The Order: 1886 developer Ready at Dawn's upcoming physics-based multiplayer arena brawler De-formers is a big departure from the studio's steampunk flagship title. A multiplatform (PS4, Xbox One and PC) offering published as part of GameStop's recently announced GameTrust initiative, De-formers, is a mix of lots of elements from beloved games cobbled together into something that looks familiar, yet strangely hard to pin down.
This third-person competitive game about a bunch of rolling round creatures trying to knock each other out mixes the bashing mechanics of Super Smash Bros. with the physics-based mayhem of Gang Beats, then combines it with the whacked out controls of Super Monkey Ball and the skill-based shooting of Twisted Metal. It's bonafide bonkers and about as far away as you could get from the immaculately detailed but ultimately conventional The Order: 1886.
Gone are the finely groomed yet gritty action action heroes, the glistening rain-slicked cobblestone alleys, and the sputtering crackle of archaic 19th century firearms. Instead De-formers focuses on freakish, spherical amphibians trying to obliterate each other in brightly coloured play pens.
The key to De-formers is its brisk, balanced economy of manoeuvres. Players roll around curvy, sometimes tilting, battlegrounds and are given three ways to demolish an opponent: Ram into them, shoot them, or throw them off the edge. Yet each method is risky. You can't pick someone up if they're moving around too much. Charging up your boost to slam into an opponent leaves you vulnerable to enemy fire. Meanwhile, projectile attacks and bashes can be blocked by condensing oneself into an immobile cubic shield form.
Beyond that, a character's size and power is tied to their ammo count. If you snatch up a bunch of shimmering gold bullets (called tribs) you'll increase in girth, meaning you'll slam into foes with greater force. So every time you shoot you're trading off brute physical force for long range attacks.
It's a simple set of moves, making it easily accessible, but there's plenty of tactical depth. "You have your grab, you have your charge, you have your shielding. Each one is designed to nullify the other. So you always have a different options," game director and studio co-founder Andrea Pessino tells me at a recent visit to Ready at Dawn's Irvine studio.
While De-formers looks as different from The Order as you can imagine, the foundation for this blubbery brawler was buried within The Order's DNA. Both games use the studio's proprietary engine and Pessino explains that while developing The Order Ready at Dawn came upon some "very unique physics technology", which was mostly relegated to cosmetic effects in the linear third-person shooter. "We didn't have the opportunity to really show off what the 'soft body system' could do and some of the very unique features of it."
"From the beginning we wanted it to be melee-based," Pessino says of the studio's upcoming left-field experiment. "It fits with the fact that it's 100 per cent based on physics. There's not a single animation in the game. Everything is simulated."
This wasn't a new idea for Pessino, either, as he'd had the vision for De-formers since 1989 when he saw the Academy Award-winning German stop-motion animated short Balance, in which a group of fishermen methodically arrange themselves on a platform teetering on the edge of a ravine. "They always have to collaborate and participate every time one of them moves," Pessino says. "I remember seeing this beautiful short and thinking 'that's a game!'"
So he tried making a prototype for it in 1991 on the 3DO. "I didn't have the technology or the expertise or the team," he recalls. "We tried one more time here in the mid 2000s, but we had more or less the same problems and did not pursue it."
Pessino didn't pick it up again until the summer of 2014, where he tinkered with a prototype in his off-time. Eventually he roped in another colleague to help out with it, but for the first few months it was only the two of them on it. But the project picked up steam within the office. People wanted to play it. By the end of 2015 the De-formers team had grown to 20.
Yet it was in its earlier days, about a year ago, that GameStop got involved. Browsing titles for its then-unannounced publishing initiative, the retailer saw the De-formers' prototype and was instantly smitten with the idea. "It's just fun," GameStop VP of internal development & diversification Mark Stanley tells me. "And it appeals to everybody. We kept using the 'nobody's allergic to it' line. It really is pick-up-and-go regardless of your level of skill. It's a wide audience that will love this."
Ready at Dawn co-founder and chief creative officer Ru Weerasuriya says the publishing arrangement was "the right partner at exactly the right time with the right project." After all, GameStop gets to diversify its portfolio, while Ready at Dawn gets funding for its pet project along with the added perk of keeping the De-formers IP.
De-formers is, for better or worse, something different and it certainly gets points for originality. It doesn't play like anything else out there and it's relatively accessible with various customisation options. Four-player split-screen is planned and Pessino tells me you can play three-vs-five or six-vs-two if you'd like. Apparently the two most skilled QA testers were able to defeat a team of six (Pessino, who was on the losing team, points out that they had more targets to go after). De-formers is a fittingly deformed take on the arena multiplayer genre and its freakish nature could make for a fascinating sideshow.