This is the distant past. Things are different here. In the days of July, you may find it difficult to imagine how people lived in such a primitive time. For example, while you write "July" in your calendar, the people of this dark age write "August". They looked forward to a possible summer, while you know that summer's already over. And while in these modern days, Eurogamer writers spend their time typing desperately through midnight fatigue, then they were in Paris seeing the first public showing of Beowulf, the game of the forthcoming film, and then had to sign an non-disclosure agreement to promise they won't write any more until the film's properly revealed to the world in late July at the glorious NerdProm of San Diego ComicCon.
Beowulf is, as any English Lit teacher will tell you, one of the founding pieces of Anglo-Saxon literature from which we derive most of our fantasy tradition. Well, they probably will. Beowulf's rise towards kingdom, and the confrontation with Grendel and - eventually - Grendel's Mother is a poem full of everything required to make a startling post-Lord-of-the-Rings epic.
And from the snippets we were shown, the film will certainly garner much attention. Based around comic-writer/novelist/leather-jacket-wearer Neil Gaiman's script, and directed by arch-populist Zemeckis, it boasts a cast studded with stars (Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother. Ying!) and features Ray Winstone SHOUTING IN A LOUD VOICE as the eponymous Beowulf. Which is always a plus. It's fully computer animated (essentially the next generation from the Polar Express technology) so will at least look spectacular as it tumbles down the uncanny alley.
But we're interested in a game right now. While it's got everything that's required for a film, it's perhaps even more perfect for a videogame. Hell - with Grendel and Mom, it's got a pair of the original end of level Big Bosses.
"One of the reasons we took a mature direction on it was...if you take everything away from the licence, in terms of a game it lends itself to a game naturally," explains Ubisoft's affable international games manager Adrian Lacey. "The story, the mysticality, the barbarianism. We don't have to force it. It's a natural fit."
There's lots of things you can do with that. Of course, what you do has to tie in with the mother licence. "That's the first question we asked Robert Zemeckis," says Gilles Matouba, the creative director on Beowulf.
"There are many interpretations of the poem - what's yours? We tried to show him we were really entering the poem and myth following his interpretation...but hey! You can't make a movie in the same way you make a game. Once he understood that, everything went well from there."
The main change from the film version is they're drastically expanding the middle section of thirty years where Beowulf changes from a young to old man, ruling his kingdom. You start at a similar place, and dovetail back into the narrative in its third act, but have plenty of adventures in between. "We weren't sure if it was going to go down, but one of the cool things was they really appreciated that - as long as we kept the same sort of palette and visual palette - they're fine with taking it further," explains Lacey about the film-maker's reaction, "In fact, they wanted us to take it further."
The thirty years are essentially a gaming metaphor for the lead's inner torment. "It's basically his struggle with the Monster within," says Lacey. "There's a series of Titans and leaders from Norse mythology he battles and encounters. It's the transition from where he's a young headstrong warrior - where it's very much button-bashing no-brainer crushing...but it's the first stage, and he realises there's more to life than this. He has to look after his men, his thanes. He has to grow up."
So, yes, Beowulf is a post-God-of-War fantasy game, with plentiful blood (it's as mature-rated as it is next-gen-only - that is, totally). But there's more to it than just taking everyone apart.
There are up to fifty people on screen, and you get to lead a number of them in a squad-management fashion. It's at this point that you may not be surprised that the team behind the game were last seen hard at work on Ghost Recon games. It initially seems quite the leap. "Vikings are the dark-age special forces!" laughs Lacey, "They're like marines. They had special chainmail." "It's a big leap between genres," Matouba continues more soberly, "but we thought if we can be the Rainbow Six of hackandslash it could be interesting."
Being a different genre, the squad control is simplified compared to a Rainbow Six, but the core value of close tactical control remains. "It's something you don't see very often in beat-'em-ups and hackandslash games," Matouba argues, "We thought it was quite a cool layer to add in then. You like to lose control, but at the same time order them to surround you, defend you."
The question of how much you lose control and how much you don't is a key question in Beowulf. If you concentrate on protecting your men, your heroism increases. Conversely, concentrate on the slaughter and your Carnal Rage climbs. Both lead to different abilities, but they have wider sweeping actions than that. In the manner of Fable, your preferences shape the kingdom itself. It's a key aspect of the thirty-years mid-game.
"Now that you have all power. The player has to decide what kind of King he'll be," says Matouba, "Will he be that Barbarian guy, or the Arthurian guy? We ask: What sort of player are you?". This choice decides what perils you'll face along the way. As the game progresses, there's a slow slide from the mythology of the early game to the more historical-themed problems of the latter, but this is altered with extra missions depending on your stance. If you're a good kind - with a good kingdom - expect Barbarian invaders to home in on your lands plenty. If you're a bad king, then you're stuck dealing with more dark mythic creatures. "Then you've got the hub, which gives you basic feedback on how your people are reacting. If you're being a good king: hurrahs. If you're a bad king: boos," adds Lacey.
It's interesting to note that the growth of Beowulf towards being a good king mirrors the increasing complexity of the soldier-controlling mechanics. The change in maturity also links to the ever-ageing Beowulf at its centre. "By seeing your own character ageing means there is an end. Everything relates to that," Matouba argues, "If you refuse to grow up and play the same button-bashing from the beginning the end...well, you have the right. But - man! - you haven't evolved. We're trying to give people tools that admit that, while button-bashing is a good thing, we can open the genre into something new. We try and give the player feedback to get from pure pleasure of button-bashing to being the commander."
That said, there are advantages to being Mr Bad. "It's cool too be a bastard!" grins Matouba. "It's great to be the man; to be 'I don't care'. You have the right to be just like that."
Beowulf is coming to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in November via Ubisoft.