Beyond Flesh and Blood Developer Interview – Phillip Muwanga & Lee Blacklock

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There were lots of cool indie games on display at this year’s EGX Rezzed, and among the titles I was keen to try out and play was the latest playable demo of Beyond Flesh and Blood, by Mancunian studio Pixelbomb Games.

If you missed my impressions on the demo, here’s a quick rundown on Beyond. The game is a third-person mech shooter set in a post-apocalyptic Manchester in the year 2281. When a meteor containing some nasty extra-terrestrial creepy crawlies hits the planet, you’re sent in as a mech pilot to retake key strategic Earth cities (AKA Manchester) and get them back under control from gun-slinging bandits and bitey alien lifeforms. From what I’ve played and seen of the game so far, it’s shaping up to be a cool shooter that brings some interesting new tweaks to the mechanical mayhem of the mech genre.

I had the chance to chat with the two project leads, Coder Phillip Muwanga and Game Designer Lee Blacklock and talk about Manchester, mechs, meatsplosions and more.

Tom: What was the original inspiration for Beyond Flesh and Blood, and what inspired you to make a mech shooter specifically?

Lee: We’ve got a big love of anime and mechs, and being a dev company in Manchester, we wanted to set the game in a post-apocalyptic version of our city. We thought that a combination of these two things would be quite a playful scenario.

Phil: The basic thing is we love mechs, we love science fiction, we love action games, so we are finally able to make the game that we want to make.

Mech games in the past such as Steel Battalion and Titanfall have traditionally favoured a first-person camera view to get that cockpit experience. What was the decision behind deciding to go with a third-person camera?

Lee: Interestingly, when people ask us what the genre of the game is, we say that it’s a third-person action shooter, which is different from your typical mech shooter. It’s a third-person game, you just happen to be controlling mechs. We absolutely love robots and all forms of them, from the Japanese ones to the big stomping western mechs, so things like Steel Battalion were a big influence.

Phil: It pains me that I never got to play Steel Battalion on the big forty-button controller. I like the idea of a game where when you die, if you don’t press the eject button, you lose your save file. That’s a wonderful thing!

Townhall Concept

The game is set in Manchester, and the maps feature prominent Mancunian landmarks in their design – did you run into any issues with getting permission to use their likenesses in-game, and what other locations are you planning to get into the final game?

Phil: The main thing is that you’re fine to use the exteriors, but if you want to use the interiors then that’s when you need to get permission. But, of course, you can make a building that’s inspired by something, and that’s okay. For example, we’ve replicated my favourite bar in The Triangle – mainly because I want to fight in front of a bar that I drink in! (Laughs) There are a few other areas that we’re not talking about, but the main focal points are Deansgate, The Triangle and in front of the Hilton. We’ve purposely stayed away from having the Man United or City stadium because if you pick a side then we’ll alienate half the audience!

Lee: I think for us is the fact that the game is concentrated in the city centre as well, so to go to another location would mean jumping out of the city and we really want to focus on that sort of overgrown future version of Manchester.

Phil: The political answer is we have members of our team who support Man U and members who support Man City.

BF+B Play Expo Stand

You demoed the game last year at the Manchester Play Expo – how was that experience, and do you have any plans to take Beyond to any other shows or Expos after Rezzed?

Phil: Yes, that was a wonderful Expo. It was nice to do an Expo in our home town with a game that’s based in Manchester – we got a lot of positive feedback. There are a few big shows that we’d like to take it to, but we are mainly focused on just finishing the final thing now. What will be quite nice is that once we’re closer to release we’ll have a more stable build, so we won’t have to spend quite so much time getting a build ready to tour at Expos. It is important to get the game out and to talk to members of the press so that people can hear about it.

The game is designed as a singleplayer experience with a solo campaign, but have you got any plans to implement any online multiplayer features into the horde mode maps at a later date?

Phil: The gameplay that we’re showing here is from our wave-based mode – this is an added extra that comes with the game, the singleplayer story is the primary focus. We’re not showing much of that because we don’t want to spoil the story. Let’s just say that it does take place in these areas here, and that it involves mechs and people being torn to pieces.

Within the world that we’ve made, there are various factions and it would be wonderful to do a multiplayer shooter where they fight against each other. We’re talking and thinking about that, but at the moment we are focusing on making the best singleplayer experience that we can. The campaign is our focus. What we didn’t want to do was to tack on a multiplayer component just to have a tick on the back of the box. If we were to do multiplayer, we would want to be properly focused on that.

Lee: When we’ve been developing in the studio, we’ve actually switched the player camera around and switched to the other AI classes that we’ve got so we can run around as them. It’s not going to happen for the game, but it’s just what we’ve been doing in-house just to have a play around, so like Phil said that’s given us the multiplayer ideas, and we’d love to do a lot more in the world of Beyond Flesh and Blood.

Dropship

I appreciate that you don’t want to say too much about the story, but what challenges did you have in writing a story around what’s essentially a faceless robot character?

Phil: The interesting thing is that you can’t die in this game. You’re in a space station in orbit, so if you’re suit is killed then they just send in another suit from orbit. It is not a big deal for them (The United Global Remnant, the in-game faction you play for). We try to tie this mechanic into the gameplay of the world – these soldiers on the ground, because they can die, they will comment on the fact that you’re not really there or that it all feels like a game to you. These are some of the areas that we wanted to explore in this.

Lee: We’ve not really had difficulties, but it’s more about the amount of choices we’ve got – we’ve got to keep narrowing it down. Like Phil said, there’s lots of themes we’d like to explore but it’s a case of just how many of these we can effectively explore in the timeframe.

Phil: The hardest bit that we’ve had is trying to squeeze all of our ideas into this game. It is a combat-focused game, so we want the gameplay mechanics to tell most of the story, rather than have a lot of expensive cutscenes and FMVs. Those two fields do not have to be mutually exclusive; we do have a story that we want to tell, but we are focused on making a fun, enjoyable gameplay experience. At the end of the day, we are a small indie studio – we’re not a big triple-A studio who can afford to hire all the animators it takes to do your cutscenes.

