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BioWare's Shadow Realms is a pleasant surprise

And it's probably coming to consoles too.

EA's Gamescom press conference surprise was a new game by BioWare, the house of Mass Effect and Dragon Age - a company responsible for some of the finest adventures in many years of gaming. Yet Shadow Realms, the new game, is different, and a surprise in more ways than one.

It's announced as an online multiplayer game for PC, with an in vogue four-versus-one gameplay mechanic à la Fable: Legends and Evolve. It's also to have a story delivered in episodes, à la Telltale (The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us), and a modern day 'secret magic world within the real world' setting à la Funcom's MMO, The Secret World.

Sat in the auditorium of EA's press conference, and as an admirer of BioWare's work, I confess I wasn't impressed. Is this a MOBA-like grab at some online gaming money, a way to keep BioWare Austin - the studio created to make Star Wars: The Old Republic - busy? That cynical first impression was, I discover through playing the game and talking to the people making it, well wide of the mark.

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There's a heft to Shadow Realm's production; between 80 and 150 people are working on it, says Jeff Hickman, the man in charge, and the game has been in development for more than a year and a half. It's talked about as triple-A, a blockbuster, and one that probably won't - despite first impressions - be confined to PC. "Has anybody ever said that it's an exclusive PC title?" Hickman counters when we ask. "I'm the one who said it and I didn't say that. What I did say is 'it's coming for PC next year'.

"There is nothing that we're doing that would exclude this game from going on console but right now we're focused on the PC - it's the tip of our spear. It will be released on PC first [but] there's nothing that says it can't come to console later. We're making sure when we're building it [on Frostbite 3, for example] that we're not excluding ourselves from that opportunity."

Shadow Realms was born when James Ohlen, one of BioWare's most decorated talents - a lead designer as far back as Baldur's Gate 2 - was burned out having spent five years on Star Wars: The Old Republic. "I need to get my brain on something else, boss," Hickman remembers Ohlen saying. "I'm going to lose my mind." So they put their heads together and came up with Shadow Realms - a game to rekindle the unpredictable experience of a human Dungeon Master leading a group of friends through a Dungeons & Dragons adventure.

The setting came from a mixture of books, board games and an old high school daydream of suddenly producing magic where others had none. And it felt fresh, like no one else was doing it. "People have said 'I got the impression it's a bit like The Secret World'," Hickman says, "and that's zero where we were going.

"We were more going towards this idea of 'I am a person right now who's discovered magic powers'. The lore is there's this magical world of Embra and this is a fantasy world, it's magic, and they have been fighting the Shadow Legions and they're losing - humanity is dying on that planet. And using magic they've opened a portal to Earth to get help, and opening that portal, the energy of magic has leapt onto Earth, and now the humans who have latent power - now they're coming to life."

The central idea of having four players play against one powerful other came from play-testing, and from a board game Hickman won't name. It was already apparently being tested when the likes of Fable: Legends and Evolve came along. "We're playing and we were watching and it's like, 'Are you kidding me? Are... you... kidding me?' It's not like we talk to the Fable: Legends guys or the Evolve guys - I don't know if I know a single person in either one of those studios. And it's like, 'What?!'

"I guarantee you that those other teams are going to have a similar story," he says. "I have seen those other two games and we're not anything like them and they're not anything like us. There's some similarities but that's like saying every game that's a shooter is the same, or every game that's an RPG is the same. It's just a style of gameplay.

Shadow Realms is pleasantly surprising to play. It's pre-alpha but polished, the fighting fluid and acrobatic, fast like Diablo but third-person, closer. Enemies don't overrun the screen but encounters are large and challenging, and there's an emphasis on using teamwork rather than singular power to get through. The twist is the Shadowlord, the "versus one" part of the equation, and it brings a real sense of unease and unpredictability to the game. It's an invisible menace capable of laying traps, spawning monsters and possessing them, and more, and it's being controlled by the guy sitting opposite (but facing away) from me.

We survive a battle by the skin of our teeth only to be plagued by traps wherever we seem to go; we struggle in another battle as an elite Banewolf appears from thin air to rip into us; and we discover almost too late during another battle that one of us is not one of us - it's the Shadowlord in disguise. But it's the realisation after an incredibly tense boss battle - our hero on a sliver of health, the boss on a sliver of health - that the great winged demon was being played by the Shadowlord that really rams home the sense of fighting something greater than just a game, some code. It was as if the whole level was against us.

