GDC Mobile, San Francisco--You heard it here first. Rifts: Promise of Power could be something very, very big, and not just within the somewhat cramped context of the N-Gage platform. At a meeting in GameSpot's offices, Nokia produced a pre-alpha copy of the game and allowed us to fool around a bit in the dashingly romantic state of nature that is post-Rifts Earth. Judging from the limited amount of gameplay we've experienced, it looks like Nokia and Backbone Entertainment are making great progress toward delivering on the astronomical promises they've made.
At this point in the development process, most of Rifts: Promise of Power's core gameplay has been laid down. And even though shop-stopping bugs are everywhere, and some of the dialogue and interface features remain to be implemented, the framework is very impressive. We started our tour of the game at the character-creation stage, which surprised us with its level of refinement. After a brief introductory cutscene to explain the traumatic origin of the Rifts, we jumped right into selecting our character's class, attributes, statistics, and skills, just as we would have done in the pen-and-paper RPG (the skills appear to have been simplified somewhat, but there are still a ridiculously wide range available). Rifts' creators have also decided to simplify the class system initially by providing three introductory protoclasses to choose from: mercenary, psychic, and magician. These "tracks" dictate what basic sorts of abilities your characters starts the game with, and also the kinds of classes they can evolve into once they gain enough experience. For example, juicers, crazies, and borgs all derive from the merc track after your character reaches level four, while psychics can turn into mind melters or bursters. There's some overlap, too. For example, you can become a cyberknight from either track.
From there, we jumped right into Rifts' story as an escaped convict fleeing from the Coalition States' soldiers, known as "dead boys" for their ghastly skeletal armor. A character immediately popped up to give us a quick tutorial on the game's basic mechanics and combat, which are both based off of fairly intuitive contextual menus. As expected, Rifts' combat system is modeled after classic turn-based strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics, although Rifts introduces a number of interesting twists to the formula (in some ways, the combat here is quite a bit deeper than in those games). For one thing, action points and movement points have been separated, which provides a greater degree of tactical flexibility. It's now easier to use hit-and-run strategies and utilize cover effectively. For another, Rifts' damage system is derived from the source material, so there are both MDC and HP to worry about. Basically, MDC is armor, while HP is life. Some magical and psionic effects will penetrate your armor and hit you where it hurts. On the other hand, Rifts will only have two levels of elevation, next to Final Fantasy Tactics' eight or nine. This will still allow for height bonuses for ranged weapons and the like, but it probably won't match the strategic granularity of the elevation mechanic in similar games. In addition, your combat party will be limited to three characters, although you can switch out your party members by returning to your base.
The presentation of Rifts' combat system appears to have taken a major step over other portable turn-based strategy games. Although the characters are sprite-based, all of the game's environments are modeled in 3D, so you can rotate the camera smoothly through a full circle. In addition, the environments have a nice level of detail, from the graffiti-scarred urban walls to rural forests and fields. We were also able to witness the camera's panning and zooming mechanics, which were very smooth and helped us to focus on the action. The action's not something you want to miss, either, as some of the game's special weapons and techniques produce awesome visual effects. For instance, our character's psi-sword materialized in a burst of light that propagated through his body. The "meteor" spell produces a Final Fantasy-like cutscene that shows a meteor breaking up in the outer atmosphere, followed by the combat area turning bright red with a deluge of fragments. We especially appreciated the "air elemental" spell, which summons a spirit with unique character art and combat animations to fight for your mage. All of the visual finery comes with a nice audio complement, too. There are many variations on the original Rifts theme, which could best be described as hard house music, as well as sharp sound effects for combat.
We also managed to get a feel for the absurd lengths that Rifts' developers are going to in order to re-create the pen-and-paper experience. All of the character classes have appropriate strengths and weaknesses, including seemingly overpowered classes like glitter boys, which will be saddled with slow movement speeds and the need to repair their armor constantly. Those who are more interested in role-playing won't be left behind, either. According to Rifts' producer, the game will feature something like 8,000 different branches along the entire dialog tree. There are friendly, neutral, and hostile responses to every interaction that can start fights, end them, or cause characters to join your party, among other eventualities. The sheer size of the game boggled our minds, too. There will be more than 50 distinct isometric environments to explore--some of which will be combined into larger cities--in six distinct chapters, only four of which have been revealed: North America, the New German Republic, Scotland, and China. As you progress through the game's story, more of these locations will be added to your world map. There's also a PDA-like screen to help you keep track of the many quests and subplots that will swirl around your character.
Finally, we managed to gain insight into Rifts' online features, which had been advertised as revolutionary but were kept entirely secret until now. The most impressive innovation will be the ability to "play by message" over N-Gage Arena, as described by producer Shane Neville. This mode sounds a lot like a timed chess match over e-mail. Neville said that you'll be able to set up each of your turns in five-minute play chunks, send your moves off to Arena, quit the game, and then check back later for your opponent's response. He confirmed that team-based multiplayer is possible in this fashion, although the design team is still deciding if a multiple-turn wait would kill player interest. It also appears that standard multiplayer modes, like king of the hill, capture the flag, and assault, may be in the offing.
We've been waiting for a playable version of Rifts: Promise of Power since the game was announced at E3 2004, and the preview we got today was well worth those months of waiting. To be sure, the early version we played is still riddled with bugs and is in need of some serious tuning. But enough of the team's wildly ambitious ideas have turned into reality to suggest that Nokia may be able to deliver an unparalleled portable strategy game by this summer. We'll be receiving more updates by E3, so be sure to check back for more details.