Last time we saw the trilogy of games based on the infamous horror movie "The Blair Witch Project", there was very little actual gameplay in evidence, and only the first of the three games ("The Rustin Parr Investigation") was very far into development. What we did see was surprisingly promising though - after all, you wouldn't think that a low budget movie about a bunch of students running around in a forest screaming and bawling their eyes out would make a very good basis for a computer game. Since then a lot has happened though, so at the recent ECTS 2000 trade show in London we took the chance to catch up with developers Human Head and find out more about their work on the second of the Blair Witch games, "The Legend of Coffin Rock"...
The Story So Far
The Blair Witch Project games are based on the rather extensive fictional back story of the Blair Witch rather than the movie itself, and Legend of Coffin Rock is set way back in 1886, a whole century before the events shown in the original film. You play a man known only as Lazarus, a soldier who awakens in the woods with no memory of who he is or how he got there. To make matters worse, you are wearing the uniform of an officer of the Union army from the American Civil War, a conflict which ended more than twenty years earlier. And as if you didn't have enough problems already, the Blair Witch herself is talking to you in your dreams, which (as the demonstrator showing us the game pointed out) "has to be a bad thing". A little girl wandering through the woods finds you and leads you back to the town of Burkittsville, but this girl turns out to be Robin Weaver, herself a part of the Blair Witch mythology. While you are recovering your strength she disappears into the woods again, and you find yourself being sucked into the story of the Blair Witch, heading into the forest to find young Robin as the first search party sent out to look for her vanishes...
Most of the game is spent discovering who you are and how you came to be in the woods near Burkittsville, and through a series of vivid flashbacks you gradually discover the truth, and how your character fits into the legend of the Blair Witch. The flashbacks are actually a key part of the game and its storyline, and are fully playable rather than just being cinematics. You will find yourself back in 1863 during the Civil War, leading a squad of Union soldiers sent into the woods to track down some Rebel raiders who are hiding there. These flashback sequences are interspersed with your second search of the woods, looking for Robin Weaver and the missing rescue party in 1886. It's all very atmospheric, and sure to raise a chill. Elements from the 1863 flashbacks also carry through to the 1886 sequences, with the ghosts of dead Rebel soldiers rising to fight you, alongside the bizarre animated stick creatures which roam the woods at night. Part of the game involves working out why all of this is happening, and how you fit into the mystery. And if you buy all three of the Blair Witch games, you will also meet some familiar characters and find clues which will fit in with what you discover in the rest of the trilogy, as although each of the games stands on its own merits, the stories are all interwoven to some extent.
Each of the three games has a different focus, and Coffin Rock falls in the middle of the range. The first game ("Rustin Parr", developed by Terminal Reality) concentrates more on adventure elements and investigating the mysteries of Burkittsville, while the third game in the series (Ritual's "Elly Kedward Tale") is more about pure action. The gameplay in Legend of Coffin Rock is therefore a mixture of run and gun combat, as you fight your way through the haunted woods in both 1863 and 1886, and some basic puzzle solving, which generally involves unlocking new areas of the game by knocking over trees to cross streams and the like. It's hardly likely to tax your brain or your patience as much as the puzzles in Nocturne, but it should prove enjoyable enough. The weapons which you have access to are suitable for the period, with your own character carrying a sabre as well as a revolver, which has to be reloaded after you have taken your six shots. The rebel soldiers in the flashback sequences on the other hand are armed with simple muskets, which can only fire a single shot before they must be reloaded. As a result they tend to fire off their shot and then fix bayonets and charge you down. Unfortunately the artificial intelligence was still something of a "work in progress" in the version we were shown, but hopefully this should be more effective in the final game.
As with the rest of the trilogy, Legend of Coffin Rock is based on a modified version of the engine which powered last year's spooky action-adventure game Nocturne, which is ideally suited to reproducing the Blair Witch Project's atmosphere of sinister woodland filled with eerie shadows and things not quite seen. The Nocturne engine's main failing was that it was something of a resource hog, and so gamers with older machines will be happy to hear that the Blair Witch Project games have been constructed more carefully and better optimised for modest systems. The locations are somewhat more restrained than those in Nocturne, with the developers agreeing to use a lower polygon count in their environments, and to make smaller and more self-contained levels to reduce load times and system requirements alike. Having said that, the graphics have not suffered because of those decisions. The town of Burkittsville and the woods which surround it have been recreated in digital form, and don't fall far short of stunning. In fact, the game's developers have managed to produce results which are every bit as impressive as those in Nocturne itself, but without having to use so many polygons. Good news all round then.
Due for release within a month of each other at a mid-range price, the Blair Witch games are really aimed more at the casual gaming market. But with an enhanced version of the Nocturne engine powering them, and three talented developers working on the games, they could well prove to be pint-sized bundles of joy even for more demanding hardcore gamers. We should know for sure within the next month...