E3 2002: Project Ego impressions

Peter Molyneux and Big Blue Box's ambitious Xbox RPG is on display at this year's E3.

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We had a chance to catch up with Lionhead Studios' Peter Molyneux to get a look at the incredibly ambitious RPG that is currently being developed at Big Blue Box, one of Lionhead's satellite studios. The impetus for the creation of Project Ego stems from Molyneux's desire to create an RPG that has no fixed paths or a population of static NPCs who don't respond to events transpiring before their very eyes. But to describe Project Ego in such simple terms would be doing it a great disservice because it has so many features that truly make it unique as a role-playing game.

Imagine a role-playing game character who changes depending on the weapon that you use, how much time you spend in the sunlight, or the deeds that you undertake. These changes in characteristics were illustrated to us in real time. The main character was standing in a small circular brick structure, surrounded by flowing fields of grass and lush green trees.

Then the character's muscles expanded, pushing veins to the surface of his skin, which gave it an eerily realistic texture. Your character's muscle growth depends entirely on how often you actually use those muscles. If you're constantly wielding a massive sword or another heavy weapon, then your character's muscles will steadily grow over the course of the game. Conversely, if your character doesn't engage in any high-impact activities, then the muscles won't grow and your character will remain a weakling.

Shortly thereafter, wrinkles gradually crept their way on to the character's face, aging him more than 40 years within a matter of seconds, but of course, that's not how aging will function in the game. Molyneux explained that characters will have a normal aging cycle until they reach a specific age (somewhere around 45). Once that age is reached, the aging cycle will be slowed down significantly so that your character doesn't so old as to need a walker to maneuver around. Interestingly, the wrinkles that appear on your character's face are dependent on the amount of time he spends out in the sun--the more sun that shines on his face, the more wrinkles he will have. The overall effect of aging is quite amazing to see, and it's a perfect supplement to the notion that everything within Project Ego's world is alive, especially your character.

However, at this point, the aging process seems to be more cosmetic than anything else, but there are some other visual character changes that will play a more important role. In fact, your character's facial features will change depending on what you do within this living world. For nefarious characters, the eyes will slowly become darker and the jaw will become misaligned, giving the character a constant sinister look on his face. But if your character performs good deeds, then his facial features remain fair. This feature isn't unlike the one found in Peter Molyneux's PC game Black & White, in which massive animal characters change their physical form to correspond with their temperament. This feature also speaks to the open-ended nature of Project Ego--you are free to do whatever you want and are encouraged to do so. Even your name will reflect the life that you've chosen. If you constantly kill monsters with a saucepan--and one actually does exist in Project Ego--then you'll receive the name of "Saucepan Blood Slayer" or something along those lines.

It's certainly worth noting that the people within the world will respond to your actions. When your character starts to perform heroic deeds, children within the local village will start to get the same haircut as your character simply because he's the hero. Likewise, non-player-controlled characters will go about their business over the course of the day. One example of this was demonstrated when morning arrived. A small child walked from his home, up a small path, and into a school where he took his seat in class and waited for the other students to arrive. Townspeople will also come gather to watch you fend off monsters when fighting close to a town. If you're feeling so bold, you can even make an obscene gesture to one of the townspeople and see them react. There's so much going on at once, and the only real comparison to Project Ego in terms of NPC activity would be a game like Shenmue.

Combat in Project Ego is the only aspect of the game that seems ordinary. In the demo shown to us, the main character walked along a path at night, only to encounter a group of enemies waiting at the entrance to a town. Drawing out his saucepan, the main character took out each enemy with a few strikes of the pan and, for good measure, continued to hit them while they were on the ground. The next set of enemies weren't as easy to deal with. The main character was walking through a field of wheat with only a large, ominous moon to light his way and a scarecrow to give him company, when all of a sudden a deluge of hideous howls filled the air. Within seconds, a group of wolfmen jumped on to the screen, and as quickly as they appeared, they jumped back into the fields to conceal themselves. Sticking around to fight these creatures isn't necessarily the best idea, but if you do, you'll have to clear out the wheat with your weapon.

While the structure of Project Ego's world is very much open, there will be set pieces. We were shown an enormous castle with massive gargoyles and statues of warriors bathed in the white light of the moon. The forest surrounding this haunting structure was equally as impressive due to the density of realistic trees.

If there is any doubt as to how open-ended Project Ego is, your character can even get married, have children, and ignore about 70 percent of the gameplay. It's impressive, to say the least, but there are still some crucial decisions that have to be made. For example, the inventory system hasn't been finalized, though Molyneux said that he would prefer to use the "bottomless sack" method so that you can collect as many items in the game as you want without worrying where you need to store all of them.

We'll have more on Project Ego as it becomes available.

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