E3 '07: Lair Hands-On Impressions

We set fire to the skies--and hordes of ground troops--in a playable demo of Lair for the PlayStation 3.

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You'd think that playing as a dragon would be a more common feature in games, but alas, these games are few and far between--and the ones that do make their way to the market are hit and miss. Thankfully, Lair looks to buck this trend with stunning visuals and some clever uses of the Sixaxis controller. If you think it sounds cool to jump on the back of a dragon and set fire to loads of baddies, you'd be right.

Click to enlarge!
Click to enlarge!

It's hard not to notice how beautiful Lair is. The first cutscene we saw showed a beautiful cathedral dome as the camera zoomed closer until we were inside of the building, which had obvious religious implications. While a priestly figure spoke to a collection of troops, we were introduced to Rohn, Lair's playable character. Rohn is a dragon-riding knight serving the kingdom of Asylia, which falls under attack of the Mokai. As Rohn, it's up to you to defend Asylia, one of the last bountiful areas of a land ravaged by volcanoes.

The initial level started with us right in the thick of battle, riding atop our dragon. The first order of business was to get used to the controls. Flying the dragon around isn't tough, but there is a bit of a learning curve. To flap the wings--and fly forward--you tap the X button, and steering is controlled by tilting the Sixaxis. Just like in a driving game, there is plenty of potential to oversteer, so it doesn't take a lot of movement to tilt the dragon in the proper direction. At first you might be inclined to use the analog sticks for steering, but you'll need to let go of this misconception early, since the sticks are used for camera control.

But a dragon needs room to breathe--fire, anyway. To spew flames at enemies, you tap the square button. As you would expect, you can do quite a bit of damage this way. In the first level we played, we had to destroy the catapults firing from the Mokai ships infiltrating the harbor. At first, the sheer size of the level was overwhelming and we were at a loss of where to go. Fortunately, a handy waypoint marker pointed us in the right direction, and soon we were able to swoop in and set the ships aflame.

There were other enemies to deal with though. Mokai dragons were also attacking the city, so we had to head back and deal with them. Handling other airborne enemies brings a few other tricks to the table. When you are close enough to an enemy, it will be labeled with a glowing ring. Pressing the circle button will send your dragon headlong into that foe and deliver a melee attack. At the same time, you enter a quasi-bullet-time mode. With time moving slowly, you can rotate the camera around your dragon. Enemies in the vicinity will also be marked, and pressing the circle button again sends you careening in that direction. Using this method, you can deliver chain attacks and bring down multiple enemies.

There was one adversary left though--a large boss dragon that gave us a run for the money. This also introduced a new mechanic: Lock-on. By using L1 and L2, we were able to lock on to the enemy and fly with it in tandem. While flying alongside, you can whip the controller to the side to bash into your locked target, though beware: He can do the same to you. After a few tries, we managed to fell our first boss character and finish the level. The closing, moving cutscene showed Rohn and his fellow knights mourning their fallen comrades, bathed in the light of a row of flickering torches. A final results screen gave us a medal and ranking based on how many enemies we killed, how many friendlies were lost, and a number of other factors.

We then made a landing for a second level, which featured more air combat and added ground battles as well. The level began with the appearance of an aptly named manta, which resembled an enormous stingray. Our first order of business was to protect a castle under siege. To do so, we needed to land the dragon and squash the teeming ground troops. Landing was a simple matter of lunging towards the ground and holding L2 and R2. Once you've landed, you'll notice that the controls shift gears, and you move about using the left analog stick, rather than tilting the controller.

You can still spout fire at your enemies on the ground, but as you lumber about, you have a few other options at your disposal. Hungry? The triangle button will let you slurp up soldiers and chow down, which not only looks cool but replenishes your health. Looking for a ground pound? The circle button makes you slam the ground, flinging foes to the side in the process. As you can imagine, your movement on land is more ponderous than when you're gliding through the air, but it's intensely satisfying to crush opposing troops like ants. We then took to the air to protect a supply barge as it traveled down the river. This required a mix of both styles of gameplay, in the air and on the ground.

Click to enlarge!
Click to enlarge!

Paying attention to the gameplay was a tough task though, mostly because Lair is simply stunning to look at. The draw distance is fantastic, and the enormous maps are rendered down to the last detail. We saw plenty of gorgeous details, from beautiful water-shaders to lovely motion-blurring when we did a 180-degree turn. Even more amazingly, Lair pulled it off without a single hitch in frame rate, making for plenty of smooth flight. And as you can imagine for a game featuring so much fire, the flame effects are some of the best we've ever seen.

If all of this has you chomping at the bit for more, you'll be glad to know you won't have to wait long: Lair is due for release on August 14th. We'll bring you more news on Lair--and a full review--closer to the game's release.

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