It's about a year now since Californian developers Reflexive released the excellent isometric actioneer Zax: The Alien Hunter. With work now nearing completion on their latest project, an alternate history role-playing game called Lionheart, we caught up with lead designer Ion Hardie.
Man Of Action (Points)
Zax might not have set the sales charts on fire, but Reflexive were happy with the end result, especially the fast and furious online support. "Multiplayer Zax still ranks as one of my top ten games to play", Ion told us. "[But] while many gamers gave us kudos for the frenzied gameplay, it was amazing to me how many people still wanted it to be something else. Zax is practically all action, but the three quarters isometric perspective is typically used in RPG-type games, and many gamers couldn't make the leap. 'This isn't like Diablo!' was seen on more than one response, and I would say to my monitor, 'Of course it isn't. Thanks!'"
Reflexive's latest project most definitely is a role-playing game though, despite using an updated version of the graphics engine that powered Zax, and Star Trek: Away Team before that. To make sure that its RPG credentials are up to scratch, publisher Interplay and their Black Isle studio have provided the team with the SPECIAL rule system used by the Fallout games. Ion describes it as "extremely robust and adaptable", which is just as well really, given that Lionheart features a radically different setting and real-time combat.
"When Black Isle suggested [using] the SPECIAL system, it seemed a natural fit, even with the real-time issues. For example, the concept of Action Points will be preserved, so agility is still very important, but Action Points will be converted into a real-time formula that relates to the character's overall speed. In general, the more Action Points you have the faster your character will move and the faster your attacks will be. Also we are replacing guns with bows and crossbows, so many formulas are modified to take this into account. Magic is by far the largest of the differences, but again, the SPECIAL system is very adaptable. We just put Magic spells into the Skill advancement section with other non-magical skills, like Stealth and Barter, so balancing them against each other has been easier."
As a result Lionheart is essentially a classless role-playing game, with players able to customise and develop their characters without being restricted to a narrow subset of skills based on their initial choices.
"For me, the main advantage is allowing for a greater diversity of characters that can be created. Players can manipulate their character stats and choose traits to make their character unique", Ion explained. "The way the stats are balanced forces the player to make interesting choices when defining the character, as they all have important impacts on derived attributes. And I like the ability to define my character as I progress, by placing skill points into abilities that I want to improve while earning perks that continue to augment other abilities."
Thanks to using this combination of familiar engine technology and robust game mechanics as its foundation, Lionheart's development has been remarkably rapid. If the game is released on schedule in October, it will only have taken about a year to go from design to shop shelf, quite an achievement these days. "Since the design team is very familiar with the engine, it has been relatively easy getting things done, though incorporation of 3D characters has been challenging. Most of the art is done, though character animations and spell effects are some of our largest art things left to finalize. About 75% of the maps are done, and we are still tweaking some of the formulas that control combat and spell abilities. Luckily, a vast majority of the SPECIAL formulas used in programming were laid out and implemented early on in the project, so we have been able to use them as we've gone along."
While the game engine and rule set might be familiar, Lionheart's setting is a welcome change from the clichéd medieval worlds found in most traditional role-playing epics. Instead the setting is the 16th century, with a mixture of Renaissance technology and magical forces which spilt into the world in the midst of the crusades four centuries earlier.
"While some elements in the game are technology driven, such as Leonardo DaVinci's creations, we have crafted Lionheart to be an RPG with a historical yet magical basis", Ion explained. "The driving force of change is a spillage of magic onto the Earth, and as such, much of the cultural and political change that was set to occur during the period known as the Renaissance has been severely altered. England is occupying much of northern France, and the Inquisition is strangling much of the continent with its fervid quest to eradicate all magic and magical beings."
"Our twisted 16th century setting was the end result of some major brainstorming sessions and historical research. Black Isle .. were originally talking to us about doing an RPG using the Fallout SPECIAL system, and it seemed like a natural progression to set it in an altered Earth timeline. Using our design parameters of 'historical, yet different', the history of the Renaissance seemed like an intriguing and rich era to develop. We have done a lot of historical research to try to mimic and twist history to suit our gaming purposes, and with everyone doing research into history, including our lead writer Eric Dallaire, many of the events almost placed themselves. Hopefully this shows in the dialog options and places that the character visits."
In keeping with its theme of combining magical and historical events, Lionheart begins in Nueva Barcelona, where the Spanish Armada is about to set sail, before taking the player on up through Spain, France and beyond.
"During the initial design of the game, we wanted to provide a European flavour to different locales and settings that we were visiting. Even though the Disjunction blasted apart many things in Europe, and all over the world, we wanted to make it seem like the player was actually there in a rebuilt section of the country. But since this destruction occurred four hundred years before the timeline in the game, Nueva Barcelona is not the same Barcelona that the residents of that city would recognize."
Another important feature of the game is its multiplayer support, which will allow four players to work their way through the campaign together. "This should change the dynamic of play quite a bit because diverse characters will be able to work together more as a team and capitalize on their individual skills more. And since the game balances levels based on how strong your party is, the single-player game is played on the same maps as the multiplayer. The more players you have, or the stronger your individual character, the more enemies are created to fight, more powerful enemies are spawned, or a combination of the two."
Reflexive are promising a "rich story, great graphics and historical twists" with Lionheart, and with veterans of Icewind Dale and Fallout working on the game alongside the team that brought us Zax and Star Trek: Away Team, we have high hopes for it.
Beyond that plans are already afoot for future projects. "Reflexive is getting some things done as a company that I am very happy with", is all that Ion would tell us when we quizzed him about this. "We've got some hefty irons in the fire, so to speak, but nothing I can disclose yet. But don't worry .. it will all be public information soon enough."