Nokia's strategy for promoting upcoming N-Gage games seems to fluctuate wildly from one case to another. The media learns about and previews some titles up to a half a year prior to their releases; many others are announced and then wrapped up tightly until right before launch; still other prospects are dropped without fanfare; and a scant handful of games, many of which are already well into production, are sprung on journalists with no advance warning whatsoever. The new combat racing game from Aussie developer Tantalus, which made its inaugural appearance at a recent press event under the working title Pit Runner, falls squarely into the last category. But that doesn't mean that Nokia or Tantalus should shy away from showing the game off. Although the early version of Pit Runner we saw was emulated on a laptop computer, we're already excited about its story-driven action and expansive environments.
Pit Runner's premise is a smorgasbord of ideas borrowed from popular science fiction movies, classic video games, and 21st century geopolitics. According to Tantalus and the game's comic book-style cutscenes, your character, a blond urchin who's got nothing left to lose, stows away on a cargo ship heading toward the only planet in the galaxy where furium, a highly potent energy source that powers humanity's spaceward expansion, is mined. (No, it's not Arrakis.) To your character's chagrin, he's discovered right before his ride lands at the rough mining colony, where various corporate outfits have set up their extraction operations. Instead of following policy and immediately executing him, the guard decides to cut him a break by dropping him off in town. Next thing you know, you've been contracted to pilot a type of courier hovercraft, called a "skim," and issued a snappy jumpsuit. Your job is to race to a series of mining facilities and then snatch away valuable furium capsules before other galactic detritus, like you, can get to them and whisk them back to headquarters. Basically, it's not unlike Beggar's Canyon back home.
The gameplay we saw emulated on a faux N-Gage reminded us a lot of games like Smuggler's Run and F-Zero, as well as the land speeder sequences from Super Star Wars. Pit Runner's mining environments are quite expansive and free-form, with lots of hills, gullies, and shortcuts for knowledgeable skim pilots to exploit. There was only type of environment on display at the demonstration, which was sort of a high mesa, but Tantalus showed us concept art for other types of terrain, including meadows, lava caps, and wintery landscapes. There were lots of other vehicles whizzing around the map, which was typically displayed from a zoomed-out, behind-the-skim viewpoint to aid navigation. There was also a big pulldown map that helped provide a more detailed look at the level's checkpoints. The skims themselves are highly maneuverable hovercraft with distinctly insectoid aesthetics. You'll be able to load them up with different types of missiles and other weapons, but they'll only slow your rivals down rather than kill them off. There are several varieties of skims to pilot through the course of the game, and you'll be able to customize some aspects of your ride as you progress, although no additional details were forthcoming.
Since Pit Runner was presented on a PC, it was difficult to tell how the game was actually running, but we noticed that Tantalus seems to be gravitating toward the "small and slightly grainy yet extremely fast" school of design. This seems like the right choice for a game that will rely on a player's quick maneuvering and knowledge of large environments. The game ran to an enjoyably low-fi square-wave synth tune, although it was unclear whether it was the approved music. Tantalus confirmed that Pit Runner would have Bluetooth multiplayer features, but our early version did not yet have them implemented.
Pit Runner is tentatively scheduled for a Q3 2005 release. We'll have more details as they become available.