Mark 1

When I played the previous demo myself I used mouse and keyboard controls. I’m normally a player who favours using a controller, but I have to say I thought that the way you’ve designed the keyboard controls was spot-on. You really get a feel of each mech’s weight and momentum, especially the Mark 1.

Lee: That’s definitely something that we want you to feel as you go through the different mechs – we will have four mechs, so as you go through each one that feeling will feel different, but we still want it to feel very meaty. Like you were saying, in the Mark 1 you can really stomp around with it. The mouse and keyboard controls still need work though at the minute, they are still in development so that they can be even better.

So there’s four mechs in total?

Phil: You start off with the Mark 1 – he’s basically a walking JCB; he’s a slow engineering mech and can’t dodge so far. He can use his size to tear people to pieces and to pick up large objects and to interact with the world in a very physical way. As you move up through the marks they become smaller but more agile, but they lose the physical powers that the Mark 1 has.

Next is the Mark 2 – he’s the baby brother of the Mark 1. He isn’t quite as strong, but he’s faster and a more agile engineering mech overall. He’s still not purpose-built for combat, but he does have a welding laser which is really effective. The special thing about this mech though is that he’s got awesome extendable arms; if you think of the Mark 1 as the JCB, then the Mark 2 is like the forklift version if you will. Obviously it’s still very powerful – he can use his arms to extend himself up in the air and slam down on enemies. We’ve used his arms in a number of the sync kills which are unlocked through story means.

Eventually, you get to 4th mark, the Prototype Suit.

Mech Landing

Is that different from the Prototype Suit featured in the demo then?

Phil: Yes – I know the terms are the same, but the Prototype Suit that you’re seeing here is the prototype that we internally made as our test, and not the finished thing.

Lee: We made this in-house prototype so that we could get a sense of its scale and movement speed, and how that will differ in comparison to a larger mech.

Phil: The actual Prototype Suit in the final game is an advanced suit which has all sorts of interesting tweaks to it. It’ll be able to do all sorts of wonderful things.

Unlike a lot of other third-person shooters, you’ve got these big open environments in Beyond which aren’t littered with a load of conveniently-placed thigh-high walls to hide behind for cover, plus you can actually improvise and arrange your own cover using the items in the environment.

Phil: One of the choices that we made was that the player cannot take cover in our game. The AI can, but you instead have to rely on the suit’s powers and abilities, and the fact that you can slow down time and dodge. I love Gears of War, but I don’t want to make another game where you hide behind a chest-high wall, wait for yourself to auto-heal and then you come back. It’s why, from a gameplay point of view, you don’t recharge your health; the only way to get your health back in Beyond Flesh and Blood is to kill your enemies, so you can’t hide. If you want to stay alive, you’ve got to get into the fray and get into the fight.

I like the game’s tower mechanic – it’s a cool way of reining in the player’s power and reach without it feeling overtly restricting.

Phil: The main reason why we have them is that in the singleplayer campaign, we don’t like it when the player encounters an invisible wall, so the towers are our way of leashing the player to where we want them to be.

Lee: The story element of it is that the pilot controlling the mech is on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, controlling his mech with his mind – he constantly needs connection to that mech through the towers, so when you die, that connection is severed. Another mech gets sent in and your mind reconnects to the replacement.

In one of your previous interviews you mention that you specifically didn’t want the game to be too hand-holding when it came to difficulty. Is that a personal reaction against the design of modern shooters, or rather a case of giving the game some of that old-school shooter difficulty?

Phil: I’m an old-school gamer – I like games that are hard, that you actually have to think about them and learn the gameplay mechanics. One of the things that I don’t like is when people take a dislike to a certain game because it doesn’t feel like a game that they already know. If you don’t like a shooter because it doesn’t play like Call of Duty, then fair enough that’s your personal choice, but perhaps you should try and learn that game’s own gameplay mechanics. The configuration of the pad doesn’t have to be locked, I’d much rather a game dev did different things with it.

As for the holding hands bit, I like hard games. It pains me that nowadays quite a few games just give you this sort of rollercoaster ride. We want our players to really have to think about the game and understand the mechanics to be able to progress.

Speaking of old-school, Beyond has some crazy levels of gore going on – is that also a throwback to older shooters like Unreal Tournament and Quake and things like that where gore was a big part of the shooter zeitgeist of the time?

Phil: We are late ’90s gamers. I like games with gore in them. The big thing that I always say is that we’re not making a torture-porn game – it is over-the-top action movie gore, where you shoot someone and they explode into gibs. The violence is easier to palate the more extreme it is, as it takes on a cartoon-esque vibe.

Lee: Phil is also working on a new dismemberment system, and new sync kills – the melee kill animations that the mechs perform they tear people apart. We’re still working on them, but we’ve managed to get a lot of the new animations in. These are going to be a lot more detailed – we’ll be releasing some more footage sometime soon.

Phil: With the Unreal 3 build there was only so much that we could do. Now, I can tear any limb off any person and punch holes in people – basically all the things that my sick mind wanted to be able to do to people in games! (Laughs)

Printworks

How was the transition going from the Unreal 3 engine to Unreal 4? I’m guessing that it wasn’t just a simple ‘right-click – save as’ process?

Phil: No – I’ve not had much sleep over the past two months and the whole team has been working incredibly hard to port all of the assets over. It’s worthwhile, but it’s not a simple job; we’ve had to rebuild the game from the ground up.

Lee: I think Epic have done some things to help this process, like there are exporters for things like content, but it’s still a big job to move the code base over for our AI, the shaders, the dismemberment system and a lot of the assets.

Phil: It’ll be worthwhile, but I’ll be glad when it’s done because we have a nice stable build here, we need to get our Unreal 4 build to feel as polished as our Unreal 3 build does.

