While I was in Dallas to cover the massive Razer-CPL Quake 3 tournament, I took time out from the fragging to drop by Ritual's offices and check out their latest project, a third person action-adventure game by the name of "FAKK2".
Running on a heavily modified version of the Quake 3 engine, and based on the colourful world of the soon-to-be-released animated movie "Heavy Metal : FAKK2", Ritual's new game is certainly a real treat for the eyes. We took a closer look to see if its beauty is more than skin deep...
The Story So Far
The game is set thirty years after the movie, but luckily the planet on which Julie, the movie's amply imbued heroine, has retired is home to the fountain of youth, so she hasn't turned into a saggy middle aged housewife in the interim...
A small town has grown up around the crashed spacecraft which the settlers arrived in, and everyone is living happily ever after. A shield protects the town from meteor impact, and a "FAKK2" beacon in orbit around the planet makes potential invaders believe that the lush planet is actually lethal to alien life.
Peace is boring though, and Julia is getting tired of her eternal youth and detached from the people she has saved, yearning for battle. This being an action game, she soon gets exactly what she wants, and then some...
The evil Gith has discovered that her planet is hiding the secret of immortality, and has sent a scout mission to prepare for his arrival while his vast planet-ship lumbers towards them. Before long all hell breaks loose, and Julie finds herself taking on Gith's vanguard single-handed, as her town is destroyed and its people killed or enslaved by Gith's bizarre followers.
The first episode of the game sets the scene nicely, with a growing sense of forboding as strange events begin to unfold around you, all helped by a healthy dose of in-game cinematics.
These show you the town and its inhabitants, and prepare you for the mayhem that is about to be unleashed on them by Gith and his legions. As game designer Tom Mustaine told me, this is to "introduce all the characters we're going to kill off later"!
The cutscenes are amongst the best I've seen in a game, with huge swooping movie-style shots that take full advantage of the incredibly detailed world that the Ritual team have created using their modified version of the Quake 3 engine. The scenes are spaceous, the texturing beautiful, the models detailed and fluidly animated, and the skies simply incredible.
Unfortunately the dialogue is still waiting to be recorded though, and hearing a man speaking Julie's lines is a little disconcerting to say the least... Still, the final result should be very impressive.
And if you think you can do better, now is your chance! All the cinematics are set up in-game with an easy to use editor interface. Simply drop nodes to control the curving path of your camera, then adjust the speed, zoom, focus and other characteristics of the camera with a series of sliders and buttons. Dolly in, zoom out, et voila! Instant Hitchcock.
Julie herself is now in her third iteration - the first model was very like the real life Julie Strain, who the character is based on, while the second was rather cartoonish with a gravity-defying bust. The current version is much more believable though, and is looking great.
And thanks to Ritual's skeletal animation system the model has around four thousand frames of animation, but won't bring your system to its knees. One of the reasons why Quake 3 is such a memory hog is that all those player models are still being animated in much the same way as the original Quake marine way back in 1996. Using the standard Quake 3 engine the Julie model would take up a massive 32Mb of memory, but with skeletal animation that is reduced to just 2Mb!
This has allowed Ritual to provide her with all kinds of moves that put Lara Croft to shame, and just wouldn't have been feasible otherwise. As well as all the usual running, jumping and climbing animations you would expect from a third person game, Julie can also edge her way along narrow ledges, clamber along monkey bars, step up on to low platforms, and climb along ropes.
The controls have been designed to be as easy and intuitive as possible, so although Julie has a lot of moves, you don't need to memorize dozens of key combinations. Walk up to a ledge and Julie will automatically step, climb or pull herself up on to it if you keep walking forwards. And climbing down again is just as easy...
Many of those 4000 frames of animation go into Julie's combination moves though. FAKK2 lets you use guns akimbo, and depending on what weapon Julia is holding in each hand her combination move will change. Invariably they are spectacular though, with Julie spinning, swooping and slashing with her sword or letting rip with a handy uzi.
Julie also picks up extra armour and equipment during the game, which will alter her combination moves. One particularly nasty piece of spiked armour is strapped to her knee when she finds it, and is then applied to her enemy's groin in a move sure to bring a tear to any man's eye.
You will also collect "water ampoules", which give you more of the water of life that Gith is seeking. These can be found scattered around the levels, often hidden on ledges or in dark corners, encouraging you to explore them more carefully. When your water level excedes the remaining health of one of your enemies, Julie is able to carry out a finishing move which will kill them in a single spectacular blow.
With arcade beat 'em up style finishing and combo moves, some monsters more vulnerable to certain attacks than others, and enemies reacting differently to you depending on which weapons you are using, combat becomes rather more tactical than in your typical Tomb Raider clone.
You also have to aim your guns more accurately, as although there is some auto-aiming, it's nowhere near as silly as in Tomb Raider. Little target circles appear under your enemies to show you which monster each of your weapons is pointing at, but you can't just pull the trigger blindly and expect to hit something.
The enemies you will be facing as Gith's ship approaches your planet are as bizarre as you would expect from a Heavy Metal game. Gith's scout force is led by robotic spin doctors with an uncanny resemblance to TV evangelists, wandering around trying to convince your people that Gith is really a nice guy, and they should all come and join him.
For anyone who won't come peacefully there are "fleshbinders", terrifying Geiger-esque creatures that have a wide variety of guns bolted on to their skeletal bodies. Big gorilla like creatures roll into you and then jump up and down in triumph, shaking their hind legs in the air in victory.
There are also hordes of little furry creatures with "happy masks" stuck over their hideous faces. Kill their friends and the survivors will get more and more enraged at you, whipping themselves up into a frenzy as blood and severed limbs fly around you.
This is certainly not a game for the kids...
Are We There Yet?
The good news is that FAKK2 is already nearing completion. Which is pretty impressive given that just a year ago the game was nothing but a code dump from id Software and a big pile of design documents.
The final episode of the game is still very much a work in progress though - most of the textures are missing at the moment, and puzzles and monster placement need to be finalised. A lot of the dialogue for the game still needs to be recorded as well, and Tom is currently hard at work completing the cinematics for the first episode.
There has been one casualty - multiplayer support. Ritual are currently planning to release FAKK2 as a single player only game, and then add in multiplayer support with a patch later in the year. This is allowing them to concentrate on the single player game though, and the results should speak for themselves...
According to Tom, Ritual are just a few weeks from being "content complete", after which the game will go into beta testing and play balancing. With any luck we could see FAKK2 released later this summer.
And what comes next for Ritual? Well, apparently there has been some call for a Sin 2, as despite its buggy debut and having to go head to head with Half-Life on release, Sin has apparently performed quite well, and the new animated movie based on the game is raising interest in it again.
But it's likely that we will see a second FAKK2 game before that, because their plot was so huge that Ritual had to split it in half! At the end of the first game, Gith and his planet ship will just be reaching Julie's planet ready for the big all-action finale, but the way in which the game is resolved leaves them wide open for an even more spectacular sequel if the first game performs well.
Let's keep our fingers crossed - FAKK2 is looking like being a welcome breath of fresh air for the relatively stale third person genre.