TGS: Divining if it's any good.
When the Xbox 360 launched last Christmas, it was widely remarked upon that many of the console's early portfolio of titles were developed in the UK - with games from Bizarre Creations and Rare forming the backbone of the launch line-up for the system. With the PlayStation 3, once again, British developers are punching above their weight - and of the key first-party titles given top billing on Sony's stand at TGS, no less than three hail from the sceptered isle. Two are racing games - the genuinely head-turning MotorStorm and the nice-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing F1 - while the third is developer Ninja Theory's graphically stunning slash-'em-up, Heavenly Sword.
The demo of Heavenly Sword which is on display to the world at TGS is already familiar to many in the industry, since it's the same version of the game which was seen by a select few at E3 back in May. It's probably safe to assume that the game has moved on significantly since then - and we do appreciate that with the launch of the PS3 mere weeks away, a lot of developers probably have better things to do than building new demos of their forthcoming titles. However, given a fresh opportunity to spend some time cutting people in the face (and in lots of other places, frankly), who are we to refuse?
This demo takes place in the enclosed confines of a crumbling gladiatorial arena, and appears to be one of the set-pieces of the game - which, we're assured, is much more open and varied in general, and not the arena fighter which its playable showings to date might suggest. Your character, a hard-faced Amazon of a woman with a line in bared flesh, big blades and seemingly prehensile red hair, is down on the arena floor - while a large number of enemies are up in the stalls. In true martial arts movie fashion, they never attack you all at once - instead, enemies jump down to the slaughter in increasingly large waves, leaving their pals to cheer and jeer from above. At one point, a brief cut-scene suggests that the sight of their eviscerated colleagues is causing a minor crisis of faith among the bad guys - but a swift bit of blue-on-blue brutality on the part of their leader quickly yields further volunteers to go down and face your blade.
The graphics of the game are the element we'd expect to have been improved most since E3, so we'll keep our comments on that front brief, and suggest that you take any criticism with a certain pinch of salt. Although the game has potential to be a real showcase for the PS3, and this does shine through in certain respects - particularly the incredibly smooth animation, and the seemingly effortless handling of dozens of enemies on screen at once - this level isn't exactly the best demonstration of that. The arena is an enclosed space with relatively little variety - but even working within that limitation, Heavenly Sword manages to create an interesting and surprisingly rich play area.
Much of this is down to the team's art style, which draws on a rich combination of Eastern and Western fantasy heritage which is quite distinctive even in this limited demo. Combined with judicious use of depth of focus effects (an increasingly common feature of next-gen games which allows the designer to focus attention on specific aspects of the screen by making the other areas out of focus - exactly the same technique has been used by photographers and movie-makers for decades), overbright glows and other such "next-gen" lighting and rendering tricks, the overall effect is very impressive; perhaps the best current-gen title to compare it to is Bioware's similarly martial-arts-themed Jade Empire, but taken to an entirely new level of graphical fidelity.
However, in this early build of the game, there are a variety of problems with the visuals - some of which manifest simply as glitches which have probably already been fixed, but others are more worrying. On the glitch front, there's a slightly disquieting sensation that the characters and the world aren't actually attached to each other; this is an artifact of the depth of focus system, which is quite rough and ready in the E3/TGS demo, and occasionally makes enemies out of focus even when other objects or scenery on the same plane as them is perfectly in focus, a very peculiar visual effect. It also sometimes adds a thin, blocky line of black or white pixels around the edge of out of focus characters, which contributes to the sense that they don't actually belong in the world - an effect exacerbated by the seeming lack of anti-aliasing in the scene, a common problem with several of the PS3 titles we saw at TGS and one which we sincerely hope gets fixed fully before launch. Sony could do without another console that suffers from horrible "jaggies", frankly.