Lee: We’ve definitely got both feet in Unreal 4 now, but it’s just a case of continuing on with that process.

I’ve read that you’d also made changes to the enemy AI since the previous demo – how exactly have you changed those systems?

Phil: They are smarter, we’ve used everything that we’d learned in the Unreal 3 build to make the Unreal 4 AI a hell of a lot better. They have squad-based AI now, so they know where you are in relation to the rest of their teammates and will try to flank you. The AI is an important part of the experience – we don’t just want them to blindly fire at you. We want them to apply pressure.

Lee: Even in the AI themselves, we’ve got separate classes of AI that will respond to you slightly differently as part of their own AI class but will operate together as one when part of a squad.

On a related note, can we expect to see any more extra-terrestrial enemy types in the final game i.e. ranged variants?

Phil: We aren’t talking about that faction yet, but let’s just say that we have a crack team of artists who are making some interesting content. (Laughs) We do have to keep some things back for the singleplayer.

The game is coming to the Xbox One and PS4 after the PC release – do you have any plans to use the unique hardware and features of those consoles? Any plans to use the DualShock 4’s touchpad or the Xbox One’s Kinect?

Lee: With the Kinect personally, aside from what we’re doing with our game, I was really excited when it came bundled with Xbox One. Now that it’s an optional extra, you can never be sure that every user has a Kinect, so we’re not 100% certain about those elements.

Phil: Unfortunately because the marketplace has now been split with the Xbox One, you need to cater for people who don’t have one.

Anything in mind for the PS4 touchpad?

Phil: It would be nice, but just as long as it doesn’t influence the core gameplay too much.

Any plans or thoughts on integrating VR or Oculus Rift support into the game in the future?

Phil: We’re aiming to get the game to run at a stable 60 frames-per-second, but to integrate VR we would have to half that, and do it all in 3D. It’s something we’re not heavily focused on – we’re focused on making this the best singleplayer experience that we can, but just for my own personal pride I would like to see it working on Oculus.

Lee: I’ve played other games on VR and I think it’s an excellent experience so I hope that it definitely does take off. It’s interesting now that Valve is releasing its own VR headset (the HTC Vive) now.

Phil: It does feel like this is now an actual thing; VR is happening, and the future is all about these new headsets.

It’s funny how VR is still a concept that’s in vogue today after it turned out to be nothing more than a kind of a gimmicky fad back in the ’80s with things like the Nintendo Virtual Boy. In such a short period of time it’s come back and it’s now a very real possibility and practically an inevitable thing at this point.

Phil: I think it was at EGX last year that I played Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus, and that was a mind-blowing experience. If that is just the baseline of it, then the future is going to be bright.

Lee: Yeah, and that was on unreleased hardware as well, so hopefully it’ll just keep getting better and better.

Main Title

Anything else that you’d like to say about the game that we didn’t get chance to cover? When can players expect to get their hands on the final version of the game – Summer 2015 right?

Phil: Yeah that’s correct, we have a free demo of the game that players can download from our website (www.beyondfleshandbloodgame.com) so if you’re interested then you should get it downloaded.

Lee: Also, for anyone who’s interested in the game to keep an eye on our content releases, as we’ll be releasing more things to do with Unreal Engine 4.

From Bedrooms to Billions – Review

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Bedroom Brilliance

Feature-length films about the history of video games are sort of like buses. You wait around for one for ages, and then suddenly three good ones all turn up at once. Okay, well not exactly at once, but hey you get the idea – the point is that we’ve recently had a bunch of really great documentaries on the history of gaming released in close proximity to each other. After Zak Penn’s Atari: Game Over and Jeanette Garcia and Daryl Rodriguez’s World 1-1, From Bedrooms To Billions is the third feature film documentary that I’ve watched in recent months about the history of video games and the awesome people who make them.

In contrast to the two other American-based documentaries, Nicola and Anthony Caulfield’s film plants its focus on the other side of the pond on the nascent UK gaming scene, chronicling what the Brits were getting up to with their computers during the ’80s. It’s essentially a celebration of Britain’s technological tenacity in the ’80s – how diligent bedroom coders transformed a fun, small-time hobby into a core part of the hulking global entertainment behemoth that the games industry is today. It’s detailed, entertaining, and pretty much essential viewing for those interested in learning more about video games (duh), the games development process, and how Britain’s talented coders played a key part in gaming’s history.

Bedrooms narratively picks things up on the advent of the first wave of affordable home computers starting to hit the market with the release of the Sinclair ZX80 in 1980, but the ball really starts rolling the following year when its successor, the ZX81, turns up on the scene and acts as the catalyst which changes everything. From this equivalent of the UK gaming scene’s big bang, things continue to go from strength to strength; we see the introduction of further cheap but powerful computers such as the BBC Micro, the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum, the gradual compartmentalisation of the development process as solo programmers banded together into small tightly-knit teams and later the rise and fall of the major British publishers in the mid-’90s just as Nintendo and Sega were battling it out for console dominance in the UK’s living rooms.

The film is presented in the usual documentary style as a series of talking head segments with a great variety of developers, journalists and other big industry figures drawn from far and wide across the gaming universe. Among the many talented developers prominently featured are people such as Mel Croucher (Deus Ex Machina), Julian Gollop (XCOM) and David Braben (Elite) to name but a few. It’s also particularly awesome to see game artists such as Mo Warden and Dawn Hollywood give their thoughts and talk about their experiences working in an industry where female voices are still unfortunately very much in the minority.

The DIY punk ethic of the early 80’s developers is particularly fascinating to learn about, and it’s this exciting combination of youth and technological possibility which fuels the drive of the film’s narrative. Hearing passionate stories directly from the pioneering legendary developers of the era such as Jeff Minter and Matthew Smith about how they would studiously slave away at their machines, quite literally all day and night, to create their games is both entertaining and inspirational in equal measure. Especially to a chump like me who probably couldn’t make a game, even if it came running up to me and dropkicked me in the face.

