AquaNox Preview

We travel to Fishtank's offices in Germany to play the latest build of this underwater shooter.

The ocean floor is home to an epic war.

Welcome to the oh-so-charming 27th-century world of AquaNox and its protagonist, the grizzled mercenary Emerald "DeadEye" Flint. After Earth has been rocked by nuclear warfare, you're stuck trying to make a quick buck seaside like most survivors. Humans have migrated into the watery depths and have established cities and vast empires where giant squids and sunken treasures traditionally made their home. Amongst a world of surreal submarine flora and fauna, titanic battles will rage between the monopolistic Entrox corporation and monstrous Lovecraftian creatures known as bionts, freshly released from their eternal slumber. And naturally, you'll be thrust right into the middle of all of this.

If unfortunate innocents don't have a choice regarding participation in this conflict, at least recent builds reflect that it's a battle well worth fighting. Heavy on both action and plot development, comparisons could easily be made to the Wing Commander series. Gameplay is divided into three main activities: equipping a vessel, conversing with NPCs, and of course fighting swarms of enemies. While essentially a first-person shooter in a spaceship simulation's clothing, AquaNox retains elements of both, at the same time owing full allegiance to neither. Therefore both action and space-sim fans will cover familiar yet enjoyable ground as they plow through more than 30 huge single-player missions.

Bionts, such as this squid, are just as formidable as the Entrox enemies.

Project Manager Wolfgang Walk is quick to note that the game isn't merely a clone of previous Origin games, however. "This is 3D action with a huge storyline," he explains. "Unlike other futuristic battles where up and down doesn't really matter, you're in a much more defined space, where you have an environment to relate to. This means you need much more skill to survive--and have much more fun during battle. We also believe that the player finds it easier to relate to mankind on Earth at the edge of extinction than to a civilization that has already charted every corner of the universe--where, if you're honest, most of the locations aren't exactly places you would risk your life for."

And risk your life you will, many times over. Alone or with intelligent wingmen who operate independently of player control, budding heroes face down some novel scenarios. Whether cruising through Gotham City's sunken streets hunting foes while a postapocalyptic Statue of Liberty looks on or using currents to move silently past turrets or mines, potentially fatal mishaps lurk around every corner. Be grateful then that weapons and items are upgraded steadily throughout the journey. Head-on conflicts are unavoidable, though steps can always be taken to minimize danger. Luckily for strategically minded players, several paths lead to victory for each objective assigned. Granted, plot development is purely linear and most events are scripted, but quick-thinking captains who devise unique approaches to troublesome problems will find their insight rewarded.

At its core, AquaNox is a fast-paced shooter...

But shirking active duty isn't what AquaNox aims to get at, however. Rather it's a fast-paced shooter (albeit underwater) that should rope Quake or Unreal Tournament fans in with blazingly intense vehicular showdowns. "No holds barred" and "take no prisoners" aren't just design guidelines for this title; they're an underlying philosophy. Walk describes its target audience as "everyone who loves fast-paced action, who wants to feel adrenaline pump through their veins, and wants to experience an important story that actually matters." Roughly translated, that's Deutsch for "Hey kids, we know you're sick of Counter-Strike. Why not try blowing stuff up in new, exciting, and spectacular ways?"

Consider the base gameplay model. Running under the world's first fully three-dimensional interface, submariners view environments through a first-person reticle view reminiscent of high-profile blast-'em-ups like Duke Nukem 3D. Movement is handled by a mouse and arrow-key combination as you might expect, though detailed fluid physics (remember, the action takes place underwater) will wreak havoc on your navigation capabilities initially. Dealing with currents quickly becomes secondary though when faced with company, who must be tracked around massive seascapes via radar and your intuition. Various minor indicators help aces-in-training ascertain enemy position, strength, and attributes, but by and large the action boils down to a bag 'em and tag 'em affair, à la most airborne dogfighting simulations.

...and yet interaction with others will play an important role in the game.

