The se days it seems to be getting harder and harder to find developers who are prepared to risk their necks, not to mention a great deal of cash, by releasing genuinely new ideas into a fickle marketplace. OK, so they might be pushing the envelope when it comes to graphics, but as far as gameplay is concerned, it’s surprising the number of envelopes that get lost under the fridge. Enter Ghost Master, a spook ’em up sim from Oxford-based developers Sick Puppies and one of the most innovative games at E3 this year.
It’s impossible to put Ghost Master into any specific gaming genre as it takes bits and pieces from practically every arena, bar FPS and sports. "The beauty of Ghost Master is that it appeals to both hardcore and casual gamers," claims Sick Puppies founder Greg Barnett. "God game, resource management, sim, . strategy or even adventure gamers k looking for something a little different will love Ghost, as will players of The Sims looking for something with a little more edge to it. Even non-gamers who like reality shows may enjoy it, and almost certainly those that don’t like reality shows will too! It’s the sort of game everybody should try because you just never know who it will appeal to."
No Rest For The Wicked
Whether it will appeal to fans of The Sims is yet to be seen, but it should certainly appeal to those who hate them: this game is about as anti-S/m as you can get. Ever wanted to drive those bland little simmy characters insane? Scare them out of their three-piece-suite loving minds? Bugger up their relationships and send them screaming into the night? Well that's what Ghost Master is all about.
You play an undead civil servant, sent to the town of Gravenville to sort out some problems of an other-worldly nature. You play through a series of scenarios which revolve around haunted locations all titled with suitably ghoulish puns - things like Deadfellas, Train Spooking and Ghoul. Interrupted. Each of the locations contains various mortals, be they a family, mafia bosses or scantily-clad young women in a sorority house. The locations will also have a number of 'local' ghosts, which are the spirits of people that have died there. The object of the levels is to use your team of up to eight ghosts and try and scare, manipulate and trick the mortals into helping you lay the local spirits to rest, usually by solving some mystery surrounding their deaths. Once they're at peace, they’ll join your team.
The Unusual Suspects
To achieve your goals you’ll have to resort to a lot of general scaring. After all, where would ghosts be without fear? The more you scare people, the more plasm you'll build up. which allows you to cast bigger and better haunting spells. Plus it also allows you to gradually upgrade your ghosts to the level of superghost. There are between 50-60 spooks in the game, which are split into 21 ghost 'families’ including Frighteners, Disturbances and Reflection, and they have some 150 haunting powers between them. Most of the ghosts can only inhabit or be 'bound' to the mortal world in certain areas, such as electric objects or murder sites. Certain ghosts such as poltergeists can even bind to children, so that everywhere the child goes strange things happen and the parents start getting that 'Perhaps we shouldn't have called him Damien’ feeling.
The various ways you can scare people and manipulate them look like being one of the most ingenious aspects of the game. You can make rooms go cold or possess a toaster, both of which are child’s play compared to the ultra-scary stuff such as making walls bleed or creating hordes of ghostly insects.
However, there are some threats to your ghosts in the mortal world. These include sceptics, who do their best to decrease belief in the paranormal, and student witches who will try and ward them off. But you can fight back, and a well-timed ghastly apparition at a student witches’ seance will have them chewing their black nail polish off. It’s all deliciously evil.
There are two things that there aren’t enough of in gaming at the moment, and that’s innovation and humour. It doesn’t seem a lot to ask for, but Ghost Master looks like it’s going to deal us a healthy hand of both. This could be the start of a ghoultiful relationship.
Download Ghost Master
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
You’re At Home. You walk into a room and your girlfriend/ boyfriend/shagpiece is sitting with their back to you, completely oblivious to your approach. What's your first impulse? To creep over and scare the crap out of them of course, dropping a stealthy hand onto their foolishly unguarded shoulder with a boo! - then laughing uproariously as they convulse on the carpet in paroxysms of froth-mouthed terror.
