San Rafael, California-based developer Factor 5 has toiled in a galaxy far, far away for the better part of the last decade, rousing Star Wars enthusiasts with multiple installments in the popular Rogue Squadron series made exclusively for the contemporary Nintendo platforms of the day. But when it came time for Factor 5 to part ways with Nintendo and make the jump to Sony's beefy new PlayStation 3, the developer also took its leave of the Star Wars universe to finally craft its own original, storied fantasy milieu. The result is the upcoming Lair, a (mostly) aerial combat game featuring a vast, fantastical world in peril, power-hungry religious fanatics, two nations at war...oh, and a whole lot of fire-breathing dragons, too.
Factor 5 president and Lair director Julian Eggebrecht comments that after working with the Star Wars universe for so long, the team realized the importance of underpinning a game's plotline with an established and extensively developed universe. So rather than creating a specific scenario for Lair and then building the world around that story, the team worked in the other direction and envisioned Lair's lands, history, and cultures in general terms before then crafting individual characters and storylines based on those broader parameters. Factor 5's artists--many of whom have experience in the nearby film effects industry--drew inspiration from Roman and Middle Eastern styles, among others, in crafting the game's unique architecture, clothing, and other cultural elements.
Lair takes place in an imperiled world that's threatened by numerous emerging volcanoes, which are sundering the land and choking the skies with a thick cloud of soot. The peoples of this world have divided into two kingdoms: the treacherous Mokai, whose lands are arid and depleted of resources, and the seemingly noble Asylians, who live in one of the last remaining bountiful, green areas. These two nations are naturally at odds with one another, and the recently empowered, aggressive Asylian religious leaders are already leading the country down the path of inevitable war at the game's outset when the Mokai accelerate the hostilities with a surprise attack.
You'll play as Rohn, a member of the Asylians' elite dragon-riding force, and you'll have to take to the skies immediately to repel the Mokai assault and carry out subsequent aerial missions in the unfolding conflict. Subsequent levels will see you assaulting entire ground-based armies, leading a nighttime raid against enemy lighthouses, and fulfilling various other objectives in the ongoing war between the two nations. This is only the plot's initial setup, however; Eggebrecht implied there will be some unexpected twists and turns as the story progresses, possibly ones that will leave Rohn a different person and in a different place from where he started.
Dragons may be a far cry from X-wings, but they do share some mechanical similarities. Luckily, Factor 5 hasn't abandoned the knowledge accumulated during the Rogue Squadron years. Instead, Lair's designers are building on their previous experience with flight combat design in creating and tweaking the gameplay. Naturally, your dragon will have a flame projectile attack, which we employed effectively against the Mokai catapult ships that were assailing the Asylian city in the game's opening level. The attack even has a degree of auto-aim and will fire at the enemy closest to the center of your screen. (The targeted enemy will have a white halo around it for easier identification.) Furthermore, as you kill enemies in quick succession to form combos, you'll build up a special meter that, when full, will make the action slow to a crawl while you continue to move at regular speed, allowing you to deal damage with even greater precision.
So dragons and X-wings both fly, and they can both shoot. That's pretty much where the similarities end, though. For one thing, X-wings don't have wicked talons and fang-filled maws. Dragons certainly do, though, and consequently Factor 5 has focused Lair's combat largely on the up-close-and-personal. Your dragon enemies will be broken up into light, medium, and heavy classes, and the type of melee attack you do will be determined by the weight class of the enemy. When you have a light enemy targeted, you can hit a button to charge it and essentially body-check it to take it out quickly. Doing a charge move on larger dragons, however, will put you into a melee fighting mode that will require you to perform specific motions with the Sixaxis (indicated by onscreen cues) to successfully attack and defeat the enemy.
Lair's gameplay relies heavily on the Sixaxis' motion controls for more than just this melee dueling. In fact, motion is the only way you can steer your dragon (the analog sticks are used solely for minor camera control). We instinctively tried to fly with the sticks when we first tried the game, but after about 10 minutes we found the motion controls to be pretty intuitive. Eggebrecht pointed out that, given the analog stick's relatively limited range of motion, the Sixaxis control ultimately gives you the ability to make larger movements for faster changes of direction and so on. We'll reserve final judgment until we get to play the entire finished game with this new control scheme, but for now we're cautiously optimistic that the designers have made the right choice by limiting steering control in this way.
