We've already served notice that the very first playable build of One, which we saw in September 2004, represented a major evolutionary step for the N-Gage platform--something akin to an early primate developing opposable thumbs. After playing a later (but still pre-alpha) build of the game at Nokia's latest press event, we're happy to report that this chimpanzee is now treeborne and growing rapidly toward "great ape" status. Although this prototype version of the next-generation fighting game was missing many techniques and other important features, Nokia and Digital Legends' vision has materialized to the point where we were able to get a feel for how the final product will play. We weren't disappointed, and you probably won't be either.
When we last checked in on One, we reported on a lot of the larger details surrounding the game's design, including its basic premise, its use of N-Gage Arena, and its graphics. For all that information, we had no real idea of how the game's more fundamental characteristics--namely, the gameplay and controls--would work. Obviously, the most important ingredient in a great fighter is the hand-to-hand combat system itself--if it's not variable enough to support a range of properly balanced strategies, the game isn't likely to be much fun. Fortunately, it's now clear that the developers have played their fair share of fighting games, because the combat system in One looks like it will be one of the best available on a handheld. Even though all the game's techniques derive from a single martial art (jeet kune do), and more than half of the game's moves haven't been implemented, we were impressed with the underlying engine's flexibility, as well as its judicious emulation of console classics like Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution. For instance, your fighter's three different stances afford you a variety of options for responding to an opponent's posture, and markedly change the dynamic of the game.
A neutral stance, which is indicated by a classical karate position, with arms held at the ready, preserves most of your character's maneuverability and allows you access to both jabs and power attacks like a nasty charge punch to the sternum, but isn't ideal for landing combinations. Hitting the stance key in conjunction with the up button shifts you into offensive mode--your character bounces back and forth on the balls of his feet like Bruce Lee, his body coiled like a snake and a mean look in his eye. Fighters move much faster while on offense, so you can approach an enemy quickly or beat a hasty retreat as necessary. In addition, your rotational speed is much improved, so you can circle around a stationary opponent in a hurry. While on offense, you can launch quick salvos of blows that are difficult to defend against, and you can also grapple with enemies. Most interestingly, the block key turns into the dodge key in the offensive stance. Dodging requires exquisite timing, but it also is a lot faster than blocking and lets you preserve your attack through your enemy's countermoves. It's awesome to bob and weave through attacks, finally delivering a swift punch to the kidney for your opponent's trouble. Finally, the stance button and down puts you on defense, which involves leaning way back and guarding your body with your arms. You can block attacks pretty much indefinitely while on defense, as well as deliver some pretty rude power strikes, but your movement speed and attack speed are cut back dramatically. Over the course of numerous Bluetooth multiplayer matches, we discovered that the key to success in One is to present a constantly shifting series of attacks and postures. And while the design encourages dynamic play, it never verges into the territory of button mashing.
One has also made great strides from a graphics standpoint, to the point where it is now most certainly the best-looking game we've seen on an N-Gage. We were struck especially by the high visual quality of the fighting environments. One venue on top of a skyscraper offers a detailed panoramic view of the Barcelona skyline, as well as realistic shadowing effects from the late-afternoon sun. Another, which is set in a back alley, is festooned with readable posters, one of which looks suspiciously like a One marketing spread. The game is still running at a very impressive frame rate, appearing to clock in at around 25 frames per second, although it seems to have slowed down slightly since the last demo, probably as a result of the new visual details. Nokia promised us that the already stellar frame rate would improve with further tweaking.
When we first saw One, we had to base a lot of our judgments on what was essentially a tech demo. We are now in a position to confirm that the actual game appears to be very much on the right track, and reiterate our bullishness on the final product. Nokia and Digital Legends are working madly to get One ready for an E3 launch. Hopefully, we'll have more previews and details on this game between now and then.