Monday, 30 August 2010

"Hydrophobia" Q&A

This week I had an email interview with Rob Hewson, Senior Creative Designer at Dark Energy Digital. If you're aware of Dark Energy, you'll know that they're working on the awesome looking "Hydrophobia". I had a few questions about this game, and after reading the answers, I really can't wait to play it.

Can you tell me about the plot and characters of the game?

Our remit for the game was to create a 'tangible future', something intricately connected to the contemporary world politically and scientifically. The UN is forecasting a global population of over 9 billion by 2050 and not enough resources to sustain it, and there are a number of natural consequences to that scenario. Firstly there's conflict over the most precious resource of all; water. Secondly a new ideological divide arises, as the existing Malthusian and Cornucopian movements become increasingly relevant. So that's the political backdrop to Hydrophobia.

As always, it's emerging technology that defines which ideology ultimately wins, so continuing our 'tangible future' remit we investigated the upcoming trends in science and technology. Nanotechnology is cited as the big revolution over the next few decades, and one of the anticipated application is water purification at the molecular level.

The Malthusians and Cornucopians fundamentally disagree about the nature of the population problem. The Malthusians argue that there are too many people and governments need to control or reduce population growth, but the Cornucopians believe the focus should be on developing the technology to increase resources and feed the population.

The Queen of the World is a giant city sized vessel where the wealthy elite live in exile from the problems of the outside world. It is a Cornucopian state essentially – self sufficient and independent from any traditional nations. The contempt of the outside world is counterbalanced by the existence of NanoCell; one of the Five Founding Fathers of the Queen of the World who is at the cutting edge of nanotechnology and is promising to deliver the water purification breakthrough the planet so desperately needs.

The game begins on the night of the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Queen of the World, when the whole world is anxiously anticipating a breakthrough announcement from NanoCell which will bring about a massive boost for the Cornucopian movement. At this moment, a group of radical Neo Malthusians rise and attack the great vessel. Kate Wilson, a humble systems engineer, is caught in the wrong place at the wrong time on the flooding lower decks and the player takes on the role of guiding her back to safety.

Why did you choose to have a female over the stereotypical male hero?

We wanted to get away from the gaming clich̩ of a 'beautiful but deadly' female lead and, more generally, the idea of having an action game protagonist who begins the game as a kick ass character. We took inspiration from characters like Ripley and John McClane, who redefined the heroes role in action movies at their time and taught us that the star could be flawed, reluctant, vulnerable even - but still have a strong presence. Kate's goal at the outset is simple; she wants to survive, she wants to escape, she doesn't even have a weapon at all in the opening sections. Kate will be forced to grow and evolve, learning that to survive, first she has to fight. The Malthusians have blocked all the escape routes except the ones which are important to their dark objectives Рso Kate is drawn into the politics and the wider battle as a matter of inevitability. Ultimately this is the genesis of a more nuanced heroine.

From what I've seen of the game, there are some aspects similar to Bioshock. The flawed utopia, the dark, aquatic setting. Can you tell me about the influences of the game?

Bioshock gets mentioned a lot, presumably because of the water element, but as you say it was more the atmosphere and the narrative elements that were an influence in that game. We also looked at Uncharted 2 in terms of action, Dead Space in terms of atmosphere, but at the end of the day Hydrophobia is utterly unique thanks to HydroEngine. It's a real physics simulation so it never repeats, you get a torrent of emergent gameplay – it's an entirely new element in gameplay terms and players are going to have huge amounts of fun experimenting with it.

How long have you been working on the game? More importantly, how long did it take to develop the HydroEngine?

On and off, it's been about 5 years. That's going from the original concept document right up to completion, developing InfiniteWorlds and HydroEngine from scratch and experimenting with a new kind of gameplay. That's also given us time to grow and evolve this really deep universe for the back story – there's a huge amount to dive into.

It is definitely groundbreaking technology, is there a chance that we could start to see it used by other devs?

