Since the tentatively titled Project Ego was first announced, the game has been the focus of much attention. The game's ambitious take on the RPG genre, coupled with the involvement of Peter Molyneux, has positioned Ego as one of the most promising Xbox titles. While details on the game have trickled out at a snail's pace, we got one of our best glimpses of the game at this year's GDC, where Molyneux and members of developer Big Blue Box opened up about what to expect from the game.
Intended to be the "greatest role-playing game of all time" according to Molyneux, Project Ego is certainly an ambitious game that looks to offer one of the freshest and most unique interpretations of an RPG to be seen in quite some time. While the game follows some of the standard RPG conventions and stars a protagonist who is traumatized by family tragedy and sets out on a quest that will save the world, how you'll go about that is decidedly different. If the game comes together as presented, Project Ego's defining features will be the game's unprecedented freedom and interactivity.
The game begins simply enough--you assume the role of a 15-year-old boy sent into town to run an errand for his family. Upon returning, you'll discover your family has been kidnapped and your beloved dog has joined the ranks of notable pets like Old Yeller in the afterlife. Vowing to find your family and seek your dog's killer, you set off on a journey that will find you becoming the greatest hero of all time--that is, if you're lucky. Ultimately, what your character becomes when you complete the game is pretty much up to you.
The way your character develops in Project Ego is one of the game's mind-boggling and appealing features, thanks to the incredible depth available to players. Based on the way you play through the game, your character will develop dynamically in a variety of ways. If you are incredibly active and do a lot of running, your character will develop strong leg muscles. Along the same lines, if your character used a single-handed sword, your arm will be more muscular. If you spend a lot of time in the sun, your skin will become tanned. If you get cut in battle, you'll have scars after you heal. As you progress through the game, you'll age accordingly. The ambitious aging model will also take into account your character's stress levels. You'll notice bags developing under your eyes if you're too stressed and age even faster if you're always stressed. Another major factor that also affects your character's aging process is your use of magic. Using magic in the game draws on your life force and will subsequently accelerate the aging process and leave you looking like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings if you become too liberal with your spellcasting. To keep you from aging--so much that you'll be forced to go into your final battles with a walker and a pair of Depends undergarments--the game manages your aging process enough to ensure you'll be able to complete the game. In fact, time is compressed and expanded over the course of the game to best serve the story. For example, a stay in prison is one way to adjust your character's age.
The subtle physical changes you'll undergo throughout your virtual life in Project Ego eventually manifest themselves in more obvious ways as you progress through the game. Aggressive players whose muscles are honed through a plethora of combat will eventually come to look like something out of Conan the Barbarian. If you choose to forgo the use of massive swords and decide on a stealthier play style, your character will be slimmer and offer more refined abilities, like being dexterous and speedy enough to catch arrows. As mentioned earlier, players who rely heavily on magic will be physically weaker and age quicker. You'll be able to get an idea of which path your character is on via key moments of animation that occur in the game. For example, at certain points in the game, characters undergo specific bits of animation that reflects their alignment. A fighter may have his muscles bulge at a set time, or a magic user will have smoking eyes to show off the strength of his willpower. Another physical manifestation of your play style, along the same lines as stress affecting you, are facial ticks that your virtual self develops if you choose to run like a hare at the first sign of trouble or are generally timid in tense situations.
Besides the physical changes that are reflected on your character as a result of how you play through the game, you'll find a number of elements on your character that you'll be able to modify to suit your tastes. You'll be able to wear any clothes that you see on people in the world (even women's dresses, apparently) or run about in your underwear, design tattoos for yourself, cut your hair in a specific style, and grow facial hair. Your appearance also affects how other characters in the game treat you. For example, don't expect to be revered much if you decide to traipse through the countryside in ladies' summer frock, even if you're packing a sword.
