How Road Redemption is reviving a lost genre

On the road again.

It began, where some of the very best obsessions do, in a rental store.

"We were fortunate enough to live close to this place that had all these crazy exotic systems you could hire," says Ian Fisch, getting audibly excited over the Skype line as he recounts how he and his brother would spend their summers. "We rented Road Rash on 3DO, and it was amazing. It was the first time I got into the series - I'd played the Genesis ones, I liked them - but Road Rash on 3DO, that's when it really clicked for me. I played it for hours."

The fascination has stuck with Fisch throughout a career in games development that has taken him to some strange places. At Gameloft, he suffered the honour of working on a Paris Hilton-branded puzzle game before seeing the socialite take to the stage at E3 and repeatedly get its title wrong, or the time he worked on a movie licence where his employers were so paranoid about the film being pirated by staff they were made to work without internet, or without USB ports.

Throughout all this, though, Fisch's love for Road Rash has never really wavered. In 2009, a full decade after the last game proper had released on the N64, he took to his Gamasutra blog to tell the world why it needs a new Road Rash. "If done right, a new Road Rash would give the videogaming world a shot in the arm," Fisch wrote. "So let's get moving."

"One of the greatest things about Road Rash is that it's an action game, but your environment is constantly changing," Fisch says today about the lasting appeal of the series. "You play a game like Arkham Asylum, or God of War, you're essentially just playing in a cube, a wrestling ring. It's a flat surface, the enemies are spaced out, you're not really using the environment. In Road Rash, you're having a fight and all of a sudden a car will come out between you and your combatant, and you have to react to that. Or maybe you pass a telephone pole, and all of a sudden you've got an opportunity to win the fight by kicking them into a pole. You have all these amazing emergent situations, where every battle is different, just because your environment was constantly changing."

Fisch's blog post was meant as a call to arms to EA to resurrect its series, though the inactivity over the past five years suggest it's a call that fell on deaf ears. It's probably no surprise, either; the arcade racing genre which Road Rash embodies has taken a battering in recent years, claiming high-profile casualties in studios such as Black Rock and Bizarre.

"You look at Split/Second, you look at Blur, and both of those games failed commercially," says Fisch. "You look at a beat 'em-up where you use weapons like chains and bats - name a game like that that's been successful in the last ten years. I can't. You're pitching this game to studio heads, and they're asking how do I know this will be a success? If you're pitching a game like Road Rash to people like that, it's tough. They won't take the risk."

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Splitscreen multiplayer is in - and next in line is full keyboard and mouse support.

Eventually, it became clear to Fisch that if he really wanted to see another game like Road Rash he'd have to take on the risk himself. A couple of years ago he'd made the move to go independent, releasing the puzzle game Defy Gravity to small but positive critical acclaim, before the rapid emergence of Kickstarter alerted him of the potential of sparking his passion project into life. "What Kickstarter does, it makes you feel secure in what you're doing," Fisch says. "Not only do you have a budget, you know that this is a game people want - otherwise they wouldn't have bought it a year before release."

Road Redemption took to Kickstarter last April, edging past its goal with just over $170,000 raised across 30 days. It's a tribute to the original Road Rash trilogy in many ways - running through it all is the thread of an open road, its tarmac torn apart by a mob of angry bikers with weapons in hand - as well as an attempt to evolve the formula.

"Having real physics and rigid bodies, that's something you could never do in the Road Rash series, even on the N64," says Fisch. "It just creates all kinds of emergent situations, where you're causing wrecks, cars are spinning over the road. We're planning a way to have either harpooned enemies, or maybe lassoing them and flipping them into stuff. With physics there's an infinite possibility of amazing and funny and awesome situations."

In the early alpha build, the slapstick combat has a reassuring, hefty weight - there's a satisfying thud when thwacking an opponent with a pipe, and a nice sense of consequence when jostling with the pack. There's a willingness to engage that slapstick, too - cars toss around riders unfortunate enough to enter their path, and in some of the later test-bed levels vehicles rain down from the sky, crashing down on the tarmac like the heaviest, most lethal rain.

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There are different weapons available to riders, from wrenches to pipe bombs.

The periphery, right now, is threadbare, and if the solid execution of the core mechanics speaks of the enthusiasm of Fisch and his co-developers at studio Darkseas, then the lack of fidelity elsewhere speaks of how small the team is. It's still early days, though - a final release is unlikely to happen this year - and there are plenty of sound ideas waiting to be worked on top of the already sturdy foundations.

"Road Redemption is going to be a journey from one end of the United States to another," Fisch says of the final vision. "It's going to be an epic kind of roguelike experience where it's this constant streaming seamless world, and there are a bunch of different people populating this highway you're driving on, and they'll have memories. So let's say you accept the mission where one gang will pay you some money to take out another gang - the next time you encounter the gang, they'll remember that and come after you. It's going to be a living, breathing world."

If Road Redemption continues on its current trajectory it should live up to its promise, and go some way to kick-start a genre that's sadly been lost. It will, at the very least, allow Fisch and his brother to revive some of their childhood memories, no matter how fuzzy they may now be. "I have this recollection of being able to put a tire-iron in the wheels of an enemy's bike," he says of the N64 Road Rash, a game he's returned to recently. "I haven't been able to pull it off lately - maybe it was something we just thought was cool and made up. We're going to put it in Road Redemption, anyway."

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