We take a good look at Elixir's game of conspiracy and strategy, which has been in development for four years and is now nearly in beta.
Contract hits, backroom payoffs, and populist demonstrations are some of the events that may punctuate your quest to topple the president and take control of the republic of Novistrana. Republic is a game of conspiracy, double-dealings, and lofty promises that will take you deep into the shady side of politics in a fictional former Soviet republic. The debut effort of Elixir Studios has been in development for four years, and while it's looked promising every year we've seen it at E3, the game is just now coming together. Elixir's Demis Hassabis recently told us that Republic is just weeks away from beta, when it will be fully playable, and he showed us an alpha version of the game that gave us a good indication of what's in store.
The first time we saw Republic was three years ago; specifically, we watched a demonstration of its powerful graphics engine zooming in from a photo-realistic aerial shot to a close-up of a leaf on a rose bush. This technology is at the heart of what gives Republic such potentially broad appeal for a game of deep strategy: not only does it look stunningly realistic, but it also will use its visuals to convey a tremendous amount of personality. A game of Republic involves assigning orders to an inner circle of associates ready to play their part in your grand scheme, but it also gives you the opportunity to watch the action and tweak the tone and technique of the proceedings. Although there are traditional types of resources as well, the most important commodities are knowing the right people and knowing how to influence them during these 3D vignettes.
Republic is designed with a number of distinct strategies in mind, and your selections during the initial character and faction creation process will determine which approaches are most open to you. The first screen you'll see when starting a new game has you set the initial numerical attributes for your faction's leader, which will determine the sort of actions he's proficient in. Power represents important connections and the ability to project the gravitas appropriate for a great leader. Presence is physical prowess. Control determines how coolly he can manipulate people and crowds. Charisma indicates how convincing he is. There's a pool of initial points to use to boost ratings above their initial 25, and advancing in level (from one to 10) will provide additional points for improving attributes. This sort of character development carries over to every person you can interact with in the game, including your main henchmen.
Your career in Novistrana will start out in a modest regional town called Ekaterine, which has a population of about 10,000. The few lieutenants and meager bunch of supporters you'll start out with won't take you far on their own, so the first order of business will be to send a research character out on reconnaissance missions to find out what's going on in the town's 15 districts. You'll likely learn about some of the prominent figures, as well as which factions hold sway over the populace in particular areas. At that point, you might send a lieutenant to organize a leaflet campaign and distribute propaganda sheets that focuses on your message--peace, freedom, or justice--and is tailored to gain the support of varying constituencies. You'll also need to recruit key figures to your faction--there are slots for up to six characters in your inner circle--so you can add new talents to your repertoire and get more done during each real-time turn.
Get Into the Action
At this point, the basic elements of Republic's interface are pretty much set. In the lower-left corner is a strip showing the mug shots of your key characters, and each mug shot slides out to reveal a menu listing the character's attributes, the actions he or she has learned, and the upcoming time slots when you can deploy him or her in your service. In the lower right is a clock that serves as a reminder of the day-night cycle, which lasts 12 real-time minutes, or four minutes in the morning, afternoon, and nighttime slots. Hassabis says he doesn't want players to be able to pause the game, because he wants to create a sense of tension and he believes no one should be able to micromanage everything. During a given moment of the day, characters will carry out the actions they've been assigned and the player can choose to plan ahead, scan the map for new information or the actions of opposing factions, or watch a specific action in a close-up view.
As in any conspiracy, information and misinformation play a part. Much of your attention will likely be focused on pulling off actions without being spotted, or else you might have to send a crew in the next turn to clean things up and silence the neighbors. Main characters will start out with two actions, and they can gain new ones or upgrade the ones they have as they increase in level. There will be nine character classes, including celebrities, religious figures, trade union officials, military leaders, and businessmen. A character's class determines the types of actions he or she can perform, and it also determines the sorts of actions he or she is susceptible to, since members of your inner circle can be turned and start working for opposing factions in the one time slot each day that they have free.