The final aspect that affects what your character becomes is a bit more elusive and calls to mind Black & White for the PC. Much like in that game, your actions in Project Ego eventually start to affect your character's alignment to good or evil. The effect is developed further in Ego, since your reputation eventually proceeds you on your journey. As a result, if you stay true to the quintessential hero archetype, you'll come to be treated like a pop star in some towns--compete with hangers-on, who mimic your appearance. If you prefer to take a darker path through the game and enjoy massacring towns on a whim, you'll receive a decidedly different and fearful reaction as you go about your business. Sadly, the enormous complexity of the character's physical development has forced Big Blue Box to limit the sex of the main character to a male. While early discussions on the game's development toyed with the idea of giving players a choice to play as a male or a female character, the developers decided to stick with a male character to keep game development and bug testing manageable.
The freedom in developing your character extends to going through the game as well. While Project Ego obviously has a linear story at its core, like all good RPGs, the game features a fair share of side quests as well. These digressions from the main story come in a variety of guises. Besides the traditional side quests, you'll be able to try your hand at chatting up the local women and settling down for a bit to start a family. To keep players from becoming too distracted by child rearing, the game prods gamers via their aforementioned groupies, who razz you if you choose to live a sedentary life. In addition, you'll come across guilds in each town that you can visit to check on your ranking. In an interesting departure from most RPGs, you'll encounter other adventurers out to become the greatest heroes of all time. In some cases, you might actually find that you've been beaten by one of your competitors, who has taken on the same side quest. The guilds let you keep tabs on how you're faring next to the competition, which should add a unique sense of urgency to the game.
To complement the dynamic character and story development, the world of Project Ego is an evolving land that not only changes in time along with your character, but also reflects your actions. Thanks to the Xbox hard drive, Project Ego tracks a host of minutiae related to your character's actions--minutiae that affects the land. The goal is to make the world so detailed that actions you take in the game affect the world in the future. For example, if you choose to carve your initials in a tree, the initials will still be there if you come back to the tree 10 years later. There are also plans to apply a slightly more detailed system to the NPCs in the game. You'll be remembered if you return to towns after a long absence. Whether the memories your return call up are positive or negative depends on you. If you went on a killing spree years earlier and then pop back to the same town, odds are that the townsfolk won't be overjoyed to see you again. NPC communication also features a degree of variety, based on a number of factors from your reputation, hero standing, your appearance, and your interaction with them. There hasn't been a great deal of concrete information released on the game's communication system, which looks to be best described as a context-sensitive gesture system. In a brief demo, we saw that it was possible to flip the bird at local residents with impunity, which should make the Ego's world a suitable outlet for real life's day-to-day frustrations.
As in all RPGs, you'll find a variety of weapons items to use over the course of your adventures. Ego's weapon system differs from the standard RPG archetype in that you'll able to use your character's willpower and experience to imbue practically anything in the game with hero status. Information on the game's item system hasn't offered many hints as to whether or not it features the same type of twist, but at the very least, you can expect to find items to carry around on your travels.
Given Project Ego's rich gameplay system, the game's graphics engine has to shoulder a heavy burden. We caught a look at the game running and were impressed by what we saw. While still quite early, the frame rate had yet to be optimized, and the game looks very sharp and showcases an insane amount of detail. Obviously, the hero looked great, thanks to his high poly count and stylized look. Although the hero has elements that are reminiscent of anime, his overall design is decidedly western. The town interior we caught a look at featured detailed textures, like a huge draw distance that ran off into the distant horizon. Forests and grassy areas featured a ton of greenery that was individually modeled and looked great.
From what we've seen of Project Ego so far, the game looks to be as ambitious as Molyneux, and Big Blue Box has stated it will be. With the graphics engine coming together, the next several months will see work focusing on refining gameplay, integrating voice acting, copious amounts of bug testing, and refining the game's story. We are certainly intrigued by what it promises and are curious to see if it can all come together to be the game that Molyneux and Big Blue Box are aiming for. Look for more on Project Ego in the coming months.