He doesn't know his name, he can't remember his past, all he knows is that his only hope for survival is to escape and unravel the mystery that has led to his imprisonment. Through an impenetrable fug he notes that it's 7.20 am. The N-Gage bleats. Stop or Snooze? Stop and snooze, please. But the hotel phone takes over. This could provide the first clue. What? "Get up!" Urrgh. He tries to snap into life. Limbs try to coordinate like a weary new-born Foal. It's no use. Try again.
Rubbing his sunken eyes it's starting to come back. He remembers a smiling bald man... J Allard. Swears a lot. Was he the leader? There was a drink. A depth charge shot. What was in that thing? 'Hey Zeus' it was called... but after that it's all blur. An X-shaped blur snapping into slicing focus. The face of an evil empire. Darth Vadar? No, that's the snoring from next door. No... the X.... Xbawx. Looking out of the third story window he note the sprawling urban landscape. Ah, E3. X-BOX. The White Lotus. Could it have been the evil Microsoft empire trying to poison them all? Where was everyone else? The normally bustling city of Los Angeles seems deserted. What's going on?
The plot thinnens
In this case the plot didn't thicken at all. It was brain death by misadventure. Just another chapter in the annual West Coast transatlantic jolly that is the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or more specifically the foolish acceptance of a wholly irresponsible drinking challenge from senior games industry execs who you'd imagine would know better. No, they just drink better, and can expense their liver replacement surgery on the company.
And then the next thing you know, you're talking to the charming bearded soul that is David Doak, or Dr Doak from GoldenEye if you will. Hiding 'backstage' at the Codemasters stand, he's giving his 22nd demonstration of his next game, entitled Second Sight. Appropriate, given we had double vision at the time.
As the opening sentence, culled from the press materials, explains, you're a man who wakes up completely bamboozled as to how he got where he is, in a medical research facility in Siberia. Not even knowing your own name would present something of a problem, and, um, we appear to have an instant advantage in knowing that it's John Vattic. And that's taking into account being 10 times over the legal limit.
As Free Radical's David Doak explains, "Second Sight is a third person game, kind of contemporary realistic, but the one thing that's different about it is the psychic powers. The character you play in the game is called John Vattic, there are two timelines to the game which are before and after he had his psychic powers.
"He starts off in the 'after', and in that timeframe he's a broken man, he's in this medical military research facility. He can't remember who he is or how he got there, but as he tries to escape he has these awakening psychic powers.
"Fairly early on in the game he's confronted by a guard that triggers an episode where he reawakens this power he has. We introduce the psychic powers through cut-scenes first, and then you're given it and can build on it from thereon," he says.
Psychic powers. It's the human brain's killer app, it's just we're all a bit primitive to work out how to use it. Hardly surprising, given that most of us have trouble working out how to set the clock on the video. In Second Sight, Vattic's had his brain hard-wired for it. You'd think he would be grateful.
Explaining how it all works on the screen, Doak continues: "There's a lot of cool stuff he can do with his powers - he's got Telekinesis, so he can pick up a chair, throw it about, and because we worked with the dual analogue [sticks] I can control the prop with one hand and move myself around with the other. I've got quite fine control over what I'm doing. There's a dead guard here - I can pick up his gun or I can lazily pull it into my hand. [I can] pick him up and throw him around.
And so he does, yanking around hapless humans like rag dolls and causing them extreme pain in the process, no doubt.
Psychic AI too?
"The gun stuff is in the same place, so I can target on things and have this soft lock-on so I can shoot things, or I can switch to my TK, pick it up and shoot at it when it's in the air," he demonstrates. As an intuitive and responsive system, it's typically Free Radical - and long-term fans won't be at all surprised to learn that the sniper rifle makes an appearance.
"There's some nice new work we've done. With the GoldenEye and TimeSplitters thing we're very keen on sniper rifles in games. We've tried to make them work in the third person games, so you get a targeting reticule [in the bottom right hand corner], and you have a soft adjust on the aim," Doak says, agreeing that it's similar in feel to TimeSplitters. "Yes, there's that certain softness to it".
"We've also added the ability to lock the targeting reticule to the screen, based on the fact that PC gamers like first person stuff. To be honest it's not a big thing to do - and we've done it now. People wanted it as an option so we put it in, which is funny because GoldenEye had the same soft targeting. I prefer the more organic feel to it," he asserts.
It's much more of a story driven game this time around, you may be relieved to hear, following the almost complete absence of one in TimeSplitters. It's a much more serious affair too, Doak admits. "It's intended to be kind of an intelligent thriller - that's what we're trying to put across. And also because of the way we've told the story - this flashback thing - it's quite different to a lot of games. In most stealth action games it's fairly linear and you usually know where it's going to end up by the time you start.