Melee goes a little something like this: Goals are designated, foes appear, and while at the same time managing nav points, you start by locking on a targeted opponent. Sensor systems provide instantaneous feedback pertaining to the unlucky bugger's shield, speed, distance, and cargo seconds before an impromptu chase unfolds. Once a biont or rival pilot has been marked for death, you speed after the target, meanwhile unleashing a barrage of gunfire, EMP blasts, Hammerhead torpedoes, and plasma bolts upon yon hapless victim. Assuming you survive assaults against both smaller ships and colossal cruisers, the process repeats itself several times over.

However, there's more to the game than mindless shooting. Dealing with NPCs, you'll find a breadth of personality and character so deep as to do most bleak, futuristic sci-fi novels proud. Ocean denizens are largely a surly lot, meaning you can take great pleasure from hearing each scream or beg for mercy when they're downed in a conflict situation. Although branching dialogue trees simply didn't mesh with designer Massive Entertainment's vision of how the game should progress, they don't the game still includes an ever-evolving plotline and campaign-evolution system. Besides, wingmen feature way too much personality to be confused with their faceless, candy-painted joystick-controlled counterparts.

Clearly, the game's visuals are impressive.

Imagine how surprised jaded audiences will be to discover the product isn't just intelligent, but a looker as well. Extremely high-resolution GeForce3-powered graphics give the game's humongous sunken environs a level of polish few competitors have accomplished. Blue-green waves give way to stunning fluid vistas, replete with coral outcroppings, sandy dunes, silently undulating seaweed, and gleaming metallic constructs ripped straight out of Blade Runner's pages. Shuttlecraft run the gamut from man-made designs to freakish organic creations, adding to the chilling atmosphere, which benefits greatly from the liberal use of colored lighting effects and photo-realistic texturing. Special effects remain unrivaled, encompassing a staggering range of accelerator-enhanced blasts, streaks, jaggy lines, and concussive explosions.

What's more, everything of course fits perfectly within the boundaries laid out by a mature script. Such a stunning presentation is seen as reinforcing an already complex, dark vision of an alternate future where foolishness and greed have been humanity's undoing. "Aqua is one of the few sci-fi scenarios where the threat to the sheer existence of mankind is extremely believable," laughs Walk. "It didn't come from the outside like alien races or a huge meteor. It came from the inside: stupidity of men. That's easy to believe, isn't it?" Maybe so--Lord knows it's certainly easier to swallow than a rendering engine that pushes 60fps while dozens of small- to gargantuan-sized objects simultaneously exchange fire with nary a hint of slowdown.

Like most action games, AquaNox will support a breadth of multiplayer options.

This incredibly important benefit is never so apparent as during multiplayer confrontations. Solo combatants or partners in crime can enjoy a grueling head-to-head deathmatch, team-based encounter, or one of several additional variations, including an underwater sport wherein you lob a giant metal ball at one another. Purists will also enjoy capture-the-flag matches, as they're prone to general chaos when participants start collecting power-ups and using turbo boosts in earnest. Despite an open-ended directional scale (you're provided with a 360-degree range of movement), strafing is not only possible, but encouraged, as such setups exemplify. Sure, fragging giant creatures or pounding entire bases into scrap metal is a challenge, but it's nothing compared to stomping up to seven other trash-talking buddies' behinds via LAN or Internet connection.

Given a promising project and general lack of competition, publisher Fishtank Interactive might just have a sleeper hit on its hands. Then again, mainstream success has eluded developer Massive Entertainment before, as was the case when its previous critical darling, the aforementioned Archimedean Dynasty, suffered from severe distribution difficulties in North America. Nevertheless, no one remains more optimistic than the development team itself. Prompted for his honest thoughts on the future of what could henceforth be an evergreen franchise, Walk candidly ventured, "Archimedean Dynasty spread the word with developers and journalists that Massive Development is a cool company doing great games. We want to increase the number of people who know that--say, the rest of the gaming world."

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