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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Nick Goldsworthy of BAM!

Interview - here be dragons

The London Underground comes in for a lot of flak, but although we're used to hearing about overcrowding, wonky escalators and late running services, it's not often that it's blamed for bringing about the end of the world. Reign Of Fire is a bit unusual then, starting with work on a new section of the Tube waking hibernating dragons, who proceed to take over the Earth and eat lots of young maidens. Probably.

It's a strange concept for a movie, but the promise of an unusual post-apocalyptic setting filled with Mad Maxish vehicular action and fire breathing dragons makes it a perfect fit for a videogame. Funnily enough then, British developer Kuju has been working on just such a game-of-the-movie, and with the project nearing release we caught up with executive producer Nick Goldsworthy from publisher BAM! to find out what's cooking.

The latest in extreme sports - base jumping with dragons.

Two Sides To Every Story

In the movie, British resistance leader Quinn (played by Christian Bale) reluctantly teams up with a group of gun-toting Americans led by Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) to take on the dragons in their lair in London. The game roughly follows this quest, but there's more to it than that.

"The first thought was the most obvious, that a game should be created where the player was one of the lead actors from the film, battling against the undefeatable dragons to the death. This would have made a great game in its own right, but what really appealed was the idea that you should be able to play as a dragon. It's a great concept - to be able to fly over a burnt out London shooting fireballs and breathing napalm over the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London and other famous landmarks was just perfect for a game. It was felt that to make a game from just one side wouldn't be doing the concept justice, and from a design point of view this also allows the player to complete missions battling as one of the human troops and then be able to play a kind of mirror image of the mission from the dragon's point of view."

"The basic premise for the film is carried over into the game. The player in the human missions plays the part of a resistance fighter starting at the Northumberland stronghold, defending the fort from the dragons before joining up with Van Zan's Irregulars at Dover and eventually facing the final conflict [with] the father of all dragons - known as The Bull - in London. The player in the dragon missions effectively gets to play the game in reverse, wreaking havoc and mayhem as they attempt to burn humans from the face of the earth."

Our money's on the jetfighter.

In Development

BAM have made something of a reputation for themselves publishing games based on movies, often movies that aren't yet out. Ecks vs Sever on the GameBoy Advance, for example, ended up being released a whole year before the movie on which it was based, and in fact a sequel will already be available to tie in with the film's belated arrival in the cinemas later this year. With Reign Of Fire the movie is at least out before the game, but work has been underway since the film was little more than a script and some storyboards.

"Throughout the development of Reign of Fire the movie script has changed a great deal", Nick admitted when we asked him whether this had caused any problems. "There are aspects of the game that were in early scripts that didn't make it into the final film. One of these was the jakyls, a land based young dragon that you won't find on the big screen but we decided to keep, as they make perfect cannon fodder for gamers."

"We've only recently seen the final version of the film, as many of the amazing effects were still being worked on until the last minute. In the early days of filming Kuju's lead artist went to the set in Ireland where much of the movie was shot to get a feel for the film. We were also updated throughout the development process with footage and images to make sure the movie and the game had a similar look and atmosphere."

You're going to burn


Naturally the dragons themselves are an important part of this atmosphere, not to mention the fire that they breathe, and a lot of work has gone into making sure that these flames act in a believable way.

"In order to recreate the way that fire spreads in real life, a completely unique and new 'reactive fire system' was created. This technology means that every single item in the game is flammable; each has its own flash point, burn rate and the ability to set alight items near it. Essentially the fire 'lives', it moves from object to object heating its surroundings as it burns. For example, a small crop fire left unchecked will quickly spread, engulfing everything in its path from humans, to livestock and military hardware."

"On top of the fire system sits a sizeable number of special effects controllers linked into the engine's particle systems. These systems create the main fire effects, fire detail effects, sparks and smoke. For a small fire containing just 30 objects this system may contain over 2000 active particles at any one time. With this level of fire control and effects, it wasn't a huge surprise when we started to hit the PS2's drawing limit. Despite requiring very little CPU time, Reign Of Fire pushed the PS2 to its limits to render its fire."

This look like a lost cause to me


While the dragons romp around setting fire to everything in sight, the human side of the game puts you in control of one of four vehicles - a mini-buggy, a jeep, an Abrams tank and a 4x4 fire truck.

"The mini buggy is the lightest of these vehicles and is armed with an independently aiming light machine gun turret, making it perfect for stealth and missions requiring both speed and agility, with advanced players being able to utilize hills and bumps in the terrain to execute fast turns mid-air. The Jeep is fast, manoeuvrable and can be armed with either a machinegun or a rocket launcher that can aim independently in both axes. It's best suited for dragon slaying using the rocket launcher. The tank is a heavyweight vehicle that is comparatively slow moving, but being heavily armored it is resistant to attack and carries a powerful cannon. Its turret can also be aimed independently on both axes. The fire truck is a specialist vehicle armed only with an independently aiming water cannon. It's fast and able to pick up up to six passengers, but its use is restricted to specialist missions."

In a perfect world, players would be able to indulge in a little pyromania with their friends, with one player burning up the world as a dragon and the other running around in a fire truck trying to put out the flames or using the jeep to hunt them down. Sadly multiplayer support isn't included in the game though. "It has always been our intention to push the engine to its limits in order to deliver the special effects and environment that we felt would be expected of the game", Nick explained. "In order to do this the technology has been heavily optimised to make the game look and feel as good as it does. Had we added multi-player we would have had to compromise these aspects and the game environments."


Hopefully the single player campaigns, with the opportunity to experience both sides of the story, will make up for the lack of multiplayer options. Either way, we should know soon whether the game will take off or remain rooted firmly to the ground, with PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions both due in mid November. Meanwhile a GameCube port is in the works at BAM! Studios Europe, and a GameBoy Advance game-of-the-movie is also on the way. So there's no escaping it.