Anne McCaffrey's world of Pern has a pedigree stretching back some thirty years now, with sixteen novels and various novellas and short stories adding up to two thousand years and millions of words of back story. It's no doubt a little intimidating for the developers trying to fit their own work into this vast sprawling fantasy epic, but at the same time the series has proven such a success it's something of a surprise that nobody has made a computer game set in Pern before.
Here Be Dragons
Oxford's own UbiStudios UK are the brave (or perhaps merely foolhardy) souls ushering in a new digital age for Pern, in the form of a suitably sprawling 3D adventure game called Dragon Riders. As the title suggests, Pern is home to a race of vast flying animals genetically engineered from the native fire lizards, although the human settlers have long since forgotten this and much of the rest of the technology that brought them to Pern many centuries ago.
The dragons and their riders from the Weyrs form the first line of defence against a devestating energy parasite called the Thread, which crosses the orbit of Pern every two hundred years. The current attack is almost over, but a new threat is brewing. As the game starts, the young rider D'Kor is trying to recover from a hang-over after drinking rather too much wine at the wake of Nalaya, the recently deceased Weyrwoman of his settlement. Cue a frantic search for a replacement Weyrwoman to be bonded with a gold dragon which is about to be born.
Before long things go from bad to worse though, with friction between the elite dragon riders and the rest of the population, a mysterious new disease spreading from the south, and suggestions that your last Weyrwoman might not have died of natural causes after all. And of course you are the only one who can save the world - don't you just hate it when that happens?
Even if, like me, you're not familiar with Anne McCaffrey's work, the game does a good job of introducing you to the world of Pern gently, and within a couple of hours you will be perfectly at home with all the intricacies of dragons, fire lizards, weyrs, holds and halls. Or at least familiar enough with the basic concepts to understand more or less what is going on around you.
The opening section of the game also does a good job of teaching you how to use the controls and interface from within the safety of your own own Weyr before setting you loose in the wider world. Having your dragon explaining how to use an item in your inventory by selecting it and pressing the use key does rather ruin your suspension of disbelief, but it eases you into the game smoothly without the need for a seperate tutorial. And after drinking that much wine you probably would need a telepathic dragon to remind you how to pick up an object...
Movement is simple enough, using the arrow keys to turn you around and move forwards and backwards, while the shift key controls whether you walk or run. The space bar is used to talk to other characters and interact with your environment, and hotkeys allow you to pull up your journal (which records your quests and reminders of important facts and conversations), inventory and maps. This all quickly becomes second nature, although combat was a bit clumsy in the preview version we were provided with.
Combat isn't a major focus of the game though, or at least not in the early stages. This is very much an adventure game first and foremost, and as such most of your time is spent wandering from room to room talking to everybody you run across and solving problems for them.
As the game starts you find yourself gathering the other dragon riders for a meeting with your leader, but to do this you will first have to find a lost child, work out who your friend pulled a knife on at last night's party and apologise for him, confiscate a pair of dice, and carry out numerous other errands and tasks. It also gives you an opportunity to meet the rest of the inhabitants of Fort Weyr, many of whom are rather outspoken in their beliefs and will crop up again later in your quest, either as friends or adversaries.
Once you finally make it out of the cramped cave-like interior of your own weyr it's obvious that the hard work was all worthwhile though - the scenery outside is quietly impressive, and there is a huge world to explore beyond your own settlement. As you uncover the threat facing Pern you will travel to other weyrs, holds and halls, as well as exploring abandoned mines, volcanic craters and maze-like cave networks filled with vicious lizards and the now obligatory quota of molten lava.
Flight of Dragons
Although the terrain is fairly impressive as adventure games go, the real detail has been saved for the characters, and of course that includes your dragon. The first time you see a dragon in flight is certainly a memorable experience - these things are about the size of a Learjet, and a lot more spectacular as they heave their bulky frames into the air with much flapping of leathery wings.
The humans are a little blocky in places, but attention has been lavished on the most important part - their faces. All of the main characters are readily identifiable, and eyes, mouths and brows all move as they talk with you. The preview build showed just a taste of what is to come, and hopefully more work will be going into making sure these facial expressions fit the conversations more accurately in the final version.
Something else which still needs some tweaking is the camera, as D'Kor can become obscured by the scenery in places and transitions between different fixed and moving viewpoints aren't always smooth as you go from one area to another. The camera is also a bit hyperactive during conversations, panning, zooming and moving around rather more than is strictly speaking necessary, which can prove distracting.
Things are certainly looking promising at this stage, and with a bit more work Dragon Riders should be well worth a look for Anne McCaffrey fans and newcomers to Pern alike. Featuring a mixture of a strong original storyline and characters with the extensive background and colour that the long-running Pern series offers, this is shaping up to be another great adventure game for publisher UbiSoft.