Tucked away on one of the less celebrated sections of Microsoft's TGS booth was arguably one of the highlights of the show so far. Combining elements of Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell with the atmospheric horror of Silent Hill, Rain (announced as Vampire's Rain in Japan last year, but clearly referred to on the stand by its shorter name) stood out a mile away among many of the so-called next generation offerings given headline billing at the showcase event - and will certainly be a title to watch when it finally emerges in 2007.
Developed by Artoon, the game couldn't be much further removed from the Japanese team's previous cute 'n cuddly efforts such as Blinx (and indeed Sonic The Hedgehog - the game's even being produced by Naoto Oshima, fact fiends). Cloaked in a gloomy rain swept part of Los Angeles, you play as John Lloyd, some sort of rookie Special Operative who's part of a four-man team assigned to deal with the threat of face-eating, super athletic vampires stalking the streets.
Destroy all abnormal humans
Looking like normal humans, these vampires possess devastating strength and power and attack on sight - devouring unwitting passers-by with extreme speed and dexterity. In the demo we got an extended hands-on with, we joined the action on the second level in the game and got a chance to run through some of the basic mechanics and combat. To begin with, the game certainly looks an awful lot like Splinter Cell - which as everyone knows is among the best looking games of the last generation. Rich in detail, steeped in atmospheric darkness and pissing it down with - you guessed it - rain, your main task throughout this particular level is to try and reach your squad mates, work your way to a roof top antennae and extract safely.
On any other day, that'd be the least of your worries, were it not for the presence of several patrolling policemen - only these particular law enforcement officers want to arrest the blood in your pulsing jugular, and gorge on your fleshy remains. Taking a leaf straight out of the Hideo Kojima book of game design, each of these vampiric sentries shows up on a handy mini-map in the bottom right of the screen. What they can see shows up as a red cone of vision, meaning that it's your job to avoid their gaze at all times. If you get too close, you get a 'caution' warning; the pad jolts slightly, the screen hue changes subtly and you have a second or so to move out of the way before they tear after you at full pelt, fangs bared.
Regardless of whether you're on ground level or lurking on a nearby rooftop, their athletic prowess ensures you've no hope of escape. The only option appears to be to try and shoot them as quickly as possible - but with only a rather rubbish pistol for company, we were ravaged to a bloody mulch in little more than a second. Next.
Action and adventure. And horror. Oh, and stealth.
Pushed back to the beginning, we quickly got the gist of what to do, and felt thoroughly drawn to the game's murky, misty style that sported some superb rain effects (just as well, really). With rain tipping it down, throughout the level, you could clearly see rivulets running down the character's clothing, and the lighting effects only enhanced the feeling of being caught outside in a vicious storm on a bracing night. While Vampires lurked nearby. On the whole, while its style is definitely most evocative of Splinter Cell, there were more than enough subtle touches and hints in the trailer reel to give it a totally different feel and atmosphere that's perhaps more in line with a Silent Hill or a Resident Evil than a po-faced Tom Clancy title.
Controls very much adhere to the typical third person action adventure mould. With left stick for movement and right for camera control, getting around feels perfectly slick and natural, with an intuitive context-sensitive system allowing you to climb ladders by walking up to them, and ledges grasped if you jump up when underneath one. Rather like other stealth titles, night vision reveals lurking threats in red, though the apparent use of the other vision enhancements wasn't clear at this point.
Warned about the lurking birds' potential to give your position away, you're advised to shoot one of them by bringing up your targeting reticule with B and shooting with the right trigger. This, in turn, attracts a nearby sentry but also alters their patrol pattern enough to give you a chance to slip past unnoticed. Dressed in black, and crouch-running like a certain Mr Fisher, you take each corner with care and stealth, taking every opportunity to observe distant vampiric sentries and quickly learning to creep past their cone of vision every time it's pointing the other way. Shinning up lamp posts, climbing ledges and scampering across rooftops becomes the order of the day to reach each destination, but such is the open-ended design, you'll often discover there's more than one way to solve the task at hand.
Later, we met with our squad, nearly got savaged by an unexpected (but scripted) Vampire (who apparently can be killed by lots of bullets if you're quick enough), scaled more ladders, scampered along more rooftops, ziplined across buildings, rappelled down one and eventually messed up the designated antennae with careless abandon. But not before a fair bit of trial and error, squandered opportunities, fluffed lines and a desperate lack of understanding of kanji. Luckily for us, all the cut-scenes and dialogue in the game (along with the stupendously stylish trailer we repeatedly saw while queuing up) were spoken in English, and we managed to get a sense of the desperate situation at hand. Apparently, one of the vampire's main weaknesses is rain, but LA's hardly famous for its regular downpours - hence why now's your chance to try and defeat them while they're not quite as lethal as usual.
Despite the original pre-Christmas unveiling of the game promising an online mode, there was little evidence at TGS regarding how work is shaping on that side of the game at this stage. But with three feature-complete levels already on-show, there's every hope that we won't have to wait too long to find out more about this promising title that seems determined to pinch the best bits of some of our favourite games. Check back soon.
Rain is due for release in Japan on Xbox 360 and PS3 at the end of 2006 via AQ Interactive. Check back soon for news on its European release.