our bird catcher begins obsessing over this long forgotten princess and the riddles connected to her. Being the only way by which he’ll cure his friend, we find ourselves in one timeline investigating our own actions in another. What this allows is not only a clever way by which to tell a story but provides a good explanation as to why our locations flit about. As we skip ahead in the princess’ story so do our surroundings, offering new places for us to explore and puzzle in.

With each of these new sections your world is conveniently restricted to only a handful of screens. Though it may sound limiting there can be an awful lot to achieve in each area and these well-defined boundaries help cap potential frustration. Knowing that a solution lies within four or five screens travel offers a reassurance that you don’t have to wander halfway across town trying object X on everything that proves interactive. Any such frustration is also eased by an inventory that never grows too large, plus easy access to all of your objects via the mouse wheel: a lovely touch that can save the monotony of continual returning to your inventory when experimenting with solutions.

The puzzles themselves are on the whole good. Many rely on the traditional art of combining objects, though there’s a lot of variety as there are also riddles and logic tests tucked away too. They have a touch of devilishness about them but during my time with Memoria I only found myself truly stuck on a small number of occasions. Most of the trickier ones can be cracked simply by paying attention to the world about you and to what those you speak to say. There are some quite charming double-bluffs at times however for those requiring help there are hints offered in the pause screen should you need nudging in the right direction.

The most interesting feature of the puzzles for me were the magical powers that Geron and Sadji possessed. A mix of breaking charms, petrification spells, and the ability to send visions into other’s heads had to be used throughout the adventure. This extra twist allowed you to break away from merely acting on everything clickable and instead gives you pause to think if you had to alter something or someone before proceeding.

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Thankfully there were only two ludicrously frustrating mysteries in the entire game, and I think the designers eventually realised both. The first is a tedious maze segment that after a period of blindly fumbling in the dark I was given the option to tskip. The other saw the answer given directly when I asked for a hint, almost proving it was a guessing game and not a solvable by any logical means.

Everything is tied together by a lovely art style that mixes hand-painted 2D backgrounds and textures with more dynamic 3D figures. The combination of styles was quite unnerving at first as I initially thought I was looking at just a series of sprites, but the painterly textures on the 3D characters allow them to blend seamlessly with the whole; you can no longer tell what’s interactive simply because it doesn’t fit against the background. The only jarring aspect are the inconsistencies with certain animations; facial close-ups look cheap as the mouth moves in weird ways, and people stand as though they were mannequins. When they move and interact on screen you forget about it all but all too often it looks a little stilted.

Given the budget of a title this size it’s easy to see why such details weren’t possible and they do little to distract from the strength of the story and the puzzles. The latter mostly trod the line between challenging and frustration very well but it was the former that captivated me most. The longer it went on the more I became wrapped in this dual tale and how it unfolded: Geron simultaneously trying to save his friend and learn more about Sadji; and Sadji proving to the world that even a supposedly fragile princess can turn enter the battlefield and leave her mark on history. By the end there was a momentum to it and I chewed through the last two hours of brain teasers just to see the story’s conclusion.

The cast may not go down in videogame folklore but their bittersweet tale is full of surprises. In a genre where those with the laughs have made the biggest impact, it might be worth taking a pause from the puns and explore the wonderfully modest Memoria.

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Slimming Down

Office moves are not uncommon at Rare. As projects, priorities and teams change, engineers move around to be closer to those they work with. It’s not a necessity given the joys of IM and email but there comes a point where you need to be around those sharing your common goals.

And so today I packed my stuff in a box and for the 20th time since I joined the Twycross studio moved desks. Thankfully it’s gotten a well practised routine as a good proportion of those moves being in the last year or so. It got me thinking though about how it used to be.

Casting my mind back I remembered I blogged about the pain of shifting desks at the end of Viva Pinata. Compared to the one trolley load I created this time it took me a mammoth eight journeys then.

Moving to an open plan office helped slim my stuff down (as I had no where to put it), as did realising I didn’t need to keep every document or note that I ever took. It’s strange to consider how or why I had all those possessions at work and decorating my shelves. I miss a handful of the trinkets that used to keep me company on the long crunch nights but at the end of the day, when you have a Megabloks Pelican, a large fluffy Kirby, and a pair of T-rex, you can’t complain.

Then.

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And as someone pointed out at work; if I drank the Coke and scoffed the banana I’d be even more streamlined.

