Denis Dyack says he's surprised there's been such a big turnout for his pre-GDC presentation. Indeed, every seat in the room is taken and there are plenty more journalists standing at the back. But is that really so surprising? After all, Too Human is high up on the list of the most interesting titles coming exclusively to Xbox 360 this year - and it's not a long list.
There's also the fact that anticipation for the game has had nearly nine years to build. It was first unveiled at E3 '99 as a PSone game that would come on four discs. Obviously much has changed since then. However, Too Human is still an action RPG and its basic theme is still the relationship between humankind and machines.
"If you want to know about Too Human and its history, you have to go back thousands of years - before the Roman Empire, before Ancient Egypt, before the time of Atlantis and its war with Ancient India, before the Ice Ages," Dyack tells the audience. Before the game was announced, even?
"It's a time when mankind is at a peak of technology. A giant empire is waging war with machines against another group called the Azaire. Instead of machines, the Azaire use technology and cybernetics to enhance human beings to help fight this menace."
But as the war rages on the Azaire realise they need more firepower and start using atomic, nuclear and anti-matter weapons. The planet's climate is affected and a new ice age kicks off. "This is where Too Human begins."
And this is where Dyack's demo of the game begins - with the first cut-scene. Without wishing to spoil it, let's just say the first bit involves a burly man on a mission to retrieve a body, a woman with ridiculous breasts and a severe skin problem and a lot of robots. Then the message "Nine months later" flashes up and a Bladerunner-style cityscape of towering black buildings, glittering lights and holographs appears. We see a different man on a different mission and another robot. There's a dramatic fight with an interesting ending.
The cut-scene is cryptic and doesn't actually reveal a great deal of the storyline. However, it does show off the game's visual style. It's science-fiction meets Norse mythology; vikings in space, if you will. There are plenty of holograms and neon lights and futuristic weapons, but also swords and runes and tankards. It's a fusion of ideas and genres - much like Too Human's gameplay.
"One of the things that is not well-known about Too Human is the deep role-playing elements of the game," Dyack says as the character-creation menu appears on the screen. He explains that you can design many characters and share them between the single-player and online game.
There are six character classes to choose from. First up is the Champion, and once again fusion is the theme as Dyack reveals he can handle firearms, excels in melee and air combat and is good at pulling off critical strikes too. "A lot of games like Diablo or Phantasy Star Online are statistically-based, they're not done in real time," says Dyack. "This game is all real time, it's all fast-paced combat, and by fusing those things we feel we're really bringing a different experience."
On to the Commando. "He's essentially your nuker," excelling in firearms combat, explosive techniques and using a spider-like robot called, ah, a Spider to explore new areas. The Bioengineer is the healer, using nanotech to both repair damage and engage in combat. "One of the interesting things about Too Human is there's no mana," says Dyack. "We have a concept called nanofuel, and the more enemies you kill the more you can heal and use your various different powers."
Then there's the Berserker, who's best at churning through enemies with melee combat. And finally the Defender is the tank; he has the best armour and can take a tremendous amount of damage. "He can't get knocked down by missiles, and when you play the game you'll appreciate that means he can really stand his ground."
Dyack's showing off the Champion in this demo. He leads an army of troopers into a great stone fortress. Turns out it's populated by hundreds of homicidal robots, so it's time to see the combat system in action. You can see why comparisons with Devil May Cry have been drawn before now.
The hero, Baldur, moves with lighting swiftness. He switches constantly between a giant sword which leaves a flashy blue trail in its wake and a pair of laser guns. He can jump high into the air and hover momentarily. He can zip across the floor without even lifting his feet, like some kind of Nordic Michael Jackson. From space.
Although they're off-screen for most of the action, you can still hear the other troopers making the kind of comments you'd expect to hear in a blockbuster action movie: "Today is a good day to die" et cetera. But some of the quotes have a twist in-keeping with the game's setting: "Why in Odin's name are we here?", "If we get out of this alive, I'm going to buy more mead than even you can drink." The juxtaposition is funny more than anything else, and somewhat jarring.
