SANTA MONICA, Calif.—Video game fans of a certain age may remember when pre-rendered sprites dominated every platform in the mid-90s. In the decades since, some of those games (like ) have turned out far more timeless-looking than others (like ).
1997’s has arguably aged the best out of all of its peers, with its incredible animations and balanced full-scene lighting, but that’s the silver lining for a series that has otherwise remained pretty dormant (assuming you ignore the series’ uneven attempts to go fully polygonal).
I for one remember wondering if an game might ever look and feel as exciting on a modern-day platform—not just in remake form (a la ) but in having its gameplay and engine supercharged.
And that’s why I’m writing about , the series’ first new 2D entry since 1998’s .
There’s no guarantee that the final game, slated for a “2020” launch, will turn out all that remarkable. But after attending the world-premiere gameplay session at a pre-E3 showcase, I came away impressed and optimistic. The game’s original 2D mechanics have returned, only revamped with a -like follower system, a new crafting interface, explosive weaponry, and impressively destructible environments.
The pied Mudokon piper
You may have already seen the content that I sampled, as ‘s developers snuck a few gameplay moments into an early May teaser trailer. The level in question revolves around familiar 2D-gaming elements: run through an NPC-filled industrial landscape while saving allies, employing stealth, dealing with guards, and figuring out door-switching puzzles.
The first eye-catching difference in this game is a shift to a 2.5-dimensional perspective, which creative director/writer/chief designer Lorne Lanning called “2.9-D.” In some moments, this simply attaches a cinematic perspective to a straight-ahead path, but in others, it affords an impressive look at later-level challenges in the background.
The level in question was described as something “halfway through the game,” but on its face, the challenge seemed more like something out of an early tutorial. As Abe, your goal is to free your fellow Mudokons from their lives of servitude, so you must sneak into their workplace, “sing” them away from their job posts, and guide them to a portal at the level’s end. (You use an in-game menu to order those followers to “stay,” “follow,” or “mimic” as needed.)
Along the way, Abe needs to pick through trash cans and lockers to snag crucial supplies, which he then uses to craft a variety of weapons and items. We didn’t see many crafting possibilities that catered to quieter or more stealth-like progression; most of what Lanning put into our inventories (via a cheat code, thanks dude) was either concussive projectiles, explosive bombs, or Molotov cocktails. On the quieter side, these were countered by some noise-making distraction items and some bouncy, “put guards to sleep” rubber-band balls, at least.
The fireworks really started going off when we learned that we could equip our followers—a legion of roughly two dozen Mudokons by the level’s end—with any of these items. In one auto-scrolling sequence, where I had to pilot a moving platform through a gauntlet of turrets while aiming my own gun like a laser-gun scope around the screen, my allies used their equipped items to fight back and keep Abe safe. It wasn’t clear whether the helpers could be so aggressive in other parts of the game.
Sure, Abe can stealth… but why?
In a brief chat with Ars, Executive Producer Bennie Terry III revealed that the game (and its explosions and alpha effects) has been scaled with current-gen console performance in mind. I pointed out how crazy that sounded, given how intense the explosion and fire effects were in my demo, but he insists that the game’s VFX have been tweaked over time to rely less on GPU-intensive alpha effects and more on raw polygons—and that the game is currently running within consoles’ GPU budgets.
He admits that his team’s current technical challenge is to manage high CPU demands, since the team aspires to have more than a dozen individually animated Mudokons and Glukkons on-screen at any given time. The high-spec demo PCs we tested on are certainly beefier than this generation’s consoles, which rely on lower-clocked AMD Jaguar processors.
Lanning took an opportunity to show off destructible materials in the game’s side-scrolling levels, along with how Abe could use them to his advantage. With a controller in hand, Lanning set off a huge explosion, which caused roughly six stories of wooden platforms to fall apart and crash. Then he instructed roughly 15 Mudokons to stand on a frail platform, and those allies had been set via an in-game menu to copy whatever Abe did. A few feet away, our hero jumped up and down a few times. The army of allies did the same, destroying their weaker wooden platform—and crushing the enemies beneath them.
I wasn’t able to recreate either of these stunning moments in my own hands-on demo, but I did throw enough explosives and Molotov cocktails to set various wooden platforms and structures on fire. Doing this scorched them into non-existence—and either opened up escape routes or sent enemies plummeting so that they could no longer aim their guns at me.
Should you wish to rain hellfire and damage on ‘s “Glukkon” guards, you can do just that, either with the aforementioned craftable explosives and destructible terrain or by physically possessing bad guys and using their own guns against them. But an end-of-mission interface hinted at rewards given for finishing missions in stealthier ways, and being sneakier means fewer errant bullets will kill your precious Mudokon allies.
Like in other games, saving more of them will count toward optional objectives, and some of the challenge revolves around ensuring their safety—particularly one dramatic moment at the level’s end where I had to time my steps perfectly so that trailing allies would run, drop down, and climb up through a gap in the 15 seconds between trains barreling through the screen’s Z-axis. Failing to get this timing right resulted in some of the most delightful cartoony body-splosion effects I’ve ever seen in a real-time 3D game. I felt bad for how loudly I laughed.
What I saw of was ultimately a tantalizing vertical slice—a technology demonstration that pumped the series’ traditional 2D sneak-and-fight gameplay full of physics-driven possibilities. We’re hopeful that the developers will have many more smart gameplay ideas for this system yet to be revealed.
For now, at least, they clearly have dramatic, striking real-time visuals down pat. I could stand to see more of this game—its detailed, seemingly endless backgrounds, its captivating fire and explosion effects, and its giddy cartoony violence—and I look forward to whatever 2020 release date this game eventually locks down.