Jagged Alliance ::: Interview

In the second half of our interview with Full Control CEO Thomas Hentschel Lund we put Space Hulk to one side and focus on their new project. Funded through Kickstarter, Jagged Alliance takes an RTS of old and brings it into the modern day.

7outof10: With Space Hulk well planned out, your next project is a reboot of Jagged Alliance. Please can you tell us a little about it?

Thomas: The overall setting for Jagged Alliance is that you’ve two layers: a strategic layer that you can think of as a map with an overlaid chessboard, and every square/coordinate on that is a sector, and every sector is similar to an XCOM level. So you have a sector that could be the SAM site and if you take that you could free to transport your troops with helicopters within that area. There’s a sector that could be a mine and if you capture you’ll get additional income through the game. So every day you’ll get extra income from all you captured mines and what you then use that for is to hire mercenaries. You have multiple squads of mercenaries that you move around on this chess board taking sectors and playing out a story but overall it’s a free roaming world with around 120-130 individual sectors.

The best way of saying it is that every sector is an XCOM level where you have transportation between them and as you play the game you can capture trucks to drive on the roads instead of having to walk. You can capture the airport which means the helicopter becomes available, you can then fly instead of drive troops about. And if you get attacked down in a city which you took some hours before and the AI comes up with a squad of soldiers and tries to retake it you can have a ‘copter fly you into the city and actively defend it rather than the militia you’re training there.

So it’s still a turn-based strategy game on the lower layer with a further the strategic map-based approach on top of it. It was first made some time in the mid-90s and then at the end of the 90s they made a second version of it and after that not much had happened with it. Some years later Bit Composer bought the license and they made an RTS out of it and by itself it was an ok game but seen in the context of a turn-based strategy approach the hard core fan base hated it.

Sort of like how the fans reacted to the shooter reincarnation of Shadowrun a few years back?

Yeah, or if XCOM had a first-person shooter suddenly. It’s that kind of “what the hell just happened here?”

And that has in some ways alienated the community from the games that were made. As I say, they weren’t necessarily bad games but there was something else that people wanted. The old vocal ones at least. So what we did was say to Bit Composers that we wanted the license, and we wanted to try and take the old mechanism, the mechanics of the strategic layer and the tactical combat, with a new story. We want to then run a Kickstarter on that and try and engage the community to make the game that you failed to do.

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What was so special about Jagged Alliance to you?

It was one of those games that I played when I was young. Or at least younger. From the turn-based strategy point of view there were three games back in those games: you had XCOM, you had Fallout and then you had Jagged Alliance. With the two other ones they were flagships and they’ve gotten another life. Fallout was taken in a completely different direction, XCOM is now a shooter and a really good turn-based remake. Jagged Alliance got stuck somehow.

Meeting the Bit Composer guys and knowing suddenly that they had the license and I had access to, it was an opportunity that I knew I could do something with, something I had liked in my past if I pitched it right. They were very open to giving us access to the license and doing the Kickstarter with it. That turned successful and it was a great opportunity to go with.

Do you think they were influenced by your enthusiasm?

I think so, yeah. I mean for the Kickstarter we had to fight really hard. Very hard; we’re not going to be doing that again within the near future as it kills you.

I take it from that that it was hard work going through the process?

Not only that but it’s hard work before the Kickstarter goes public as you have to create game designs and have to negotiate licenses. Then when you engage with the community they’re asking for all this other stuff that you didn’t think about. We spent a lot of time on our website with forums and such like but nobody was using the forums, so all the effort that went into that was basically lost.

We should have done a small slice of a demo instead and during the Kickstarter we had to actually produce one on top of everything. Boy, that was tough. We made a still diorama scene in Unity so you could move around and see what everything looked like.

To give them a taster?

Yeah, that was what we came up with in such a short time frame. We couldn’t do any game mechanics in that time so what we ended up doing in this little 3D diorama scene shows a firefight in the art style that we thought could be really cool. We’re taking a realistic approach but tweaking the colour scheme to be more vivid to give it a cool visual style instead of going AAA photorealistic… kinda boring.

Did I say that?

We did it in about two-and-a-half weeks; we made all the models, all the textures and got it running. And we should have done this from day one instead of the website but you don’t know that until you’re sitting in the middle of the campaign with people screaming “what’s it going to look like!?”

