Blizzard’s tactical action shooter comes out of its shell
If videogames were a reflection of an average day in the life of the players, then we'd a) be wearing tight-fitting spandex suits, b) sport ill-advised mullets, c) spend a large part of the day sneaking around in the shadows, peering around corners and bopping unsuspecting passers-by on the back on the head.
The employees of Blizzard certainly seem to enjoy this kind of activity, or at the very least they've been spending the last couple of years enjoying some Solid Snake and Sam Fisher action. After years of beardy RTS games, who can blame them for wanting to hop aboard the stealth action game bandwagon?
Thus, it came to pass that Blizzard Big Cheese Bill Roper talked us through a demonstration of the Xbox version of StarCraft: Ghost. In a Mayfair cinema, no less, at 10a.m. Wiping away the Sandman chunks from our weary eyes, Mr Roper walked us through three distinct levels of this third person action game: the lush waterfall laden Marsara Installation, Protoss, and the harsh volcanic Char.
Something of a departure from its previous projects, but a return to its console roots, Ghost struck us immediately as a gorgeous title to keep a close eye on, featuring lush landscapes, superb animation with a wow factor easily on a par with the revered Halo. As Roper boasts, "We wanted to show off the environments - a lot of the tactical action games are a bit samey, so we try and vary them as much as possible."
Skirting over the issue of back-story, the main thing StarCraft die hards need to know is that the female covert op Nova is the game's star. Apparently you're a "lethal Ghost operative" blessed with advanced skills in the art of espionage and tactical combat. How handy - she should give Fisher and Snake a good arm wrestle.
After 20 years of "ruthless physical conditioning and techno-psychological instruction" she's just about ready to kill anything. At all.
"StarCraft: Ghost is a great departure for us - Nova is your hero, whereas in the past we really focussed on the bad guys.
"We're trying to make all the levels exciting and interesting and allow you to do the things you think you should be able to do and not make it frustrating," Roper claims. Good. If there's one thing that's guaranteed to have us reaching for the eject button, it's a game that insists on pissing us off.
Not in my game
"I really hate the 'oh you made the wrong choice - you're dead!' approach that some developers take. That's really aggravating to players," asserts Roper. "I would rather it was just made more difficult rather than having a lot of instant death situations." If he's having a pop at Splinter Cell, then he's got every right to - multiple instant deaths are bloody annoying.
One of the ways Blizzard and Nihilistic intends to make the gameplay more fun and accessible is to give players multiple ways to complete each mission: "We felt this approach was necessary and it was pretty important to reward them for that. Not everyone plays the same way.
"For example on one of the levels you have a base to defend, and there are certain things to do to help out a marine," he says.
"The player will have different ways to get to the turrets, and you can provide covering fire. You don't have to do that, but we give the player rewards if they go that extra mile, such as special attacks."
Nova Toast Ya (it rhymes with Nova Scotia)
Talking of attacks, killing is the name of the game in StarCraft: Ghost, and Nova has plenty of means of doing so at her disposal, but you have to be cunning with it.
One of Nova's most impressive actions is the use of a cloaking device, which gives you the upper hand in all manner of situations - as long as you're careful. A meter keeps you informed of how 'visible' Nova is to the enemy, and other environmental factors help or hinder you - for example a waterfall with all its associated spray and mist will mean you're even more disguised, while different lighting conditions will also have a bearing. But as Roper points out: "If you're spotted, the cloak is ineffective, and the enemy can track you from that point."
Finding an enemy's weak spots is the key to success in StarCraft: Ghost, but finding these 'one shot' kill areas requires a fair bit of trial and error. On the lava-filled Char level, Roper demonstrates the point by following a patrolling Fire Bat - a hulk of a sentry with dual mounted flamethrowers. Getting past this beast looks like a right task, until he dutifully snipes the creature's connector valve on its back-mounted gas tanks - not the most obvious of weakness, but the destruction of the nozzle sets the hapless sentry ablaze. Mwahahaha.
"When you first encounter an enemy, you won't know where to snipe, but you always know there's a weakness somewhere," he nods. "But once you've found the weak spot, data is sent back to Nova's CPU so from that point on where the sweet spot is the next time you encounter the enemy."
Stealth kills are naturally a big part of Ghost. "We're in the process of reviewing them," Roper admits. "We used to have a Psyblade in the game but it was way too good, so we're working on a couple of new ideas. One weapon we have allows you to stun a sentient being for 20 seconds of 'lost' time. He doesn't even know he's been attacked and carries on as if nothing's happened. It's like the two-level approach - not just unnoticed; but not aware either.
It's a mini adventure
As well as the standard snipe and stealth action, SC: Ghost has a fair smattering of cunning mini-games for you to chew on. One that Roper hastily demonstrated involved an Andrew Braybrook-esque hacking game, that tasks you with matching up rows of scrolling Bit Streams, or Zeros and Ones. Left trigger for Zero, right trigger for the Ones…not the easiest concept to explain, but you basically have to match them up before the number scrolls off the screen.
Another interlude tasks you with matching the rotation of two spinning blobs. Kind of rhythm-action for the space age. Probably. And how about matching the colours on the screen using your mind as a key? Riiiiiight.
Nova's a bit of an athletic sort - perhaps even more so than a certain Mr Fisher. Roper has great delight in showing off one section where Nova grabs an overhead pipe, jumps on top of it with fluid glace and ease, then hangs upside down with her legs before seamlessly going into the sniper mode and popping a cap in a passing sentry's temple. Ouch. Jumping around is a bit part of Ghost, but the game gives visual clues to what you can leap onto.
"This fluid approach allows you to really use your locations and get through missions differently," he points out, before demonstrating an unfeasibly cool hyper speed mode that enables Nova to dodge between the blades of two giant twin fans.
OK, so far, so exceedingly cool, but what about multiplayer? "We're working at competitive/cooperative aspects of multiplayer and seeing how it feels. We want to see if it's fun. Will we do Xbox Live? Yes, but we're not sure how. We'll probably use it for downloads, skins, but we're doing a lot of studies into how accepted it is, how many people are really using it - and the same goes for PS2."
Naturally the weapons are a huge part of Ghost's charm, but Roper blitzed through a selection of typically futuristic guns and grenades without going into too much detail. But with E3 around the corner, we'll doubtlessly get a proper hands-on, when we can really decide whether the development duo has managed to add anything to the mix in this department.
With about six months to go before completion, StarCraft: Ghost certainly has plenty of potential, and coming from a team as consistently revered as Blizzard we're more confident than usual that this won't end up the pile of me-too sludge come the year end.