"But with Second Sight, because of the flashbacks, as you go you're continuously re-evaluating how you got to be in this broken state in this medical place. And the cool thing we've got going on is that the flashbacks aren't passive as you play the level. So if you imagine when the game starts, Vattic is this broken man, and all the people he's with in this mission suffered in some way - in fact many of them are dead.
"When you play in the flashbacks, one of the things you have to do is to try and keep the people alive who are on the mission. So, for instance, there's a woman on the mission and his first instinct is to try and find out about her, and what he finds out is that she's dead. [He] flashbacks to a time in the past when she was still alive and you play the flashback and keep her alive, and when you come back out of it, she's not dead, she's banged up in this mental asylum, so that's where you have to go to try and progress the story," Doak explains.
If I could turn back time
And so it goes on, he explains, with a narrative stepping effect allowing you to "raise up the story", "trying to fix what's broken from the past - or in your mind of the past, and you're kind of interacting with the story and pulling it onto this way that leads you forward." It's certainly an intriguing prospect that clearly Free Radical has thought about in some detail for a long time.
Although the team has only been working on the game for about two years, it was conceived many years ago. "The original idea [dates back to] when we started Free Radical. We were going to do this as our first game, and then we sort of caught ourselves on and said 'this is a big production, so we're better sticking with what we know and have done before,' so that's why we did TimeSplitters."
Judging by the art style, it's very TimeSplitters in terms of the character design and palette, and Doak confirms: "The core engine is the TimeSplitters engine, but we've come a long way since TimeSplitters 2. With this, because we're doing a standalone game, single viewpoint it means that we can get involved with, like soft shadows and stuff, which you can see as he runs about."
Redefining the press release
The press blurb talks in terms of Second Sight being a game that "redefines the standard for stealth action gaming", and Doak confirms that it's a title that gives players much more choice in how they want to approach things: "It's kind of loose and fluid, so if you want to run and gun and blow people through the walls or psychically destroy them you can do it".
"One of the powers you get is this psychic charm, which allows you to have mind control. Once you've acquired that you can use it to improvise stealth, so you no longer are restricted to watching patterns and moving around. You can walk right past someone and they won't see you, but if you bump into them then they will notice.
"So, if you're up against a bunch of guards shooting at you from outside, there's a combination of stuff I can do: my telekinesis (TK) let's me pick up objects and maybe use them as a shield, and that allows me to get close to them. I can TK a TV, throw it at the guard, use my gun to shoot this guy in the head, switch to TK, pick up the gun - even though I can't get outside, or use my psychic attack to knock him for six," he explains.
Mr Vattic even has those inconvenient health issues covered: "If I switch to psychic heal it moves my psychic power directly into my health. We're going to have this thing that happens if you overuse the psychic power - it starts to warn you you're overusing it, and wipes out so I have to wait for it to build up again."
Like most games these days, Free Radical isn't thinking of Second Sight as a standalone game. "There's distance for it to go. Really for us, we need to see how this one proceeds - I'd like to build on it and to have another Free Radical brand. Although it's kind of self-contained, his story really tells you about what would happen when people discovered that psychic stuff was real and how people might like to abuse it and use it for their own ends. At the end of that, it kind of puts us in a position where you could say 'okay, well, what would happen going forward? How would people use it or if it became more of a commonplace thing?'
Although the game plays out entirely from Vattic's perspective, the game cleverly deals with the issue of multiple characters by allowing you to possess them - a feature Shiny attempted with Messiah: "You have this psychic ability that allows you to astral project outside your body. That becomes enhanced at one stage and then you can possess other characters, so you can kind of take control of NPCs," he reveals. Interesting, and a feature that also plays a big part in THQ/Pandemic's wonderful-looking Destroy All Humans, which we'll be previewing shortly.
Before the gold rush
It's evident that the game is looking extremely polished at this stage, and Doak confirms its "very near," with a nailed down September release date on all three main console formats.
Yes that's GameCube too, surprisingly for a title that's being published by Nintendo-shy Codemasters, but why do it? "We've got a very soft spot for Nintendo at Free Radical," he admits, "...because of the whole GoldenEye thing. We really enjoyed putting TimeSplitters 2 on GameCube, and to be honest it's not a big extra effort for us because we've got all the technologies there. We're doing the Xbox, we're doing the PS2, and it's easy for us to port it across."
And he has plenty to say to the GameCube detractors. "I think the death of GameCube is a bit premature," he states. "Late last year the cynical people were saying 'it's over', now you see a lot of things coming out for it again. There are a lot of them out there and it's a great machine - particularly from our point of view. It's very balanced - the CPU and graphics performance are kind of hand in glove, and we're not limited on either of them."
But the burning question for many was what he thought of EA's new GoldenEye. "No, I haven't seen it yet - I'd be interested to see it," he tells us. "The funny thing is, it was 'Be Bond', now it's 'Don't be Bond'!"
We'll bring you a full hands-on assessment of Second Sight in the coming months.