We've dealt with why Creative Assembly is making the game in the first place. We've dealt with how it has managed to get hundreds of armoured Greek men crammed inside an ageing console. And we've dealt with many replacements of expletives with innocuous words to prevent the moral guardians complaining.
But now, we reach the main event. The Main Event.
Combat. You. Hundreds of Romans. How's all that going to end up?
Eurogamer: Let's talk about combat. What sort of issues were you thinking about when approaching the important business of twacking?
Clive Gratton: One by one in a duel just isn't going to hack it. You're going to need some pretty powerful moves to achieve the amount of death that the game requires. And the power-moves are born out of those types of ideas, and the spectacular uses of the environment. Like burning swathes of people - or traps to crush swathes of people - all of those things appear.
Eurogamer: Which funnily enough is our main worry. While the game clearly deals with masses with aplomb, when the numbers thin out and it gets around to mopping up, we wonder how much fun it'll be. Is it going to slack off?
Clive Gratton: Well, no. If you go right back to the beginning of the game, after I'd sorted out the technical demo to make sure it actually could be done, I started researching combat using a sword against people. What makes that cool?
I'm into my third person slashers anyway, but I did some serious analysis into making every single hit with a weapon... cool. And satisfying. And giving you a buzz. So I did a lot of work into the collision model - that is, the simplest, most fundamental underlying part of combat. I researched that, so you get a buzz every time you hit or kill someone. That's the core that underlies everything. If it's a duel against one person, even if they're weak, you get to choose. You smash them in the face, then give them a couple of stabs and then they're gone...
And that's cool.
Eurogamer: So the basic satisfaction of the moves keeps combat fun?
Clive Gratton: When there's hundreds of people to kill, you tend to use power moves or intermediate rage moves, along with your standards. As the numbers dwindle, you're thinking of conserving your power-moves as there may be some rock-hard bastard around the corner or fifty people about to run out and attack you. But there's loads of fun to be have with standard moves - not just dishing out masses of power moves - and having a fight against people. Even one person is a lot of fun. After you get into combat you see there's a lot of depth there, so if there's one grunt coming towards you might move back, so he misses, and you can kill him in one blow. And you get a real pleasure. Or alternately he tries an attack, you drop and roll around the back and slash him to pieces from behind. You're a brooding killing machine.
Eurogamer: I can see that working.
Clive Gratton: Also, in large fights, when there are large numbers of enemies versus large numbers of friendlies, then the people who are left at the end tend to be the hard bastards. You don't tend to end up mopping up grunts, as much as mopping up the hard ones. There's a strategy to be employed there. You tend to assess a fight, and look for the hard bastards who may be killing a load of your guys. And you may choose to take them out early, so your guys have more time killing. There's an emergent thoughtful process about combat by virtue of the numbers. Most games in this genre there's one alternative - just kill him. Whereas in Spartan if there's a big fight going on... well, there's a very cool move to do with the sword and shield. Have you seen the radial medusa beam yet?
Clive Gratton: Well, you gain this on level three where Crassus is using the Medusa to fuck up your troops on the battlefield. You end up getting that from him. But the attack with that is unusual, as it doesn't actually do any direct damage. You shoot it up, and it hits everyone in the world and turns them into stone. You have this strategic use to the sword and shield if there's a large group of your guys versus a large group of enemies; it makes it the most effective time to use it, because your men are going into a frenzy, as they're bashing on a load of defensive stone guys and you gain a huge overall advantage.
In terms of quality of contact between the sword and a body, the Onimusha series is particularly good. Especially two. I wouldn't say the overall combat of Onimusha is great but, well... another part of one-on-one combat is how much aid you give to a user in terms of who you're going to hit. [In a 3D environment] when you're pushing the joypad towards someone you have to be pushing it directly towards them, so you have to give the user a degree of help in order to make him get the sword into the person. How far that distance is results in how skilful you feel in terms of enemy selection when you're hitting people.
In Onimusha, if you're looking away from the person when there's only one, and you hit the button, you'll hit them. It means that the fun element of combat of you just killing people is increased, but it means the skill and reward element from doing the job well is reduced. That's a balancing act.
And while the physicality of impact was great, their animation set wasn't great. They tend to use just a little bit of physics to nudge a character backwards to demonstrate the impact, whereas we have a massive list of impact animations. A big set for standard grunts and specialist impacts for the rarer ones. The actual quality of combat is also due to the feeling of impact you get when you're hitting people.
It's amazing the difference that sound makes under those circumstances. And a little rumble on the joypad. Put all of those together with the move set and it's like 'ooh, bloody hell!'
Eurogamer: So, away from individual blows, how are you approaching the larger scale issues. Hundreds of people fighting. There's a lot to consider.
Clive Gratton: Making sure the combat is skilful and satisfying... yet simple. Because you've got hundreds of people in a scene, with tens of people having a go at you... what move you select and why seems of paramount importance to make it not just a button basher. The enemy of this kind of game is button bashing. The idea that X-X-X-circle is better than X-X-X-square, under intense pressure seems like [goshing] stupidity to me. There's no time to think.
We need to have that instant "What am I going to do with him?" moment. And also the "what am I going to do with him..." and then change your mind and interrupt whatever you were doing and say "[flip] it - I'm going to defend instead". I really wanted something that was simple and elegant, but you need depth there in order to get gameplay out of it. Because you can't just have X and Circle, can you...
Eurogamer: You needed a solution.
Clive Gratton: Then the idea came of modifying what X and Circle did - keeping them doing the same thing at all time, but then using shoulder buttons in order to modify it, or different weapons to modify it. It keeps it grounded. X is going to do a move against on person. Circle is going to do an attack against multiple people. Get the bow out? X is single shot, circle is shotgun. Press the power trigger, X is a single power arrow, circle is a power-arrow which will turn into chain lightning. Similarly, with the shield, similarly with everything. And the rage trigger works in similar ways. Your finger memory gets going very rapidly, and you get into it. It's just... good.
Eurogamer: You only really start playing a game when you forget you're playing a game. It's when you don't need to remember the control system, and just think 'what am I going to do?' not 'How can I do it'.
Clive Gratton: It takes time to go "right, circle, swivel and..." and you don't have time to do that in this game, because it's very rapid, intense combat.
Eurogamer: Since there are so many people around, I'd imagine there's going to be a case of being able to mix up your approaches to a level.
Clive Gratton: The game, when it's working at its best, you'll run into a scene and think "Right: what am I going to do? Right - there are archers up there". And it's always a good maxim to take out the archers first so you can do what you want to do without being showered. So: how am I going to get there? Maybe they'll be exploding barrels by those archers. Maybe there's a barrel that can be lit by exploding arrows. And there's a chest over there... and... maybe... there... might be... FIRE ARROWS in that chest! But it's guarded by three ultra hard guys...
So first attempt at the scene you may run in and try and fight your way to the chest unsuccessfully, die. And then you decide to give up a power - since that's a limited resource - and give them a move to knock them off their feet, allowing you to get to the chest, get the fire-arrows, shoot at the explosive barrels, take out the archers and now deal with those guys on their own.
And that's one valid strategy.
Clive Gratton: But another valid strategy, but another may be to run in, say [pluck] it and hit a radius-power-arrow attack and get all the archers with a lightning arrow. And that's a satisfying moment. The realisation. And half the time you'll be wrestling with some torturous, difficult thing, and you'll realise there's an invisibility potion over there which you could take and saunter through.
And that's all we have time for today. But do join us again for Kieron's in-depth review of Creative Assembly's combat-laced title, due for release in PAL territories via Sega on Friday 7th October, 2005.