Like many artists, Chris Taylor's something of a perfectionist. It doesn't matter how much critical acclaim he's won for his work, he's always thinking about what he could have done better. Almost half of his presentation for the upcoming Space Siege is spent describing how he wants to rectify some of those mistakes in his latest game. Like Dungeon Siege before it, Space Siege will be an action role-playing game, but this time, it transports its action out of the underground and into outer space for a full-on sci-fi makeover. Spending some time away from his Seattle headquarters to come to London, we caught up with Taylor to see if he's set to release next year's definitive action RPG.
As is evident from the name, Space Siege will take place in space. Naturally, it follows that it will take place in the future, during a time when humans have expanded beyond earth and begun to inhabit other planets in the solar system. The trouble is that some of the neighbours don't take kindly to this intergalactic expansion, and the Kerak race decides to strike an attack on Earth to eradicate it. As the Kerak deliver the final crushing blow to the battered planet, a small number of evacuation ships are manned and sent into space, one of which is carrying a soldier called Seth Walker, the character you play in the game. The game starts as the Kerak are infiltrating the ship; thus, it's your job to protect the thousands of crew and passengers on board.
One of the key dynamics behind the game will be Walker's humanity and how it can be compromised by using cybernetic upgrades. Upgrades, such as improved vision or strength, will not only alter his physical appearance, but they'll make Walker a more effective force against the invading army. These alterations will consequently make the game easier, but they will reduce the soldier's "humanity" rating. Consequently, the more upgrades you go for, the less human your character will become, with the game's storyline changing accordingly.
The developers want the humanity level to not only measure a player's skill, but also drastically change the way that the game plays. It's theoretically possible to complete the game while fully retaining your humanity, and if you choose this route, then you're promised something special toward the end. However, you'll probably still want to play it through again as a cyborg--just to see what it's like.
The focus on just one character is very different from previous games by Chris Taylor, particularly Dungeon Siege II, which offered control of up to eight players at any one time. Taylor says that having so many characters was an open option in his previous game, but it was one that players always took advantage of for fear of missing out on something. The result was that things became unmanageable, especially when it came to managing inventories. This time, he wants to place the focus on one character, which he hopes will not only strengthen the narrative (comparing the hero to John McClane in Die Hard), but also simplify things for novice and advanced players alike. Having said that, Taylor introduced a robotic sidekick named Harvey that can be called upon to help deal with multiple enemy attacks. In the demo we saw, Harvey was fairly autonomous, attacking enemies automatically if no specific orders had been dished out, and thankfully, even if he does die, he can be reconstructed again.
Though the build that we saw was still in early stages, it's beginning to come together nicely. The graphics are fairly basic right now, although the team has just implemented high dynamic range lighting and plenty more detail is promised in the run up to release. The enemy artificial intelligence is also developing, and some of the smaller baddies that we saw would jump back to regenerate their health if they were under attack. However, they are still pretty dumb at the beginning of the game and would happily run into a set of mines just to hunt the player down.
Aside from speaking specifically about the game, Chris Taylor spent much of the presentation talking about his revised ethos behind game design. Influenced by recent successes, such as Half-Life 2 and specifically BioShock, Taylor says his thinking has done a full U-turn since Dungeon Siege II. His previous opinion on the importance of game design over storyline has now been reassessed, with a much greater emphasis on narrative and character development. He also made the point that modern game design has moved away from creating ways of punishing players to developing a model that rewards them as regularly as possible. This means eradicating the old "game over" screens, removing manual save/load systems, and allowing regeneration points that allow players to carry on where they were even when they've died. All of the above will apply to Space Siege.
While the game won't be short, with a 15 to 20 hour single-player campaign and a multiplayer mode, the game is still designed to be as accessible as possible. The game will not feature a tutorial, you won't have to read the manual to pick up the controls, and the difficulty level is user-changeable thanks to the cybernetic upgrade system. The game's point-and-click interface will be explained during the opening levels, while the dialogue that you get throughout the game can be absorbed if you're interested in the wider story or ignored if you simply want to plough on through.
Space Siege comes from a studio with a great heritage in action RPGs and is shaping up to be one of next year's big hits in the genre. It looks like it will take the principles laid down in the Dungeon Siege, make them more accessible, and then plant them in an intriguing science-fiction universe. There's plenty of time to go until the slated summer 2008 release, so expect more on Space Siege in the coming months.