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Preview - a hands-on look at Ion Storm's bizarre console-style role-playing game for the PC

John Romero might have failed to "make you his bitch" with Daikatana, and Dominion may have been a decidely mediocre real-time strategy game, but Ion Storm seems to be putting its catalogue of costly failures and PR disasters behind it. The recently released Deus Ex was arguably one of the best games of the year, and Ion Storm's next game is looking rather promising as well.

Like Deus Ex it is a role-playing game with a strange name, but similarities end there. Anachronox is the brainchild of veteran developer Tom Hall, a console-style RPG set in a sci-fi universe filled with bizarre characters and off-the-wall humour. We took a trip down to London recently to meet Tom and check out the latest build of the game first hand, and came back with ten pages of hurriedly scrawled notes. Pity the poor fool who had to condense that down into a concise preview...

Sly at the space port, yesterday

Bless You

Sylvester "Sly" Boots is a private detective with a problem; he owes a lot of money to some very shady characters, and one way or another they want their payback. If he's going to survive he needs to find a job, and quick. And so he finds himself escorting an old man by the name of Grumpos as he seeks to uncover the secrets of an ancient alien civilization, and ultimately to save the galaxy itself from destruction.

Along the way you will pick up other sidekicks, and you can have any three of the seven main characters with you at any one time, including Sly's old flame Stiletto Anyway, and a depressed super-hero called Paco who has lost faith in himself and his abilities. Paco comes from a world where the people got fed up of being rescued all the time, and simply got up and left. The result was a planet full of super-heroes with nothing to do but save each other.

Things start off gently, offering you a fairly linear route through the early stages of the game, but before long your choices start to open up. There are over a hundred locations to visit in the game, spread across six different planets and representing perhaps 40 hours of gameplay in all. But with so much freedom later on in the game, and the ability to go back and revisit settings and use new skills and equipment to discover more items and areas, you should have plenty to keep you busy.

There are also a whole host of quests to occupy you, and luckily you have a digital assistant in the form of Fatima, a computer construct based on your dead secretary. She will keep track of what you are doing so you never lose sight of your tasks, and record vital information for you to review if you ever forget what you were doing. Which is lucky, because the sheer scope of the game is rather daunting, and at one point your party will even split up and each head off to do their own thing. Depending on which characters you have in your party the game will play out slightly differently each time, giving you more reason to come back and play it again.

The red light district


Helping to maintain your interest throughout the game are a whole host of fun little sub-games. I managed to get some hands-on time with one of them, an on-rails shooter which reminded me of the old "Rebel Assault" games.

The action starts on the planet of Democratus, where everybody debates about and votes on everything. When they come under attack from a fast-moving hive of cybernetic insects, it's soon obvious to Sly and company that Democratus will never react in time to save themselves. And so you steal one of their fighters and fly through a series of twisty tunnels, blasting away at the alien robots before coming up against the big boss. The fighter flies itself, leaving you to click your mouse on the robots to fire your lasers, recharge your weapons every few seconds, and occasionally pick which tunnel you want to fly down. It's simple enough, but as a fun little sub-game it's strangely enjoyable, and makes a nice change of pace from the role-playing sections.

The funniest sub-game we saw though was on a space station where you have been stranded without any money. Needing cash fast, you find Sly having to resort to doing a "man dance" in a gay bar. The result is a hilarious Parappa The Rapper style sequence, in which you have to type keys at the right times to make Sly dance, while a "crowd arousal meter" at the bottom of the screen keeps track of how successful your act is. Keep the audience happy and you will be paid enough money to get you and your friends off the space station.

All of these are programmed using Anachronox's scripting language, which also runs a games console in your office. During the game you will find cartridges to use with the machine, giving you a host of retro arcade games to play. Tom claims to have recreated Galaxians in under 15 hours using nothing but MS Paint, Sound Recorder and the Anachronox scripting language.

Lurking in a winter wonderland


And if you want to try your hand at recreating your own favourite arcade game, the editor and all the other tools you will need should be available with the game when it is released. Players will also be able to build their own planets and either add them into the existing plot or create their own stand-alone stories. Add to that a powerful but easy to use in-game system to set up dramatic camera angles in your levels and create cutscenes, and Anachronox is looking like a dream for armchair game developers and movie makers everywhere.

Remarkably the whole thing is actually based on the old Quake 2 engine, although much of it has been replaced or upgraded over the last few years. Support for 32 bit colour has been added, along with spline-based camera paths, the APE scripting language, and lip synching and facial animation for all of the characters. These are particularly impressive, and in one cutscene Paco carries out an entire conversation with a small girl using nothing but facial expressions. It all helps to make the already impressive characters look even more life-like.

The settings in which you find them are also fairly impressive, ranging from caverns and tunnels to space stations and cities. Unlike in most true console role-playing games, all of these settings are rendered in real time using the modified Quake 2 engine, as are the game's four hours of cinematics. Probably the most impressive cutscene we saw featured a Fifth Element style hover-car chase through a crowded city, with sparks flying as the vehicles clashed and slid along walls.


Phased To Stun

Tom's main influences for Anachronox are classic Japanese games like Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series, and if the mixture of epic storylines and surreal sub-games wasn't clear enough evidence of this, the phased combat system should confirm it.

As in Final Fantasy VII, the two sides line up and take it in turns to bash away at each other with a range of weapons and magical alien artefacts known as MysTech, which become increasingly spectacular as the game progresses. The special effects and animations are stunning, and all rendered in real-time, with huge swooping camera movements to give you the best views of the action. Wormholes open up above your enemies and rain down flaming meteors on them, lightning streaks and arcs across the room, and you can even possess enemy creatures and make them fight for you.

Unlike in the recent Final Fantasy games though, because Anachronox uses the same real-time rendered scenery for everything from cutscenes to combat, you can often see groups of enemies waiting for you, instead of them suddenly popping up out of thin air and plunging you into a seperate combat system. This gives you time to prepare yourselves for some of the fights, and you can often take advantage of your surroundings to skew the odds in your favour. For example, in one battle you will face enemies which are most effective at close range, but by raising a bridge you can keep them at a safe distance. At another point you can find a computer terminal which you can use to cause a group of robotic sentries to self-destruct, making the battle against the survivors far easier.

There is also a skill-based experience system which increases your abilities as you use them. These vary from straightforward combat skills to computer hacking and downright bizarre abilities. For example, Grumpos has a yammer skill, which he uses to make people give him information by whining and moaning incessantly about how much his back hurts and so on, until eventually they tell him what he wants to know just to shut him up.

The great outdoors


Make no mistake, Anachronox is a decidely weird game. The good news is that it is almost done now, and with any luck it should be into beta testing by the end of the year. The last we heard from Eidos they were expecting it to be released around February.

Ion Storm are also planning to release downloadable bonus levels for the game after it is released, as well as creating a massive mission pack which will feature the second half of the game's epic storyline. Much of the content for this is already done, and as well as new locations and characters it will introduce some really wild "other worldly" MysTech gizmos to play with.

It's even possible that Anachronox will make it to the console systems whose games inspired it. "We are considering one or two consoles", Tom revealed. He wouldn't confirm which they were, although he did helpfully tell us that "I think we're not going to do a SNES version". A Dreamcast version is certainly a strong possibility, as Tom told us that "I like the Dreamcast a lot", but he added that at the end of the day the decision depends on publisher Eidos.

Either way, for PC owners at least the long wait is almost over, and hopefully we'll know how the game turned out within the next few months. It's certainly looking like more of a Deus Ex than a Daikatana from what we've seen so far though...


Tom Hall interview

Anachronox screenshots

Deus Ex review

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