Crimson Order Preview

We visited the Kinesoft offices to play an early version of Crimson Order.

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Texas is primarily known for its cowboys, high-quality beef, plentiful oil, and independent pride. But the Lone Star State is also home to Kinesoft, a small developer that is hard at work on an innovative tactical strategy game. The Austin-based studio was founded in 1991 to develop game technology, and it has since created Exodus, the first useful gaming engine for the Windows platform. Since 1997, the developer has been quietly working on its own games, and it plans to release its first two games next year. According to Peter Sills, the founder of Kinesoft, the company believes that the art of gameplay has taken a backseat to other elements in recent games. The team at Kinesoft wants to change that trend.

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Set in a science-fiction universe, Crimson Order is a real-time third-person tactical game with an equal blend of action and strategy elements. The game includes a series of levels made up of realistic 3D environments. Each level has an objective that must be completed by controlling the main character and up to two other characters. All the missions are designed so that they can be completed in several different ways.

Crimson Order is set in the 26th century. An alien force known as the Tan'Khar has taken over several human colonies on the outskirts of the galaxy, and not much is known about the situation beyond some reports of slave labor. The Tan'Khar themselves have been driven from their world due to a holy war and have set up a puppet government made up of human traitors to rule the occupied colonies. Although the aliens are enormous creatures and are very powerful warriors, their numbers have been depleted from previous wars. Their lack of numbers forces the Tan'Khar to rely on the help of a group of human collaborators to keep their colonies under control.

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You assume the role of Mark Prophet, a resistance fighter enlisted to break the grip of the Tan'Khar and their puppet government of collaborators. Through a series of missions, Prophet and a small group of resistance fighters hope to liberate the colonies one at a time.

As is the case with many developers, the interiors of individual offices at Kinesoft are generously decorated with a wide variety of posters, collectible figures, comic books, and other paraphernalia. The corridors of the office are also decorated, but these decorations are made up of hundreds of intricate concept sketches and renderings on letter-sized paper arranged in neat columns. Kinesoft has ten talented artists assigned exclusively to Crimson Order - and by simply walking around their offices, it's easy to see where they draw their inspiration from.

The impressive collection of concept drawings that cover the office walls is evidence of the artistic team's efforts to create an entirely new science-fiction universe. While Kinesoft admits that there is far more to the game universe than most players will realize, the team felt it necessary to flesh out the world for their own creative process. This detailed background information will also serve as a framework on which the company can develop future games or expansion packs set in the Crimson Order universe.

A Crimson World

According to the developer, the challenge in creating a science-fiction universe is making it believable. Fantasy worlds are based on the complete suspension of disbelief, and they deal in concepts such as sorcery, undead creatures, and magical potions. Science-fiction worlds, on the other hand, are often set in the future, and they usually rely on yet-to-be-discovered scientific advancements. The designers at Kinesoft are building the Crimson Order world as it really would be if the technology existed. To this end, each piece of equipment is modeled with a careful eye toward functionality, and every weapon is assembled as if it were real.

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The aim of the development team is not to create an accurate representation of what the future will really be, but rather to create a solid framework on which to build a believable gameworld. The results so far are admirable and are a testament to the dedication of the game designers.

You directly control Mark Prophet from a third-person view. You can take up to two other characters along with you on each mission, and although you can issue orders and set up plans, you can't control these characters directly. These characters have distinct skills and personalities, and they will carry out the same orders in a number of different ways. They also have different strengths and weaknesses, and while they all improve their skills over the course of the game, certain characters will improve specific skills faster than others. The team adopted this system to avoid the possibility of having one or two all-powerful characters. Part of the challenge in the game will be selecting which of the available pool of resistance fighters to take along with you on the next mission.

The camera defaults to keep Prophet in the center of the screen at a set distance to let you see the immediate surroundings. The other characters move around Prophet according to their assigned formation or whether specific orders are issued to them. When an enemy is in sight, the camera will automatically adjust to include both Prophet and the enemy unit on the screen. You can set the view to follow Prophet and rotate with his movement or lock it in a three-quarter perspective so that the characters can move around independently of the camera.

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Each mission has an objective that may include multiple tasks. These tasks may be complex: You can rescue a hostage, assassinate an enemy unit, disarm a security system, cut off a power supply, or retrieve an item; or the task could simply be to get to the other side of the level. You can accomplish each objective in multiple ways so that players who choose the brute-force method of play can try to blast their way through the level. Those who prefer finesse can try to sneak through and complete the goal with less brawn and more brains.

The artificial intelligence will control Prophet's team members in every situation, but if you want to issue a series of specific orders and have the team execute them simultaneously, you can enter the action-planning mode. This mode lets you map out a series of movement waypoints for each team member and issue basic commands such as guard, crouch, or attack. Once the plan is complete, you can then give the signal to have the whole team act in unison. This is useful when you enter unknown areas through a narrow doorway or perform other dangerous maneuvers, where precise coordinated teamwork is essential.