We watched Hassabis pull a "muscle" action on a local celebrity to recruit him to the cause. There are preset hot spot locations on the maps that you can cycle through when setting up actions, each with a secrecy rating that will vary according to the time of day and the local foot traffic. Once the appropriate alley was selected, the action was ready to go for the next time slot. A black interstitial screen showing the time and the number of elapsed days faded in and out, and then we watched the scene unfold as the target met with the unsavory henchman, was pulled into the car for a conversation, and driven to a quieter location for more convincing and to sign a contract to pledge allegiance to the faction. The real-time tweaking bars were missing in the build we saw, but once they're implemented, they'll allow you to control the level of violence over the course of the action, and there will be a number of animations in each scripted action to give feedback and allow for different levels of success and failure. Throughout the sequence, the characters spoke what sounded like Russian, but Hassabis explained that it's more like the incomprehensible simlish in The Sims. The dialogue does convey the emotions of the actors by varying the tone and made-up phrases to give you an impression of what's going on.
Most actions depend on having one of the game's three resources--wealth, influence, and force--which are acquired by controlling districts in the town. It's not impossible to recruit from beyond your core appeal, but to make that work you'll have to work crowds particularly well during speeches and take the time to ensure the loyalty of dubious henchmen. One action we saw, called "easy life," had the leader give an expensive car to a character to fill his belief rating up.
Planning the Revolution
We saw only a few of the hundreds of actions that can be unlocked. Another two-part action called "bless" had the faction leader approach a neutral priest and convince him to talk to one of the more respectable members of the inner circle. Once successfully convinced, the priest met up with the target in the same turn, had a conversation with him, and led him in prayer to give him a boost in party belief. Priests aren't the only important neutral go-betweens, as hired assassins can be employed temporarily, though only if you've done enough research on the target that the hired gun has enough background information to complete the mission.
Many of the money-, muscle-, and influence-driven actions seem to be different ways to accomplish the same goals, but each is designed to work best for specific targets, so it's up to you to figure out which to use and recruit better characters or improve existing ones to gain access to a wider range of abilities. In a departure from conventional RPG experience systems that give credit for even the most insignificant actions, Hassabis said that Republic's characters will need to go out on a limb and complete riskier tasks, which will immediately award them with lots of experience. For this reason, you could depend on a celebrity character routinely carrying out basic pamphleteering missions, but at some point he'll have to spend time doing bigger stuff, or you'll have to jettison him in favor of a better prospect. In any case, there seems to be a fair bit of variety to the actions that will become available over the course of the game, and some of the characters' animations can be almost comic in style.
Free-form actions and open-ended goals are an important part of the game, but they aren't everything. Hassabis suggested that about half the time there will be specific story objectives to work toward, as well as some events, like a military clampdown, that are determined by how you play the game. Once you establish enough of a base in the town of Ekaterine, there'll be the opportunity to move to the city of Pugachev, and later on to the capital of Berezina, which is roughly three times the size of the initial town. At each stage in the game, there will be the option to jump to the new location or wait and gather additional resources at the cost of letting opposing factions--which include a Mafia group in Pugachev--gather strength in the areas you have yet to visit. An additional decision comes in having to leave behind two characters to run things in any town you leave, and the better the characters you sacrifice, the more resources the town will provide over time.
Ultimately, you'll have to take one of three approaches to finish the game and depose the president: forced resignation, a people's revolution, or a military coup. There are a few paths that will change the face of the republic in the meantime, including an economic crash of your creation or intervention by the UN, which you'll be able to bring about by working through the "Western embassy" (earlier it was specifically the US embassy). Early play testing has shown that it takes an average of 180 days to complete the game, but there isn't a hard time limit.
Republic has come a long way since last year's E3, and it has been feature-complete since Christmas. There are 35 people at Elixir working to finish up the content, polish up the interface, and improve the game's stability in time for the beta milestone coming in a few weeks. If all goes well, we'll get to take a closer hands-on look at the game soon after it's beta, and the game itself will finally be finished sometime this summer. Over the last few years, we've seen Republic grow from little more than an impressive graphics engine into a strategy game that promises deep, open-ended gameplay and a cool, conspiracy-laden premise. The revolution will be upon us soon.
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