It's not every day you walk into a darkened conference room about to see your first Xbox 360 game, so we tried to keep our cool when Sega recently invited us to look at Full Auto, a new car combat game in development at Toronto-based Pseudo Interactive. The easiest way to describe Full Auto is with a phrase like "Burnout meets Twisted Metal," and while it looks like there will be a lot more going on in the game than such a simplification would imply, that analogy is a good place to start. Even in its extremely early state, Full Auto was already showing off more stuff blowing up than we've seen in just about any action game in memory. And that's saying a lot.
We didn't manage to get many story details for Full Auto out of Pseudo's reps. We're not even sure this game needs a storyline. The premise is simple enough: Choose a tricked-out street car, outfit your ride with an array of high-powered weaponry, and race at breakneck speed through the city streets, outrunning or blowing away your competitors and destroying as much public and private property as you can. You'll apparently be cast as a retired driver being pushed back into racing by the Shepherds, a gang that has taken hold of the city of Staunton. Pseudo is still playing with many aspects of the game's design, though we were told the game will have a cohesive career mode, as well as other modes like pursuit, arena, and tag. Eight-player online support will round out the package, presumably taking place on the Xbox 360's as-yet-unnamed online service.
Pseudo reps stressed that Full Auto is a racing game first and a combat game second, though it looks like you'll get in plenty of shooting action as you speed through Staunton's five districts. Your primary objective in any race is to navigate the winding streets and cross the finish line before any of your seven competitors. How you get those competitors out of the way is up to you--you can blow them away with grenade launchers, side-mounted shotguns, and smokescreens, or maybe you'd like to bring a massive elevated train track (complete with train, natch) crashing down on top of them. The game will tally the dollar amount of your destruction as you race, and this value will be used like a score at the end of each run. As you play through the game, you'll pick up new weapons and upgrades, some of which can even be mounted on the rear of the car.
Time controls have been big in game design for several years now, with everybody from Max Payne to Microsoft's own ill-fated Blinx earning his or her temporal chops. So why has it taken this long for time manipulation to work its way into racing games? Full Auto's most interesting feature is the "unwreck" ability, which will let you rewind the action every time you crash, miss a jump, or just want to replay the last few seconds of the race. You'll have only limited access to this feature, since unwreck will deplete a finite meter rapidly as you use it. From what we could see in the two demo tracks on offer, there will be plenty of secret jumps, shortcuts, and opportunities for excessive destruction, so you'll want to save your unwreck for the places you really need it. Pseudo says its aim with Full Auto's time control is to never make you restart a race again just because you messed up a turn in the first five seconds, and it looks like unwreck will go a long way toward achieving that goal.
It's a safe bet that you've never seen this much raw activity in a racing game before. Every explosion is accompanied by pieces of, well, everything flying all over the place. Take out a phone booth, and you're going to see glass flying in all directions. Blow out the side of a building, and you've got debris everywhere. Cars spit sparks and belch smoke when they fly through tight turns and rub against each other. Even the aforementioned train spewed seats and other sundry objects when it ate the pavement. You'll be able to target just about any object in the environment and trash it--either by running into it or blowing it away--and watch it be reduced to its component parts, the flights of which will be fully governed by the game's encompassing physics system.
This kind of destructive freedom owes to the fact that nearly every element of Full Auto's scenes is physically modeled, especially the cars you'll drive. Have you ever seen the Microsoft XNA video where a car crashes realistically into a wall? The cars in Full Auto wreck a lot like that, in that the damage they take corresponds directly to where and how hard they were hit by another car or flying object. The artists are doing a "physics pass" on each of the cars in the game to model the way their pieces are put together, so the physics system can realistically bash them, dent them, and take them apart when they're involved in wrecks of varying intensity. A brief slow-motion demonstration of this system revealed smashed-in fenders, dented side panels, and other damage. Based on this demo, we'd say it's a safe bet that none of the cars will be showroom-ready at the end of a race--the damage is extreme, to say the least.
Though Staunton has been designed as a full, cohesive city, Full Auto won't be a free-roaming game--you'll play through specific levels like you would in an arcade racer. But the continuous layout of the city means the designers can place start and end points just about anywhere they want to, and furthermore, the tightly constrained courses let them make veritable Rube Goldberg machines out of the levels. One level we saw had a large gas tank positioned strategically near a tight turn. The Pseudo rep playing the demo took the game into a slow-motion, free-camera mode to show us the intricate layout of the upcoming explosion, which involved the gas tank being propelled through an 18-wheeler and setting off a number of other gas tanks that had been placed for the express purpose of blowing up real big. Pseudo says the levels will be packed with many such carefully laid traps that will let you easily level Staunton as you race through it.
As an Xbox 360 game, it goes without saying that Full Auto looks better than just about any game we've seen (but you'd expect that with a new console). The cars and environments are made up of far more geometry than what you see in current-gen games, and advanced effects like real-time reflections were evident all over the place. There's just a startling amount of debris flying every which way when things are destroyed, too, which lends a frenetic quality to the action that should prove essential to sealing the combat-racing experience. The amount of environment interactivity is as impressive as the visual fidelity. For instance, we saw how telephone poles were connected by a physically modeled cabling system that caused them to pull each other over when one was blown away.
We got a good look at only one area of Staunton during our demo--a grungy, dilapidated warehouse district--but the city will be split into five distinct districts in the final game, each of which will offer widely varying scenery (and hopefully equally varied opportunities for destruction). Another area, for instance, will be a neon nightlife spot that sounded not entirely unlike the Las Vegas strip, though perhaps not quite as flamboyant. Even though multiple tracks will be set in each district, the level designers have powerful tools at their disposal to make sure the tracks all look different. They'll be able to match up different building foundation types with different upper floor types, slap on a different set of textures, and make a huge number of buildings that all look different from one other. Further, the levels will make use of gameworld materials like concrete, glass, aluminum, and so on to govern the appropriate looks, behaviors, and sounds of these surfaces when they're destroyed.
Our look at Full Auto came at a relatively early point in the game's development--doubly so considering that the next Xbox's hardware hadn't even been finalized at the time. According to Pseudo, we were looking at an alpha build of the game running on alpha-level Xbox 360 hardware. With presumably two hardware revisions to go and months more work left on the game, reps said we'd see a threefold leap in performance and fidelity when all is said and done. Given how busy and varied the game's massive environments already are, we're looking forward to great things on the visual front when the final game rolls around. At this early stage, the audio and music in the game were mostly placeholder, but Pseudo says that certain noted electronic artists are very interested in providing tracks for the game, which will use an adaptive system to vary the music based on the action currently taking place in the race.
Pseudo stressed during our demo that Full Auto is in no way a tuning game--you won't be swapping out exhaust manifolds or throwing your car on the dyno machine just to squeeze out a few extra horsepower. Although the roughly 20 cars will have individualized handling characteristics, we were told that each one would be pick-up-and-play accessible in the tradition of the greatest arcade racers. The heavy degree of combat in the game mixed with this accessibility should make Full Auto a game that any action fan can get into, and we're looking forward to finding out how it handles (hopefully at E3). Stay tuned for more on what looks like quite a promising addition to the Xbox 360's launch lineup.