Yesterday afternoon, eager to be dragged away from the woeful bore of reviewing Destruction Derby Arenas, I was pleasantly pleased when suddenly my ears rattled at the sound of a klaxon I hadn't heard in a long time. Abandoning my Dual Shock (not, incidentally, the 'dual shock' of realising DDA is nothing like a proper Destruction Derby game and nothing like a proper multiplayer game), I yanked on the marble statue of Jill Valentine that book-ends the various copies of Famitsu I can't read, ducked through the resultant opening and stumbled clumsily into the monitoring and recording station I installed in the underground cave below the fireplace just last week. Knew it would come in handy.
See, I'm a bit like the CIA, really. Or, at least, I'm a bit like the CIA we hear so much about in spy films. The difference being that while they allegedly monitor reading habits, chat logs, lyrics, scripts and all sorts of other published texts for comments like "yeah shit let's blow that raving president right out of the sky," I'm busy keeping an eye open for things like "Capcom and Sega are joining forces". And when that klaxon sounds, it can only mean one thing: pay dirt.
"What could it be?" I wondered to myself as I glanced over reports streaming out of a Tokyo press conference of a new game called Steel Fang. I saw flashes of descriptive text - references to the combat in Devil May Cry, six-player online modes, mentions of concept and character designs by renowned anime artists, and finally reports of the game's attachment to both Sega and Capcom's R&D Division 4, the group behind the fabled Resident Evil franchise. Holy shit.
A bit later on - a bunch of screenshots, system specs, gameplay details and a pair of streaming movies later, in fact - I sat down again a tiny bit deflated and flummoxed. It's not Phantasy Devil May Cry Online, it's not Super Street Fighter NiGHTS Turbo, it's not any of the myriad impractical crossovers I would happily have taken. What it is, as it turns out, is a sci-fi themed, third person PC deathmatch game, in which up to six cyborg warriors lock horns (well, lasers) in various gunmetal grey and cavernous environments. And while R&D Div.4 is attached, apparently they're operating in a mere supervisory role, while Japanese developer Nextech handles the coding. Nextech, you may remember, were last twinned with R&D Div.4 on the Dreamcast version of Resident Evil Code: Veronica.
What, if anything, then, is Sega actually contributing? It's difficult to say. When I rang up Capcom earlier in a bit of a stupor I was told they knew about as much about it as I do. A bit of digging around on the wider web however suggests that Sega originally planned out the project, and that it may well be a long forgotten and unfinished relic of the Dreamcast era. Effectively then what seems to have happened is that Sega went round Capcom's house for tea and biccies some months ago and had a light bulb moment: "Hey! Capcom! Let's make an online deathmatch game that handles like Devil May Cry!"
The Dreamcast link would certainly help explain the general aesthetic of the game. Although concept designs apparently come courtesy of Macross/Rahxephon anime mech designer Kazutaka Miyatake, with character designs from Vampire Hunter D's Yutaka Minowa, a quick glance at the first screenshots of the game prominently brings to mind one of Sega's most enduring Dreamcast franchises - Phantasy Star Online. On the surface the human characters look quite similar stylistically to PSO (or even P.N.03), with tall and slender characters leaping around trading laser blasts and other curious ordnance with larger mechs, and the geometry is certainly rather basic by modern PC standards.
Fortunately though there's much more to Steel Fang than robots, lasers and six-player deathmatch alone. The game can apparently be played as a free-for-all or with a couple of three-man teams, and one of the reasons for the relatively low player count (when was the last time a PC game limited you to six, eh?) was no doubt the difficulty in mapping the presence of each player's guardian robot for everyone on the server. Wait - who the what now?
Right: guardians. Guardians are big brash shielded mech bastards who throw a little innovation into the rather basic Steel Fang formula. Each player has their own guardian, and these guardians hold the key to each player's ability to respawn. When destroyed, and we're guessing that's no mean feat, a player is left vulnerable to outright death with no prospect of resurrection. The main objective therefore is to keep one's guardian safe whilst simultaneously trying to destroy enemy guardians so adversaries can't be resurrected in future. Curious, no? As you can see from the first streaming movie on the game's official Japanese website, this unusual premise makes for some explosive encounters reminiscent of mech-themed single-player boss fights. Guardians may be out of your control (or not, such is the vagueness of the reports we've seen) but they can certainly handle themselves against the odd pop gun.
But of course this also begs the question: what happens to a player when he can't be resurrected any more? Infuriatingly, no one seems to know, not even Capcom Europe, and I can't read the Japanese text any more than most of you can. If anybody does know, please do enlighten me. At the moment though my theory is that each game of Steel Fang is round-based ala Counter-Strike, with permanently deceased players sitting out until one team or gamer conquers all and the whole thing can restart. That would make sense to me, but for the sake of anybody skimming this for news reports that's good old-fashioned speculation. Sorry.
Stop making shit up
Otherwise Steel Fang should be pretty familiar to just about anybody who plays PC games. Thanks to the second streaming movie, which outlines the various controls and techniques available to the player in minute detail right down to the keyboard layout, we know that the game is handled using the conventional WASD keys for movement/shift key for crouch/space bar for jump control scheme. We also know that each player can jump and seemingly glide through the air using nifty booster boots, spring from walls and dive from side to side firing wildly ala Max Payne. Players can even slide around a bit whilst firing, a move that visually recalls M. Bison's physics defying sweep move from Street Fighter II.
Players can also seemingly withstand plenty of falling damage, and thanks to the height and complexity of the environments there are plenty of opportunities to hurtle down from above, introducing yourself to players on the floor with a stream of frazzling plasma. And interestingly, instead of just firing downwards with some lazy slanting animation ala most deathmatch titles, by holding W/space/shift players will be able to orientate their character so he falls more like a skydiver, providing the optimum angles - and we'd imagine increased accuracy - to obliterate anything that happens to be prowling around below. It works both ways, too, with a similar S/space/shift move that allows you to fall backwards with guns pointed aloft.
In fact, when all's said and done Steel Fang actually looks remarkably entertaining. The weaponry is demented, with forty-foot double-bladed laser fire swirling around like a Catherine Wheel, jetpacks, massive spider-like guardian robots and sparks flying and scorch marks everywhere. It looks like the videogame equivalent of a pyrotechnic anime, and with voice-over IP communications and pretty reasonable system requirements (1GHz processor, 128MB RAM, 32MB video card, 700MB hard disk space), it could well be worth keeping an eye on. This is no mere throwaway deathmatch game, even if it lacks the graphical sheen and laundry list of features that generally distinguish its competition.
Fangs for that
Sadly though like so much about the game Capcom Europe couldn't help me with my feverish inquiries about the possibility of a Western translation. At the moment the game is expected to launch in Japan this May at a monthly subscription fee of 980 yen (about €7), and members of the Japanese ISP Nifty's "@Nifty" service can download a client for free and participate in an online beta test from March 1st, but unless you have a membership there you're probably out of luck on that front. (God knows I'll try though.)
Still, nobody should rule out the possibility of a Western debut for Steel Fang. Capcom has been responsible for far stranger things in the past - 40-button Ł130 controllers have made it to the UK, katana peripherals have been Westernised, and stuff like Gregory Horror Show regularly makes the long haul across... Steel Fang is the odd one out here by virtue of how conventional it sounds to a Western PC gamer brought up on FPS deathmatch. It may not be quite as exciting as that "Sega and Capcom" search string promises, but it's got to be a better bet than Destruction Derby Arenas. And let's just face it: everyone loves big stompy robots.