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I guess you can sit and think of everything but there’s always going to be one more question

Yes, oh yes. I guess we didn’t know that the Jagged Alliance crowd was going to be so serious and if you look at other Kickstarters ours has 13,000 comments and with the same amount of backers they have about 400. Maybe because they have a much clearer product, but hey. If you come with a concept then people are going to be asking a lot of questions, especially with a game that they feel they have been burnt with earlier and where there is a lot of specific detail. Some guys want ammo to count in the weight, someone wanted you to sleep and drink and eat and that that should be a part of the game, other players are not as hardcore. I don’t want to go that hardcore. Though someone did send me a full six pages saying what they wanted me to do with this game.

How did they shaped up? Have you started on the detailed design yet?

We haven’t started up full production just yet as most of the team has been producing Space Hulk. What we’ve done since the Kickstarter up until now, based on the feedback, is concentrate on the the overall story. What is this game played about?, so when you see the intro all the way down to the outro of the main story that’s now in place. We’ve setup and created the map that is the strategic layer, so there is an island group and there’s transportation vehicles between them with boats and so on. Then we’re sitting down and seeing about making up this chessboard, plotting the key locations: you have a city here, a mine here, a capital right here and even saying that you’re going to go in and meet these mercenaries in these locations.

As part of the licensing deal we also got a load of the art assets that were used for the previous games so we’ve been through and catalogued those to see which ones of those are usable in the new game so we can see what we need to create. The lead guys from Space Hulk are now going to go over and flesh out the assets and gets artists up and producing so we can sit down and level design to get a vertical slice of this tactical game. We’re going to give it out to the backers and say “hey, this is how you’d play the game on one sector, what do you think?” And then we’d flesh that out.

So you’re having a dialogue. Asking those who’ve funded it what they think so far?

Yeah, that’s how we want to. That’s the spirit of the Kickstarter. Of course we need to control it somehow as if you asked a thousand people they’d have a thousand different opinions.

So we want to take it up to a level where we show it to people and get their opinion on some of the details, tweak it, twist it, make sure 80 or 90 percent of people think it’s cool and then we go finish the game based on that. So releasing it out to the community in small chunks.

There’s also the balance of not giving them the story, as you don’t want to give them the entire story script up front and tell them what they’re going to do. There still has to be some kind of surprise when you play the game.

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How long do you think this drip feeding will take place over? When’s the final release?

When you look at it from a budget point of view and a production plan we were looking at fall or winter next year for the final release. There are some factors that can tilt that in either way, for instance if a lot of the assets that we have can easily be converted into our art style and there are only so many assets that we have to create to build all the levels then it might go a little faster.

There’s also the option of releasing the game on Steam Early Access, maybe. And that would on one side give the game out to people faster, on the other as well give us more budget to make an even bigger game.

How easily is the Space Hulk engine transferable to Jagged Alliance? I guess if you’re reusing that it’ll save some work.

Yes. We have Unity underneath, a 3D game engine that we coded a turn-based framework on top of it. Space Hulk is the fourth strategy game that we have and we’re using that to add new features on so that we can make bigger and bigger games iteratively.

So in theory we could see a similar setup to Jagged Alliance appearing in a Space Hulk campaign?

Not really. Well, we could take the Jagged Alliance system and transfer it into the game that’s going to be after that. Bigger and better all the time.

Thank you very much to Thomas Hentschel Lund for taking time to speak to us. Space Hulk is out now through Steam and coming soon to iOS. Jagged Alliance is under development and scheduled for next year.

Space Hulk ::: Interview

During our time out in Germany we were lucky enough to meet up with Thomas Hentschel Lund, CEO of Full Control. His indie team have put together the recently released Space Hulk and are behind a forthcoming reboot of Jagged Alliance. In the first half of our interview we speak about battling Genestealers in the depths of space.

7outof10: Congratulations on the launch of Space Hulk, is everyone taking a well-earned rest at the studio? What are the team focusing on now?

Thomas: The push for the next several months is to get more content into the Windows and Mac version in the form of more Space Marine Chapters and new campaigns.

We’re also working on the co-op mode with an additional campaign for that because the original Sin of Damnation campaign from the board game that we based ourselves off of is not setup in a way that is good for co-op. There are one or two missions where you have multiple squads that you think if one controlled one and one controlled the other it could work but there’s nothing designed with co-op in mind. We realised that when we went through development.

So we have created a larger four mission co-op only campaign that can have up to three guys on the Terminator side – everybody gets a Terminator squad – and there’s a common goal but each of the squads have different tasks. So one might have to fight his way through the Genestealers to turn on the emergency power grid to open blast doors for the two other teams to go into the next section on the Space Hulk and then go back again and try to keep the back clear. That interaction is what we wanted to design into the co-op missions, to give another dimension of co-op and not just “oh we’re killing Genestealers together.” Though that’s ok too.

