It's not the most optimistic vision of the future we've ever heard, but the back-story to Space Siege runs something like this - in the far future, humanity ends up getting its backside soundly kicked by the insect-like leg of a superior alien race. So soundly kicked, in fact, that at the start of them game they destroy the Earth, and manage to attach a pod full of teeming masses of over-evolved-cockroach baddies to the vast ship on which you're escaping, the Armstrong.
Mankind's only hope, the ship's AI determines, is to undergo upgrading with cybernetic parts and components, making them into a match for the aliens in battle. Unwilling to permit the upgrading of the entire race, you volunteer to become a cyborg and fight off the alien menace. If you could imagine some dramatic music hitting a crescendo right about now, that would be lovely.
What kind of game are you envisioning, based on that story? A balls-out, brains-disengaged first person shooter, perhaps, designed by a team whose entire gaming philosophy is fuelled by marathon Halo sessions and crates of Jolt Cola?
Wrong. In fact, it's the back story to the new action RPG game from Gas Powered Games, best known for its previous ARPG title, Dungeon Siege. Fresh from developing real-time strategy love-fest Supreme Commander, Gas Powered and its charismatic boss, Chris Taylor, are dragging the Siege series into a science fiction setting - and taking the opportunity to rewrite the rule-book in the process.
Lights, Camera, Action RPG
The move to a science fiction environment - complete with shiny energy weapons, cyborg upgrades and the huge, mechanical environments of the Armstrong - is perhaps the most blatant change to the standard ARPG formula in Space Siege. After Dungeon Siege 2, Taylor says, the team was "full up on fantasy"; which is not to say that they don't like the genre, or appreciate its popularity, but simply that they wanted to do something different this time.
Space Siege, then, is less like Lord of the Rings and more like Aliens - indeed, the whole feel of the game is that of an action movie. Lead character Seth Walker is a quintessential action hero, a warrior who sets out to save humanity from an alien menace... And unlike Dungeon Siege's characters, Walker will be doing all his saviour stuff alone.
This, to some extent, is an even bigger departure than the move to a science fiction environment. Space Siege is a single-character action RPG, a complete reversal of Gas Powered's multi-character approach to Dungeon Siege - which, at the time, was considered to be one of the most unusual and innovative aspects of the series.
Having experimented with multiple characters, Gas Powered has now come full circle. Seth Walker is your sole avatar in the game - and unlike Dungeon Siege's somewhat dull, blank slate type characters, he's got a personality, a history and a voice of his own. Dungeon Siege, Taylor explains, worked on the principle that players would "imprint" their own personality on a blank slate - a concept that works better on a whiteboard in a developer's office than it does in a real game, he now believes.
As you - or rather, Walker - explore the Armstrong, you'll get the opportunity to upgrade yourself using cybernetic parts you pick up along the way. The effects are obvious; the more you upgrade, the less human your character looks, as he gradually transforms into an arse-kicking robot death-monger. As character progression goes, it's a hell of a lot more blatant than a +2 modifier on your dexterity.
This, however, is one of the basic conflicts of the game; Walker himself is unhappy with the idea of losing his humanity as a result of the cybernetic implants, and this extends rather further than some wishy-washy dialogue where he agonises over whether to install the latest cool gun on the menu. Throughout the game, you maintain a "humanity score" - a meter of how much of your body is still good old-fashion homo sapiens. Tool yourself up totally, and the game will be pretty easy to finish; but try and do it with less cyborg bits and bobs, and you'll uncover a different - and tougher - play experience, not to mention a different game ending.
Under Siege, but no Segal
Other aspects of the action RPG genre fall by the wayside like confetti as Taylor explains Space Siege to us. The game eschews the concept of experience points in favour of the aforementioned cybernetic upgrades; Taylor dismisses the experience system as "old school".
In fact, he dismisses a lot of things as being old school; the original design, he says, called for many different types of parts to be pieced together to make cybernetic upgrades. This, too, was "old school", and the team decided that people don't want that level of detail to stand between them and the fun combat sections. Instead, the game now sports one generic resource, "parts".
Game Over screens, too, are "old school". Instead, the game will sport regular health stations scattered throughout the levels, and when you die, you respawn at the last station you visited. Sound familiar? Taylor makes no bones about the similarity with Bioshock's Vita Chambers - a lot of Gas Powered's decisions, he says, were confirmed by Bioshock's popularity.
Space Siege looks great, with all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a high-budget modern game - but it's hard to escape the fact that there's something innately weird about listening to the man who made Supreme Commander lay into the old school, hardcore conventions of videogames.
Indeed, there's a feeling that Taylor has had something of a Road to Damascus experience - and Space Siege is the result. He's open and honest about his belief that the hardcore market for games is diminishing, and believes that what consumers want now is a fun "interactive entertainment" experience, rather than a traditional "videogame".
It should no longer be an exercise in seeing how far into a game you can get before giving up in frustration, he argues; you should get to the end of the game, and enjoy the satisfaction and the closure of the ending. Developers, he says bluntly, have always underestimated the value to the consumer of actually finishing games.
Part of Taylor's new approach, then, is putting more action into the action RPG. Players in Space Siege can mix and match tactics from traditional RPGs and tactics more familiar to players of action games - grenades bounce using real physics, which also applies to objects in the world, and enemies can be knocked off ledges and walkways with well-aimed attacks. Systems like clever enemy AI, fully 3D environments (which are huge vertically as well as horizontally) and realistic physics are being imported en masse from the FPS genre into Space Siege.
Tales of the Unexpected
Another part, though, is to do with storytelling - and if there's a single dramatic U-turn in Taylor's conversion, this is it. Whereas with Dungeon Siege, he was happy to let a dull, hackneyed storyline underlie the action, believing that it was unimportant compared to the game mechanics, Space Siege places huge importance on the story.
"The writing has to be great, the voice acting has to be great," he says with passion. He wants players to care about the back-story, about the motivations of the characters. The result could be spectacular; here, after all, is a man celebrated for his finely tuned game design, so we can't imagine Space Siege's combat being overlooked or unloved as a result of his newfound joy in storytelling. The idea that both aspects will be equally great is very compelling.
Returning briefly to the gritty details, Space Siege will boast a single-player campaign running for 15 to 20 hours, with multiplayer modes also included in the mix. Taylor expects that there'll be significant replayability in there, because of the humanity score; most players will finish it once by upgrading their character as much as possible, and many will go back to try and do it without losing Walker's humanity in the process.
Right now, the game is destined for the PC alone - although, as you'd expect for a man professing to have such a strong focus on the "mainstream" gamer, Taylor doesn't rule out console versions, saying that that's simply a decision for the publisher to make.
Space Siege is due out sometime next Spring, according to Gas Powered's rough estimate. We're looking forward to taking a closer look in the coming months.