So inborn is this sadistic penchant for frightening that it seems almost absurd that we've waited until now for Ghost Master, a game in which your primary aim is to strike terror into the hearts of the unwary. Bravely straddling a number of genres including god game, adventure and sim/strategy, Ghost Master puts you in the role of an afterlife civil servant, sent to the small town of Gravenville to remedy an astral crisis of sorts. With a team of chainrattling, blood-dripping ghosts at your command, it's up to you to terrify and manipulate a variety of panicky mortals through a series of objective-driven scenarios. It’s all about managing your ghosts and their 200-odd frightening powers, unlocking new abilities and ghosts, solving puzzles and laying tortured souls to rest. A simple form of resource management exists in the collection of plasm, earned by successfully scaring people, which fuels your ghosts and their dramatic spectral powers.
While you may not have heard of developer Sick Puppies, chances are you’ve sampled the diverse handiwork of its founder, Aussie coding legend Gregg Barnett. Most recently responsible for the occasionally excellent Discworld point and clickers, Gregg’s humble career also boasts titles such as Way Of The Exploding Fist and a string of classics featuring his iconic brainchild Hungry Horace.
Though clearly inspired by films such as Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice, we pumped Gregg about other influences on his latest project: "The initial influences were probably Little Computer People (a precursor to The Sims) and reality television. Then again, practically every scenario parodies or pays homage in some way Jo horror and popular movies. The names of the 30 scenarios say it all really: The Blair Wisp, Weird Seance, Deadfellas..
In a far more interesting referential twist, the game will feature camera ghosts that you can use to view and record the action in the game, though the manner in which they do so will switch between cinematic styles such as early Hitchcock, B-movie splatter and Blair Witch handheld. If that doesn't grab you, Ghost Master also features an exceptionally powerful Al engine. "Everything, including the story, is Al-driven," insists Gregg. "There are goals in each scenario, but how. when or indeed how many they meet is up to the player.
"However," he goes on, "the feature that will knock people’s socks off the most will be the special effects. Every conceivable power you may have seen in a movie or read about will be represented; from bleeding walls and indoor thunderstorms to time portals and headless horsemen."
But for all the visual flash and fresh ideas, Ghost Master is above all about good old-fashioned fun. Check out the movie on your CD and you’ll see what all the fuss is about.
Most People spend their bank holiday weekends wallpapering the spare room, shampooing the dog or tackling that weedy patch by the shed. I spent mine making the walls bleed, the earth swallow luckless mortals, and the toaster dance like it was possessed by Michael Flatley. And it's the most fun I've had with a game in ages.
The game in question is Ghost Master from Oxfordbased developer Sick Puppies, and the premise revolves around you playing the role of an undead civil servant in charge of a team of spooks sent into the town of Gravenville to sort out some otherworldly problems.
Who's That Ghoul?
There are very few games out there that Ghost Master can be accurately compared to. The blend of sim, strategy, adventure-puzzler and RPG really do make it a unique experience, which is a rare quality these days. If you really want comparisons, then try Freedom Force, which has a similar style of team gameplay and points attribution, and Bullfrog games such as Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper 2 for the shared humour value. And. before you start worrying, despite first glances it's nothing like The Sims. It's the anti-Sims.
The game's structure is based around 14 scenarios in various haunted locations from a seemingly normal family home, to a huge multi-floored hospital and an asylum. In each location you have a primary objective, which may be simply to scare all the mortals or to nudge them towards helping you solve different puzzles. Alongside these are secondary goals which involve assisting various local ghosts. Your performance generates points which are converted into gold plasma that's used to buy new powers for your ghosts in the Ghoul Room.
There are 47 ghosts in the game, some which you are given automatically, and others which you have to rescue. These include Bridgit the jilted bride who wants you to uncover infidelities in the hospital she works in, Hard Boiled the chicken poltergeist who needs protecting from ghost hunters, and Blue Murder the female ecop elementals, vapors, frighteners and terrors. Each family has various sub categories that often share or can gain access to, similar haunting powers. Spooks like Boo, Quiver and Wendel can be bound anywhere indoors, making them very useful when chasing mortals around. Others can be bound to things such as murder sites (apparitions) electrical objects (gremlins) children (poltergeists) and sleeping people (sandmen).
