Over the years BritSoft developers the Bitmap Brothers have built up an enviable back catalogue of classic games, including the likes of the Xenon and Speedball series, and of course the innovative real-time strategy game "Z". But since Z's release way back in 1996 they have been remarkably quiet, with only their recent PlayStation release "Speedball 2100" breaking the silence.
Next year all that is set to change though, with the release of a sequel to Z, taking the successful formula into the third dimension. We spoke to the Bitmap Brothers' managing director Mike Montgomery to find out more...
Although the company has changed a lot since the heady days when the Amiga was the gaming machine of choice and a 386 was a state of the art PC, there are still many people working with the Bitmap Brothers who can remember the company's heyday. "We still work with one artist whose first game was Xenon 2, and there are a number of people who have worked here for over seven years, so we remember quite far back!"
It's been over four years now since their last major release though, so what have they been up to since then, and why return to Z after all this time? "Z : Steel Soldiers is an incredible leap forward, both in terms of technology and gameplay, and advancing these elements was not an overnight process", Mike explained. "We always envisaged a sequel to Z though, and now we have the technology available to ensure our concepts can be realised."
Indeed, the first thing you notice when you see Steel Soldiers in action is just how far we have come in the last few years. Back when the original Z was released, real-time strategy games were all rendered in glorious 2D sprite-o-vision, and Z's graphics were rather cartoonish. Today the sequel sports full polygonal units, 3D terrain, and incredible hardware accelerated effects.
In fact, at first sight Steel Soldiers has very little in common with the original - the graphics have changed, air and naval units have been added, and the plot has been moved 500 years further into the future.
"Without giving too much away, let's say you will be sure to meet some old and familiar faces from the original game", Mike told us, when we asked him about the game's plot. "The sequel starts 500 years after Z, and a fragile peace agreement is in place between the Red and Blue factions. The player's alter ego is stranded on a lowly backwater planet with his squad, and is waiting to be collected and reassigned elsewhere. Then something goes terribly wrong..."
Although there are many changes though, it's very much a case of 'the more things change the more they stay the same', and the classic gameplay of the original Z is still in there underneath the 3D accelerated eye candy. "First impressions are that the two games are very different", Mike confirmed. "However, at their core both are arcade strategy games that are immediate and accessible."
"Z was an incredibly fast paced game, certainly a lot faster than other real-time strategy titles out at that time. We took elements of the strategy genre and added the immediacy of an arcade title - we wanted players to get into the action as quickly as possible, and this is what we intend with Z : Steel Soldiers."
This goal of making it quick and easy to get into the heat of battle extends to the interface as well, and a lot of work is going into making it simple to get to grips with, something which many other 3D strategy games of recent years have notably failed to achieve.
"The control system is a little more sophisticated than in the original, but we have tried to ensure that it is as intuitive as possible - we feel that players should spend time learning the intricacies of the gameplay, not getting bogged down in mastering a control system."
One of the things which made Z stand out from the horde of Command & Conquer clones which were appearing at the time though was its resource system. Winning the game depended on capturing and occupying territory rather than simply gathering resources, something which had become traditional in the real-time strategy genre since the spice fields of "Dune 2" introduced the world to the joys of harvesting.
This is part of the core Z gameplay which has been carried over into the sequel, and "success in Z : Steel Soldiers is still dependent on securing territory, although a new resource model has now been added", to give you the best of both worlds. But with the addition of 3D terrain to fight over, the importance of capturing territory has, if anything, increased. "Gamers will also now have to think about the importance of each territory, and decide which to try and conquer next - do they go for the strategically important, such as high ground, or the economically sound?"
This means that the game's brand new 3D engine isn't just there to look pretty, although it succeeds admirably on that count as well. As Mike told us, "moving to full 3D enables us to bring the game's six worlds to life, with each having its own distinct ecology", and the result is impressive.
And if you want to know what's going on behind the scenes, here's the science bit... "The engine has full support for Direct3D at any resolution your card can handle. We're using a level-of-detail system for the landscape, combined with real-time shadows, reflections and real-time deformation. The engine also has an advanced particle system allowing effects like smoke and dust to be affected by global and local forces. The physics system provides some stunning explosion effects on buildings and units, and the weather system provides realistic snow and rain and time of day effects."
The fast pace of the game and state of the art visuals should make it ideal for multiplayer as well, and the Bitmap Brothers "are currently planning 20 distinct multiplayer levels that will support 8 players across a LAN or the Internet".
Although we were rather disappointed by Speedball 2100, Steel Soldiers is looking like an all-together much more interesting update of one of the Bitmap Brothers' classic games, building on the gameplay of the original without being entirely constrained by it.
With sumptuous 3D accelerated graphics, a more varied resource system, and a greater scope, the game-formerly-known-as-Z2 is certainly shaping up to be a promising contender when it is released early next year, and it looks like the Bitmap Brothers could be back on form after their long absence from the shelves. And beyond Steel Soldiers, what can we expect from them?
"You'll have to wait and see!"