We drop by the Volition offices to test drive its upcoming 3D RPG.
As you walk through the halls of game developer Volition, there's nothing that suggests the company is busily developing one hot title and is on the verge of shipping another one. One half of the low-key office complex houses the team that's working on Red Faction, the first-person shooter that uses the revolutionary Geo-Mod engine, while the other half is putting the finishing touches on the PC version of Volition's new role-playing game, Summoner. We've been lucky enough to see the game firsthand during several stages of development - now, as production gets close to the homestretch and everything is almost in place, assistant producer Anoop Shekar has been kind enough to give us a guided tour.
Summoner is going to be an RPG with an expansive story and a lot of combat. The story of Joseph, the rings of summoning, and his quest to retrieve them and put an end to the suffering of the world of Medeva is truly an epic one. At the beginning of the game, there are four rings of summoning, but as you progress through the story, you'll find that things are not that simple. During your travels, you'll eventually put together a party that is composed of four characters: Joseph; Flece, a thief who is the first to join; Jekhar, a fighter and a descendant of an ancient warrior race; and Rosalind, the daughter of Joseph's mentor, Yago, and an accomplished spellcaster. Each of these characters will have unique motivations that drive them through the story (Rosalind, for example, is jealous of Joseph's ability to summon and of the attention that her father pays to him), and, as it unfolds, you'll find them pursuing their own ends even as they journey with Joseph to recover the rings. Because of the individual nature of the characters and their reasons for being in the party, some characters will leave and rejoin at various times, and you'll go through several levels with different combinations of characters - Flece and Joseph or only Flece - depending on what has happened in the game up until that point. The story is divided into chapters with cutscenes that tell the larger tale, and events that happen between levels (like Joseph's capture by the emperor) will set the stage for further adventuring.
A major element of the game is the summoning of creatures in connection with the magic rings of summoning, and Volition has spent a lot of time creating detailed summoning spells, as well as interesting creatures for Joseph to bring forth when he casts them. The graphics for these are elaborate, and each summoned creature appears in an impressive spell sequence. Creatures vary in toughness based not only on the creature type but also on the level of experience acquired by the casting ring. Joseph can wear two rings at a time, and as the rings gain experience, the summoned creatures become more powerful.
Summoner was developed simultaneously for the PC and the PlayStation 2, but after completing the game for the console platform, the development team found that there was still plenty of work to do on the PC version. "Multiplayer is something that takes a lot of time to do," explains Shekar. "Plus, we had to change the lighting on some levels since NTSC and computer monitors don't necessarily display things the same way." The game is now very close to being shipped, and as we toured the offices, we got a look at the game being actively tested.
Writing the Story - Jason Scott
We got a chance to talk to Jason Scott, the writer for Summoner, about the process of creating the story for the game. Scott says that the final version of Summoner will have as much text as an average-sized novel. While the story is indeed long and detailed, there are numerous side quests and nonplayer characters to fill out the world. "The goal of the story behind the quests," he explains, "is to expand the world of the game, as well as the player's knowledge of it."
When he was developing the story's ideas, which would eventually make up Summoner, Scott says he always kept in mind that the world needed to be flexible enough to allow for possible expansion in the future, whether in a sequel or even a related game that simply took place in the same universe. While there were no specific plans in mind, he makes it clear that "it would have been silly to close the story off if we didn't have to." At the same time, Scott says, "If you save something for the sequel, you end up holding back." For this reason, he adds, "You need to put your good ideas in the game and trust that if the time comes to expand the story, you'll be able to come up with good ideas if you've built the right framework." So whether or not the Summoner universe becomes the basis for future games, the plot has enough branches and hooks to make it possible.
With something this large, it could be easy to get sidetracked. For this reason, important characters have icons above their heads - that way, it's clear who has information that may advance the story. "People want to play the game in very different ways," explains Scott, and this is especially true when you're trying to include elements that will appeal to both a console and a computer game audience. "Some players will want to get through the entire plot as quickly and linearly as possible," says Scott, "while others will enjoy exploring every meadow and village road." The optional side quests in the game significantly extend the playing time and the development of the background of the game, but they do not directly affect the plot.
One of the things Scott did to extend the amount of gameplay while simultaneously developing the world to its fullest was make locations appear in the story at different times. For example, the Iona monastery appears repeatedly in the game, but each time you visit it, it changes in accordance with the plot. For example, when you visit the monastery during the later stages, you'll find that it has been overrun by undead creatures. Catastrophic events occur in various locations, and a town that you might have left as a thriving center of trade might be a ghost town when you return. According to Scott, this gives the feeling of a changing, living world rather than just some story that plays itself out like a script over time. It also challenged the level designers to come up with interesting designs that not only fit into the story but were also consistent with one another throughout a location's development.
