Of all the titles which we've heard about on the PS3 to date, Lair is perhaps one of the least hyped - and the most promising. Developed by Factor 5, they of the "lots of Star Wars space battle games" fame, the game was done something of a disservice by early trailers which showed improbable sky battles between hulking dragons and their armoured riders, looking nothing like gameplay footage and giving all the characters - dragon and human - the unpleasantly over-shiny visual style which makes everything look like it's covered in a film of slime (an effect now thankfully banished from the game). Factor 5's pedigree is good, and dragons are always great - but Lair slipped under the radar somewhat, because we just didn't know enough about it.
At TGS today, Lair was granted an entire row of demo pods on the Sony stand - suggesting that Sony views it as one of its key first-party titles. As well they should, in fact - because the lengthy playable demo suggests that while this may be something of a diamond in the rough at present, it's got the potential to be a hefty gem indeed, and potentially one of the jewels in the crown of Sony's early line-up for the PS3.
The premise of the game is an immediate hook - you are a dragon-rider, seemingly caught up in some form of medieval fantasy war where dragons are the ultimate weapons both on the battlefield, and in the skies above. An important point is that unlike many games where being the pilot of a beast or machine means being firmly bonded to it, in Lair you really do play the rider, as distinct from the dragon - and there will be points when you'll be separated from your mount, such as when you leap across to other dragons to settle your differences with enemy riders up close and in person.
Starting out the demo, you and your faithful scaly steed are brought through a flying lesson which consists of flying accurately through a series of translucent rings in a wide mountain valley. This introduces one of the key aspects of the game - along with WarHawk, it's the first PS3 title to make major use of the tilt functionality of the new controller, and several months on from the knocked-up-in-a-few-weeks WarHawk demo at E3, Lair's use of the tilting pad is extremely well implemented. Either the pad is natural when it comes to controlling flying reptilian beasts, or Factor 5 has spent a lot of time tweaking the flight and control model - we suspect the latter, and we're very glad of it. We couldn't quite fathom whether the movement of the controller is simulating your hands on the dragon's reins, tugging gently up and down on each side, or whether you should be viewing the controller's body as a substitute for the dragon's own and moving it accordingly - or perhaps a halfway house between the two. However, it's certainly intuitive and responsive, with each movement feeling solid and the dragon moving nimbly, but still giving the impression that it's a creature with real mass.
Once you've mastered those controls - and it really won't take long - the demo throws you into battle. There are two key aspects to the combat in the game which are explored in this build, namely air to air combat and air to ground combat; there's also ground to ground combat, but it felt clunky and unfinished in this demo, and we have a suspicion that Factor 5 really intends these majestic beasts to be airborne as much as possible anyway, so we doubt that land-based combat will be a major part of the finished product.
Air to air combat, as you might have guessed, takes the form of fighting against other dragons and their riders - and while you do have the option of spitting fireballs at them from range, or getting your dragon to grapple up close, by far the most effective way of taking out strong enemy dragons is to attack their riders. During combat, maneouvering yourself around into the right position gives you the chance to hop off your dragon and onto the enemy's mount - where you can proceed to attempt to knock the enemy rider off his dragon. That seems to pretty much disable the dragon too, who just flaps off to what I like to think is a happier, less warfare-focused life, perhaps raising some nice dragon chicks on a nice pile of gold surrounded by hobbit bones in a cave somewhere; however, you do also have the option of stabbing it in the neck once the rider is gone. It's all about giving the player choice, I guess. Either way, to get back to your own mount, you hop off the enemy dragon and it flies down to scoop you up - a lovely mechanic which gives air battles a certain satisfyingly epic feel.
Speaking of epic, the second type of combat, being air to ground, exudes epicness from every one of its lovely digital pores. In the demo level, an enormous bridge spanning some kind of rough sea inlet, with gates set into the mountains on each end, formed the focus of the battle, with enemy forces doing their best to cross, your forces out in force to prevent them, and all manner of dragons circling in the skies above to lend support. The area is absolutely massive, and incredibly dramatic not only in scale but also in setting. Giant waves swell in the waters below the bridge, one of the nicest ocean effects we've ever seen in a game, while the setting sun infuses the bridge itself with strong, low-angled light that reflects and glares off every surface it hits. Giant braziers burn at intervals along the span, and columns of translucent smoke rise high into the air from them; meanwhile, the armies themselves march along dozens abreast and clash at their front lines.
After dealing with the dragons overhead, you turn your attention to the battle below - swooping low to roast the enemy troops with your dragon's fiery breath, or picking up their bigger units - a variety of large beasts - in its talons and dropping them over the side. You can also land amongst their forces to cause further havoc, but as previously mentioned, this just plain isn't as much fun as doing so from the air. As the battle progresses and the battle line moves, parts of the bridge fall under the bombardment, ditching entire battalions into the waters below; the flames rise higher, and the word "epic" begins to groan under entirely justifiable over-use.
Sound good? In theory, it certainly is. The concept is sound and the execution is proceeding well - with the gameplay and the ideas on display prompting gushing scribbles in my notebook comparing the aerial combat to the bosses in Shadow of the Colossus which were dispatched in mid-air (albeit simpler and less involved), while the graphical look and feel is heavily influenced by Lord of the Rings' massive battles in the latter films, and other aspects of the game are a tantalising glimpse at Panzer Dragoon Orta done without the rails.
However, in practice, Lair is one of the least complete games on display at TGS this week. The game suffers from a multitude of graphics glitches and other such problems, and the admittedly impressive visuals have a particularly rough and ready feel in places - with specular highlights and over-saturated lighting being ridiculously over-used in a manner which goes well beyond being stylised and hovers dangerously close to the "ugly" line on occasion, while a weak depth of field system makes background scenery swim around as if it was being viewed underwater. Handling is also dodgy; the dragon occasionally clips through surfaces (and parts of its own body sometimes pop through the wings), while navigating around towers often gives a peculiar stair-stepping movement as the creature pops sideways in regular steps to avoid the obstacle. The troops on the ground also suffer from a lack of animation, with entire platoons of soldiers performing exactly the same action in tandem - a horribly artificial effect which drags down the epic feel of the battle by making the men on the ground seem like automatons.
Given the game's 2007 release date, and Factor 5's long reputation for delivering polished products, we're reasonably confident that most if not all of these issues will be gone by the time Lair is sinking its talons into people's PlayStation 3s - and if the firm has enough ideas and variety to bring the quality of the concept on show at TGS to a full-size game, then Lair is definitely one to watch very closely indeed in the coming months.