Leipzig GC 2007: The mysterious mystery of THEY

A game called THEY was teasing me for the entirety of the GC. It was one of the first games I made an appointment to see having recieved a press release weeks earlier about it, the last one I got to see over the course of the week, and the one most wrapped up secrecy — hidden Super Mario Galaxy levels notwithstanding. I knew virtually nothing about the plot, nothing about who was even making it, — the press release had details only of a media consulting company — and I had the promise of a brand new gamplay mechanic which would make you “love your weapons” dangling in front of me. 

Then, when I finally got to see it, I was told I wasn’t allowed to write a damn thing about it until today. I fully expect the game to be sold via a treasure map and a series of crypic clues when it’s eventually released, the disc only available after a good six months of international travel and sleuthing.

What’s it all about though? Hit the jump and I’ll tell you.

THEY is the product of a team-up between Metropolis Software, developer of Infernal, and IMC, a media consultancy who have previously worked in PR, production and marketing management within the games industry. It was explained to me that the two came together to combat what they saw as the traditional games publishing model, whereby a developer will work on a game in its own image for a year or two before a publisher comes in towards the end and beats the hell out of it with the change-stick.

They told me they didn’t like the way developer creativity has been hampered by this process before, and they wanted to avoid all of the time and conceptual constraints usually put on a project by a late-coming publisher. To that end, they’d decided to work together to build a project from the ground up that would still deliver exactly what they wanted from the beginning by the time it was released. All very noble indeed. But what the hell’s the game about? 

Set in near-future London in a world crippled by increasingly severe terrorist attacks, THEY follows the story of a British soldier during the the emergence of a new global threat. An army of robots has appeared and begun laying waste to everything around it, and while everyone has assumed that a new terrorist faction is behind it all, it will eventually turn out that things are a lot more complicated than that. The robots are far more intelligent in their combat tactics than anyone can believe possible, and seem to be able to work together without any visible signs of communication. Needless to say, humanity is taking a serious kicking to the face, and it’s during one of these kickings that the player’s story starts.

During a battle in the capital, nearly the entirety of the protagonist’s squad is wiped out, and so forced to go it alone, he eventually discovers what’s really going on. The robots are more like mechs, controlled by those Gigeresque ethereal bastards you can see in the trailer and screenshots. How your guy comes to find this out and gain the ability to see them we weren’t told, — it’s a mystery, don’t you know — but once he does, it’s ass kicking time. The robots and their masters operate, and can be attacked, separately. Kill the phantom and the robot will remain, but will be slow, stupid, and bit useless. Manage to take the robot out first and the phantom will quickly shoot off to find another host.

The game will take in around twelve levels, and IMC/Metropolis were keen to point out that they’re taking an episodic structure to the game’s story. Taking their model from shows like Heroes and The X-Files, they’ll be making each level work as an individual episode, but will be building a bigger overall story arc as the game progresses. That’s the plot and structure out of the way then. What about everything else? 

Well for starters, things look pretty damn sweet even at this pre-alpha stage. I was told that the version of the game I saw demoed was only a four month-old build, but it already looked more than acceptable, if understandably a little empty of bad guys. IMC/Metropolis are using their own Next Nitrus engine for the game and it seems more than up to the job from what I saw. I was told that virtually everything in the game will be destructible, as long as it doesn’t allow the player to simply flatten a level and ignore his objectives, and that demolition will definitely play a part in the gameplay. I’ve heard that sort of thing before but as proof I was given a quick tour of London by way of heavy-impact explosives, and sure enough, everything targeted came apart beautifully.

Textures look great even now, with some serious depth added to completely flat models, — I was actually very surprised when a particularly chunky bullet hole was pointed out as being 2D — and every bullet, beam and explosion already carrying its own dynamic light with it. 

But what was the big secret? Everything I’d been shown so far had been standard FPS fare, if done particularly well with fairly interesting plot, and after several weeks of waiting, I was tapping my foot to a richter scale measurable degree in expectation. 

