Jason and the Argonauts made bold cinematic footprints in 1963, largely thanks to painstakingly created stop-motion animation widely considered as one of the greatest achievements in 20th Century film. We can still remember those plasticine skeletons being smashed all over the place, and Jason's battle with the three-headed Hydra. It's a tale so well known that when Codemasters announced it was remaking the tale with developer Liquid Entertainment, we felt a little joy rising inside.
Rise of the Argonauts is a role-playing game for the new consoles and PC, and has all the graphical grunt and spit-shine we've come to expect from them. But rather than be just another blockbuster, Liquid Entertainment wants to re-interpret what a game in this genre should offer. It isn't happy with the good, evil, and neutral stock responses to non-player characters, or unintuitive battle systems and repetitive combat. Pages of menus clogged with statistics or laborious micro-management are a no-no, too, but most of all it is the effect of choice on the world it wants to rectify.
All of which sounds like rather a tall order. So, excited by the prospect of being Todd Armstrong as Jason, and curious as to how all these promises will manifest, we sat down with Liquid Entertainment's lead designer Charley Price for a chin-wag.
Eurogamer: What's the relationship between the game and Jason and the Argonauts?
Charley Price: In Rise of the Argonauts, you take on the role of Jason, a young warrior king whose bride is assassinated on their wedding day. In order to bring her back, Jason sets out aboard his massive warship, the Argo, in search of the Golden Fleece - a mantle of judgement that is the only known artefact that can unmake death. Along the way, Jason will encounter a host of characters from Greek Mythology, including Hercules, Atalanta, and others - and recruit them to join him as Argonauts on his journey.
As such, Rise of the Argonauts is essentially a creative retelling of the classic story with a greater focus on exploring the world of ancient mythological Greece, and giving players the opportunity to really explore and interact with the legendary people and places which are part of that world. Those who are familiar with the classic story will certainly recognize key characters and defining moments represented in our game.
Eurogamer: What's the headline-grabbing part of it? What's going to grab people's attention?
Charley Price: Rise of the Argonauts is a role-playing game that focuses on the strengths of the genre (strong story, character development, meaningful choices) while discarding the antiquated trappings that plague it (endless menus, bag/inventory management, minor statistic-tweaking, etc.).
Furthermore, because Jason's progression is tied to his favour with the gods, Jason's powers and abilities will grow by virtue of everything you do - be it a cunning choice in dialogue or decapitating a foe in combat. Every choice matters In Rise of the Argonauts.
Rise of the Argonauts also sports real-time, lethal combat unlike any you've ever seen in an RPG. Rather than stabbing someone 20 times in the chest before they fall down, in our game, when blade meets flesh, expect lethal consequences. Bypass an enemy's shield (by deflecting an attack, dodging around, or simply smashing through it with your mace), and they will no doubt meet a quick and bloody end.
Using our procedural animation system, Jason will target enemies independently - his shield rising to block an attack from the left as his right arm swings outwards, decapitating an enemy on his right - all with the touch of a button. Every combat encounter is unique, every encounter is lethal.
Eurogamer: How would you characterize the gameplay? Hack-and-slash?
Charley Price: Rise of the Argonauts' combat system is deceptively simple, but very meaningful and rewarding in a number of new and interesting ways. Because we have the potential for one-hit kills based on hitting enemy flesh and the ability to procedurally animate characters, every fight becomes unique.
A shield bash will use physics to impact an enemy's shield out of the way, potentially leaving them open for a deadly thrust of the spear. As such, watching for and creating vulnerabilities becomes simple and rewarding. Our combat system genuinely reinforces the deadly laws of cause and effect that you would expect in a film or in reality - which, combined with dynamic animations, creates a whole new combat experience.
So many games that rely on action and pre-set animations for their characters end up feeling dry and repetitive as the game progresses. But this makes sense, if you think about it. A scene from an action movie can be the coolest sequence in the world - but if you watch it over and over again for hours and days on end, it eventually loses its lustre. The same can be said for canned animations. If you consider each animation to be a very short cinematic, you can see how combat encounters begin to subconsciously feel more mundane and repetitive now you've seen the same "XXY" combo animation thousands of times.
By procedurally animating our characters, not only does every combat look and feel different, but those small adjustments matter - changing a sword slash from one that would harmlessly clang off of an enemy's shield, to one that slips underneath it, slicing that enemy in two.
In terms of the overall scope of gameplay, we strike a strong balance between combat, narrative, and exploration of the world - each of which allows Jason to progress as a character (through Deeds), as a hero (getting ever closer to the Golden Fleece), and as a leader (gathering Argonauts to his side).
Eurogamer: Is it quite free-form? Are we looking at an Oblivion-style experience or something else?
Charley Price: As Jason searches the world for the Golden Fleece, he will travel from island to island in any order he pleases; gathering Argonauts, increasing his favour with the gods, and acquiring information that draws him ever-closer to finding Colchis - the ancient isle where the Fleece is hidden. While each of these offers their own unique experiences, each island also "speaks" to the others - helping to create a consistent, living world.
Not only can Jason choose where to go at any given time, there are also many reasons to revisit places he has already been. Completing the initial objective on one will change that island's state, enabling new events and non-player characters to appear. In addition to new Argonauts, equipment, and favour progression, Jason will also walk away from each island with new abilities that will in turn unlock events and side-quests elsewhere in the game.
