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Majesco has been almost as enigmatic about its new title, Black 9, as the nine secret societies the game is named after. Is it an RPG? Is it a third-person sci-fi action game? Is it an even more aggressive Unreal Championship? Actually, it's a mix of all those things, with a deep, story-driven singleplayer campaign and ambitious multiplayer modes.
CEO Erik Bethke at developer Taldren foresees a rather dull future, at least by videogame standards. "Not much is going to change 78 years from now," he says. "There's no apocalypse, no World War III, no cliched, bleak cyberpunk future." Luckily, there will be plenty of cybernetic technological developments and duplicitous, warring secret societies to keep us busy in 2081. In an effort to keep spoilers to a minimum, we'll leave it at this: You'll find a linear but plot-twist-riddled single-player campaign where you'll cross paths with the nine different illuminati sects as you fly to Hong Kong, the moon, and Mars.
On the surface, Black g looks like your standard-issue third-person action-adventure game, but it actually has the story and character growth of an RPG. Take, for example, your three alter egos in the game: There's the military bruiser, a stealthy hacker/thief, and a cyber mage with nanotech "magic" abilities. But just because you play as a soldier doesn't mean you have to blast and bash your way through the entire game. If you develop hacking skills or buy nanotech upgrades, other ways to achieve each objective present themselves. Bethke was quick to bust out old Dungeons & Dragons references, saying players can be any permutation of a multiclassed magic user, fighter, or thief--or you can create a jack-of-all-trades (note: not an official D&D character class).
With every completed mission, you gain attributes and skill points that increase your potential. And with all the credits you earn on the job, you'll also be able to fine-tune your mercenary with brand-new weapons, supplies, and nanotech implants. Screw the clothes--it's the stats that make the man.
In the early build we played, only a handful of standard-issue ballistic weapons were in place. Handguns, machine pistols, and the like were fired from a third-person chase-cam perspective, while some sniper weapons push you into a first-person view. Ultimately, Black 9 will include grenades, mines, detonation packs, crossbows, and much more-roughly 20 weapons in all. And vehicles? In our demo, we boarded a hoverbike, donned a flight pack, and climbed into an assault ground car. Word has it six to eight vehicles will be available.
But it's the variety of 30 different skill and nanotech upgrades that impressed us most. Some are bland but helpful, like those that improve targeting or give you onscreen stats of enemies in view. But then there's the genuinely cool new inventions; Urban Tracking, for instance, turns you into a cyber bloodhound able to see stray DNA molecules that come off your prey (they appear onscreen as colored blips that fade over time). Or take the magnetic grappling hook that lets you work out your Spider-Man fantasies as you swing through the levels. Other nanotech-based skills work a lot like magic in most fantasy RPGs. Five schools of spelts are planned, one for each of the four elements and another called drain, which focuses on leeching health, mental energy, and chi (used for spellcasting and other cyber skills).
The single-player campaign is shaping up to be a huge character-building quest, but Taldren also has some big multiplayer plans in store via Xbox Live. You'll get a Co-op mode, where you can go through the whole game online with a buddy, as well as combat scenarios supporting up to 16 players. Bethke explains, "We're using the backstory of Black 9 to pit mercenary agents of the various illumi-nati in thematic scenarios. There will be cap-ture-and-hold matches like in the PC game Battlefield 1942, rescue/kidnap a VIP missions, and scenarios that have you hacking into or defending important installations." Multiplayer will also sport additional crafts not available in the single-player game. The developers still have plenty to do before Black 9's November target date, but Taldren is definitely onto something. The only mystery left is figuring out what we're anticipating the most: seeing the finished graphical flourishes, the single-player action/RPG experience, or the multiplayer scenario-based matches.