How is that affecting the iPad version’s development?

So that’s in development. On the side [of the co-op campaign] we have the dual development of the level editor and the iPad version. IPad is coming this year. We definitely want to do it but with the opportunity and support we got for the PC and Mac versions we want to get more content to people, especially the co-op.

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So you’re more focused on expanding the current community?

Personally I really love that and that’s one of the reasons we’re giving that away for free, just to say “I as a fan I would love to play co-op”, and instead of having just a few people play it, the ones who want to pay money for it, we’re saying here you go.

The level editor’s, the same thing. We can see that nobody is likely to make another turn-based Space Hulk for many, many years and at some point it doesn’t make sense for us commercially to add any more content to it. We really wanted to keep the game alive though so we’re giving away the level editor with the mechanism of sharing maps, voting, rating, downloading whatever anybody has created and creating a community around the game that should last many years.

Are you using Steam Workshop for this?

It’s our own system and we want to see how we can try and hook it into the Steam as it has some cool features as well. So it’s going to be some kind of hybrid, using our own editor systems that we had for development but enabling usage of whatever makes sense that Steam has to offer.

That’s the main part of the Space Hulk development moving forward. As many Chapters as we can, customisation of Terminators units, progression of what you can unlock, purity seals, gems or loin cloths or whatever you want to add to your Terminator crew as you advance.

Did you get complaints that certain Chapters weren’t in the game?

Yeah, everybody has their favourite Chapter. And the board game campaign has the Blood Angels so that’s the one we ran with but we know there’s a huge following especially of the big four so we’re looking into adding one or more of the Ultramarines, Space Wolves and Dark Angels. Those are the ones we’re concentrating on first and then we’ll see what’s going on.

Again, for as long as the income is higher than the cost then it makes sense to makes more and give the fans more.

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If you ever want to consider the White Scars, I won’t be offended.

The thing is we’ve been asked “can’t you just make a painter to swap colours and what-have-you but if you’ve seen the Terminators that we’ve made they’re very, very detailed. Just painting a Blood Angel blue doesn’t make him an Ultramarine.

They all have their different traits, right, so the Blood Angels are really the bling vampires, once you go over to the Space Wolves you have the pelts the fangs and so on, and Ultramarines are far more strict military, so every Chapter has their different set to add into it. So what we want to do is give you the ability to customise the Space Wolf or Ultramarine but not by just taking him and painting him in a different colour and saying that’s a Salamander. As fans ourselves we want to make it right.

Going back to the level editor, are they the same tools as you used to make the game?

Mostly, yes. We’ve an internal tool that when we make a level we set it up like the board game. In the board game each room and corridor is a section and so you take these sections and slam them together to make the general layout – bam bam bam – then we export that out of the level editor and then it’s a semi manual process of adding the spawn points. Then objects have to be coded in so that you have the win conditions. That’s all in an xml file so it’s pretty accessible but it’s still nerdy.

We want to take this up to another level where it’s end-user friendly. Where there is the ability to take all these logic pieces and link them together visually instead of you having to code xml. So you can take a board game section and say I would like to use this tile instead of this tile and it swaps it out, use this lighting scheme so you can pop two lights here two lights here or floor lights, that way you can configure the map. You can write the briefing screen you can select the voice over to be used in some of the parts and then you can share it.

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So if the level editor and co-op are free, what’s going to be paid-for content?

It’s a business but we’re also fans. The fan part of me has been wanting to do the co-op so let’s give that to everybody and the level editor is going to keep the game alive for many, many years and gives the fans a voice.

When we do new big campaigns or new Chapters there’s a lot of work involved in making this and those are going to be the paid for expansions. We want to give something out that’s as substantial as possible so when we do a new Chapter we’ll also do a small mission that specific to that Chapter that ties into the lore. So if you buy the Ultramarines you’ll get an Ultramarine themed mini Space Hulk with that. Reasonably priced though so everyone can have some fun but, yes, we still have to be able to pay salaries.

Well everyone appreciates new content.

I would, some of the ideas we have take it from where we are now – the board game campaign, which is pretty cool if you like the board game and people can identify with it pretty fast – but there are so many options that you have in a computer game that you don’t have in a board game. A living environment for example, why not have some rooms that have mechanisms that are deadly. If you’re inside this room on a certain turn, maybe down to moving parts, you can die, all these things are things that we could explore in a computer game. That’s the kind of campaigns we want to make. Also to differentiate ourselves from what the community can make with the level editor.