Character Advancement

As Prophet fights his way through the game, he will come across additional characters who will join the resistance. Some of these characters must be liberated from enemy prisons. As the pool of available characters grows, selecting the best team members for individual missions will become more important. Characters will improve their skills as their experience grows, but each will retain specific advantages and disadvantages over the other characters. The characters will also become seasoned fighters as they are used in more missions. Rookie characters will be more likely to make typical rookie mistakes, such as stopping their assigned action when encountering the enemy, mismanaging ammunition, or losing reaction speed when they become confused under heavy fire. Seasoned veterans will be less likely to make mistakes and will become more valuable team members over time. While it will usually be preferable to use seasoned fighters over rookies, a rookie might possess a skill that would be useful in completing the mission. In addition, a fatigue rating is assigned to each character so that if characters are used in too many missions in a row, their fatigue level will rise - and they will become less effective. After sitting out one mission, the fatigue rating will drop back to zero to account for resting.

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If Prophet is killed during any of the missions, the game is over. However, the game is designed to let you continue to play after the loss of one or more team members. In fact, you can complete each mission with just the main character, although it will be far more difficult to play without the help of other characters.

All the enemy and neutral units are built with the same system as the characters are. As the playable characters improve their skills, they will encounter more skillful opponents who may not look any different on the surface; but they will react very differently than the less experienced units. Just when you think you've figured out how the enemy acts in a specific situation, you will encounter a more experienced enemy who will force you to rethink your strategy.

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Until now, the Crimson Order team has focused on creating the gameworld and background story as well as developing the game mechanics and engine. It is currently building levels with a modular level editor that lets the level designers quickly generate 3D environments with prebuilt parts. It is possible that the developer will release this level editor sometime after the game is released. The game will include 19 different levels, and they won't consist of just flat arrangements of rooms and corridors - many of them will include elevation changes that affect combat, make the environment feel more realistic, and create a new tactical challenge.

The level designers are making sure that players will feel as if each level is part of the larger world. Everything in the level is there for a reason, and the inhabitants of the level go about their own business. The level is set up for you as a realistic environment rather than as a puzzle, and it is up to you to tackle the challenge however you choose, using the team members, weapons, and equipment at your disposal. You can use systems such as fire alarms and security alarms to your advantage, since guards and other characters will hear and react to you. The way that you complete missions will have an effect on future missions as well.

Multiplayer

While the game will definitely feature some multiplayer mode, the extent of the multiplayer options has yet to be determined. A likely multiplayer mode will consist of some existing levels that will be repopulated and adjusted to facilitate a multiplayer experience in which players will play through the level either cooperatively or competitively. A second possibility is having additional maps built on which to play typical multiplayer games such as capture the flag or assassination. The third possibility is to support a cooperative mode through the main single-player storyline. These last two possibilities are tentative and may prove to be too problematic to implement. Kinesoft's priority is to release an exceptional single-player game, and multiplayer considerations are secondary.

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The game will feature a several types of weapons and equipment from three distinct groups. The human weapons will be improved versions of modern firearms and assault weapons. Collaborator weapons are similar to human weapons, but they incorporate some advanced alien technology. Alien weapons are designed for use by the Tan'Khar and are too large and cumbersome to be used by humans. Several different types of weapons from each group will be included in the game, although the developer is quick to point out that this game is not about minute differences between very similar items. Every item found in the game will serve a specific purpose and will differ from other similar items by at least 25 percent. This is to ensure that when an upgraded weapon is found, you will really notice the difference.

In addition to weapons, a number of other items will be featured to cater to situations that are better suited to stealth or tactical combat. Among these items are motion sensors and a variety of explosive items, such as grenades and mines, remote cameras, and sentry guns. Motion sensors allow characters to sense guards behind doors before they enter, while remote cameras can be set at a fixed point in a level and lift the fog of war in that area. Sentry guns can be set at a fixed point and will fire upon anything in range.

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Each weapon, piece of equipment, or section of armor is modeled individually in full 3D. Armor is connected to the character models at specific attachment points, and each part can be added, removed, or damaged by heavy fire.

Kinesoft has been building toward this point for some time and has assembled a talented group of experienced game designers, artists, and programmers. Crimson Order has the potential to be a truly groundbreaking game, although the game is still at least six months away from completion. The game is tentatively scheduled for release next summer, but the developer promises to take as long as is necessary to ship a quality game. "We're not constrained by quarterly earnings expectations or other corporate pressure," said Sills. "We're not going to ship a game that's not ready. We're looking to hit one out of the park on our first try."

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