Next time there's a silly public outcry about a storyline in one of Britain's miserable soap operas, take a moment to shake your head sadly at just how low the national drama has gone. It was so different a few thousand years ago, when the contemporary equivalent of the soap opera was the pantheon of the gods - a crowd of incestuous, violent, criminal, seductive, tricky con-artists whose antics were enough to make Pat Butcher's earrings fall off in shock.
Take Seth, for example. Originally the Egyptian God of the Desert, one of the chief gods of Lower Egypt, he was never exactly a nice chap - rather over-fond of sending vast, murderous sandstorms around the place, for a start. Things only got worse when, jealous of his older brother Osiris' happy marriage to the beautiful Isis (his sister, no less), Seth decided to kill him and dismember the corpse. If a job's worth doing, etc.
Unfortunately, Isis managed to reassemble her husband (and brother, lest we forget), conceived a child using some of his body parts (er...) and then had him embalmed, so that he could rule the underworld as a mummy. Subsequently, everyone decided that Seth was quite nasty, and he became the god of tricks, lies and evil.
Needless to say, this kind of mythology provides fertile ground for videogame designers - and it's to the ancient pantheons of the gods that French developer Cyanide has turned for its first foray into hackandslash role-playing. Named for the Norse trickster god, Loki (who was essentially Seth's northern European opposite number), the game opts to have its cake and eat it by taking cues not only from one mythology, but from four. That's a whole lot of gods.
Role up, Role up
The basic storyline of Loki sees you taking on the role of one of four heroes, and battling to defeat Seth and his allies in the four different mythological eras. The four heroes on offer, two male and two female, conform broadly to the role-playing archetypes you'd expect - namely the warrior, ranger, sorcerer and wizard. More importantly, however, they also fit in with one of the pantheons you'll be battling through. As a result, your choice of character radically changes the path you'll take through the story.
So, for example, the warrior character is a Norse berserker. Start playing as him, and you'll be rescuing the villages of Scandinavia from the armies of Seth's ally, Hel, the god of the underworld, while hunting for Odin, the father of the gods. Choose the Greek hunter character, however, and your first task will be to obey Athena by emulating the epic deeds of the ancient heroes at Troy and elsewhere, before taking the battle to Hades' doors.
Perhaps the most interesting quest, though, belongs to the magic-wielding Aztec shaman. Aztec mythology is rarely explored in role-playing games, with designers choosing instead to stick with the more familiar ground of Greek, Norse, Egyptian or even Far Eastern mythology. Loki, however, not only introduces gods such as the wonderfully difficult to pronounce Quetzalcoatl (and his equally tongue-twisting counterpart, the god of the dead Mictlantecuhtli), but also gives a political edge to proceedings by allying Seth with the Spanish conquistador Cortes, who must be defeated to save the Aztec civilisation.
In essence, then, your starting zone in the game is determined by the class you choose to play, and the first several hours of gameplay will take place in that zone. Once you've finished the storyline of your starting area, you'll have the opportunity to pursue Seth through to one of the other areas, and pick up the story from there; so everyone gets to see the same storyline, but presented in a different chronological order.
In order to make this balance out in gameplay terms, Cyanide has chosen to make enemies in the game level up alongside the player, so you won't be walking into a low-level area with a well-progressed character when you move from one zone to the next. However, moving between zones will offer an interesting challenge, because each zone is balanced for the fighter that starts out in that area. So, for example, the Norse zone is very physical and sees a lot of brawling action - perfect for the Norse warrior, but once the Egyptian sorcerer gets into this zone he'll need to be on his toes to keep up with the action.
From what we've seen so far, minute-to-minute gameplay in Loki pans out pretty much as you'd expect from a hackandslash, and the bulk of the quests and objectives really boil down to an excuse for some fairly solid dungeon-crawling. That said, the game also boasts city and village environments full of various characters, and at least one quest we've undertaken saw us having to defend a village from an attacking force. It's a nice change from the all-too-common RPG mechanic of plodding through endless underground tunnels killing oversized rats.