All the major areas of the evolving game development process are covered over the course of the film – as the technology and resources of the industry improve over the years, you hear first-hand perspectives on everything from art direction to programming, designing to writing and pretty much everything else in between. Personally, I found one of the most interesting aspects of the design process that the film explores was hearing game music composers talk about the technical limitations they had to work with when composing the early chiptune soundtracks, and how they had to think outside the box (actually, more like inside the box come to think of it) to get around them. There’s a great section where composer Martin Galway is talking about the technical constraints of the Commodore’s SID chip; struggling to get true polyphonic chords to sound clearly, he describes how he had to come up with some nifty workarounds using various filters and very quick oscillating arpeggios in order to get the effect of having several notes play at once. Nifty stuff indeed.

Interestingly, the film also explores the birth of the UK gaming press and how games coverage back then changed from being just drab, lifeless technology reports completely devoid of passion into actual games critique with the introduction of young, fresh-faced and enthusiastic writers of the day such as Gary Penn and Julian Rignall. As you might imagine, being a fellow who likes to punch out excessively long game reviews of my own, it was interesting to see how the early games magazines actually started off as the primary means of acquiring games through their long printed BASIC sequences before gradually morphing over the years to take more of a critical perspective as the industry grew.

At just over two and a half hours in length, Bedrooms is a seriously comprehensive retro retrospective. While the level and depth of detail in the documentary is easily its greatest strength, I personally felt that the pacing towards the second half felt inconsistent and slightly rushed, at which point the film seems to stumble and lose its focus somewhat. By the time Bedrooms reaches the ’90s, a lot of the details about this era are skimmed over at quite a fast pace, which really jars with the carefully detailed slower speed the rest of the film had been moving at up to this point, and it feels a rather abrupt and jarring transition as a result.

Admittedly, as the Japanese and American console behemoths start to dominate the mainstream UK gaming space, and all but a few of the original British publishers are left standing in their wake, a great deal of this era largely falls out of the scope of the documentary’s core subject matter, so I can appreciate why this isn’t dealt with in as much detail as previous sections. Thankfully though, the discussion of the similarities between the currently booming indie game scene in relation to the British ’80s heyday manages to nicely tie things up on an elegant and contemporary note.

So, if you’re interested in the history of the videogame industry, particularly about what exactly was going on in the gaming world in the swirling neon-coloured amniotic waters of ’80s Britain, then you’ve got to press pause right now, put down your controllers and keyboards and check Bedrooms to Billions out. Simultaneously entertaining and informative, the film is an impressively comprehensive document of the era which is essential viewing for pretty much anybody who loves games, their history, and where the industry might be heading in the future.

Additionally, if you’re after more British-flavoured video game retrospectives from the Caulfield duo (I know I am) then you’re in luck. The filmmakers currently have a new Kickstarter campaign ongoing, which is now fully funded at the time of writing (congratulations!) for the next chapter in their documentary series, From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years (due out January 2016). The Kickstarter is still open for backing for a few more days (again, depending when you read this) so if you want to get behind the project yourself, then head over there and get involved. In the meantime, game on!

EGX Rezzed 2015 – Highlights and Photos

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Taxi Entrance

Ying and yang. Fire and ice. Cheese and crackers…actually, no scrap that last one, they do go really well together. Why am I doing such a bad job of spouting off random pairs of antonyms I hear you ask? Well, that’s because I’m trying to think of a clever segue into my next paragraph about comparing…alright, look, so it didn’t work okay? Trust me, just keep going, it’ll all make sense in a few seconds or so.

In contrast to the standard EGX events which are traditionally more of a showcase for the latest big blockbuster triple-A games from big developers and publishers, EGX Rezzed puts indie developers and their quirky projects in the spotlight for a change.

So, last week, I hopped on a train and made my way down to London’s Tobacco Docks; presumably whilst an Indiana Jones style travel montage showed my progress south via a descending red line on a faded map of the UK. I was there for the Thursday and Friday sessions to mingle with game developers and game fans alike. The sun was shining, developers were smiling and…nope, still no decent third triplication point. So, without further ado, here’s my thoughts on a few games that caught my eye from the many excellent games on offer at this year’s Rezzed collection.

Bloodborne

Bloodborne

Okay, let’s start off my indie highlights of Rezzed with a big game that isn’t considered an indie game at all by pretty much any stretch of the imagination – Bloodborne. Great thinking I hear you say – you’ve fucked up the entire point of this article in only the first proper paragraph. But it was there in the Sony section and I thought, hey, why not? Got a problem with that? No, I didn’t think so.

For someone who didn’t really get all the Dark Souls hype, I have to say that Bloodborne looks pretty damn cool. I didn’t really give Dark Souls on the Xbox 360 the time and patience it deserved; even though I loved the heavy mood and mystery that permeated my brief adventure from prison cell to giant taxi- crow-thing, I never really found the will or self-discipline to keep going.

Having said that, I actually enjoyed my brief time in Bloodborne a great deal more than I was expecting to, which was a nice surprise. Perhaps it’s just something as basic as the dark gothic aesthetic of the game appealing to me more than the knights, dragons and trolls of From Software’s previous franchise, but it worked.

Being terrible at Dark Souls, I decided not to mess around with the unknown and opted to play as the standard class of character, who comes complete with a hideous scythe/giant barber’s razor blade in one hand a and a nifty blunderbuss musket/shotgun in the other. Of course, the way you build out your character’s weapons and equipment will impact on how they move and play, so it looks as though there’s perhaps a fair bit of variety in this game when it comes to player choice.