As such, rather than it merely being a matter of going ABCD or DBAC through the islands, there is a constant reason for you to revisit them, creating an interconnected web rather than just a branching (but otherwise linear) path.
Eurogamer: What sort of role-playing elements are you including and how do they work?
Charley Price: When we sat down to make Rise of the Argonauts, our goal was to make a series of systems that exist to reward the player's choices in cool and unique ways, while removing a lot of the minutiae that can often bog down games in this genre.
As mentioned earlier, Jason's progression and character development is centered on his favour with his four patron deities: Athena, Ares, Hermes, and Apollo. While just about anything the player does in the game can affect his favour with one of the gods, the primary means are through Deeds and Narrative Choices.
Deeds are our means of cataloguing the player's epic trek through mythological Greece. Any meaningful action within the world can trigger a Deed. Killing 20 Dryads, discovering the cave where Zeus was hidden from Cronos, saving hunters from certain death, or successfully outwitting or intimidating an NPC are all some examples of Deeds the player could acquire.
When players come across a temple, they can dedicate their Deeds to one of their patron gods, proclaiming that they performed it in question in their honour, thus increasing esteem with the god in question. Each god holds dominion over a certain set of powers and abilities that reinforce specific domains and play styles. Thus, as Deeds are dedicated to a given god, Jason will be able to select from a wide assortment of powers and abilities appropriate to each one.
The other way to gain favour with the Gods is through narrative choices. Dialogue in most games requires players to choose from a list of options that generally include a right choice (maximum reward), an evil choice (tempting, but often just "gets you in trouble"), and a filler choice (which splits the difference). We contend that this is a false choice, where the player is merely attempting to decipher the intonation and intent of each of the lines before picking the right one. As such, the player isn't really making a decision about what kind of character they are or how they want to handle a situation, they're just trying to get into the designer's head and figure out what answer they wanted them to pick.
In Rise of the Argonauts, the gods are always watching Jason's actions - even in dialogue. As such, when you enter a conversation, each of your choices is represented with an icon reflecting one of the patron gods - each of which infers a tone for the line in question. An aggressive or confrontational choice will please Ares, causing your Favour with him to increase, whereas a cunning or manipulative choice would please Hermes, and so on. As such, every narrative choice that the player makes will level-up their character. This is something very unique to our game and to role-playing games, and it very quickly reinforces our primary goal - make every choice meaningful.
Eurogamer: How will Jason and other legendary figures interact? Are you in control of them too?
Charley Price: As Jason progresses through his journey, he will accumulate a wide array of Argonauts - some who fight alongside him (Hercules, Atalanta, etc.) and others who perform various gameplay functions on the ship (Daedelus for equipment customization, Medea for mystic guidance, etc.). All of these Argonauts will gather on board the Argo - Jason's massive, mobile headquarters, which grows and develops as the player does.
In combat, each Argonaut has a vast assortment of unique and interesting behaviours, ranging from independent "solo" moves to others that set-up the player for potent combo attacks.
Rather than bog the player down with complex AI behaviour commands, we have kept Argonaut control simple and reliable with proximity-driven AI. If left alone, an Argonaut will wreak havoc all by themselves. If you want to collaborate with an Argonaut, merely move closer to them and their AI will trigger more set-up manoeuvres.
For example, Hercules is our hand-to-hand, brute force Argonaut. Leave Hercules alone and he's perfectly content sending enemies flying and ripping apart anyone he can gets his hands on. But if Jason chooses to fight alongside Hercules, he becomes more of a grappler, setting up Jason by holding enemies in place so that can be executed with ease. By making the choice implicit rather than explicit, we reduce the commands that the player has to learn and ultimately give them more control with less hassle.
From a narrative perspective, each Argonaut is a developed character with a unique history, motives and goals. Thus, even as they help Jason, so too can Jason help them with their own objectives along the way. These help to further develop each character's individual narrative, and unlock new abilities and equipment for each of the Argonauts as the game progresses.
Eurogamer: What about the Gods? How does that relationship work?
Charley Price: As mentioned earlier, your favour with the Gods is our primary character progression system. By dedicating Deeds to honour the Gods, or by acting in a fashion that pleases them throughout the game, Jason will get new powers and abilities that reflect the natures of the gods he honours.
An interesting twist to this is that favour isn't just represented in a menu screen. Since the gods are pervasive throughout the world, Jason's favour will manifest in changes in his environment. As you walk down a corridor lined with torches, a brazier's flames will burst to life or subside to a flicker, depending on your favour with Ares.
The atmosphere that we are seeking to create is one where the player truly feels that the gods are always watching, and every action he performs will impact their favour in some way, which in turn has a distinct impact on the player's progression through the game as a whole.
Eurogamer: What sort of online elements are there? Any online co-op?
Charley Price: It's still a bit early for us to discuss our multiplayer plans. We'll get to that when later on when the time comes.
Eurogamer: Can we expect a demo pre-release?
Charley Price: Again, one of those questions where it is too early to discuss. Obviously, as with any game we'd love to be able to have a Rise of the Argonauts demo, but we just need to make sure it works in our schedule.
Eurogamer: When are you targeting for release?
Charley Price: Rise of the Argonauts is planned to ship in 2008 for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.