Hello, this is Shinji Mikami here.
I'm just barely keeping my head on my shoulders these days. But how about all of you? Firmly attached?
Of all the things you expect to find in a hotel room, a surreal letter from a legendary games developer isn't top of the list. But here it is, lying on the bed in the Tokyo Hilton, along with an event itinerary, a map of the local area and a pillow menu. (That last one is the only document not provided by SEGA, unless good PR now extends to offering a choice of foam or buckwheat.)
The letter continues:
At tomorrow's event, you will have the opportunity to see the very first gameplay demo of my latest title, Vanquish. I hope you're all anticipating what we have in store. (Actually, I'm full of anticipation and fear myself.)
The official title for tomorrow's event is the Vanquish World Premiere, but it won't be the first time anything has been seen of the game. A trailer released back in January revealed some of what to expect - a futuristic setting, a square-jawed hero, a sci-fi suit of armour and a world leader familiar enough to give any child of the eighties nightmares.
She was just one of a few familiar things about the trailer. Some people said it reminded them of Metal Gear Solid, others of Gears of War or Iron Man. "P.N. 03 meets Halo meets Emillio Estevez," wrote one Eurogamer reader. But the trailer still generated considerable excitement - partly because it just looked impressive, and partly due to the pedigree of the people behind it.
Platinum Games rose from the ashes of Clover Studio, the company behind Okami and God Hand. Platinum has since produced its own impressive pair of titles, MadWorld and Bayonetta. Now the studio is working on Vanquish. Heading up the project is Shinji Mikami, creator of the Resident Evil series. His letter concludes:
In tomorrow's interview, I'll answer as many of your questions as possible until my client stops me (LOL). Please feel free to ask me whatever you want.
But will he answer whatever we ask?
That question is still hanging in the air the following day as we wait to meet Mikami in the flesh. The World Premiere is being held at the Tokyo City View, a giant skyscraper in Roppongi. Punctuating the panoramic view is a big screen, standing on a stage covered in fibreglass rubble and smashed-in tellies. There's also a dented oil barrel, the kind instantly recognisable to anyone who's ever played a videogame.
In the corner of the room stands a mannequin modelling the suit seen in the trailer, looking for all the world like the love child of a stormtrooper and someone out of Battle of the Planets. On his white breastplate is written 'Augmented Reality Suit'. The unfortunate acronym is also boldly displayed. A fellow journalist wonders why the suit's visor covers the mouth rather than the eyes, as is more traditional and less totally illogical.
All will be revealed later on, but first it's time for Shinji Mikami to take the stage. He's a rock star developer all right, complete with baseball cap, hoodie, designer jeans and controversial opener. After welcoming us to the event he says, via a translator, "There's one thing I want to tell you before we actually get into the gameplay: this is not P.N. 03." Tackling the criticism head-on, then.
You can see why the comparison might be made. Both Vanquish and P.N. 03 are third-person shooters featuring sci-fi elements, special armoured suits and a lot of white. And both are Shinji Mikami creations. But this is different, he says.
"This is actually the first game I've made in four years. I wanted to make a shooter but I didn't to make a standard shooter. I wanted to make something that was smoother and more acrobatic than the shooters you see on the market today."
At this point the gameplay demo video kicks off. The screen displays the giant space colony shown in the trailer. It's ten kilometers in radius and 27 kilometres long, says Mikami ("We wanted to make a very large scale war"). Humans and robots wrapped in millions of tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night.
And if you think any such similarity to Babylon 5 is coincidental, consider the blonde woman who pops up in the cut-scene. She's mucking about with some holograms, Minority Report-style, while talking to our hero via a headset. The nametag on her shirt reads Ivanova.
But she's not the star of this show. That would be Sam Gideon, former research scientist and now military operative. As Mikami points out, Gideon has a much more athletic frame than your typical Gears of War-style hero - all the better for fitting into the ARS suit he helped design. It's lightweight but strong and provides plenty of protection, and provides the wearer with unique skills. These include the ability to boost along the ground on his knees while leaning backwards, like some kind of intergalactic rock guitarist, leaving a trail of blue sparks in his wake.
The suit is accessorised with a selection of weapons. In fact Gideon carries just the one firearm, but at the press of a button its casing retracts, then folds out again in the shape of a different gun, Transformers-style. Over the course of the demo we see him using a shotgun, assault rifle and heavy machine gun, and we're told further upgrades are available. Gideon also comes equipped with a few grenades.
It's clear all of this is going to come in handy. Right from the start the air in the hangar is thick with gunfire and explosions. Waves of robot enemies appear from all directions as Gideon's squad-mates race around covering his back. Huge ships loom overhead, firing at the squad before landing and depositing yet more enemy troops on the battlefield.
Gideon may not share the same body type as the Gears of War heroes, but he appears to have adopted a few of their tactics. There are plenty of bloodstained barriers to hide behind and he takes full advantage, popping out from behind cover to pick off each group of enemies before proceeding.
Sometimes he takes a bolder approach, however. The robots know about cover too and create their own, carrying large sheets of metal onto the battlefield and setting them up like windbreaks on a space-age beach. Gideon teaches them who's boss by leaping out from cover and boosting right up to the barriers on his knees. Before the robots have time to react he's popped up to a standing position and shot the lot of them in the face, point blank. In another example of how the boost is useful in combat, Gideon keeps it going and slams right into a barrier, knocking the troops behind it clean into the air.