Everyone has a Shadowlord - you make one along with your hero character - and they grow and gain powers like heroes do. Great variation is promised such that you should never know what kind of Shadowlord you're up against, but exactly how you'll be matched with heroes or Shadowlords isn't yet clear. There are also restrictions in place to stop Shadowlords spamming traps or putting them too close, or spawning too many enemies at once - things like that.

The heroes our team plays are level five. There are six classes (warrior, assassin, wizard, cleric, ranger and warlock) and I play the assassin. I have four abilities: "1" is my 'flip to the target and backstab' attack; "2" throws a fan of poison darts; "3" has me somersault with my blades, slicing what's in front of me; and "4" summons a shadowy clone that fights alongside me. That final ability is my adrenaline ability - a resource that builds slowly over time. I can also dodge, leaping back out of immediate danger, as well as use healing potions and apply trauma kits - a shared resource - to rescue downed opponents. If we're out of trauma kits or no one gets to the injured player in time, they're out of it until we reach the next checkpoint. Oh and I'm casually dressed in tight jeans and hoodie, dual scythes dangling by my sides.

As you broaden your abilities and gather more equipment, you needn't specialise and pigeonhole your role. Shadow Realms allows multiple character builds, tying together both equipment and abilities, so you can be a defence-specialised tank of a warrior one moment and an attack-minded barbarian of a brute the next. The idea is that you'll always have the tools in your locker to face what the Shadowlord throws at you, and the Shadowlord can throw quite a lot.

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There's a roar from players and onlookers as our surviving hero dies so close to victory over the Shadowlord-controlled boss. It's the sound of engagement, of fun - we are sucked in. That's the main thing, and BioWare knows it. "We've got to get that right," Hickman stresses, and that's why BioWare has made Shadow Realms playable so early on. That's why both press and public are invited to play immediately after the game is announced. "We need to put this in front of players... right now."

"We know we're doing something different and therefore we don't have all the answers," senior producer Dallas Dickinson adds. "We want to be very much transparent. It's the only way we're going to build the game people want to play - especially as we're navigating these very new waters."

Other parts of the game, such as the story, BioWare is understandably more confident about, which is why we're not hearing so much about them. "A lot of the story actually happens as a solo player," Hickman explains. "I don't want to make anyone confused. There are areas in the game that you play alone but it's not fighting the Shadowlord, it's not fighting anything generally - they are story areas. If you think about a single-player instance - you can call it anything you want [although] it's not exactly that - you are there to experience the story and do some other things. Maybe there are stores there you buy and sell loot into... I don't want to give away too much.

"We control the story and give you that feeling of 'this is my place, this is my world, this is my story', and that story will often lead you into these Shadowlord four-versus-one moments. And sometimes you'll be on a story that other people will be on, and sometimes you'll be on the story alone - there will just be other people there."

And there will be romance, "absolutely", Hickman confirms. "We talk about story as who we [BioWare] are and as the core of our beings. When you think about what the story's going to be like, it's going to involve choice, it's going to involve romance, it's going to involve betrayal. I have read the first three months of story - what we're calling the first chapter - and it's cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger. I got to the end of the first chapter and 'oh... my... god... I don't... who's the bad guy? What's going on?!'"

You'll find out in the next episodic delivery, a mechanic BioWare hopes will keep you as gripped as the best TV shows. "Pretty frequent" is the best estimate Hickman can give of the episodes' regularity, but he's rock solid in his commitment that everyone around the world will get them "at exactly the same time".

The other remaining question is price, and BioWare isn't answering it. It's not as simple as calling something free-to-play - not that Hickman does - because there are varying types of it. Does BioWare make Shadow Realms free and charge for chapters? Does BioWare offer some kind of premium service? Does BioWare charge up front?

"I don't know how we're going to do this," Hickman shrugs, "I really don't. We are focused on building that engagement point, and we want people to come in and help us determine what the right way is. Bring people in and they help us grow the game into something where 'damn I'd pay for that, it's so fun'. And then we go, 'Well how would you pay for it?' And ask - literally ask. And this'll probably happen sometime next year."

What EA and BioWare have in Shadow Realms is far more competent, far more compelling, than the game's announcement had me believe. It's not a traditional BioWare experience but then what these days is? Multiplayer crept into Mass Effect 3 and now it's in Dragon Age: Inquisition; and on the other side of the fence storied single-player content set SWTOR apart, and will be ably implemented in Shadow Realms by a well practised team.

But do people really want storytelling in their action-RPG? And can that modern day setting ever be as visually striking as science fiction or high fantasy? There are questions Shadow Realms still has to answer, but BioWare has time, and if the promise of transparency is to be believed, perhaps we won't have long to find out.

You can sign up for the Shadow Realms closed alpha on the game's website.

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