This is where the strategy comes in, and it's much more advanced, as well as being a lot more fun, than anything you're likely to find pushing a tank/soldier/monster round the typical virtual RTS gaming world. This is because you have a limited number of ghosts, a limited amount of places they can go. access to a huge number of powers, various ways you can complete certain tasks, plus a finite amount of plasma. The latterws the substance that's generated whenever mortals get scared As well as slowly depleting over time, it also gets used up every time you place a ghost in the mortal world or invoke a power. So your ghosts end up basically working like a tag team, zipping in and out doing the scaring needed to get the plasma flowing, allowing more impressive powers to be cast and more ghosts to gain access to the mortal realm.
If this sounds a tad complicated, don't worry - it isn't. What is a little tricky though, is trying to directly manipulate mortals, as to do this you need your victims to be clear-headed. Which means you end up having just as many frustrations from mortals being too scared than not being scared enough. For example, in one scenario you have to get a group of students to read an incantation from a book. First you need to help them find the location and then the tome itself. But the really annoying part is trying to scare away a nutty professor without spooking the students to the point where they no longer want to do the deed.
Ghost Master is very much a game you play with your eyes. OK. you play most games with your eyes, but in this case the clues to see if your dastardly deeds are working are mostly visual. There are also mini ingame cut-scenes when anything particularly note-worthy happens. Although these are not very pretty, they're very useful in giving you some idea of what to do next, and you'll be thankful for their prompting, especially in the harder levels. Also of help when negotiating Ghost Masters unfamiliar gameplay territory is the smooth and easily negotiated 3D engine and the mortals' Al. both of which have obviously been worked on a great deal. There are quite a few minor collision issues between characters and objects, especially the closer in you get. but nothing that's too offensive on the eyes or which impacts on the gameplay to any real extent.
Powers also work the way they should (although it would have been handy to have an area in the Ghoul Room where you could test different powers out beforehand) and mortals react more or less in a predictable way to your powers. Apart from some general running about, arm waving and camp John Inmanstyle walking, mortals also display their reactions to your efforts with coloured circles and icons that appear around' them when they're scared. Every mortal has their own terror, belief and madness level which you'll need to target to use your spells effectively. For instance, if you cast belief spells, mortals will have blue circles around them briefly, and their belief gauge will go up and consequently terror powers will have more potency.
Alive And Kicking
While you're doing all this observing, you might want to take note of the superb amount of detail Sick Puppies has managed to cram in to each scenario. It's absolutely everywhere. The spells look great as you cast them (and here's where the higher end graphics cards pay off), especially when you've got several ghosts on the go. The mortals also have their own visual details, such as swinging their legs, tapping their fingers or falling asleep when they're bored. They argue with each other, they stress out, they go to the toilet, they pop outside for a breath of fresh air - and there are a hundred other things that really make the scenarios live and breathe.
Each mortal has their own name (many of which are a mixture of sci-fi/fantasy actors and characters) and a bio, which again add to the general giggle factor of the game. It's packed with film references, from the titles of the scenarios - Full Mortal Jacket, Deadfellas, Phantom Of The Operating Room - to Slightly more subtle nods. The patients in the hospital all have the same surnames as the marines in Aliens and (bare with me on this) the first names of the actors that played them. Plus, all their medical complaints are related to the way the marines acted or died in the film. So we find Bill Hudson, delirious on his current medication, muttering game over man... game over... Ingenious.
As I mentioned before, there's very little to compare Ghost Master to, so it's not obvious what the game is missing'. Some kind of multiplayer would have been nice, but then again finding something that would work really well using the Ghost Master world would have probably taken as much time as creating the original game. And although you can replay all your previous levels again in search of higher scores, an editor, akin to the hero-creation feature in Freedom Force, would have also added more longevity to the game.
Another aspect that Freedom Force did well with that Ghost Master doesn't quite achieve, was the way it brought out the personalities of the team members and gave them a group dynamic, which was achieved mainly through cutscenes and character bio pics. Ghost Master does have ingame engine scene-setters, and although you revisit locations and see the same mortals popping up, between mission cut-scenes (especially if they could have been made to the standard of the opening movie) would have helped the scenarios hang together better. And some further work could have gone into developing your new ghosts' characters and personal story once you free them to join your team.