We've been approached several times already, but we wanted to put Hydrophobia out first to show what HydroEngine can do. It's certainly a possibility in the future.

How will reactions to the game shape any future sequels or DLC?

Good question! So far reactions to the game have been really, really overwhelming which has been a real relief, because it's vindicated our belief in doing something original and bringing a compelling new experience to the player. We are always very open to the opinions and ideas of the players – they are who matter at the end of the day, so we'll always be influenced in the regard. It's really exciting now it's getting close to release that we'll finally have our baby in the hands of the players.

Was there ever a question of making a retail game instead of episodic XBLA games? If so, why did you opt for downloads?

Initially we set out to develop for retail, but we wanted to show that you can make a kick ass AAA action adventure with a small team and limited budget. That meant making the process of development much more efficient, so we developed InfiniteWorlds with features like Instant-Edit-Play and Multi User Editing. To do this our tech guys developed bespoke procedural technology and it worked; we were able to iterate much faster and cheaper – and it made experimenting with a new type of gameplay that much easier. It also had another side effect; the games filesize footprint was massively reduced and it occurred to us that we could deliver the game as a download title. Not only could we introduce the worlds first fluid dynamics engine and a whole new type of flow based gameplay, we could push back the boundaries of download gaming too. Microsoft were blown away with the technology and so we created this partnership to expand the spectrum of XBLA.

If the demand was high enough, do you ever see yourself making a retail game?

Never say never. We believe in digital distribution as the future of our industry, but ultimately if the demand is there, who knows.

Are there any multiplayer modes in the game? If not, were they ever considered?

Pretty much everything worth considering has been considered, but we decided to focus on a really solid single player experience.

What can we expect to see in future games of the series? Change of setting? Eventually a completely new narrative arc?

Hydrophobia is an epic new IP, and there's so much material to explore in that universe. We've conceptualized a lot of narrative arcs, characters and locations and you can expect to delve deeper and deeper into the world of Hydrophobia as the series evolves.

Any word on a release date yet?

I could tell you now and risk assassination, or I could force you to wait a couple more weeks and live a long, happy life ;)

So there you have it! Thanks to Rob Hewson for the awesome answers, and I don't think I'm only speaking for myself when I say that I can't wait for this game to release!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Toy Soldiers Kaiser's Battle DLC competition!


Work out the sequence to win! Not too hard when you put your mind to it! 

One letter in every section is in the right place.


Twitter @happyloubear if you win!

Borderlands DLC Triple Review!

Review time! And this time I'll be reviewing each piece of DLC for Borderlands so far, in anticipation of the latest addition to the DLC roster, Claptrap's New Robot Revolution. Hopefully by now most of you will have played the product of pure awesome that is Borderlands, and this will give you low down on which pieces of DLC to get, and which to forget about. We'll start with...

The Zombie Island of Dr Ned

Aaah, zombies. Zombies are welcome in any game, and they definitely work in Borderlands. The story takes place on an island, obviously, which houses workers for Jakobs (a gun manufacturer in the Borderlands universe). There has been a zombie outbreak on the island, and you are the one to find out what caused it, and to put an end to it. There are new enemies, locations, 25 missions and more of the humour that made Borderlands so amazing. I would say that out of the three content packs, this is the one which provided the most chuckles. This isn't to say that it's the best overall though.
I was able to complete all the missions in just a few hours, which didn't really give me time to get used to all of the areas fully, and as the enemies are all the same apart from the few bosses (the bosses are all actually really cool), it can become repetitive quite fast. There aren't many NPCs in the content. This is obviously to add to the atmosphere of a zombie apocalypse, but it does feel like a very empty world, with only a Claptrap to talk to.

Whilst it is a good first attempt at DLC, it should have been better. Borderlands was such an ambitious project that you would expect the same of the extra content. Despite these few bad points, it is a fun little DLC, with some interesting missions and an intriguing, twisted plot, and if you're a big fan of Borderlands, you should definitely check this out.


Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot

The second piece of DLC centres around Mad Moxxi's hunt for a new husband. She clearly is Mad, as she figures the best way to find a husband is to build three elaborate arenas, throw in the potential suitors, and send wave after wave of enemies at them to see if they're tough enough. The story ends shortly after it starts. The player is treated to a cutscene explaining the above, and then the missions start. Expect no more story at this point, as that isn't the point of the Underdome.
The Underdome Riot pits you against waves of enemies, getting increasingly harder after each round. A  round consists of 5 waves, and the first three arenas consist of 5 rounds. So all in all, 25 waves of enemies.The first round just pits you against the enemies, with no advantages or hindrances. Eventually though, there are bonuses put in place for a random number of waves. Some of the better bonuses include low gravity and high speed, the latter letting you cross the map in a matter of seconds. Most of the bonuses don't deserve that title however, as they are designed to give you more of a challenge. They range from the enemies being much stronger than you, to your health steadily depleting over the course of the round.

The Underdome Riot does provide the player with entertainment for a while, but soon gets very, very repetitive. The same five waves are repeated over the rounds, meaning that you see the same enemies every five rounds, the only difference being the fifth wave, or the Boss wave. On the Harder challenges though, you see each boss four times, as there are twenty rounds. TWENTY rounds. This literally takes hours to complete, and there is no option to save and continue. If you quit, you start again.

Maybe the increased level cap and massive experience points make it worth it. Oh wait, there isn't that stuff. You get no EXP per kill, just some for completing each arena. And not enough! For completing the first three arenas, you do get a skill point which is a really great reward, especially if you have reached the level cap. The enemies also do not drop weapons. At the end of each round, there is a weapon drop by Moxxi, but it is very easy to miss, so many players will probably not benefit from this.

There is no doubting that Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot adds many hours to Borderlands, but not particularly in the way that most people would like. The reward for completing each wave, round and arena just isn't great enough to truly justify all the time and skill needed to complete them.


The Secret Armory of General Knoxx

Now we get to what is widely considered as the best DLC for Borderlands. It has structure, lots of new characters, new vehicles, weapons and enemies, and many new areas. It raises the level cap to 61, giving you 11 extra skill points to build your character with. So far so good.

This DLC is everything you could want from extra content for Borderlands. It lasts for such a long time, more than The Zombie Island and Underdome Riot combined, and the work put into it is obvious. One of the first missions sees you collecting car parts for Scooter (the very same Scooter from the original game), and then programming the finished vehicle into the Catch-A-Ride. There are three new vehicles overall, the Racer, the Lancer and the Monster. The first is all about speed, low on defence and attack, but by far the fasting thing ever to have graced the Borderlands. The Lancer and the Monster however, are both explosively awesome tank like vehicles. Each vehicle needs a different strategy, making each journey potentially unique and adding depth and tactics to the usually mundane driving sections.
One of your new allies in the game is a former Crimson Lance assassin, Athena. You could say she is awesome. She is a dual wielding ninja assassin from the future, I figure she qualifies for awesome. You must take out similar awesome assassins who all come with a gang of minions. These are just an example of some of the new enemies, to list them all would take a LONG time. That sentence can be used for many aspects of the DLC. It is so expansive, Gearbox could have easily charged 1200 or 1600 MSP for it. Heck, I would have been happy to pick this up as a retail game. 

One of the main problems with the previous DLC was the lack of loot. To say that the Secret Armory is the exact opposite is an understatement. If there was more loot, your brain would almost certainly implode at the thought of it. You see, the plot of the Secret Armory of General Knoxx is to destroy the Crimson Lance base before they can transport the contents of the Armory off of the planet. What is in the base, you ask? Buy it and see! 

I can not think of any DLC, from any other game that I would recommend more than this. It is perfect in every way, and a complete steal at 800 MSP. Gearbox have mastered downloadable content, and here's hoping that the fourth piece of content, Claptrap's New Robot Revolution will prove that. Only time will tell.