March of Progression
Indeed, even when it's falling back on relatively stereotypical action-RPG gameplay, Loki seems to have a few tricks to bring into play. Large outdoor areas are mixed in with traditional dungeons, and the game takes the pain out of traversing the world with teleport stones, which allow you to leap between previously discovered locations. Spells and attacks are placed in a bar on-screen, as you'd expect, but the ability to automatically fire them off in order using the left and right keys opens up the interesting possibility of creating and tweaking a chain of attacks based on cool-down times or status effects.
Playing through the first few hours of the game, other small tweaks to the formula become apparent, and look like being very welcome indeed over the course of a more lengthy play session. Any scenery that comes between your character and the camera becomes transparent, for example, so you never lose sight of what you're doing. A feature in the inventory screen called the "kiosk" looks like eliminating much of the frustration from managing your stock of items, too; it's essentially a recycle bin, allowing you to dump stuff you don't want in there, thus keeping it out of your main inventory screen. You can retrieve items, of course, but more usefully, you can also perform group operations, like selling the whole lot to a merchant. It's a nice touch which any fan of RPGs is likely to welcome.
The overall feeling you may be getting is that Loki is focused on tweaking without radically overhauling the hackandslash genre - and that's an entirely fair assessment. We've seen very little so far that can be described as radical in any way, but a combination of lovely, gritty-looking graphics and artwork with the kind of gameplay touches described above combine to make it into an enjoyable experience - even without any real innovation worth talking about.
The same design concepts extend into the game's character progression system, which is focused around the idea of worship. In each zone of the game, you can choose between three different gods to worship - each of whom will grant you various powers and spells as you continue to worship them. The quid pro quo is that you have to allocate a quarter of your experience points to worshipping; so by opting to worship nobody, you'll level up faster, but won't gain access to the new spells. It's a delicate balance to strike, but, again, it's more a refinement of existing systems than anything else - the whole three-gods decision isn't dissimilar to the three talent trees that exist for each class in World of Warcraft, for example.
Weapons and armour, meanwhile, are slightly more complex than you might expect from a hackandslash game - although certainly not sufficiently so to give headaches to anyone who's familiar with RPGs in general. Each weapon can be broken into two component parts, the grip and the blade, and recombined to make new weapons of your choosing, and every item can be reforged by a blacksmith, which boosts its stats or resistances in specific ways. So, for example, if you have an Iron helm, you can collect enough Gold to reforge the helm as a gold object, which will give it a better defence rating (and change its appearance). Some items can also be "inlaid" during the reforging process; so you might wish to inlay, for example, Sapphire on a chestplate to boost Ice resistance (just an example, by the way - our notes don't relate whether that's actually a real resistance).
So far, then, Loki is looking very much like a solid, likeable and extremely polished hackandslash RPG, with some lovely mythological elements and a few nice touches to the gameplay to give you a warm glow as you march through a few-dozen hours of play. However, there's one other element worth mentioning which might make a few of you sit up straight and pay attention (and stop flicking paper at each other down the back): online. Long a staple of the genre, Cyanide has decided to make online into a major feature of Loki, and to that end, has built in a veritable cornucopia of modes and functionality.
Duel modes and battle modes for up to eight players are pretty much par for the course, naturally, but Loki also boasts a six-player co-op mode spanning the entire single-player campaign. On top of that, there are also 20 different challenges designed specifically for co-op play - and an online leaderboard will show players their global rank. Cyanide is also taking cheating pretty seriously, and will have a "Closed" mode in operation which stores multiplayer characters on the developer's own servers, thus preventing them from being tampered with offline.
It's a fairly neat package of online features, which rounds out a game that looks well-pitched for any of the PC's many fans of hackandslash gameplay. We will, of course, be taking a more in-depth look at the worlds of Loki ahead of its launch on 24th August.