Our hero's tactics also include turning the enemy's technology against it. At one point he manages to get around the back of one of the AT-AT-style walkers and take out the robot in the driving seat. After flinging its remains out of the way and tapping something into the keypad, Gideon is able to take control, blasting away at enemies on the ground and using the extra firepower to cut a path through the debris blocking his way.
Then he's back on the ground and back in the thick of the action. One of Gideon's squad-mates takes a direct shot and blood spatters on the HUD. A green cross appears above him and Gideon pulls out a syringe, slamming it into the victim's shoulder to get him back on his feet and make the cross disappear.
After all that, it appears our hero needs a break. Crouching with his back to a barrier, Gideon pulls out a cigarette, lights it, takes one drag and chucks it away. Turns out this is a signature move of Gideon's, one he likes to repeat whenever there's the slightest break in the action. It also perhaps explains the visor - it's there not so he can see, but so he doesn't have to take his whole helmet off when he fancies a fag.
Breaktime comes to an abrupt end as something bursts out of the ground up ahead. As the dust clears it's revealed to be a giant spider-like robot, complete with numerous guns blazing. At its centre is a flashing red sphere, which as anyone who has ever played a videogame will guess is its weak spot.
Gideon prepares for battle by kicking open a crate to collect a shotgun upgrade, then aiming squarely at the red sphere. The spiderbot releases hundreds of tiny white projectiles which explode all around, then rears up and starts smashing everything in the surrounding area with its forelegs. Just to finish things off, it fires a giant laser beam directly at our hero.
But Gideon has speed and agility on his side, not to mention the power of quick-time events. He runs underneath the spiderbot and grabs onto its body. A left stick icon appears on the screen, suggesting the player must twiddle it clockwise, then counter-clockwise to dodge incoming projectiles. Having managed this, Gideon gets up close and personal with the weak spot and unleashes a volley of fire. There's a giant explosion and it's all over.
The audience applauds. Mikami looks pleased with the response and remains on the stage for a couple of minutes, posing for the cameras. Then he heads off to the interview room, to wait for the first batch of journalists to ask whatever they want.
As it turns out the problem isn't with the questions we're allowed to ask, but how many we have time to ask. We've got a slot of 20 minutes, shared between three journalists - not long, especially with all the time taken up translating questions and answers. Might as well cut to the chase, then. Vanquish may not be P.N. 03, but what about all the other games it's already been compared to, such as Halo? Can Mikami really say this is a totally original title?
"In truth, yes, I do take references from other games," he says. "Particularly for Vanquish, the reference points are taken from games such as Gears of War and Call of Duty. We didn't really consider Halo that much. When I heard that maybe the main character is similar to Master Chief - I didn't expect that, because I didn't consider that from the beginning at all."
It makes a change to hear a developer admit that yes, they have played one or two of the games in the genre their title belongs to, and that yes, maybe they have taken inspiration from them. But all the same, we've seen special suits, weapon crates, bosses with big red weak spots and so on before... So what sets Vanquish apart?
"In terms of what you can gather from just looking at the game - I mean, Vanquish might not be too unique compared to whatever else is out there," says Mikami.
"But I feel the uniqueness lies in the intuitivity of the controls and how it feels when you actually get to play the game... It's a shooter, but it also feels a lot like playing an action game. That's the main difference between Vanquish and the other games out there already. Once you get to play the game, you can experience that for yourself."
As there's no hands-on time today, however, all we have to go on is how the game looks. And it looks much more like a Western-style game than the likes of Bayonetta and MadWorld. Has Mikami been forced to abandon any of his more out-there ideas in the face of commercial considerations?
"There is a balancing act going on there," he says, referencing God Hand - clearly a project close to his heart. "That was a title I made very freely, but it didn't sell as well. Resident Evil was based more towards the commercial side of things; God Hand was at the other end of the scale.
"With Vanquish, I'm drawing up the ideas, then they get put on the table, and it's considered whether they will be successful in the market or not. There are a lot of points where I kind of have to bear that as a reality. So I feel that it's kind of between God Hand and Resident Evil - that's where Vanquish is."
Time flies when you're sharing an interview slot, and too quickly it's time to finish up, check out of the hotel and head to the airport. But back in London, I discover Mikami has one more thing to say. The MP4 player we received in the event goodie bag has a video message from him on the hard drive.
"Hello, European Press," says Mikami, from underneath a different baseball cap. "Vanquish is the first game in four years I have directed. This is a shooter game with fast, fluid and frenetic action. And I think it's turning out to be very interesting."
Just how interesting it ends up being will depend on what the game feels like to play, as Mikami himself pointed out. What we've seen so far is impressive from a technical point of view, but in terms of artistic style and gameplay concepts, Vanquish looks a little familiar. It doesn't have the instant visual impact of a game like MadWorld or the bizarro factor of a Bayonetta. But it's early days, and this is still a Platinum Games title, and this is still Shinji Mikami. Perhaps he should have the last word:
"We are working very hard on this, so please look forward to this title." Will do.
Vanquish is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 this winter.