Last time we spoke to Hungarian developers Philos Labs back in March 2000 they had just finished work on Theocracy, an innovative real-time strategy game set in Aztec Mexico. Since then they have been hard at work on a number of new projects, including the impressive looking Escape from Alcatraz. We caught up with the game's lead designer Antal Ruttmayer to find out more...
"Theocracy was our first title on the PC, during the production of which we had to face a great many difficulties", Antal admitted. "We learnt a lot from the experience, which comes in handy for the production of our upcoming titles."
The first of these will be a novel sci-fi jailbreak game called Escape from Alcatraz, which is aiming for release towards the end of this year. At first glance it looks very much like a Commandos style tactical action game, with the player controlling a small squad of specialists. But according to Antal this is going to be "enriched with action and adventure elements in order to make an alloy of the best features of these genres". And then there are the prisons themselves. "What makes Escape from Alcatraz really special is that the main characters form part of a complex, working system (the life of the prison), so you have to take its rules into consideration when planning and executing a get-out".
Getting out of jail is the least of your worries though. You will also have to assemble a team of fellow prisoners from the various jails that you visit throughout the game, carry out sabotage missions to disrupt the powers that be, and ultimately rescue your boss from Alcatraz itself. Nobody ever said this was going to be easy...
When Philos first came up with the idea of making a game about escaping from prison, they soon realised that "if we are to create this game ever it should be based on the myth of Alcatraz, the most secure jail of all time". Home to some of America's toughest and most important criminals, including Al Capone himself at one time, the former jail is now a tourist attraction immortalised by movies such as the eponymous Escape From Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood and Patrick McGoohan.
The game has little in common with the movie beyond its name though. Rather than setting it in the real world, Philos have decided to create their own alternative reality. "The world of Escape from Alcatraz resembles our own in many ways, but its political system and technology are quite peculiar", Antal explained to us. "The political situation of the game is reminiscent of that in 1984 by George Orwell, the imagery and atmosphere is somewhat similar to the classic movie City Of Lost Children, while the technology is more or less analogous to that found in Jules Verne's novels. For this reason there will be no integrated circuits, internal combustion engines or cellular phones in this specific world, yet you will encounter steam-powered vehicles, a highly developed communication network and a varied array of technical gadgets, all based on strictly mechanical operation."
The locations which you will visit are equally varied, and Antal assures us that "players will be delighted with numerous spectacular sites, including a desert, swampland, the North Pole, and there will be a submarine base as well". And then of course there is the piece de resistance, Alcatraz itself, although it won't necessarily be grounded too firmly in reality. "Don't forget that the game takes place in a rather peculiar environment - all I can tell you is that it will be worth the effort."
Philos are certainly putting in the effort, even going so far as to send a crack squad of developers into a local jail to see what it's like being on the wrong side of the bars first hand. "A small commando [group] from Philos visited a real prison close to Budapest. What's more, they spent an entire day inside, and took the risk of interacting with genuine jail-birds!"
It's not the first time that a developer has gone to extraordinary lengths in a hostile environment to get that authentic atmosphere - Swedish developers Remedy risked a weekend in downtown New York some time ago to do research for their third person shooter Max Payne. In hindsight, perhaps the trauma induced by this visit explains why their game has yet to be released. But what did Philos learn from their "surreal experience" in a Hungarian jail, and how has it helped them? According to Antal, "it was the self-containment of the penitentiary (a world of its own) and the many odd characters we came across that had the biggest impact on us and on the game itself".
And speaking of characters... During the course of the game you will gather a squad of five characters around you, each with their own unique skills and abilities. There is the soldier, who is "able to lift and move heavy objects, and to break doors and windows", as well as being an expert with firearms and camouflage, while the mechanic can put together or disassemble a wide range of equipment and set traps and unlock doors. Then there is an agile female prisoner who can scale walls and hide in shadows, a priest who can brew up a poison to incapacitate the guards, and even a ventriloquist who can be used to distract sentries from their posts and imitate other people. You're almost spoilt for choice when it comes to planning your escape.
Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200
By combining the various talents of your squad members in different ways, you should be able to take a number of different approaches to the game. This is something that helped make games such as Deus Ex so enjoyable, but it is not an easy task to pull it off successfully.
"Broadly speaking it takes creativity, lots of time and energy and objective feedback to set up a diversity of approaches to the puzzles in the game, and we have been working really hard to achieve this. [Because of this], Escape from Alcatraz will require a great deal of accuracy in the planning and the execution of the missions."
As an example of how this might actually work in practice, Antal explained to us a few of the ways in which you can get rid of a guard. A simple enough task you would think... "You can simply slip away behind him, distract his attention with another character, knock him down, or even attack him either with bare hands (the soldier) or equipped with a gun. And I haven't even mentioned the special skills your characters will have!"
"The point is that there will be more than one escape route available in each level, which entails a number of different challenges for the player". Having "several alternative solutions to every puzzle in the game .. [will] provide unchallenged flexibility and high replay value to Alcatraz", according to Antal. Add to that the interesting steampunk setting and the attraction of breaking your way of jail, and Philos might just be on to a winner with Escape from Alcatraz.
One of the game's other strengths is its graphics, which are already looking fairly impressive in the screenshots we have seen so far. It's all powered by an in-house engine which "supports all of the latest technological features [such as] bump-mapping, shadow-mapping, animated vertex lighting, volumetric lights, dynamic shadows and texturing effects, a particle animation system for smoke and fire, vertex fog, polygon and texture based water, motion captured character animation and multiplatform support".
"The game is fully 3D, regarding both the characters and the terrain, and the camera can be freely rotated. There will be full visibility on the game maps, which on the one hand lets you plan the jail-breaking, and on the other hand gives you a great visual experience by showing the prison with its working convicts and guards. All the movements of the characters will be motion captured [using a] VICON 8 optical motion capture system."
Despite the lengthy feature list, the game should run adequately on a 500Mhz Pentium III with 128Mb of memory, although Antal recommends that you have a GeForce graphics card of some description. One feature which may not make it into the final game though is any kind of multiplayer support. "I can tell you that it's not taken into plan at present", Antal told us. "We [would] rather lay the emphasis on the single-player mode in order to make it as perfect as possible."
While French company UbiSoft distributed Theocracy, this time round the publishing duties have been taken up by Germany's CDV. After the storming success of Sudden Strike and Cossacks, they are obviously hoping for another hit with Escape from Alcatraz.
"The possibility of a co-operation [with CDV] already occurred in the case of our previous title, Theocracy, but finally it took shape with Escape from Alcatraz. After a successful IPO on the Neue Markt in April 2000, CDV has gained abundant capital and managed to establish a worldwide distribution network, the success of which is proven by the impressive sales figures of Sudden Strike. We have such a good relationship with CDV that we are actually in discussions about the production of a new title. I can't give away more for the time being though!"
What we do know at this stage is that "both X-Box and PS2 developments are underway at Philos Labs", although at the moment they are only at the stage of "technological experiments" with the next generation consoles. One console which they unfortunately won't get the chance to support now though is the Indrema L600, a Linux-based console whose designers sadly ran out of funding before they could complete the project. As one of the few games companies to actively support Linux, having developed a successful penguin-friendly port of Theocracy alongside the traditional Windows version, Antal told us that Philos "were really sorry to hear that [the Indrema] failed", although he added that "Linux is still a favourite, and needless to say we plan to come up with a Linux version of Alcatraz too".
Whatever your choice of operating system, Escape from Alcatraz is certainly shaping up to be one of the more imaginative PC games of the year. And with other PC and/or console titles likely to be announced later in the year, it looks like busy days ahead for Hungary's biggest games developer.
Philos interview (March 2000)