Although Activision once again spurned the crowded exhibition halls of ECTS this year, they were in London to demonstrate several of their games on Monday. Taking over the York Suite at the swanky Royal Garden Hotel must have cost them almost as much as a proper stand at ECTS would have done, but whatever their reasons it did at least give us a chance to check out some of their games in relative quiet.
Unfortunately the line up was less than impressive, and most of the games on display were console titles. Quake III Arena was only there in the form of the public test version that everyone and their monkey has already downloaded off the internet, and Star Trek Voyager : Elite Force was also absent.
It wasn't all bad news though - Dark Reign II, BattleZone II, Soldier Of Fortune and Vampire were all on show. I'd already seen BattleZone II at the game's press launch at The Playing Fields a couple of weeks ago, but this was my first look at the other three games...The original Dark Reign was a victim of bad timing. A competent RTS with good AI and some nice features, it was unlucky enough to be released just days before Total Annihilation, and went head to head with not only Cavedog's classic but also Microsoft's Age Of Empires.
Undeterred by the relatively poor sales of the first game, developers Pandemic are now working on a prequel - Dark Reign II. But if you're expecting another 2D sprite-athon, you're in for a big surprise. Dark Reign II will be one of the new generation of full 3D strategy games. Lights, Cameras, Action!
The world of Dark Reign II can be viewed in three ways - you can play from an almost top-down view similar to a traditional RTS, look down on the world at a roughly 45 degree angle, or get close to the ground and view the action up close and personal.
The horizon is a little too close for comfort, but what you can see is pretty impressive. Multiple levels of detail for the models mean that up close they have as many polygons as the characters in many first person shooters, but if you zoom out again their detail is reduced so that they can all be displayed without grinding the game to a halt.
There are also proper day and night cycles, with some missions being carried out in the dark, some during the day, and some including both. A timer tells you how long it is to the next sunrise or sunset, and as the sun moves the lighting will change. There are also weather effects to make things more interesting... Control
Whichever viewpoint you chose the controls are the same, with a simple drag and click mouse system similar to a traditional RTS such as Total Annihilation or C&C : Tiberian Sun. Drag the mouse to draw out a box to select all the units within it, then click on a friendly unit or building to guard, an enemy to attack, or a bit of empty terrain to move. There's also a straightforward looking menu system that you can use to control your base and units.
Another welcome feature in the game is the introduction of formations, which should help avoid the huge chaotic melees that most RTS games turn into as soon as two armies come together. So far there are only three formations - line, wedge and box - but the final game should have several more.
Each of the two sides should have around 30 units to play with - Pandemic have gone for quality rather than quantity. The same goes for the number of troops in a game. Instead of just building hundreds of units and carrying out a tank rush, you'll lead a relatively small force and so each unit will be more valuable to you. Conclusion
As one of the first of the 3D strategy games Dark Reign II definitely has potential, with impressive visuals, detailed units, and easy to master controls. And based on a heavily modified version of the engine used by Heavy Gear 2, it certainly looks the part.
Dark Reign II is due out this winter, and you can bet we'll have one of the first reviews of the final code just as soon as it's done.Raven are probably best known for their Heretic and Hexen games, but with Soldier of Fortune they move from fantasy to real life. Very real. Your character is a mercenary working for the US government, charged with tracking down a trio of nuclear missiles that have been stolen by terrorists. Killing Fields
As with the Heretics and Hexens, Raven are using an id Software engine. This time however it is a hardware only version of the Quake II engine - if you don't already have a 3D accelerator, you need to get with the times! The engine has been enhanced to give more detailed skies, more impressive animations, and much more besides.
The death animations are probably the most visible of the new features, with each character having no less than 26 "gore zones". Shoot them in the leg and they'll collapse clutching at the injured limb. Hit their shoulder and they'll be spun around as they fall. Blood spurts out of wounds and fountains on to walls from exit wounds.
It's all very realistic, and Raven even drafted in a former mercenary and Green Beret medic to help them get it right. In fact, it's almost disturbing. Like Kingpin it pushes the boundaries of good taste, though Soldier of Fortune uses the graphic violence to add to the realism of the game rather than because it's "cool" or to cause controversy. But if you're queasy, this is one game you'll probably want to avoid... Mission Impossible
The game is split into ten missions in a range of settings including the Middle East and New York. And it's not all just a case of charging in and blowing everyone away. In one mission you will be sent to assassinate a particularly enemy with a sniper rifle, and killing everybody you meet is not likely to succeed.
One of the levels being demonstrated at ECTS was set on board a moving train, which reminded me of one of the Assault levels from Unreal Tournament. The level begins with a short in-game cinematic, with the camera swooping around the train to show you the terrorists standing guard on the various wagons between you and your target.
Once the cinematic has ended you have to climb your way to the front of the train, taking out the guards as you go and being careful not to fall off the side. If all of the missions are this inventive, we should be in for a treat. Conclusion
Raven have a tendency to create games that push id Software's engines to their limit, introduce all kinds of interesting innovations, and are great fun to play, but for some reason don't sell very well. Hopefully Soldier of Fortune and it's real world setting will help them break this jinx, as it looks like being one of their best games yet. Expect it in January 2000.Vampire is based on one of the world's most popular pen and paper role playing games, apparently second only to TSR's Dungeons and Dragons games. This gives it a strong back story, as well as highly developed character, combat and magic systems that should be recognizable to thousands of players around the world. Time Bandits
Vampire is a game of two halves. You start as Kristoph, a 12th century knight from Prague who hunts vampires for a living, until one day he is attacked by a powerful member of the undead and "embraced", turning him what he most despises - a vampire. Then at some point in the game you enter a deep sleep, waking up to find yourself in 20th century London.
This allows the game to change entirely half way through, giving you far more variety for your money. Not only do your surroundings change, but so do the weapons that are available to you and the characters that you will meet. Adjusting to the sudden change should be as much of a challenge for you as it is for Kristoph, still struggling with the implications of his transformation.
Both the modern and medieval worlds are intended to be realistic (apart from the presence of large clans of vampires, of course). They will also react to your behaviour - leave a trail of bloodless corpses behind you and knights / police will try to track you down. The World
Each section also includes around 150 NPCs, giving you plenty of tasks to carry out, people to talk to and blood to suck. Some of these characters may join you, and you'll be able to control a party of up to four players. Their faces appear in the status bar at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to see at a glance what's happening to them even if they're not on screen.
Controlling Kristoph from the third person view is easy - just click on a location, object or character to move him. His inventory is all drag and drop, and his party will follow him around without requiring too much hand holding. You can also switch to a first person perspective to look around and examine items up close, although you can't control Kristoph from this viewpoint.
The graphics are fairly impressive already, even though the build we saw didn't have any of the weather effects or day and night cycles which are intended for the final version. The architecture is fairly detailed and very authentic, although the streets of Prague look a bit too clean to be real. Conclusion
Vampire has a lot of potential. It's based on a great role playing game, features four cities (London, New York, Prague and Vienna) to explore, and is effectively two games for the price of one thanks to Kristoph's 800 year hibernation.
The game is apparently aiming for completion by January or February 2000, although there's no official release date from Activision yet. We'll bring you more on the game as it nears completion...