The robots dispatched, there's a break in the action and Dyack takes the opportunity to present the science bit. "Too Human is being rendered in true 720, we're not scaling it. We're running four-times anti-aliasing, eight lights per character. Atmospheric scattering. We can have a ton of enemies on screen - there are times when there's over 50 to 70." In this particular demo, however, there don't seem to be more than 30 max present at any one time.
Then there's the camera. "The philosophy in Too Human is, the player does not have to control it," says Dyack. "We really feel that both controlling the camera and gameplay adds a layer of complexity that makes it more difficult for gamers."
So if you walk past a pair of characters having a conversation, the camera will automatically change perspective and you'll be able to hear what's going on. We're also promised parts of the game will look like cut-scenes, but will be fully interactive. "We really feel videogames are the eighth art form, and by combining interactivity and gameplay into the cinematics we feel we're doing something special."
Green and pleasant land
Here's another cut-scene; a flashback this time, revealing more about why Baldur is fighting the robots. Then it's back to the future, where he fights some more robots. This time that includes a robot boss with a hammer on the end of one arm. Baldur leaps on its shoulders and plunges his sword into the enemy's weak spot for massive damage.
Now Dyack's showing off a whole new part of the game - "Cyberspace. It's an articifial construct where the player can explore and find different artefacts in the real world." There's no combat in Cyberspace, so it's likely to provide a welcome break from all the robot killing. It's rather peaceful, too, as the landscape is organic - it's all green fields and flowering trees rather than stone statues and nanotechnology.
We're introduced to the Nairns. Not to be confused with G'Kar's lot, they're "artificial intelligences". They appear as women dressed in hooded purple cloaks, and offer mystical advice. One of them gives Baldur an item that will allow him to enter Cyberspace whenever he feels like it.
Now Dyack's showing off the equipment inventory. The items have names like "Sacred tactical visor of opportunity". and "Wilful convex shoulderpads of growling". You pick up items automatically when enemies drop them as you fight - there are no buttons to push as Dyack is "a big believer in accessibility". You can also use "cybernetic runes" to enhance various weapons and pieces of equipment. There are thousands of them, apparently. As in World of Warcraft, you can collect Epic sets of loot for more combinations.
Dyack rounds off the demo with a bit more fighting - giant robot spiders and goblins - and a couple of cut-scenes. Then it's time for the Q&A and the first question, unsurprisingly, is about when the game will be released. "Soon," says Dyack, "Sorry. It's coming along really well. We're bouncing and tweaking and we're going to be announcing a date as soon as possible." He confirms there will be a demo released on Xbox Live Marketplace. "The timing will be linked to the release of the game."
Afterwards, we get the chance to sit down with Dyack for a one-on-one. He won't talk about the multiplayer modes in Too Human, confirming only that, "You can play co-operatively through the whole game with your friends."
Better go for a more general question, then. It's clear fusion is a common theme running through Too Human - it's present in the gameplay, the visuals and the storyline. But isn't juxtaposing elements so boldly a risky business? "I think it's horribly risky, because you often create things people don't know how to describe," he says. "We had some earlier troubles with that with Too Human; people thought it was either a God of War or a Devil May Cry clone.
"Clearly, hopefully after today, it's not. It's a hunter-and-gathering game with deep role-playing elements, but it's also got a lot of action elements and it's all those things woven into one."
Of course, Too Human isn't the first game to combine action gameplay with role-playing. However, Dyack is confident his studio has produced something new and innovative here. "I don't think there have been action-RPGs like this before. I can't think of any that do the same kind of seamless integration we do," he says.
"Take something like Oblivion - you can do spells in real-time and stuff, but it's straightforward calculated statistics. With us, it's third-person, over the shoulder, kinetic, air combat, combinations, juggling - all those things combined with the RPG elements. I haven't seen that before... You can call me out as being wrong, time will tell. It's up to gamers to be the final judge."
With nine years of toil, time and money invested, Dyack must be hoping the jury comes down on his side. At this stage, it's clear he's right in that Too Human isn't just a God of War or Devil May Cry clone. And though it takes elements from World of Warcraft and Diablo, it's no clone of those games either. There are clearly unique, innovative ideas here. Whether they work well together? As Dyack says, time will tell.