I've just performed a brutal sliding tackle into the knees of some armoured gimp, scooped up the metallic ball and sent it skimming across the bas-relief surface of war-zone-cum-pitch towards an open-goal. It's been a while.
I'm playing Speedball 2. Surprise surprise. What else could I be playing?
Seventeen years on, Brutal Deluxe remains one of the tiny number of future sports games that were in any way successful - both critically and commercially. Simple, direct and - at least in the popular consensus - phenomenally violent, it's never really got the sequel it's deserved. I travel to Klyotonn's Parisian headquarters, wondering if they can really make it happen.
You may remember Klyotonn from Ironstorm and Bet On Soldier, the first-person shooters. Which, at least for me, is a strong mark against them. Faith is more restored by the presence of The Bitmap Brothers' Mike Montgomery, who's supervising development. When I turn up in the office, the team and Mike are involved in a heated discussion about the actual design of the side-line points multipliers. Should they protrude? Should they be transparent? While the team seems passionate enough about the game, it's Mike's dogged pursuit of the smallest details which gives me some faith in this matching up to the lineage.
But I don't need to have "faith". I get to play it. Or, at least, the part which they have playable at this early stage.
You see, the vision for the game is a little grander than a straight conversion or update (Like you may remember in Speedball 2100 back on the PlayStation). While not enough to justify a "3" it's certainly not just a "2" - the game will pick up its own unique subtitle closer to release. The main difference is that it's got two games modes with separate mechanics. One is faithful to the 1990 layout. The controls will remain on one button, with jumping, attacks and passing all based on contextual location and whether you tap or hold down the button (at the moment, there's a second button for swapping between players, but that'll be optionally automated later). While there are four new arenas, there are going to be all the mechanics you became familiar with all those years ago. Multipliers, electro-ball, the warps, the stars, the bumpers - Speedball always had the feel of a fight inside a pinball table. This was always why the game worked. While the controls themselves were entirely simple, it was the actual arenas that added complexity to the game, and your exploration and mastery of them what lead to the game's unique tactics. Easy to learn, hard to master, as a wise cliché once said.
The Advanced mode is where the game divorces from its origins, adding extra controls. For example, the team talk about having a separate jump and attack button, so allowing you to skip over sliding tackles or jump and shoot simultaneously. More dramatically, there'll be the option to play with mouse and keys, so allowing you to aim in one direction and throw the ball in the other - think Robotron or Geometry Wars, depending on your age. They're not in what I get to play today, but it's clear to see how they'll shake up the game completely for those who choose to use them
Klyotonn think that they'll mainly be used by people playing online. While you can play against each other on the same machine, there's also an array of Internet options, including online leagues. Most radical here is the possibility to have matches with no AI players. While a full team of humans would almost certainly devolve into a ruck as everyone piles into an enormous mush in the middle of the arena, the team are experimenting with two- or three-a-side to keep things open and allow something approaching proper play.
Graphically, obviously we're seventeen years on. The two main teams have their own completely different highly-detailed looks, derived from the originals yet up-to-date. There's also a more traditional look for people who can't stop pretending it's 1990. Like Madchester Bands or similar. There's also a little diversity added to the world. Rather than an array of blokes, you ca also choose between cyborgs and female players. This allows you to customise your team's line-up depending on whether you want to be bruising or nimble. For example, if you don't care about taking down the opposition and want to dodge around, you'll select more female players. Because - as Speedball watchers know - female players are faster because they - oh, I can't believe I'm writing this - have no tackle. Or rather, not a very good tackle. Fast but weak characters. Oh, why don't we ever see a Fast but Slow character? I demand a recount.
Er... Where was I?
You don't need to settle for just that limited trio of players though. As well as the leagues, there's a whole online community where both developer-created and user-created content can be exchanged. Matches, player crests and similar will be free to download. The developer content, however, will be based around a micropayment model. If you want a star player - who won't have better stats, per se, the developers stress, just tweaked from the basic players - then you'll make a payment. Similarly, if you want to go beyond the four arenas you can pay for extras. There's a similar pay-for-extra-play set-up suggested over in the leagues. As well as the open leagues, a more feature-rich Gold Arena will require monthly subs.
Hmm. Frankly, micropayment and subs and in-game advertising (which I didn't mention) to support a relatively simple team-based game will almost certainly be enough to get a fair number of players' backs up. But it's early days, none of it has been implemented yet and it's possible they can walk this line without winding up with something that feels like a grotesque Consumerist church. Possible. Be careful, Klyotonn.
But how does it play at this stage?
Well, two main impressions.
1) It's not Speedball 2 yet, in terms of polished playability. The player's speeds are slightly misjudged. The sliding tackle doesn't slide enough. The sense of HARD COLLISIONS BETWEEN STEEL-ARMOUED MEN isn't quite there.
2) I couldn't stop playing it.
More than anything else, it's the latter which makes me hopeful about Speedball 2: Missing Subtitle. It's not right - but what's missing is the sort of thing which a few months of playing then tweaking then playing some more will get. The team confess that this is the first playable version they'd have shown anyone - and, as point 2 suggests, it is a playable version. If the team spends more time between now and September on microscopic polish of the game's dynamic and less on micropayments, this could be a dark, violent horse.