What's more worrying, perhaps, is the extent to which the gameplay is impacted by another of the graphical problems - namely the extremely tight, and poorly conceived, camera. This may simply be down to the demo being set in such a limited space, but the camera spends far too much time focused tightly on the player character, and very often you're fighting enemies you can't even see, or flailing blindly with sword strikes directly towards the camera in the hope of hitting an enemy lurking behind it. Again, we stress that this is early code, and this problem seems blatant enough - to us, at least - that it's unlikely to make it into the final game, but it's worth mentioning when talking about the demo anyway.
Outside of that camera problem, however, the game succeeds at the absolutely crucial test - it's bloody good fun. Although coming to it from the far more polished Devil May Cry 4 demo could easily have caused disappointment, since both games are ultimately melee combat games where you're pitched against multiple enemies at once, the Ninja Theory team have done a great job of making their game extremely distinctive in terms of its play style, and comparisons with DMC4 really aren't that obvious, or that useful.
At the core of the game are the two stances which your character can adopt - ranged stance, and heavy stance. To choose between stances (heavy stance arms you with a bloody great curved blade, while ranged stance gives you two smaller blades on the end of chains which you whirl around like a teppan-yaki chef gone all wrong) you hold in the L1 or R1 button, and various different attacks are then arranged on the face buttons of the pad. Chained together, these form powerful attacks - and the designers have taken the interesting path of providing no block button, but instead having one of the attacks double up as a parrying move, so blocking becomes a matter of carefully timed parries rather than just holding down a button.
Although the game pitches you against multiple enemies at once, it doesn't go down the route of simply throwing mindless foes at you, either. Most groups of enemies in the demo included a number of different types, each with individual move sets - some of which are best dispatched with a flurry of ranged moves, others requiring a more personal, up-close touch with the heavy stance attacks. Several enemy types have powerful blocking moves, and their guard needs to be broken before they can be damaged, which adds an extra layer to the combat - and Ninja Theory has also done a great job of making the environment quite interactive, with tables, chairs and barrels which splinter and break, their broken remains joining the impressive selection of corpses that ends up littering the arena floor. Best of all, those objects are actually fully modelled in the game's physics system - so as you fight, you kick around and disturb the bodies of vanquished foes and any other rubbish littering the play area, which looks fantastic and really makes the world feel like it has weight and substance.
One key aspect of the game is the various special moves available to you, which can be activated once you've charged a gauge on the screen sufficiently. These are essentially the equivalent of throws in fighting games, and some of them simply hit one enemy - one memorable moment that got sharp intakes of breath from the predominantly male queue to play the game was a heavy stance special move where an enemy player is dragged towards you, legs akimbo, and then chopped with significant force right in the family jewels, a vicious move which brought tears to the eyes of an entire crowd of Japanese blokes. Others, however, actually strike multiple enemies - such as a move where you wrap chains around the neck of an enemy, and swing them around and around like a shot put, wiping out plenty of his companions in the process.
The demo level ends with the boss himself hopping down into the arena to take you on - and interestingly, this fight is quite scripted, allowing you to battle on your own terms for a while until you charge up a special move, but then switching over to an interactive cut-scene when you trigger that move. Essentially, this means that you start pulling off some very impressive stuff - running up the sides of the arena, and culminating in a lovely piece of slow-motion chop-socky in mid-air above the arena - with each stage of the cut-scene being triggered by a specific button press. Miss a press, and you drop to the floor of the arena and fight normally; succeed at all of them, and you finish off the fight in style. It feels like cheating to some extent, since it takes the player out of the conventional mechanics of the game, but on the other hand, it looks absolutely great - so we can't complain much.
Even in this very early form, Heavenly Sword is an incredibly promising game. Our immediate concerns - over the camera, particularly, as well as a niggling doubt about the level of variety which a game like this can offer - are all within the realms of things which are likely to be fixed before the game sees the light of day in 2007, and there's a strong sense that this will be an early must-have for the PS3, not to mention putting the clearly vastly talented Ninja Theory firmly on the map. Sony could do with filling in the blanks a little by showing off more recent code at some point in the near future - but this is most definitely one to watch, and it joins the PS3's growing portfolio of genuinely promising titles.
Heavenly Sword is due out exclusively on PlayStation 3 in 2007.