Azurik: Rise of Perathia Preview

Azurik is a third-person action-adventure game in which you play as a mage who controls the elements. We spent some time with the game at E3 so that we could tell you how it's coming along and what you should expect in the final release.

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To explain away Azurik: Rise of Perathia as simply a Soul Reaver clone isn't really fair; but for our purposes, it's the easiest way to illustrate the niche that Adrenium Games and Microsoft are trying to fill in the Xbox lineup. In this third-person action-adventure game, you are Azurik, a young apprentice mage who channels the power of the four elements to defend his world from its enemies. Most of the plot details have yet to be revealed, but essentially the game begins when you learn of a prophecy that foretells of an evil force coming to ravage the four elemental lands. As you learn, the invaders are intent on capturing and controlling the powers of the elements for their own devices. After a brief tutoring from your aged mentor, you're sent out to defend the elements and cleanse the four sacred lands from the clutches of evil.

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Azurik's world is divided into four separate lands, each home to one of the four elements (wind, ice, fire and earth, respectively). These lands are massive, and to make progress through them requires a lot of backtracking and puzzle solving. Notably, each world is a continuous section, divided only by occasional "choke points" or doors that can only be opened after Azurik has completed specific objectives. The four environments are so large that their environments vary within themselves. The Water Land, for example, features arctic caverns with icy overpasses (which use transparencies to enhance the effect) before transforming into watery oceanic caverns (with several islands dotting an underground lake). Later on, the water world changes again into a lush jungle scene--we saw all this after just ten minutes of exploration. The other elemental lands promise to be just as varied. While your overall progression through each level is linear, the lands in Azurik are so large that you'll often find multiple paths that lead to the same destination. Like in other third-person adventures like Tomb Raider, Soul Reaver, or Drakkan, exploration is just as integral to the gameplay as killing enemies and solving puzzles. Adrenium rewards the curious player with power-ups that can extend Azurik's life or strengthen his attacks.

Gameplay in Azurik is divided between battles with creatures that will attack you from ground, air, and occasionally water, and the aforementioned exploration and puzzle solving. When it comes to the melee, you'll defend and attack your foes by mixing and matching the powers of the four elements through your powerfully oversized wand (which looks a bit like those jousting sticks used in American Gladiators). The four jewel buttons on the controller each represent an element. Hit the correct button combination, and you can mix wind and ice into a furious blizzard that quickly douses any fire-based enemies in your path. Similarly, a couple of button presses lets you freeze the ends of your wand into sharp points, while another combination creates burning torches, with which you can toss fireballs at your foes. Adrenium claims there are more than a dozen specific types of attacks possible with the right combination and that each of the many enemies you encounter will be vulnerable to a specific elemental combination (though, trying to find what works will be easier said than done).

Adrenium is promising that Azurik's graphics, when finished, will be some of the best yet seen on a console. Character designs are as fantastical as you'd expect for this kind of game (you fight everything--from flocks of flying snail creatures to oversized waterbugs in the ice world). All the creatures feature full skeletal animation, and most character models have intricate facial textures and detail. There are also lots of promised environmental effects. Some, like the complex transparencies visible in a crystalline structure, were already visible at E3, while others, like water that ripples when disturbed by objects, are still incomplete. Colored lighting and shadows are similarly unfinished. You can cast a fireball and watch a cool fiery light illuminate the surrounding area, but you can't even see Azurik's own shadow yet. Also unfinished are the main character's animations--his attack transitions are still a little rough. Azurik's professional soundtrack is mostly done, though, and the fully orchestrated musical scores enhanced the game's fantastical atmosphere.

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After seeing dozens of beautiful screenshots beforehand, playing the actual game at E3 was somewhat of a letdown. Azurik's underwhelming experience was self-inflicted, though, because high-resolution screens released months ago made Azurik look like one of the most impressive console games ever. The screens suggested that characters would have thousands of polygons and that the varied environments would feature tremendous draw distance and texture detail, with most effects already in place. After all that talking-up, the build shown at E3 appeared to be a step backward. Sure, there's a ton of detail lavished on Azurik, but a lot seems wasted when it comes to normal gameplay: You're usually controlling behind the character's back and from a removed distance, making the character's detail somewhat superfluous. More noticeably, the game's graphics were constantly stuttering, and Azurik himself was difficult to control. Also, the general lack of draw distance was cause for concern. Those early screenshots seemed to suggest panoramic vistas, but in the current build, any view of the background was obscured by copious amounts of fog and fade-in; also, very little of the environmental and textural details shown before were present in the E3 build.

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It is true that the current build of Azurik is a long way from what early screenshots indicated--but does that mean the game is a lost cause? Not necessarily. For example, control is almost always tweaked before the final release. And some of the poor graphical performance can be explained away: After all, the title was running on development kits that were handling processor-taxing sounds and music normally left to other Xbox hardware. The build had its share of bright spots, like the well-paced mix of enemy encounters (with lots of creatures to fight at once) and legitimate exploration of huge environments. Thankfully, the developer is aware of Azurik's gameplay and graphical issues and is confident that it can correct them before the game is released. That's good news for early Xbox adopters, because if Azurik's gameplay and graphics can approach the level of detail Adrenium originally promised, then we could have something to be excited about.

Look for Azurik to hit retailers' shelves at or near the Xbox launch this November.

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