Since moving onto your own campaigns have you found it more fulfilling when compared to recreating someone else’s game?

In some ways it’s a super cool thing just to take a rule book, take the campaign, and say that’s cool someone else thought this up and I “just” have to recreate it.

Just slap it on the programmers desks and tell them to get on with it.

While it’s not that simple it’s still a great thing because everything is balanced, everything is setup already; you know that this works. There’s are lot of creative parts that can still work inside that frame though. For example, in the board game there are no walls, no ceiling, there are no real adornments. What does it look like? The animations as well, the audio side, those are the areas we were given pretty free reign on by games workshop to say “how do you want a Space Hulk to look like on the inside?”

We had the old EA games on the Amiga but those pixelated graphics don’t really say so much these days. So that’s where we sat down and looked at the interior of gothic churches, a lot of skull graves, imagery from different places and tried to put that into the game to give a visual reference, mixing it up with other Warhammer 40,000 fluff, purity seals, and the whole tech priest look. Telling little stories with level design: blood pools here and skeletons in corners with small candles, a small alter somewhere underneath a cog symbol. Really, really small things like that but it gives you ambience.

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Now that that has been done we are free to explore also beyond the board game limitation and rules and settings. We’re looking into creating new rules new additions, new weaponry. For example, the Genestealers; taking up their codex for Tyranids there are Genestealer variations like feeder tendrils and fleshhooks, why not take some of those parts and put them into Space Hulk. It’s ok to say that one thing is 40k and the other is Space Hulk but just taking some of these things and saying if you have feeder tendrils what would it be cool to do there? If you have scything talons does that mean you’re a little slower but when you hit you get an additional dice? That could be some of those thing that would be really cool to sit and explore. Also give variations to the Genestealer player during the campaign so that kind of creativeness can come into it. We’re very looking forward to doing that.

You touched upon previous Space Hulk video games, have you taken any inspiration from them or did you want own vision?

One of things that we took in, if you’ve seen the game you’ll see this shoulder camera up in the corner which in many ways is inspired by the old EA games where you had the five screens. Where you had to quickly shoot and click. We were thinking you could take the interface as Raphael sitting back in the strike cruiser outside the Space Hulk, directing the troops and what he sees is this video feed from the sensor array on the Terminator suit.

Also in the briefing scene we definitely wanted to pay homage back to how EA did it with the map and having the same kind of voice over going on barking out instructions. That kind of stuff was heavily kind of inspired by the old Chaos Gate and the old EA games because we thought it was cool and it would pay back to the old games. As a small indie studio we cannot make a huge game but we can make these small things that pay tribute.

Has Space Hulk changed your studio at all? How many board gamers did you have before and after?

There are a lot of the crew that are board game players, also 40k players. We have display cabinet where everybody brings their models to show off, some of their own personal armies, in the studio. We do play some games too but lately we haven’t had time to play.

There’s always been in the lunch breaks people playing Dawn of War or similar stuff but it’s been fun to see how through the project that was replaced by Space Hulk. Not only for testing but for enjoyment.

We continue talking to Thomas later this week about Jagged Alliance. Space Hulk is available now for Windows and Mac through Steam.

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Gamescom ::: Roundup (Part 5)

FIFA 14 (Multi)

If you wanted to see the true power of next-gen then I’d have to point you to the differences between the Xbox 360 and Xbox One’s versions of EA’s all-conquering football series. On the aging Microsoft console the game still plays slick and attractive football but on its younger brother it goes a step further.

Although improved in recent years, players are still prone to a slight jerk as they transition into certain movements, snapping into a predetermined routine. It’s not overly jarring but play the game enough and you’ll notice the signs. With the next generation of console literally hundreds of extra animations have been added to each player’s repertoire allowing them to cope with a wider range of situations and create a more fluid experience. They’ll smoothly receive, tussle, and sprint away as never before. Rather than just upping the core visuals EA have paid attention to the smaller details and it’s paid off.

It’s also enabled is a more balanced defensive battle, where the jockeying between opponents is a fairer contest. In FIFA 13 speed, as is often the way with football games, was king, though usually because of the occasionally awkward movement of the defender. The extra animations in the can seemed to have put pay to that, meaning that being turned is not the end of the world. Your player can give chase and harry them with far greater chance of reacting quicker and nudging them off the ball.

