If there's one thing that Surreal Software president Alan Patmore wants to make clear about the first Drakan game for the PlayStation 2, it's that it's "a true sequel to the original Drakan and is absolutely, positively, not a port."
It's hard to tell where the rumors--which stated, somewhat illogically, that Drakan II was to be a PlayStation 2 version of the Sony-published Drakan for the PC--first began, but Patmore wants to lay them to rest for good. "Let me assure you," says Patmore, "we've spent two years developing this game, and it is completely original. There seems to have been a lot of confusion about this, and seeing someone refer to it as a port can be very frustrating to the team who have all been working extremely hard building the entirely new worlds of Drakan II."
That said, anyone needing further proof need only spend a few minutes with the game to see that much has changed. We got a chance to play the game at the recent E3 in Los Angeles, and it's looking like a huge improvement over the original. If the environments in the first game seemed like they'd make ideal vacation spots, then you'll love the environments in Drakan II: They look good enough that you'd consider setting up more permanent residence. It's a staggeringly pretty landscape with snowcapped mountains and deep valleys, marred only by roaming packs of monsters and the occasional burning building. Even then though, you can see the smoke rising up into the sky, partially blocking out the sun in thin, wispy strands. This was one of the best-looking visual effects that we witnessed at the show. A layer of mist settles into the horizon far into an impressive draw distance, which seems to be there more to establish atmosphere than to hide pop-up.
The game, of course, focuses on the female lead character from the original game, Rynn, and her dragon companion, Arohk. The two characters share a bond, and if one dies, the other will follow soon afterward. The storyline for the game picks up immediately after the end of Drakan. Now that Rynn has reestablished the Order of the Flame, she and Arokh are called to release the immortal Spirit Dragons from captivity and free the land of its oppressors, an alien race called the Desert Lords who are overrunning the populace.
Both character models have undergone drastic upgrades, with Rynn looking much more realistic and Arohk looking much more fantastic. Patmore says that the character model for Rynn in the original Drakan was composed of 300 polygons, while her model in Drakan II is made up of 4400 polygons. Arohk has experienced a similar jump--from 320 polygons to 4200. And it shows. One immediately noticeable change was that the skin that stretches between the "fingers" of your dragon's wings is now a thin almost translucent membrane. If that sounds impressive, that's because it is. Arohk looks great and animates well.
The graphical leaps seen in Drakan II are just the start of the many improvements slated for the game. You will now be able to gain gold to buy items, weapons, potions, and armor, although as in Diablo, you won't have access to higher-level spells and better weapons until you attain higher levels of experience. Also, as in many other similarly themed games, the changes that you make to your character's armor and weapons will also change her appearance.
Besides those basic levels of customization, you'll also be able to choose what character classes you want to develop Rynn's skills in. You can decide to specialize Rynn's abilities in the areas of a warrior, an archer, or a mage. Or, Patmore says, you can choose to evenly distribute your skill points across all three classes. "The way we've designed the game, it's up to the player to assign the skill points they've accumulated through experience in combat. This gives the player a great deal of freedom to shape their character as they see fit, giving the player a real sense of ownership over their role in the game."
Drakan II will also have cities full of nonplayer characters for you to interact with, another big change from before. "There are actually good people in the game," says Patmore. "There weren't any good people in the original Drakan. Everyone you ran into was evil."
The combat system for Drakan II has at the same time been changed and stayed the same. The hand-to-hand combat appears to have remained similar to that of the original Drakan, although many new weapon types and a dozen spells have been added. Since many nice things were said about the ground combat in the first game, this is good news. The main changes to the combat system seem most noticeable when you're on your dragon's back. Besides Drakan II's having 60 percent more aerial combat, there's now a lock-on system similar to Zone of Enders (or a 360-degree version of that seen in Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time). Once you lock on an enemy, your movement is centered on the creature until you tap the lock-on button again or destroy it. You'll now be able to get into firefights with four or five dragons at a time, several more than you could fight simultaneously before. And leaving the sky will no longer necessarily mean ending your interaction with your dragon in Drakan II. If you're having a particularly hard time in a fight on the ground, you can call in Arohk to firebomb your enemies for you.
Simply put, there will be a lot more Drakan in Drakan II. Or, as Patmore likes to explain it, it'll be much more epic. "The PlayStation 2 has allowed me to do as a designer what I wanted to do with the original Drakan," he says. "To make a game on a truly epic scale."
On the remaining pages of this preview, Patmore answers some of our more specific questions about the sequel. Read on for more.