Combat and Summoning
Combat in Summoner is fairly standard for a swords-and-sorcery world, and it incorporates real-world elements such as height advantage, hitting an enemy from behind, and the like. Being at a higher elevation than your opponent is a significant benefit, and during outdoor adventuring, you'll find yourself seeking this kind of tactical advantage. While you're fighting, you'll get feedback on how the battle is progressing by the numbers that appear on the screen - these numbers indicate how much damage you're inflicting, how much is being done to you, and even how many chances you'll have to hit if you decide to turn on all the indicators. The numbers are color coded so that they're easier to follow.
The combat system in Summoner combines a standard tactical model with an interesting element involving a concept called "chain attacks." As you attack, you'll have the chance to make another attack. A chain icon will appear above your character, and through either the use of the right mouse button or various hotkeys, you can trigger an additional attack if your timing is just right. To chain an attack, you must time it to coincide with the chain symbol appearing, or the chain will be broken. If you do, you'll be able to make a number of different chain attacks, which vary according to the unit. Joseph, for instance, begins with four different chain abilities: desperation, confusion, added attack, and push. Desperation is an interesting ability that inflicts damage, which is proportional to the number of hit points that Joseph has lost. The worse off he is, the more damage he inflicts with this attack. Confusion drains ability points from his opponent, while added attack enables Joseph to make another normal attack. The push chain attack will push Joseph's opponent backward so that Joseph has more time to perform the next chain attack.
Chaining attacks together is very powerful and is probably the most important element of combat. To continue to chain attacks together, each one must be different from the one used before it. In addition, the chain symbol appears for successively shorter amounts of time, so it becomes progressively harder to keep a chain going. The big benefit is that a chain of attacks prevents your opponent from hitting you. As characters progress in skill, they gain access to new chain attacks, which can be assigned to a hotkey or to the right mouse button. In an interesting twist, even summoned creatures can have their own chain attacks.
Each of the party members has an AI script that can be adjusted for making the party work better together. Rosalind, for example, can cast healing spells, and a full party might see Joseph and Jekhar mixing it up in melee combat while Flece stands back with missile weapons and Rosalind heals everyone. Because situations change, though, and since you often won't have everyone together at the same time, the game lets you customize the behavior of each character so that you don't have to frantically click on each character to give him or her orders. While combat in Summoner happens in real time, it actually plays out fairly smoothly on its own so that you can concentrate on controlling things like chain attacks.
In the Game
As stated earlier, Summoner's world is huge. There are more than 50 levels in the game, and each one of them plays some part in the plot. There are some random-encounter levels that might not show up depending on your particular run-through, but for the most part, you'll see all the levels if you complete the game.
We got the chance to see several levels in action. One unusual level had Joseph and Flece trying to sneak into a palace to find Yago, the counselor to Prince Sornehan. During this time, Joseph stayed behind while Flece infiltrated the palace and tried to get past the guards. The challenge of this level lies in avoiding the guards and getting to Yago's chamber. If a guard spots you, you're placed under arrest, and you end up back in the dungeon. Then you have to make your way out again and reinfiltrate. If you fail too many times, Flece starts getting upset and throws a few choice comments your way. There isn't any combat involved, but there's strategy - you learn the patterns that the guards use to patrol the hallways. Since there's a lot of sneaking around and ducking behind corners, the game ends up being one of avoidance. Speaking of sneaking around: Until this level, Flece doesn't have this thieving skill. Upon successful completion of the mission, Flece will have this ability bestowed upon her. In-game devices like this one help in actively developing the game's characters.
This level also illustrates how Summoner gives you an easier way out of a level if you so choose. At the point that you have failed to get past the guards enough times, one of the guards patrolling the kitchen will leave, and Flece will have the opportunity to infiltrate the palace by impersonating one of the kitchen staff. Once she makes it to that area on a subsequent attempt, she will be given appropriate clothes and will be able to wander the hallways without being stopped (although guards will admonish her and tell her to go back to the kitchen). Shekar explains that this shortcut will help the less hard-core players finish the game and enjoy the story without getting bogged down by a particular puzzle. The catch is that taking this kind of shortcut won't get you anywhere near the experience bonus you'll receive if you finish the level legitimately. "You won't get as much experience completing the quest that way," says Shekar, "but a player won't get frustrated or annoyed."
One Summoner feature that's unique to the PC version is multiplayer. Multiplay will be based around the four characters in the game, and players will be able to play cooperatively through the game's levels. There won't be an online mechanism for retaining and recording characters (like Battle.net, Blizzard's online game-matching service), and all character information will be kept locally. While this may give rise to some hacking (since players will be able to fiddle with their files), Shekar says this shouldn't really be a problem because players will be playing cooperatively; plus, there won't be any ladderlike competition.
Summoner is scheduled for release sometime during this quarter, so the end of March is a good time to expect it. "THQ is a public company, so meeting a quarterly release is more important for them than it is for a private company," says Shekar. "But if we needed the extra time to polish the game, we'd get it. Fortunately, it looks like we'll have ample time for the QA stage to make sure everything works up to our standard." For the company that developed FreeSpace 2, that's a high standard indeed.