Though you’re dropped straight into this nightmare world with no introduction in this demo, the atmosphere still feels dark and heavy right from the off, and you feel suitably creeped out. It all looks great too, with atmospheric lighting and great attention to the audio – overall there seems to be a much greater emphasis on horror in Bloodborne in comparison to Dark Souls, which definitely appeals to folks like me.

In the scant few hours that I have spent in Dark Souls, that game felt more like a gloomy medieval mystery than anything particularly bone-chilling, but from what little I got to experience of Bloodborne at Rezzed, there certainly could be some nasty scares to accompany you on your swashbuckling way. One particular moment was hearing what could only have been a massive bird (perhaps the giant Dark Souls crow/taxi/thing maybe?) shriek incredibly loudly into the night as I was halfway up a tall ladder. Needless to say, I got back down onto terra firma as fast as possible.

Bloodborne Monitors

There’s this horrifying Wicker Man feeling you’ll get when playing that pervades pretty much every moment. Alone and isolated, and with apparently the entire population of this town against you, it feels pretty intimidating to say the least. Seeing a long line of the wretched townsfolk marching through the streets in an ominous and slow procession before branching off to gather around a huge burning effigy (presumably containing lots of cattle and a screaming policeman) felt chilling to the core. The game manages to evoke a similar feeling to the one you get when playing the monster in the early stages of Evolve; everyone’s out to get me, I need to fucking run!

The enemy AI is just as smart and cunning as you might expect from a From Software game. Walking up behind a hulking monstrosity lurking round the back of a dark crumbling building, I promptly slashed away at the portly fellow, only to have him whirl round on me in a blur of speed and slash me with some giant axe-thingy. Battered and wounded, I retreated back a few metres to get some space and neck a health potion all the while desperately trying to remember what little information I could recall from my brief time playing Dark Souls.

Aha! I’ll get the brute to make a lunge for me, then dodge and get in some cheeky swipes with my giant retractable barber’s razor weapon-thingy whilst he’s recovering. Thus, I started to dodge back and forth in what I hoped was a patronising and annoying manner. To my horror, the giant toad like man-demon proceeded to leap forward into the air at me at such a speed that I could only watch in horror as he slammed down on my cloaked crusader, taking a great deal of my health away in the process. Ouch.

Retreating from this battle I’d surely lose, I scuttled back along the dark sidestreets in an effort to desperately survive for a bit longer. However, by this point, I knew that with my lack of skill my time would be rapidly drawing to a close any minute now anyway. Emerging into a large open street flanked by abandoned horse carriages, I tried to sneak along behind a gaggle of the mouldy townsfolk. Boom! A bleeding shoulder full of buckshot from an enemy’s rifle quickly let me know that I’d been spotted and that I needed to move. Fast.

Despite scuttling out of the range of the gunner, and managing to fell a few of my scarecrow-like assailants, I was inevitably cut down by the grimy hordes in next to no time. However, this time I finished with a big smile on my face.

One aspect to the combat that I’ve heard echoed by a lot of other critics is that the action and combat in Bloodborne feels considerably faster and less clunky and cumbersome than Dark Souls. I certainly found this to be the case myself from playing the demo; moves didn’t feel like they took an eternity to execute, and your character feels altogether more manoeuvrable, which personally definitely felt way better to me.

When I did attack when I should have blocked/dodged or vice versa, it didn’t feel like the end of the world and I could quickly right myself and keep going. Obviously, you can’t afford to make many mistakes at all, but the way the combat has been tweaked definitely felt much more palatable to me. It just feels a lot more exciting and way less gruelling than I expected things to be, which is surely only a good thing.

Salt; A Social Story

Right, so now let’s actually knuckle down and talk about indie games. Salt; A Social Story, by Holly Pickering of Indieful Entertainment, is one of the first I tried upon getting to Rezzed.

It’s a clever and interesting critique of social media and the way that it negatively influences a great deal of our interactions with others. Described by Holly as a “stalking simulator mixed with a choose your own adventure game”, you play as a woman following the messy break-up with her boyfriend, who’s subsequently wiped and reset her contact list of friends on her social networking site of choice, Mugshot.

The game plays out in the Mugshot interface, which looks like a chunky Windows 3.1 pixelated predecessor to Twitter/Facebook. The aim of the game is to restore your account by slowly adding back your previous friends one by one – you can only add one new friend per in-game day, and once you’ve reached a total of thirty friends, Mugshot will fully restore your account back to how it was before the break-up. The more friends you add, the wider the pool of potential friends and other social connections will become, giving you plenty of new connections to choosse from as the game progresses.

As the player, you can’t interact with these friends or actively participate in the networking, but rather you voyeuristically watch the interactions between your character and her growing network of contacts. It’s a fascinating playing experience, not to mention one that gets uncomfortably creepy at times; as you explore your character’s old social life through her and her friend’s social media posts, and reconnect with them one at a time, you start to get more and more of an insight into which friends she most values, which she doesn’t have much to do with, and just how this sprawling network of friends, work colleagues and near-acquaintances all fit together.

The conceit that you can only add one new friend per day means that you don’t feel overwhelmed by too many new characters too soon, giving you a chance to fully read up on their posting habits and attitudes over the course of the game.

Another interesting aspect of the game’s design is that there’s more than thirty friends that you can add to your friends list, meaning that you can’t get the full story and atmosphere on your first playthrough, giving you a cool incentive to go back and rediscover the connections and story details you might have missed the first time.

What’s really awesome is that in between each day, the game displays ominous short messages on the nature of social media, and prompt you to consider just exactly how we’re using the internet to communicate with each other. In particular, it makes you question just how ‘social’ social media really is. Having this quiet but powerful dissenting voice of critique in amongst all the vain nonsense and digital conversations of the characters is really effective.

It’s a really cool juxtaposition. As you get more and more involved in these character’s lives, stalking and probing deeper into their intricate connections with each passing day, getting these stark reminders about just how vain and and pathetic a lot of these interactions really are. It makes you question just what you’re doing snooping around in these characters lives and why exactly you’re enjoying cyber-stalking them?