Leading By Example
Nevertheless, Ghost Master remains a great game for many different reasons. The paramount one is that it's different - it displays innovation and imagination in an industry that can often be accused of putting the almighty dollar before genuine creativity. It's well put together and easy to negotiate. It's a lot of fun, not just relying on slapstick toilet humour, but full of well researched details that will raise a smile with practically anyone who's ever watched a film in their life. But it won't be for everyone, as it does require a lot of patience to really get the most out of it.
When you're breaking new ground with a game you're taking a big risk because your target audience hasn't really been established yet, and hardcore gamers (yes I'm talking to you) can be notoriously fickle about straying from their preferred genre. Is it worth deviating from your preferred path? Yes, definitely. You only have one gaming life to lead so take the risk with Ghost Master and make sure it's an extraordinary one.
Who You Gonna Call?
Sometimes They Fight Back
These mortals aren't a totally stupid lot, you know? The rumours of your ghastly doings have got around and now they're going to bring in the big boys. Actually, there are big girls as well. Yes, Ghost Master is an equal opportunities establishment for those gifted with paranormal tinglings. In GM you'll have to face down the likes of teen witches and Ghostbuster-esque spook hunters who have the power to banish your ghosts from the mortal realm. However, if your minions can give them a suitable scare while they are in mid banish, then they might just save themselves from eternal damnation. OK, so maybe not that, but at least being kicked out of the game for that mission.
Hit 'Em Where It Hurts
Unlock The Mortals Unconscious Fears For Maximum Scare Value
You can just wade in hell for leather with whichever powers you like the look of, but if you want to gain the points, and thus that precious gold plasma, then you'll need to be a bit more devious. Every mortal has conscious and subconscious fears, and once you know them you can scare them much more effectively. Powers like Taste Aura can tell a mortal's conscious features, while certain ghosts can delve into the unconscious mind. Sandmen, like Hypnos, bind to sleeping people and can reveal that person's unconscious fears, which could be anything from blood, to certain noises. Once you have that information you can target your powers appropriately and really do some serious mental damage.
Developer Sick Puppies has unfortunately now passed on to the other side, but l an apparition from the past has appeared in the office in the form of its last project. Ghost Master. While the visuals may look like The Sims, this is deceptive - Ghost Master is actually closer to games such as Freedom Force and Dungeon Keeper 2, melding strategy, sim, puzzler and RPG into a unique 3D experience. Over 14 levels, you must use an array of ghosts to solve puzzles by manipulating/scaring the bejeezus out of the mortal humans in the buildings, by setting up traps and causing unnatural phenomena such as the summoning of dozens of spiders.
Your haunting performance generates points that are converted into plasma, and this is then used to buy new powers for your army of the dead in the appropriately-named Ghoul Room. Packed with twisted humour and a smattering (splattering?) of toilet gags and rather spiffy spell effects, Ghost Master is full of imaginative gameplay ideas. You'll either love it or hate it, but for the price of a fiver, it's worth the risk of being spooked.
I've Been seeing dead people everywhere. I've heard their shrieks, their moans, the endless rattling of chains and echoes of maniacal laughter. I've witnessed the ectoplasm flowing freely -oh yes! I've seen what it can do. They might tell me that Dave's seeing Vice City in New York, but I know he's been sucked clean through the floor by some demonic force. As for the flicker on Martin's monitor, I can see the gremlin curled on the top of it, teasing me with its infernal chattering. Though some might say I've just been playing Ghost Master too long, I alone know the truth.
Slime Me Baby
As a conduit between the worlds of the living and the dead, I feel it's only fair to tell you a bit more about the game we've been rattling our chains about for the past eight months, now I've had a chance to spend some quality time with an early playable version. As a quick recap for those of you that didn't catch our last preview, Ghost Master is a game about being an undead civil servant who guides a team of spooks through various haunted locations in the town of Gravenville, solving puzzles, freeing restless spirits and scaring mortals.
And we have to say that the way the game actually plays, in terms of pace and gameplay, is different from anything else out there at the moment. Or more accurately, it combines elements of other titles in such a way that makes it stand apart from any one genre. Playing a game that doesn't involve you shooting something, building food stalls or pushing a human/monster/tank around a map can be something of a surreal experience in itself. Ghost Master really feels like the freshest thing on the menu.
