The chaps at Codemasters hope that Jericho will be the start of a longer term collaboration with Clive Barker. On the evidence of the most recent demonstration of the game, it looks like a collaboration that will get off to a good start. It's a game that basically consists of squad-based apocaplyptica, complete with generous gobs of viscera splattering the camera, plenty of wisecracking banter between squad-mates, a mysterious and baroque sense of gloom and plenty of glistening gun metal and fancy lighting effects penetrating the murky shadows for good measure.
As the name suggests, the concept and storyline come from the mind of Clive Barker - the creative visionary behind such works as Hellraiser and Imajica. Which means that, as horror sub-genres go, it's about the grotesque and bizarre rather than the psychological or survival. This is a game that's about action, not stealth, and pretty intense action at that. It's also a game about imaginatively aberrant places and people: there are inter-dimensional rifts, supernaturally fat men puking bloody entrails straight from their stomachs, ancient evils, and a narrative that stretches all the way back to God's Firstborn creation. And viscera. Did we mention viscera?
But at its bloody, palpitating, heart, it's a squad-based first person shooter. All of the conventional squad members are there: the deadly female; the gruff captain; the big bloke with big guns. But each one is given a paranormal twist, because the squad in question is a seven-strong team of US government operatives, tasked with protecting state interests from paranormal threats. The members of The Department of Occult Warfare include Lt. Abigail Black, a sniper whose telekinetic powers enable her to steer her bullets, or to shove enemies (or objects) back. There's Sgt. Billie Church, a close combat specialist who can also cut her hands open to perform magic with her blood. And Sgt. Frank Delgado, the big guy with a big gun, and also the ability to shoot flames from his fist. And finally there's that gruff sergeant, Ross, whose special power is that he's dead.
And that provides the basis for the biggest twist of all: you get to take direct control of each squad member, whenever you want. After the initial few levels, instead of simply ordering your team-mates around, as you would in one of the Tom Clancy games or so on, Ross can actually take possession of each one, allowing you to dive in and switch between them at will - a bit like Brute Force on the Xbox.
Of course, with such an array of talents at your disposal things could get confusing, but playing through the demo gave a sense that a little learning will be all that's required to get to grips with the body-hopping mechanic. Certainly you'll need to get used to it, because the demo starts as it means to go on: with relentless hordes of undead providing the basis for intense and hectic action. The premise is that your squad has gone in to investigate a burst of supernatural activity originating from a modern city built on an ancient site called Al-Khali. Over the course of the game, you'll go back through history to discover the precise ways in which the site has been a hotbed of psychic goings on since the dawn of time, till you eventually find your way to the ultimate evil behind generations of supernatural depravity. Specifically, Ross and his men (and women) are transported through a Breach - a dimensional rift - from modern-day Al-Khali, to Al-Khali as it was in World War II and thence to the times of the Crusades, the Roman Empire, and even the Tower of Babel.
The first demo that Codemasters show off takes place during the Crusades, with your squad headcount temporarily down to three (or four if you count the disembodied Ross). It opens with a good example of the way paranormal powers will work in the game as Black takes out three zombies in a row by steering a bullet (in bullet time, of course), before clearing out a blocked passageway by blasting the rubble out of the way. It also demonstrates the technical polish - the sophisticated lighting that shows off the game's impressive level design and architecture - and the way the squad-hopping feature allows for lateral puzzle solving, as Church heads off on her own to find the lever that opens a door to allow the rest of the party advance. It also shows off a QTE style mechanic as she scales her way down a disused well and grapples with a zombie up close by means of rhythmic button presses. But above all it shows off the game's unrelenting intensity, as wave after wave of undead nastiness besieges the squad.
That intensity is maintained during the second part of the demo, which moves the action back in time to Ancient Rome. This demo sees a restored seven-strong squad took on swooping, evil-looking birds in a massive coliseum full of more zombie types at the whim of Cassus Vicus - a 'famously obese pervert and cannibal' who we get to meet in the third part of the demo: a boss battle showdown against Cassus Vicus himself - a grotesquely obese monster, suspended from chains and defended by a 14-foot tall gladiator, though also capable of defending himself by sending a torrent of viscera spewing forth out of his disgustingly oversized belly.
That disgustingly oversized belly is rendered using the developer's own proprietary engine, and it's impressive stuff. Indeed, the game looks surprisingly good for a game that's being created by a Spanish developer with just one game to its name (or someone else's name, actually: American McGee presents: Scrapland), and although it was shown off alongside the higher profile Turning Point, it was arguably Jericho that impressed the most. Clearly the success of the finished product will rest on how well the learning curve is implemented, and how successfully the game's difficulty is balanced against its intensity. But the combination of relentless action, squad-based supernatural abilities, and Clive Barker's feats of imagination is an enormously promising one.