Basically, your guns will be entirely your own. While the game will contain the usual standard slots for collectible firepower, IMC/Metropolis told me that they wanted to go well beyond the usual incremental upgrades and allow the player to build whatever he wants. The example I was given for what they’re after is the part in Aliens when Ripley pulls out the duct tape and makes a pulse rifle get friendly with a flamethrower, but what they detailed after that has the potential to go a long way further. 

Throughout the game, weapon body-parts and plug-ins will frequently crop up for the collecting. Maybe they’ll be part of a boss’ arsenal, dropped when you kill it, or you might just find them lying around in the aftermath of a battle. However you get hold of them, they can be put together, Lego-style, and tweaked and tuned to make a gun to do whatever the player can think up. At the moment the number of plug-ins is still up in the air, but a ball-park figure of 250 is being enthusiastically thrown around. However many accessories and tweaks are eventually made available though, it looks like weapon customization is going to work from a scarily versatile system. Honestly, from what I was shown, the whole thing reminds me of a gun-based version of Spore‘s creature editor.

Every variety of gunfire, from single-shot, to machine gun, to explosive, to laser, to pretty much anything else you can think of can be blended and combined with however many others you want, along with all kinds of special properties such as fire, ice, lighting, and God knows what else. On top of that, there are loads of little adaptations to be had in the way of reload speed, shot frequency, blast damage etc. You want a rapid-fire electro-shotgun with exploding shells? You’ve got it. Grenade launcher with freezing ammo and your choice of blast radius and trajectory? Why not? The more you collect, the more you can adapt, and eventually weapons of every shape, size, functionality and aesthetic will theoretically be available to allow the player to approach the game in any style he chooses. And that’s before we even get to multiplayer. 

What heartened me the most about the approach being taken to THEY is the fact that the guys behind it are already thinking solidly in terms of creating a strong community spirit around the game. Ideas are understandably at the brain-storming stage at the moment, but the weapon customization ethic is already being pushed heavily into an online philosophy. Custom-designed weapons will be able to be shared with a whole clan, giving each team its own genuinely individual identity in terms of abilities and adding some serious variety to multiplayer games. All weapons are going to be totally customizable with decals and paint jobs, so individual and clan logos will be no problem, and I was even told that custom 3D modelling is going to be a viable option for those with the skills to do it.

The idea has the potential to just run and run online. IMC/Metropolis are already talking about allowing weapons to be uploaded onto external severs, and are coming up with a bunch of ideas to allow them to stay involved with the community they hope to build. They might for instance, run regular tournaments with a one-off, non-copyable gun part as a prize. Whoever wins will then be instantly recognizable as a player to be reckoned with the next time they go online, but they’ll probably also become a massive target to be taken down for bragging rights. There might also be game modes where players are given a limited number of plug-in credits to play with before matches start, adding a tactical element whereby they have to decide whether to rely on one big and powerful gun or mix up the variety with an arsenal of smaller ones. 

Everything is going to run on a universal ammunition system, with a generator in each gun converting energy into whatever ammo the player designs. It’ll mean an end to those “All these rifle shells, but not a single rail to be found” blues, but will also mean that some clever juggling is going to be needed in design, as more powerful and varied weaponry will require a lot more energy for each round than simpler ideas will.

I’m really looking forward to seeing more of THEY now that I know what’s going on. It should be no secret to anyone who’d been reading my Leipzig coverage over the last couple of days that I’m burnt out on FPS at the min, but having seen the ideas behind the game and the enthusiasm of the guys making it, — I genuinely get the impression that it isn’t going to be released until it’s everything they want it to be — the wait for the revelation of the mystery has been more than worth it.

With that launch set for 2009 though, it’s going to be another long wait until we get to play the game and find out just how much can be done with it, and of course, as with the all “innovative” FPS being touted around at the moment, it will still live or die by its gameplay regardless of whatever else it does. I do like what’s going on here on a conceptual level though, so I’ll be keeping a close eye on the game from this point on.


David Houghton