Elsewhere the biggest smile came to my face during the incidental action that takes place when the ball goes dead. Action continues as players rush to retrieve the ball as others jog back into position. More than that however I managed to catch sight of two balls on the pitch; my winger had grabbed a ball to take a quick throw but the original one had started to roll back on the pitch before another player strolled over and booted it back out. It’s a little thing but one that makes you believe you’re taking part in a full game and not just the edited highlights.

Rating: Awesome

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Call of Duty: Ghosts (Multi)

The calmest place in the entirety of Gamescom was strangely the presentation room for Ghosts. As the Community Manager from Infinity Ward spoke to us about the new additions to multiplayer, the air conditioned and gently lit press room was a welcome respite from the heaving mass of humanity in the next hall.

She told us about the new customisation options, a surprising first for the series; the new weapons and kill streaks, each building on their understanding of current player tactics; and the new perks, which are no longer a tech-tree but unlocked through a far more open format. If you can afford it then you can have it, but with only a certain number of points to spend on your three do you then go balanced or spend big on one with two makeweights? An interesting balance that hands further options to the community.

Most of those were just interesting bullet points however compared to the two big additions. The first is the inclusion of a squad game mode. This isn’t co-op though, this is choosing five AI team-mates and heading online to take on (or down) a similarly specced squad. Over the course of time your team will level up, have skills assigned to them, and even prestige. You’ll be able to level up your multiplayer rank too throughout and so a perfect place to play for those not keen on directly entering the full multiplayer arena. With the options and upgrades available however this struck me as Ultimate Team for the FPS.

The other biggie was of course Riley. Jumping into an online game our new favourite hound could be found bound to a killstreak. As soon I had proved myself there he was tagging along by my side, growling every time an enemy came near. It’s a little detail but a hugely influential one because as soon as he’d alert me to the danger my pace would drop and I’d be on heightened alert. This kept me alive on more then one occasion, and his aggressive attitude equally saved my skin as attackers became torn between shooting me and removing the German Sheppard from their nethers. We all may have mocked it but man’s best friend has piqued my interest in a series that I’ve ignored since the original Modern Warfare.

Rating: Good

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The Red Solstice

Tucked away on the Indie stand, The Red Solstice brought a touch of the grim dark future to a section that otherwise was using the brighter end of the spectrum. It’s strange that it stood out by hiding in the shadows but its depiction of a futuristic city, with small areas of strong lighting accentuating the darkness, was enticing. With oddly shaped lampposts and street corners prevalent it was a setting that wouldn’t have been out of place in a space-age film noire… if it weren’t for the heavily armoured marines.

Playing quite like a dungeon-crawler, this shooter is incredibly easy to get into. The mouse buttons control movement and basic firing, with your collection of medkits and grenades assigned to hotkeys. The high camera angle allows you to drink in the atmosphere of the moodily lit levels but at the same time gives the designer scope to throw wave after wave of beasts at you from all angles.

The demo level placed you with three AI controlled squad mates who pulled you through the overrun city at quite a pace. At times there was blind panic; trying to strike a balance between thinning out alien numbers and running to keep up with my chums who seemed quite happy to leave me behind. Most of my firing was done on the hoof and the constant progression provided a dynamic to the level that I haven’t often experienced in these types of games.

I found a soft spot for The Red Solstice as it put me in mind of the Syndicate games of old – or at least how in my mind I thought they looked despite the Amiga graphics – with a dash of Warhammer 40,000 thrown in for grit. For a small studio it has tremendous production values and between its approachable gameplay and an co-op mode for up to eight players I may try and introduce this at my next LAN party.

Rating: Good

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The Cave (iPad)

One of my pet peeves when it comes to touch screen gaming is the poorly designed control systems that would otherwise work oh-so easily with a gamepad. Virtual sticks, transparent buttons floating across the screen, all scream of a game shoehorned onto a device when it should have had some special attention paid to it.

With my first interaction with The Cave, a puzzle platformer from Double Fine and Sega, my preconceptions were dismissed. There were no invisible joysticks by which I’d guide the characters about, instead it felt far more natural as I’d point where I wanted them to go and they’d wander off in that direction. It was a mix between the classical point-and-click mouse controls that forced them to an exact pixel and a d-pad’s request for continued movement. A strange hybrid but one that combined with a quick flick for a jump allowed you the best of both worlds.

The game is wonderfully charming with a host of characters, from Scientists and Adventurers to Knights and Hillbillies. Each comes with their own talent, be it phasing through locked doors or using a rope to swing across a spiked pit. Every time you venture into The Cave you’ll select three of them to work them together to extract its secrets as each can only hold one item. It’s an interesting alteration on the traditional inventory formula as not all locations are immediately accessible by all characters.

