"Damnation" is what people used to say in the '30s when they meant "f***". These days though it's a third-person shooter that's somewhere in amongst the crossfire between Gears of War and Prince of Persia, occasionally winking at Quake 3.
The big idea is that you have an enormous three-hour level the size of a continent where you can see your goal but have to work out how to get to it, dispatching hordes of baddies as you go. Zip wires stretch across canyons for you to slide down, buildings can be scaled and leapt between, and motorbikes can ride on walls. This is, we're told again and again, "the shooter gone vertical".
To understand it a bit better you need to meet developer Blue Omega. Damnation is its first game and started life as a mod that won the Make Something Unreal Tournament competition back in 2004, and has been rebuilt a few times in the hope of refining the concept. Blue Omega is also using a film-style development model, because those are what it used to make. This means a small team of about 16 people who act as heads of various departments outsourcing the rest of the work. Resulting in lots of conference calls, but also a cost-effective, sustainable, and surprisingly efficient working environment. They hope.
Damnation veers away from Gears of War by setting itself in an alternate world where the American civil war raged for 20 years before both sides wore themselves out. And from the ashes emerged Prescott Standard Industries and its deranged vision of saving everyone by killing any who disagreed. We'll call them the baddies. You, rather obviously, are the goodies: Captain Hamilton Rourke and the Peacekeeper movement that wants to stop all this, although you also want to find your missing fiance.
It's a bit like the Wild West, except with lots of steam-powered contraptions, plus sub-plots, flashbacks, Native Americans, and plot twists involving drugs in water supplies. "We took something people may have an idea of to help ground it in reality," lead game designer Jason Minkoff explains when we point out that no one cares about the American civil war in these parts. "It's easier than just coming up with something completely outlandish when no one has something they can latch onto."
But fast and furious combat is what it's really about, albeit without the stop-start cover-system used in Gears of War. It's "not appropriate for this type of game", says Minkoff, whereas keeping on the move very much is. Combat controls are familiar though: triggers whip the guns out and shoot them, sticks aim and zoom, and bumpers highlight climb points and modify running jumps into dives. Thankfully you can hit baddies with the butt of your guns as well, which we always like the best. The sort of arsenal you assign to your three slots are also familiar but with a bit of a twist: a triple-barrelled shotgun, for example, or a take on the crossbow from Half-Life 2 that pins people to walls. There's a railgun that goes through baddies standing in a line, plenty of sniper variations, pistols, and big explodey shooters that go from small to very, very big. We're told to expect around ten or so in total.
Climbing is handled by bumpers too and is all very straightforward, but rather jarringly signposted to obviously-placed zip wires, poles you can shimmy up, ledges to lean out and leap from or dive across, and buildings you do a nifty half-backwards-somersault-chin-up-thing to scale. You can shoot people while you're hanging around but are limited to your pistol. Overall it lacks the improvisational panache of Assassin's Creed, and it also forfeits a similar level of detail and feeling of physical impact, but this was designed as a shooter and to be fast not flashy, says Minkoff. "I don't think there's anyone out there doing the same sort of combination of hardcore, fast-paced shooter combat with these acrobatic abilities like we are," he says. "I think it's a unique balance and a unique combination." To this end, Damnation also forgives accuracy in leaping around and helps you get to your goal if you're roughly on course, and also stops you from being gunned off ledges unless you die like a stupid idiot.
One interesting and unique ability is Spirit Vision - a sort of Native American power where you stand still and concentrate and see a thermal image-like scan of the buildings around you, which shows you where the baddies are lurking. Useful, but also risky as you have to stay still and focus to maintain it. The possibilities of this in multiplayer were strongly hinted at more than once, although we'll have to wait for a full online reveal. We did manage to learn there will probably be the usual assortment of modes and that it was a big deal, and Blue Omega was happy to reconfirm there will be jump-in co-operative support for you and a friend right through the campaign.
That campaign is about 12-to-15 hours long and split up into a handful of beefy areas. These, the developer was at pains to point out, will be much more varied than the first batch of screenshots suggest, and we were shown Arctic and Mediterranean-themed levels as well as the Grand Canyon-style opener. Those vistas and the feeling you get when looking back at your distant start-point certainly do not disappoint. It feels big, largely thanks to vertigo-inducing camera angles and impressive engine draw distances. But getting there has left a lingering feeling of barrenness, and far-off structures and points of interest suffer in terms of detail as a result.
We're told that most of the texture work is done and it's stuff like atmospheric effects still to be tackled. Obviously other areas such as the all-important AI, which should chase you everywhere, plus the bottleneck parts of the map and the cut-scenes they trigger are to be given heavy work as well. "We are going to favour gameplay over visuals," says producer Rich Gilbert before we pick it apart any further. "We will sacrifice quality on animations for twitch control. I would rather have a tight, responsive game than take an extra second of an animation of a guy pulling himself up. If I'm running around in a firefight getting my ass pumped full of lead, I want to be able to pull up quickly and get behind some cover."
Damnation will struggle most, though, with its first impressions. Its menus, over-the-shoulder combat, engine, even its place-holder logo reminded us of its self-confessed benchmark, Gears of War. It feels like the mod it once started life as. However, spend time in its company and the "shooter gone vertical" big idea begins to sink in and its personality starts to shine.
Both Minkoff and Gilbert talk a lot about ignoring what competitors are doing and concentrating on making a "good game", because quality will shine through. "If somebody told me it's Gears of War meets Prince of Persia, I'd buy that game," jokes Minkoff. But if it insists on launching this winter beside the big-budget updates to those games, then we're not sure many will give Damnation a second look. Maybe we should hope for a delay - for this or them - so everyone gets a fair crack.
Damnation is due out on PC, PS3 and 360 this winter.