Most of the action will take place in the sky, but some missions will see you hit the ground to terrorize the enemy's hapless infantry, too. When you're on the ground, you've got a number of extra attacks, from a large tail swing to a ground stomp that impacts enemies all around you. The enemy will frequently deploy entire battalions of troops against you, which means you'll get to torch and plow through endless ranks of soldiers with reckless abandon. In some missions, a meter will indicate the morale of the enemy forces, and descending to the ground and terrorizing the troops will reduce their drive to fight. You can even pick up horses and other large objects from the air and toss them at groups of enemies in a process that Factor 5 gleefully likens to bowling. Since last year's Tokyo Game Show demo, the designers have reevaluated the controls and decided that while the motion control makes sense in the air, traditional analog control has been restored for the ground-based gameplay.
Rogue Squadron veterans will know of Factor 5's emphasis on performing well in its games, and Lair will carry on this tradition with specific rankings that will tally your scores at the end of each mission. You'll be ranked on the amount of "carnage" you've caused (which seems to be analogous to a basic score), as well as your completion time, number of kills and deaths, and so on. As in the Rogue Squadron games, all of these will add up to medals that will not only indicate your overall performance, but also unlock new moves, such as a double-slash combo, that will let you more easily tackle subsequent missions. Even if you're not getting these extra moves from medals, though, the developer says the game will smoothly introduce new gameplay mechanics and concepts all the way through the second-to-last mission, to keep things fresh.
For most of its history, Factor 5 has developed games exclusively for one platform at a time, which has naturally allowed the team to exploit more of that target platform's potential than if it were creating a game that ran on multiple systems. That tradition will continue on the PS3, with the developer's coding wizards performing a number of advanced tricks to raise Lair's visual caliber. We saw the game running at 720p resolution, but Eggebrecht said the final game will also have a 1080p option, and both modes are targeted to run at 30 frames per second, since resolution apparently has little impact on overall frame rate in this particular game.
Lair will employ some levels that are a whopping 32 square kilometers in size, and a high level of detail will be maintained at any distance thanks to an advanced new dynamic level-of-detail system called progressive mesh. With this technique, whether you're a mile up in the sky or hovering just a few feet above the city skyline, you'll be able to observe roughly the same amount of detail. This really showed through in the early sample missions we saw, such as the first mission in which the Mokai's dragons and catapult sea vessels assaulted the Asylian capital city, the temples and houses of which sprawled elegantly over a series of rolling hills. The sea attack also gave us a look at Lair's full fluid dynamics system, which simulates the motion of real water rather than rendering the ocean as a boring flat plane. This effect was especially evident every time we destroyed an enemy ship, which exploded into a geyser of flame and created massive ripples rolling out from the wreckage, causing other nearby ships to bob and sway in the commotion.
Equal care has gone into the artistic elements of Lair's creation. The visual designers used both dinosaurs and bats as models for their dragons, and you'll encounter a wide array of different dragon types--plains dragons, ice dragons, flame dragons, and dark dragons, to name a few. As imposing as those dragons are, they aren't nearly the biggest things in the sky. The Mokai will employ gigantic flying mantas as troop transports that make your dragon look like a housefly, and Lair's first boss encounter will see you going up against a voracious flying coral snake that's over a mile long. (Then they toss in a second one for good measure.)
Factor 5 isn't skimping on the aural presentation, either. The game's epic action will be accentuated by a full symphonic score written by film composer John Debney (a newcomer to video game music), whose extensive oeuvre includes Sin City and The Passion of the Christ. From what we heard during our demo, Debney will be bringing his cinematic experience to bear with a score that's much in the grandiose style of Hollywood action and fantasy movies. And luckily, if you happen to have the necessary home theater equipment, the game's audio will play in full uncompressed 7.1 audio via HDMI for that extra aural oomph.
Lair is currently moving into the alpha phase of development, which means all of the major features have been implemented. However, the team continues to tweak controls, balance damage values, and generally mold the game into a solid flight combat experience befitting the Factor 5 legacy. Eggebrecht said the team has a "firm commitment" to finish the game in time for a July release, so it won't be much longer before we get to evaluate the final result of the team's labor--not to mention one of the PS3's most important exclusive games this year.