Importantly it retains the level of humour that you’d expect from a Ron Gilbert game. Whether through animations or the written word, it captures much of what made the genre so captivating in its heyday.

Rating: Good

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Dust 514

Though already out for some time, CCP have been responding to the harsh feedback it received when its shooter launched. The inspired move to tie it into its deep space MMO may have gone down well but the poor aiming and lack lustre shooting mechanics not so much.

Having returned to the drawing board and brought in a completely new set of tighten controls the future for 514 now looks positive. Forgetting all the paraphernalia of the EVE tie-in, it now feels like a strong squad shooter with a good selection of classes and interesting batch of futuristic weapons. Though my time with it was limited I found a pleasing weight to the movement and the mix of weapons satisfying. Switching between loadouts the mix of devastating grenade launchers and pinpoints snipers showed me a side of their universe that I could see myself investing in.

The potential is always the best aspect of EVE however and for all the good work the developers had done on the game, hearing about how their community had used 514 to profit in the main MMO was superb. When corporations hire whole forums worth of mercenaries to help them take over a sector you have to tip your hat to the universe they have built.

Rating: Good

Gamescom ::: Roundup (Part 4)

Planetside 2 (PC and PlayStation 4)

The biggest challenge for any MMO is sustaining its playerbase. Planetside 2, the expansive online shooter, is keeping its fighters keen with a huge new battlefield, Hossin. Made up of 64km2 it’s a very different prospect from anything in-game currently as combat moves away from the deserts and verdant planes and instead rages across a lush swampland. Even just from a glimpse of the new area, with tall trees creating a canopy that mutes colour and blocks aerial attacks, you can see it’s going to change how battles are fought.

Speaking to Matthew Higby, Planetside 2’s Creative Director, he admitted that creating levels for Planetside is a daunting task. Balancing how small fire fights play out in a theatre where simultaneously hundreds of opposing players battle for control is a tricky task. Throw in the need to support tanks and aircraft and you have to tip your hat to their design team for the results. Being the first new map since launch they have taken the experience of the last few years, learned from any flaws in their launch maps, and produced fresh challenges for the warring factions.

All of it wouldn’t be possible without Sony Online’s dedication to its community. They’ve actively listened to their fans’ views right from the reveal trailer and have even opened up their development roadmap to them. Each item on there is linked to the forums allowing the players to feedback directly into what is important for them, saving the devs the need to stare into a crystal ball and predict what they think they want. The community is the heart of any MMO and they know that.

Top of the priority list at the moment is performance. Stepping out of your spawn point and into a battlefield where hundreds of players and vehicles are can see the framerate plummet even on moderately specced rigs. From personal experience, the stuttering can be a large barrier to entry as it throws off any sense of fluidity or even confidence in your aim. It’s a high priority fix and one that will pay great dividends.

It’s also key for the forthcoming PS4 release, which is being pitched as the PC version but on maximum settings. There will be no cross-play between the platforms however due to a handful of issues, not least the platform’s stance on patching. Though disappointing that the console community cannot take advantage of the already burgeoning PC playerbase, this at least won’t bring up the perennial debate of controller versus keyboard.

Rating: Awesome

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Aion (PC)

One of a stable of free-to-play games from Gameforge, AION is the most traditional of its kind: a classical fantasy MMO. Having been around since 2008 it has received numerous updates and at Gamescom we saw the latest which raises the level cap to 65, adds a series of new instances, expands the PvP with extra fortresses, and offers a further two classes.

The engineer class, which evolves into a gunner class, looks styled upon the offspring of Van Helsing and Kate Beckinsale’s character in Underworld. Dressed in dark leather and sporting a wide brimmed hat they cut an ominous sight. A fun class, aimed possibly at those also wanting a more action approach to the game, they pepper their prey from afar with a selection of firepower. Baring dual pistols or touting a huge cannon, they nimbly spring about the screen keeping away from danger.

The other new addition is the artist who levels to become a bard. An elegant, Oriental figure wearing a split dress, this musician plays a support role on the battlefield. With a whistle on their pipe or strum on their harp they’ll heal, buff and debuff with a delightful elegance. Though delicate in appearance they are the trouble makers at the back, capable of tying larger enemies down in a tangle of vines or even transforming them into a troupe of dancing penguins. If there was an award for Best Attack of the Show, that would have taken it by a country mile.

