Summary: Updated: Today our E3 2004 coverage continues with our third installment. Jakub adds some rather more cynical comments about Half-Life 2, and previews "The Movies" from Lionhead/Activision. However, top honors today most definitely went into the dark horse candidate for best in show, Call of Cthulhu.
Bethesda Softworks has taken on an interesting role in the PC game industry. While they publish a variety of smaller games here and there, every year they seem to have one big title. A couple of years back it was the most excellent Morrowind, a free-form RPG chock full of content, completely open-ended (or, indeed, almost endless). Last year we saw Pirates of the Caribbean, a game that looked promising but failed to deliver - being uncomfortably stuck somewhere between console and PC in design. This year, Call of Cthulhu took center stage.
It's a pity that Bethesda is a smaller publisher, because from what we could see of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, it deserved one of those massive displays normally reserved for major headliners. CoC is a first-person horror game, but unlike so many others it doesn't warrant the "shooter" moniker at all. It was very clear that the developers, Headfirst Productions, went out of their way to make a Call of Cthulhu game, not a Call of Cthulhu shooter. The distinction is subtle enough when the game is demoed, so pardon me if the following account does not convey all the little details that help separate CoC from your typical horror FPS.
At its simplest, Cthulhu can be described as a first person adventure. The protagonist is involved in some action as a first person game often entails, but more than that, he is also progressing through an intricate storyline. The devil, of course, is in the details - and CoC has plenty of those. The adventure aspects include a fair deal of puzzle solving and of course the great mystery that is to be resolved. On the first person side, there is the shooter part as a natural consequence, but also a stealth aspect. The game features a sneaky mode, which is an extension of ideas like leaning around corners - but in this case the player will move sneak between objects and fire from beyond obstacles.
The health aspect is more detailed that you might expect as well. Jack doesn't simply have hit points, he takes a variety of injuries - he can take cuts that need stitches, he'll bleed and require bandages, and even break bones. Healing isn't simply a matter of finding health packs, it requires the proper equipment - splints for broken bones, for example.
The game engine is quite potent. Itís aimed at both the Xbox and PC, and oddly enough the Xbox version will have more graphics features. In addition to various shader effects, Call of Cthulhu had a really cool scene with the player traveling on a ship towards an island. When almost there, the ship is swarmed by enemies from the deeps, who for some reason retreat just as victory was at hand. At one point, spellcasters on the island summon a huge wave that sends the ship almost straight up before it crashes down into the sea again. The player, as Jack, has to figure out that he needs to hold onto a handrail, or else heíll go flying off. At the end, a gigantic sea creature launches an attack on the ship, shaking it, slamming his fists against it, tearing off the front end, etc. Call of Cthulhu is really the surprise of the year for me, itís worth checking out.
The developers told us that they expect the final game to weigh in at about 20 hours of play, and itís currently expected in quarter 4 of this year.
The Movies puts the player in charge of a movie studio, letting him run it from the year 1900 all the way to 2010 (and beyond, but there will be no technology updates or scripted events to make a difference in the years thereafter). At the start of course, films will be recorded by hand-cranked cameras, with no sound and grainy black and white images. As the game progresses, the player has to research technology to keep up with the other studios (or even stay ahead of the game).
The Movies can create its own movies and let the player deal with the business side, or the player can make his own films. According to the developers, a movie can be six scenes or one hundred. The scenes are filmed on a variety of sets and are scripted to follow certain archetypes. The action plays on as dictated by the script, but there are sliders that control the outcomes of each scene.
An example the developers showed us was the end scene of a film, with the male and female leads coming out of an elevator onto the bridge of a starship. There, the movieís director automatically chose a happy ending, with the main characters in a passionate embrace. The scene, like most, had a slider with three positions. The default was happy, but there was also an angry selection, and an unhappy one, where the male lead came aboard the bridge holding the body of his beloved. This slider appears in every scene, dictating the main theme of that scene. A driving scene will have a slider determining the amount of action, for example.
The main part of the game seems to involve the management of your movie stars. Each star is rated on a variety of scales Ė his list, his vices (overeating, sexual activity, etc.) They all start off as fresh, grateful actors who need training and coaching, but it doesnít take long before they grow egos and start walking around with an entourage which constantly tells them how great they are. A star will make demands for items like their salary and their trailer, and if these demands are not met, the character might get angry enough to leave the studio.
As might be expected, these stars have lifespans Ė so theyíre good for certain roles at certain points in their life. A 60 year old male doesnít make a good romantic lead, any more than a 20 year old can be a father figure. Stars are also suited to some kinds of roles more naturally than others, and they can be conditioned for these. Action movies demand fit, healthy actors. Morose dramas are no place for super models. Dramatic actors will take exception to being cast in silly comedies. For their roles, characters need costumes and there are thousands of combinations Ė itís impossible to describe them all.
The gameís producer mentioned that the game should be in alpha in two months or so, and hopefully will make it out on PC, the only platform, this year.
After the September 30th pronouncement last year, Gabe declined to give a release date this time around, though the last announcement had the game pegged for "Summer 2004". As last year, the demo was still canned and not at all interactive. It was clearly running off the actual game engine as at two points in the presentation, Gabe dropped out to the desktop and quit the game via the console.
After last year's demo and subsequent code leak, accusations sprung up from those who had played the leaked version that the demos were scripted and not snippets of gameplay as originally stated by Valve. We don't have personal experience with the leaked code, but the sheer quantity of those accusations is enough to give one pause. Valve declined to comment on the leak, and rather than respond to it with an interactive demo, they simply repeated last year's performance.
Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me: To say that the lack of an interactive demo is a disappointment would be an understatement. While competitors like Doom 3 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. left themselves out in the open for a more honest inspection, Valve declined to enter the arena on even footing. That's perfectly within their rights, of course, but after last year forgive us if we're more cynical this time around. At best, Valve can be said to have chosen select snippets which show the gameplay at its most impressive - ie, similar to, but clearly far better than what the real experience will be like. For example, Gordon is racing along in his buggy when he encounters a blockade of Combine soldiers. He drives his vehicle forward into one of them, smashing him and the fence behind it. Wow! Great! Destructible buildings! Or rather, a destructible fence. If Gordon had thrown his vehicle at the actual building next to the fence, he'd have bounced off or crashed to a stop, with nary a scratch visible on the shabby-yet-indestructible structure. A similar situation occurs in the strider fight - Gordon hides behind a column which just happens to be destructible, and is blown apart by the Strider's cannon. But what if he'd hidden behind a building or even a piece of glass that wasn't designed to break?
It's not that Valve has ever stated "wow, check out our destructible environments". Yet they do go out of their way to show an image of the game that is completely idealized. I suppose not much more can be expected from a game developer or publisher, but if that's true - why is E3 absolutely littered with playable games? Other companies are just like Valve - they all want their games seen in the best possible light - but unlike Valve, they're willing to risk fair, public, pre-release scrutiny of their gameplay. I admit I fell for the hype last year, but not this time around. Just as Valve isn't obligated to show off an interactive demo, I'm not obligated to drool over their selection of idealized sequences.
When I talk about S.T.A.L.K.E.R., I can honestly say: wow, that looks like a great game. I played it and experienced the surprisingly good multiplayer it offered. When I look at Half-Life 2, all that can honestly be said is that "Valve knows how to make an incredible canned demo taken from highly select gameplay sequences". Yes, you do see gameplay, in an idealized fashion. We know Half-Life 2 just about as well as we know celebrities based off their airbrushed pictures, publicist-approved interviews and sugarcoated A&E biographies.
Thatís all for today, see you next time!
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