As a result, there’s this strong sense of loathing that comes over you whilst playing – a feeling directed at these vacuous airhead characters who prattle on about their apparently awesome lives, and also at yourself for recognising your own personal desperate and pathetic social media habits in and amongst these fictional characters.

I played through the first eight or so days as I didn’t want to hog the booth for too long, but I can’t wait to play the full thing and carry on stalki-I mean observing. Just observing. Not that I do that normally of course…ahem. Let’s move on.

Monstrum

Monstrum

Okay, so this is a big one. Playing Monstrum at Rezzed was the first time that I finally managed to don the fabled Oculus Rift headset. Unfortunately though, whilst the game itself was good, my virgin-run with the Rift really didn’t work for me. Within only a few minutes, I started to feel very queasy, very fast – and that was before I fell prey to an impromptu mauling from my shrieking slimy alien pursuer.

Don’t get me wrong though, the Rift was certainly immersive up to a point, even when playing in a noisy, packed room swarming with excited gamers milling about all around me. It’s a clichéd turn of phrase I know, but it really is an incredibly cool experience to feel like you’re actually in the game world yourself. This of course is particularly helpful when playing a horror game where immersion is an essential pre-requisite to setting up any decent sense of tension and fear.

An incredibly basic thing that took me a long while to unlearn while playing was that when you’ve got a VR headset on, the right analog stick on your controller becomes redundant. In fact, I even asked the devs helping me with the Rift if they could invert the sticks for me, before I was politely reminded that it didn’t even matter – d’oh! Once you do get used to it though, it gradually starts to feel more natural to turn your head to look around you.

It makes me think that if this current bunch of VR headsets takes off whether we will just dispense with the right analog stick on our future console/PC controllers. The space could instead be given to more buttons or touch pads, or who knows whatever other new-fangled gadgets and gizmos we’ll be slapping into our controllers in the future.

Unfortunately though, as cool and immersive as playing with the Oculus Rift was, it was probably just way too much for my simple brain (and stomach) to handle. After years of ribbing non-gaming friends and family members when they got nauseous after only a few minutes of playing split-screen shooters of the past such as Timesplitters 2 and Goldeneye 007, I felt that perhaps I’d finally been given my karmic just desserts with the Rift.

Maybe I’d just overhyped the moment too much in my mind, but it certainly felt a bit underwhelming having to fight the feeling of motion sickness on my initial Rift experience; I didn’t quite have that glorious moment of digital euphoria that I’ve heard so many other people harp on about when they describe the potential of this exciting wave of VR tech.

Monstrum Booth

However, that’s just my thoughts on the Oculus Rift itself. Thankfully, Monstrum itself didn’t disappoint. Having seen YouTube’s Markiplier shout his way through the game online, I was definitely interesting in giving Team Junkfish’s randomly generated monster maze a go myself.

Monstrum places you in the unfortunate shoes of a poor soul who’s trapped aboard a 1970s derelict tanker ship way out at sea. Like many horror games, your goal is simple – you just need to survive and escape. However, Monstrum is interesting in that it offers various possible escape routes for you to consider – do you try and patch up the escape raft, re-jig the helicopter or slink away on the sub?

Every playthrough, all the items you need are all jumbled up around the various rooms and cargo holds of the ship, meaning that you’re not sure exactly where the components you need are located.

On top of that, there’s also a randomly generated monster pursuing you through the bowels of the dark ship. There’s currently two creatures in the early access demo at the moment; a giant red molten rock man, and a slithery see-through creature (the one that eventually ate me) with a yet to be revealed third critter to come in the future. Each creature brings its own different mechanics into play, so you have to learn how they operate and how to throw them off your scent as you scramble around the ship.

If you’re a fan of escape-based horror games such as Slender or Vanish then I definitely recommend giving Monstrum a go. It’s perhaps not the most unique experience in horror gaming, but the game’s randomly generated elements and monsters mean that it has some interesting and unpredictable tricks up its slimy sleeves.

Her Story

Her Story

Her Story is the new game from Sam Barlow – one of the designers of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Silent Hill: Origins – and while there’s no bubble head nurses or other such fog-shrouded nasties in sight in his latest game, there’s certainly a similar sense of the mystery, intrigue and introspection that the Silent Hill series is known for.

It’s an interesting mystery/puzzle game which places you in the shoes of a police officer in the ’90s who’s investigating evidence and video files from a woman who’s husband has gone missing.

The game plays a simulated PC desktop experience (meta); you’re an investigator who’s using the police database to retrieve appropriate video files to the case by using specific search terms.

Wait, how is that interesting then I hear you ask? Well, the compromise with this database is that it can only list the first five video clips results for any search term, meaning that you need to vary up your linguistic choices and delve more into the nitty gritty specifics of the case if you want to make progress and access new clips.

What’s particularly interesting is the idea that the whole game is pretty much an open ended non-linear experience. According to what you search for and the order in which you come across the video files, there’s a plethora of different ways that you could theoretically proceed through your investigation, and in what order you view the clips.

Her Story Monitor

While trying to solve the case is the main overhead objective if you will, what really came across to me was the way the game makes you empathise with the eponymous woman (played by Viva Seifert) of the title. While I didn’t get to spend as much time playing the game as I’d have liked, the range of emotions you see her go through as she’s relating evidence and, from the angle the trailer takes, denying that she’s killed her husband looks to be really intriguing.

All the while, the cold interrogation room she’s siting in, the grainy fidelity of the video files, and the moody ambient soundtrack that underscores your keystrokes and mouse clicks all contribute to this tense and mysterious mood the game manages to evoke so well. Definitely another fascinating title to keep your eye on.

So, those were just a few of the games I got to play and see at Rezzed this past weekend; stay tuned for an upcoming interview with the developers of Beyond Flesh and Blood, and in the meantime, here’s some of the other groovy games that were on display – prepare to feast your eyes on my mediocre camera work! Mwa ha ha ha ha ha!