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S.K.I.L.L. – Special Force 2 (PC)

Aimed specifically at the eSports arena, Special Force 2 comes equipped with everything required to manage a clan. There are calendars, rosters, chat rooms, and a myriad of stats aimed at dissecting performance. It’s an interesting way to spend your development time given the number of free services out there doing similar things, but having them all in one place is definitely beneficial.

Bonus features would be worthless though without a solid game and with this first-person shooter Gameforge have focused on the core experience. The handling feels slick and responsive and mainstream concepts such as a stamina are done away with; here you sprint by default to keep the action always at a high pace. There are also no vehicles or perks, instead there is a direct aim of pitting two sets of skilled and fairly matched players against each other. You have your two guns and a grenade and everything else is down to your reactions; no dogs will save you here. Even the premium additions to this FTP shooter don’t affect you in-game abilities but merely XP boosts or extra tagging options.

Game modes take advantage of the Special Forces theme and the majority of them are based on covert operations. Not all are taken too seriously however as it seems your squad is also in cahoots with Area 51 as there are several wave-based games against alien invaders, and even a bizarre version that sees you don the skin of the invaders and wield otherworldly weapons.

Rating: Good

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Everquest Next (PC)

Everquest is returning, yet rather than fall back on being a prettier version of what it used to be it is choosing to breaking new ground. Literally. With a world built entirely out of voxels the team has invested a great deal of time in real-time battlefield deformation. Not only is this an impressive sight as your area attacks gouge out the ground around you, leaving it potted and scarred, but it plays into combat. Bridges can be destroyed and floors blown out from underneath feet, leading to tactical choices of not only how you should fight but where. You don’t want to be stuck in an impromptu pit with a horde of angry orcs.

As it is a shared world, the land will heal over time but even then it opens up possibilities. The new land is many tiers deep, each with its own style and lore thanks to the rich history of the Everquest universe. How you reach these lower levels is not always clear and so it can be quite a surprise when the ogre you’re fighting pounds a hole in the ground, dropping you into a further battle against an angry lava deity below. Though probably not a common occurrence, the fact that it is possible is highly exciting. Exploration in MMOs are usually very linear, walking down paths and seeing what monsters lie in wait but here there’s a verticality that’s unique.

Furthermore even the enemies themselves don’t know where they’ll be. Using a special tagging system the developers release them into the wild and let them find their own way. Taking orcs as an example, if they’re tagged as hating built up areas and guards but liking open stretches and ambush, they may wander away from the city and choose to camp on the approaching road, lying in wait for players who amble by. Off course if the guards start patrolling that route the orcs may start to wander off, likewise if players choose to avoid the area completely. The result is that although you may know what to expect you can never be sure as to what, if anything, lies in wait around the next corner.

The aim is to end the strength of the wiki. The developers don’t want players heading to a text dump of where questlines are or what to find where, they are developing a world that is as much a dynamic part of the experience as the host of players roaming it. With even quests themselves adapting to your behaviour and what’s in the local environment it’s a fascinating experiment.

Rating: Awesome

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Everquest Next Landmark (PC)

If what they’re attempting with a dynamic world isn’t a big enough change, Everquest are also launching a second MMO called Landmark. If all the talk of voxels and subterranean questing hadn’t put you in mind of Minecraft already then the thought of a sister experience created solely for the joy of building should. Landmark is a tool handed to the community to shape Everquest Next.

Using many of the same systems as Next, its primary characters are the Adventurers. A class that ventures out into the world, places their stake on a piece of land, and then starts turning it into whatever they want. In the demonstration we saw a pair reshape a hillside completely in about thirty minutes, moving a harsh slope from the left to the right and creating a cutting straight through. In a longer clip we saw a time lapse capturing three hours’ work that saw a multi-storey and decorated temple rise up from a desolate mountain top.

Interestingly all the resources must still be mined and so there is still a lot of work entailed. Players can trade, form building unions, and level, just as in a typical MMO. The end result however is that anything the players make could achieve the ultimate quest reward: being imported into the final Everquest Next

It’s a staggering undertaking but also a canny one. For one it acts a beta for Next, allowing them to test the load on a playerbase that will no doubt be smaller than the final game’s. Also, the dedication of the community should never be underestimated and I’ve no doubt that given the talent of people out there much of the Everquest content will come from outside the studio. Expect to see a lot of warriors standing outside ruined castles repeatedly shouting “I MADE THIS!”

Rating: Awesome