Q & A With Surreal Software President Alan Patmore
GameSpot: What are the main differences between Drakan and Drakan II?
Alan Patmore: Gameplay in the original Drakan was largely linear, and the goal for a particular level consisted mainly of getting from point A to point B. Drakan II's levels are quest based, which allows for more open-ended and dynamic gameplay.
We have been focusing an enormous amount of time on fine-tuning the gameplay for the PS2. I realized early on that a straight port of mouse-keyboard controls for Rynn and Arokh would not create an engaging game experience for a console player accustomed to games designed explicitly for their system.
So we have spent months working on Arokh and Rynn's play mechanics. The results have been amazing. It is quite a rush to fly a dragon and engage in intense aerial combat while navigating through a massive but still detailed environment. The ability to see something in a macroscale while on Arokh then maneuver through it in a smaller scale as Rynn is great. For example, you can be flying Arokh, see a castle on the horizon, fly to the castle, land in it, dismount, and then explore the incredibly detailed interior on foot, from a completely different point of view. And all this happens seamlessly, in a continuous game environment.
GS: How different will the aerial combat in the sequel be from the original?
AP: The changes we have made to the dragon-riding combat are significant enough to make it a completely different experience for the player. It's literally a different game.
First of all, the fog in the original Drakan was fairly close, which made having massive battles with dragons difficult if not impossible. You simply couldn't see the entire battle arena. In Drakan II we are drawing five times further out. Now, when we do use fog, such as in the swampy "Shadowmire" level that we showed at E3, we employ it as an atmospheric effect. But for aerial combat, you can now engage enemies at a much greater distance, which makes the battles much more visually exciting. You can see this in the other level we showed at E3, "The Battle of Surdana."
Secondly, as I stated earlier we have spent a tremendous amount of time working on the controls. We have moved to a target-lock system, which switches the player's controls when an enemy is targeted much like Zone of Enders. This provides a very intuitive and fun aerial combat experience. Furthermore, the camera is much more dynamic and provides spectacular side views of the dragon.
GS: You'll be able to call in your dragon to help you fight when on the ground. How will that work?
AP: On the ground, Rynn's combat system relies on "target locking" on enemies, much like the aerial combat system I just described. If the player presses the "call dragon" key while an enemy is targeted, Arokh will attack that target. It's always fun to have Arokh toast a massive Wartock who's giving Rynn trouble.
GS: How many hours of gameplay do you expect that the game will have?
AP: For the average player exploring the entire game, we are predicting around 40.
GS: Will the game be strictly linear, or will there be much to explore off the main path?
AP: Parts of the game are linear, parts nonlinear. Since the level flow is given in a quest-subquest format, the player is free to explore and complete quests at their own pace, in whatever order they chose. Some of the more story-intensive parts of the game are necessarily linear, since certain events unfold, which the player cannot control. So it's a mixture, one that we think works perfectly for an action game with a compelling story.
GS: What sort of attack will the archer and mage classes have? How many spells will you have?
AP: Archers have 24 different bows to choose from. The bows gained at the beginning of the game are fairly standard long bows and so forth. As you progress in the game, the bows become more and more exotic and, of course, powerful. Eventually you will be able to use lightning bows, flamestrike bows, and energy bows, which inflict massive amounts of damage and have amazing effects to go along with them.
The spell system is definitely one of the coolest features of the game. Spells are summoned using "taps" on the D-pad. When you tap on the D-pad, Rynn will actually move her left hand to mimic the directions of each tap. Based on the taps the player performs, a spell is then "summoned," and Rynn "holds" the spell in her hand and can use it at will. For instance, with the fireball spell, after Rynn has summoned the spell she holds a flaming orb in her hand and can repeatedly hurl balls of magma at her enemies. In total, Rynn can learn 12 different spells, each with three levels of power. So there's a lot of magic to learn and master.
Combined with the equally rich melee combat, there's a lot of weapons for the player to find and wield in the game, giving the player a lot of choices when going into combat. This all leads to a very deep ground combat experience.
GS: What--besides the game not being a port--would you most like to stress about the game?
AP: In terms of the actual game, I'd say the most impressive aspect of the game is its size. There aren't very many console games that have the massive worlds of Drakan II, with the seemingly endless environments to explore.
The game mechanics also have a lot of depth for an action title, combining all the different weapons systems for ground combat with the variety of strategies the player can use to succeed at aerial combat. There's quite a lot for the player to learn and master, and meaningful choices for the player to make.
GS: Thanks for your time.
Drakan II is due out for the Sony PlayStation 2 this November.