More than two years has passed since the mushroom cloud that was Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness erupted over the gaming populace, annihilating about five million dreams in the process. But while the motes of dust refuse to settle over that particular thorny issue, and a Toby Gard-inspired Crystal Dynamics continue to re-invent and reanimate the Lara undercroft from scratch, most of the Core Design team behind that particular gaming legacy upped sticks and moved onto pastures new - quarter of a mile away, in fact.
Just weeks after Core supremo Jeremy Heath-Smith resigned from the Eidos board, Circle Studios was born on a different patch of Derby's Pride Park, comprising of around half of the 'cream' of the 70-strong Core crop. And over the past 18 months or so, the team has been beavering away on its 'debut' title - the first ever European game signed up by Capcom, if that's any indication of the quality of this 24-inspired counter-terrorist action fest.
Armed with a 15-level work-in-progress build, we had our first real opportunity to put the theory into practice and see if Jeremy Heath-Smith and co can square the Circle and provide us with a title to look forward to in the months ahead.
The 24 comparisons have long been acknowledged by the team, with the game set over a 12-hour timeline and played out from multiple unique perspectives - just like the TV show, you might reason. But while the whole timeline concept may have been 'borrowed' from the Kiefer Sutherland counter-terrorist show, the game doesn't play out as one continuous narrative, choosing instead to flit back and forth within a fixed progression.
The concept certainly has huge potential, with the player consistently tasked with revisiting a particular segment of timeline that they've already experienced as another character. As such, the storyline becomes clearer the further you wade into the game, as each character's role, strengths and weaknesses become increasingly evident. Armed with this interesting mechanic, Circle is given free reign to show key action segments occurring from multiple parts of the same gaming environment, with the story effectively being coloured in as you go.
Corbin my shadow
The basis of the story itself is a mysterious terrorist organisation headed up by Corbin Derbec, a French-Canadian who's been operating out of the Middle East for the last 20 years. This shady terror group intends to blow up the Peterson-Daniels chemical plant in order to draw attention to its 'cause' - something not immediately apparent at the beginning of the game.
Naturally, with about 300,000 lives at stake in the two-mile radius of the blast zone, putting a stop to their crazed misdeeds is the ultimate aim of the game. Steering the combined efforts of six individuals, you must use each member's unique abilities to rescue the hostages, secure the plant, kill about 4,000 heavily armed men, take down the deranged Corbin Derbec and save the world from ecological disaster. Easy.
With the clock ticking past 8pm, the third-person action kicks into life with a few quick and easy missions to help you get into the proceedings and introduce some of the basic play mechanics and variety on offer. The six-strong cast is comprised of three US 'covert ops' characters sent in by the government to try and clear up the chaos, as well as three civilians who just happen to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when all hell breaks loose.
The 'main' character, if you will, is leader of the squad, Kyle Rivers, aided and abetted by the similarly-heavily-armed Jack Hooper (both carry assault rifles and a stock of grenades), while the shotgun-wielding Ed Reagan acts as the team's bomb-disposal expert. The civilians, meanwhile, are made up of ex-cop security guard Dave Wilson (armed with a particularly effective pistol), news cameraman Ben Harrison (armed with a, err, camera) and hysterical secretary Tanya Shaw (armed with intimate knowledge of the building's passwords and not a lot else) - the latter two of which we didn't get to play as in this cut-down preview build.
The majority of our time with the game so far has been a pretty combat-heavy affair, dispensing one willing goon after another in a hail of bullets, smoke and toxic chemicals. Interestingly, even though the game uses a third-person view throughout, it plays more like a first-person shooter, with the targeting reticule locked to the centre of the screen and the player's relative position shifting around.
For a few seconds, this design decision is a little disorientating as your brain rewires what it's expecting to see, but soon it feels completely natural. The manual lock-on (hold down L1) allows you to see off virtually anyone from distance, but given that most levels are set at night-time it's a blessing you'll quickly appreciate. The concept has been to focus on the action as much as possible, keep you fully loaded with as much ammo as you need and in the main it works a treat, feeling closer to a controllable Time Crisis-style affair than a standard run-and-gun.
Hot lead now!
As such, the body count is up there with the Namco principles of 'keeping 'em coming' and it's a relentless, albeit enjoyable romp through a succession of bite-sized chunks of non-stop action. Rather like a fast-paced TV show, the scene rarely dwells on the actions of one character for longer than a few minutes at a time, and no sooner have you taken down a bunch of Corbin's goons and re-routed the power to a previously locked door, the scene leaves you on a semi-cliff-hanger, only to return maybe four levels down the line.
Fortunately, Without Warning doesn't descend into a succession of non-stop shooting levels, and tries to mix up the gunplay with progressively complex bomb disposal and lock picking interludes. The Ed Reagan levels, for example, task you with scouring levels for primed explosives, and defusing them involves a simple rhythm-action-style symbol matching mini-game. Elsewhere, the lock-picking goes for an initially confusing approach, whereby three barrels have to be tapped up into their respective chamber, with the idea to get the shortest of the three to click into place first, then the next shortest, and so on until all three are in place.
It's fair to say that Circle needs to work on finding the sweet spot, challenge-wise. At this stage it's a tad on the forgiving side, with far too many health packs and an overly generous lock-on, but with almost three months to go until it's released, there's plenty of time for the final polish to be applied. Fortunately it's not a world away from being a great game, but the priority has to be to work on the combat balancing to really make it feel as compelling as it should be.
Don't let me down gently
Set in the confines of a sprawling chemical factory, explosive barrels, overhead walkways and endless pipes are the order of the day. With so many vantage points for the AI to take up, you have to take into account that they could be anywhere - and they usually are. With the game kicking off at 8pm, the night is already drawing in, setting the scene for a very dark and moody ambience where the hugely aggressive enemy are all too happy to lurk.
Visually the game has a few tricks up its sleeves. It's able to persistently render all the bullet-holes in the walls, while punctured pipes erupt with steam and gas - often right in your face if your enemy is canny enough to take advantage of the environmental hazards that litter each level.
How the game will fare once it's finished is open to question at this point, but we remain optimistic that the vast experience at the helm of the project will be able to take full advantage of the numerous great ideas at the heart of Without Warning. Being able to play the game and experience the story from multiple perspectives on the same timeline isn't a new idea (see Sony's flawed survival-horror gem Forbidden Siren for the most obvious example), but it's certainly an under-used one, and in the context of a balls-out action game it's one that ought to work brilliantly if all goes to plan.
The jury's still out on whether Capcom's first European signing will truly hit the mark, but we won't have long to wait to find out one way or the other.
Without Warning is due for release on PS2 and Xbox on October 28th through Capcom. Check back shortly before the game's release for a full review.