Testing a theory, I conducted an experiment. Calling up a friend who plays PC games but whose technical knowledge ends at realising that he needs to buy (or beg me to build for him) a faster machine every few years, I enquired as to whether he had a physics card. As predicted, he was frightened and confused by the question. Without one, he asked, was his PC somehow incapable of physics? But he could use the gravity gun in Half-Life 2. That had physics, right? So what was he missing, oh God what was he missing? I might as well have asked him if his rig had a water card, or a skin processor. Attempts to explain the purpose of the physics card didn't help greatly, and only further highlighted one of the factors keeping the nascent tech dead in the water. The Ageia PhysX physics accelerator card is trying to fix a problem that no-one thinks they have.
This week saw the release of Cellfactor: Revolution, a game originally intended to be a full-blooded celebration of PhysX. If you've played it, without or without an add-in physics card, you'll know that, despite some impressive parlour tricks, it's not a game - it's just a fancy tech demo riddled with problems. Given the year old PhysX's failure to set the world on non-framerate-bothering fire, it's all-too-easy to speculate that Cellfactor's original ambition has been brutally castrated. Why spend all that cash and developer brainjuice on a promotional tool for something that seems to have failed already? The card had a disastrous start last year. Its first big game, Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, initially ran worse when PhysXed up, while a public beta of Cellfactor was quickly hacked to run almost all its gimmicks without the card. Since then, it's all been a bit quiet, and there's very few outside of its parent company Aegia who currently feel the physics processing unit has a long and prosperous future.
PhysX, of course, isn't dead yet, and even if it does pass away quietly in the night, Ageia will survive for a while offering its software physics engine to developers as a rival to the more established Havok. This offers the same kind of floppy bodies and bouncing crates as is possible using the hardware acceleration of the card, but on a less grand scale and at greater in-game speed cost. At any rate, this piece is not intended to be a burial, but rather a fitness test for what may well turn out to be a final tour of duty.
Back at the start of Infernal, Dave Angeldevil, or whatever the hell its straight-out-of-some-dismal-crap-on-Sky-One-around-11pm hero is called, is given a demonic power that can demolish metal doors and brick walls. It's actually pretty cool - the game seems to be demonstrating that it's over-the-top, it's got decent physics and Dave's (alright, alright - 'Ryan Lennox', but the other name suits him better) a proper badass, living up to his status as a fallen angel now working for the forces of darkness (or at least some guy with a spooky voice). Which only makes it all the more surprising that Dave spends the next few hours being obstructed by wooden doors and flimsy chain barriers that his new ultra-destructo-power can't even dent. The answer? Why, trudging around similar-looking corridors looking for keycards and buttons, of course.
Games have got to stop this. With graphical technology at the height it is (Infernal actually looks pretty good, whilst also feeling kind of cheap), creating a world where incredibly heavy explosives cannot affect everyday scenery is increasingly ridiculous.
There are ways to prevent players from escaping a carefully-arranged linear path without totally shattering in-game credibility - forcefields and heavy-duty security doors for instance; things that at least look resistant to firearms - but Infernal's still moping around in the primordial slime on that front. If Dave Angeldevil was the wisecracking, unflappable superpowered hulk he's supposed to be, he wouldn't waste his time scouring rooms full of barrels for switches to push so that a small glass panel on the other side of the room would slide open. He'd crash through walls, tear men limb-from-limb, repeatedly bellow "Look at me! I'm AWESOME" and finish the game in 20 minutes. He probably also wouldn't meet instant death from a 10ft drop, but then the game never explicitly states that an unfortunate side-effect of all his magic powers isn't having a horribly weak spine.
Metropolis Software's upcoming third-person shooter Infernal has been given a PC release date of 23rd February, Eidos said today.
More and more developers are adopting PhysX technology to power upcoming games, and among them is Metropolis Software, which believes this physics solution is a big step forward for world simulation.
If you fancy restoring the balance between Heaven and Hell, you'd better download the new demo for Infernal, a third-person PC shooter from Eidos.
Playlogic and Metropolis Software have renamed PC and X360 shooter Diabolique - it's going to be called Infernal, and it's due out this autumn.