Beyond Flesh and Blood Pre-Alpha Demo – First Impressions

Main Title
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 (Played on PC)

Cotton and guns – two things that Manchester is most famous for according to Alan Partridge. However, if Alan Partridge was a keen PC player with a penchant for mechanised brutality, then I’m sure he’d be quick to add a third notable item to that rather brief list – mechs.

That’s thanks to Beyond Flesh and Blood, an upcoming third person mech shooter by Pixel Bomb Games, which is set in a future post-apocalyptic version of Manchester. While not the first game to design a shooter that features a virtualised Manchester – that honour goes to Insomniac’s Resistance: Fall of Man – Pixel Bomb, themselves a Manchester based development studio, have taken it upon themselves to combine their home city with their love of giant mechs to create an exciting new shooter for PC, Xbox One and PS4. Forget Madchester; this is Mechester (sorry, I had to do it).

The story goes a little something like this. The year is 2281 – after a catastrophic global war, the remnants of society have split into two groups – on the one hand you’ve got the United Global Remnant who now live in a space station in Earth’s orbit, known as the Tree of Life, whilst on the other you’ve got a group of rogue scavengers who still skulk about on the planet’s surface. When a meteor containing some nasty extra-terrestrial creepy crawlies hits the planet, you’re sent in as a mech pilot to retake key strategic cities back under U.G.R. control. Any guesses as to which city you’re sent to?

I’ve been checking out the latest pre-Alpha demo of the game (Version 0.04) which gives the player the chance to pilot two powerful mech variants in two large crumbling outdoor combat arenas. Each level is essentially a Gears of War horde mode style map; you’re pitted against wave after wave of human rebels and necromorph-like alien assailants and you need to blast them away before they can destroy your mech. The two different mechs that you can use each in combat (or Tactical Combat Frames to give them their proper title) provide distinctly different weapons, modes and attacks to use on the mean streets of future Manchester; each suit offers its own distinct flavour and style to the combat.

Smash

The Mark 1 is your prototypical bread and butter big mech; a bulky yellow powerloader-like robot, complete with a shotgun, lasers, pulse bombs and missile salvos to destroy pretty much anything that happens to piss you off.

Mech Landing

The Prototype Suit on the other hand is a smaller armoured battle suit, something more akin to the MJOLNIR armour that the spartans in the Halo games wear. This suit offers some more physical attack options than the Alpha suit, such as a powerful ground pound move (speaking of Halo, it’s similar to the move of the same name in the Halo 5 Beta) which delightfully chunks any enemies caught in its blast radius. Lovely.

The two maps available in the demo, Albert Square and Beetham’s Folly (Deansgate), which are, of course, modelled after the real life Manchester locations. As a player who’s already familiar with the city, it’s a delightfully surreal experience to see familiar sights and buildings from the city now turned into beautiful The Last of Us style decrepit ruins, overgrown with both natural and alien fauna.

Town Hall

There’s something particularly cool about robo-rampaging around these Manchester locations that I’m sure present day Mancunian gamers will no doubt enjoy. Plus, it’s great to see areas of England in video games that aren’t just set down south in the capital for a change.

Tower

Anyway, let’s talk about the gameplay. An interesting tactical mechanic that the Pixel Bomb team have implemented into the game is that your mech can only operate in areas of the level that are within the signal range of the U.G.R’s control towers. Start to move out of bounds and your mech will gradually start to lose signal, which ultimately causes you to lose a life/mech if you keep going. At first, you’ll only control one tower and you’ll subsequently find that you can’t venture very far into the level at all. Whilst this can feel a bit frustrating and limiting initially, you can quickly expand the boundaries of your fighting space by hacking new towers, which then grants you more freedom to move around the level and blast, scorch and demolish foes to your heart’s content.

So, one of the first jobs you’ll want to do when starting a level is to get hacking away at the level’s towers in order to give yourself more room to manoeuvre before things properly kick off. However, in the later stages of a level, you’ll need to be keeping an eye out for enemies trying to take your towers offline in order to restrict your movements, which creates an exciting tug of war power struggle between you and your cannon fodder. In addition, you can also hack various gun turrets and missile batteries in the area to aid in your defensive efforts, as well as activate force fields to close off areas to the attacking human and alien hordes.

From my time with the demo, the human rebel AI is good, but they have a tendency to feel a bit like cannon fodder after a while without ever feeling like much of a serious threat in combat; they tend to either run straight at you and make themselves easy targets in the process, or skulk behind cover in fixed positions and wait for you to come and finish them off. On the other hand, the alien AI is very aggressive and very much a threat; they will often make a beeline straight for you once they spawn on the map, and they can quickly tear your mech to pieces in seconds if you’re not quick to blast them, so together a combination of two enemy types definitely keeps you on your mechanical toes so to speak.

You can pick up your fallen attackers’ weaponry from time to time, as well as environmental debris and items which provide a temporary change from your mech’s standard arsenal, although it’s not always clear or apparent just how to use whatever you’ve just acquired. I found picking up and using rebel assault rifles and shotguns to be easy and straightforward, but for some reason I couldn’t seem to be able to get my mech to throw the molotov cocktails once I’d scooped them up. My mech would just keep them clutched in its arm like it was a fine bottle of Chardonnay that it was saving to swig down later at a quieter moment. It was probably just me being an idiot and not doing something correctly or otherwise it’s something minor that will be fixed in the final game.

Speaking of things you can find on the battlefield, the thruster pack power up you are sometimes awarded with adds some extra abilities to your mech that permanently increase its manoeuvrability for the rest of the match. These include the ability to perform short dashes which allow you to quickly get out of the line of fire, to perform mid-air boosts which allow you to zoom across platform gaps and the ability to charge up your standard jump so that you can reach greater heights. It’s just a bit of a shame that the thruster pack is a separate power up that you have to acquire, and not something that is inherently built into your mech from the start; it makes navigating around each arena much more of a smooth and enjoyable process. It’s a small point, I know, but without the thruster pack, your mech feels like it’s just missing a crucial element when you fire up a new level and it’s not automatically equipped.

Laser

Now, time for a bit of a confession; I’m primarily a console player who doesn’t play an awful lot of shooters on the PC these days (heresy, I know), so I accept that I’m not exactly an expert on how a shooter should feel control-wise on a mouse and keyboard. In my opinion though, Pixel Bomb have taken what could have been an overly complicated and fiddly set of controls (yes, I’m looking at you Steel Battalion and your 40+ button controller) and assigned them to a control layout which largely feels simple to use – even for a PC noob like me.

With a bit of practice in the tutorial, I was soon stomping around, darting around corners and piloting my mech with ease. The weapon system felt a little strange with this setup at first, as the majority of your weapons are fired all by using the left mouse button in different ways, but I actually found that this actually makes things way more concise and simple in the fast-paced nature of the combat so that you’re not constantly scrolling through a weapon wheel every few seconds. Perhaps it’s just because I’m primarily a console player, but I have to say that there’s just definitely something undeniably cool about playing a mech game with a keyboard, as it gets across that tactile feeling that you’re directly manning the controls of the mech in a way that you don’t quite seem to get when using a controller.

Drones

Having said that, I personally found that some of the keyboard controls could feel a bit awkward and clunky at times. In particular, activating the slow motion precision aiming ability on the keyboard felt like quite a convoluted procedure – you have to click the right mouse button as you simultaneously tap left shift, but if you hold left shift for slightly too long then your mech will start to race forward as it’s also the run key. This makes things a bit awkward if you’re wanting to snipe at fast moving targets from afar without your mech lurching forwards at a crucial moment. For a skill that you need to consistently use in order to take out targets at range, it definitely took a while to get the correct timing down in order to aim accurately in slow motion. Admittedly, the game is designed to be played with an Xbox 360 controller first and foremost, which probably elevates this issue altogether, or like with the molotov cocktails, it might be just me being an idiot again.

Charge Attack

In contrast to the issues I had with the long range shooting, the game really nails the up-close and personal mech on flesh brawling with flying colours. Perhaps I’m a bit too bloodthirsty for my own good, but in my opinion one of the game’s greatest strengths is its heavy emphasis on guts and gore. While Manchester is often (unfairly) labelled as the rainy city in real life, in Beyond Flesh and Blood, it’s certainly raining an awful lot of blood at pretty much any time of day. The ease with which you can eviscerate the attacking rebel humans and curb stomp them into nothing more than greasy red Deansgate pavement stains feels disturbingly great. There’s a hefty sense of weight to your mech, particularly when using the Mark 1, and it’s a real rush (pun intended) being able to thud into a frail fleshy human at speed and pulverise them into great big bloody chunks with just a single click of the mouse.

Corpse

Alright, look, I might be a tad bit bloodthirsty, but the liberal use of gore and giblets gives the game this old school Unreal Tournament sort of feeling which works surprisingly well within the game’s more serious post-apocalyptic aesthetic. In particular, the various animations that your mech performs when dismembering some poor futuristic Mancunian soldier always made me chuckle (I’m definitely not a psychopath, I promise), and they imbue what would otherwise be cold and unflinching robots with a gleefully malicious attitude. Despite this, the high frequency with which these zoom-ins happen did start to get a bit irritating after a while, as they greatly slow down the action and pull you out of the experience a bit, particularly when they happen to trigger every couple of minutes.

Sunset

Perhaps one of the greatest concerns I had before even playing the demo was whether a third person camera view would best suit a mech shooter? For a genre which is typically associated with intricate first person cockpit immersions, the decision to go with a third person perspective felt an unusual design choice. From my experience of playing previous mech shooters such as Titanfall, which places a great deal of its emphasis on the simulation of climbing inside and piloting the giant Titan mechs, I was worried that the third person perspective of Beyond Flesh and Blood would lose something by eschewing the traditional cockpit view.

The game’s curved onscreen interface and futuristic heads-up display certainly help to create the impression that you’re inside the mech and directly piloting it first-hand. Although I personally feel that you somewhat miss out a bit from not having an internal cockpit view that gives a first person perspective of the action, the game goes a great way towards capturing that feel of piloting a robust heavy mech through the way its gameplay mechanics and the controls nicely intermesh with one other. You definitely get that great sensation of having all of the mech’s weight and power at your fingertips when playing; you feel like you’re controlling nothing short of a walking death machine on legs as you romp around the crumbling red brick ruins and pulsating alien hives of post-cataclysmic Manchester.

Additionally, the developers have stated that one of their main intentions with the game was to particularly focus on the “visual atmosphere…we’ve made one of the most enhancing features of the game its environments – using visually stunning playscapes to accelerate your experience.” Using a third person camera allows them to do exactly that, as well as show off the majestic mechs in all their shiny glory too – even though when you’re using the Mark 1 mech, it does take up roughly a third of your screen’s real estate. However, like I mentioned earlier, the area of the screen that you can see shows off some great set pieces and environments to fight in which look very promising even this early on in the game’s design.

So, all in all from what I’ve played so far in the pre-alpha demo though, From Beyond Flesh and Blood looks to be shaping up into being a fun mech shooter that’s full of promise, lasers, and pints and pints of blood.

I’ll be talking to the Pixel Bomb developers later this week at EGX Rezzed and also hopefully getting the chance to try out the latest Unreal 4 version of the demo which they are debuting there, so stay tuned for an upcoming interview piece and further written impressions in the near future. Until then, if you want to get in on the Manchester mech mayhem yourself, then simply download the demo to start eviscerating humans and aliens to your heart’s content. Just don’t forget to wear an apron – it’s bloody up north.