It's the Al in Ghost Master that, in a similar way to titles such as Black & White or The Sims, forms one of the most predominant and innovative features in the game. However, as creative director and founder of Sick Puppies, Gregg Barnett, explains, it's also proved one of the hardest to implement. Getting the mortal Al to act like B-movie characters has been the trickiest problem by far. ft's been a roller coaster ride of making the Al generate unique behaviour, then realising with testing that deterministic behaviour is better for gameplay as it lends some predictability to proceedings.
The end result is lots and lots of behaviour that is reasonably predictable if the player uses similar techniques on the same characters, but still exhibits surprising left field antics when you leastexpect it. But only in ways that don't go against the gameplay." Ghost Master isn't just about creating havoc with your selected team of ghosts. It's all about watching it unfold to see if it's having the desired effect. When you scare a mortal, their terror level goes up and they run away. If you I leave them too long without giving them another shock, their fear level will return to normal and you'll have to start the process again.
When trying to terrify one particular mortal, this means you have to follow them around making sure they're kept in a state of abject terror by using your ghosts to, say, levitate objects around them or chill the room. If they try sleeping, a quick a mortal, their terror level goes up and they run away. If you leave them too long without giving them another shock, their fear level will return to X? normal and you'll have to start the process again.
When trying to terrify one particular mortal, this means you have to follow them around making sure they're kept in a state of abject terror by using your ghosts to, say, levitate objects around them or chill the room. If they try sleeping, a quick rattle of the old chains will have them on their feet in no time.
Likewise, if you need to capitalise on the innate curiosity of your mortal playthings you'll have to keep an eye on how they react to your haunting spells. For example, one of the basic puzzles you need to solve is to get a mortal to open S a boarded-up door so they discover a I body. If you place a ghost in the room you want them to get into and use a noise spell to attract them, you'll see the mortals prick up their ears, go to the door, look puzzled and eventually - when you've made enough of a commotion - get somebody to break it down.
Trick Or Treat
H It's these puzzle elements of Ghost Master that form the majority of the gameplay, and the objectives of the missions usually revolve around completing tasks set for you by local ghosts (spirits that have died and subsequently ended up haunting a particular location). Once you've completed their requests, the ghouls in question will join your team. What the puzzles involve varies considerably from ghost to ghost.
There's the geek ghost who wants to get even with the frat jock who bullied him in the mortal realm. Another is a weather witch who's desperate to extricate her ashes from the vacuum cleaner they were sucked into. And then there's the disembodied brain in a jar who wants to be saved from the indignity of becoming the butt of a student's practical joke. Freeing them might be as simple as setting off the right spell at the right time, or as complicated as cajoling mortals into carrying out a complex chain of tasks. Although in later scenarios, fear isn't always your primary weapon, as you may need to calm a distressed mortal before they'll act rationally.
We're still getting the balance right between sim-style play and puzzle play -not to mention making sure the puzzles aren't too brain taxing. But the gameplay is shaping up nicely," explains Gregg. It's such a unique blend of elements that it does take a lot of testing and tweaking to get it right, and there are no commercial prototypes out there, so to speak. But I'm sure it is going to be something special.
Candyman, Candyman, Candym...
There's no ignoring the fact that the 3D engine behind Ghost Master is extremely sophisticated. You can zoom in and out or rotate the camera with ease - even zip from floor to floor while checking the climate of fear. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised to see the same kind of technology used in a Sims or Sim City update. You can even zoom into the body of your panicked mortals and see the world through their eyes, not to mention hearing their rapidly increasing heart beat thumping in your ears.
As you can see from the screenshots, the engine also depicts some glorious pyrotechnics and special effects, as your ghosts start to unleash the full force of their supernatural haunting powers upon the physical realm.
The only obvious thing missing from the game is a multiplayer element and some kind of an editor, although Gregg is adamant that these are planned for the sequel: Multiplayer is a big design job, as the core gameplay needs changing to accommodate it - it's not like players are competing for mortals to worship them, for example. They're competing for mortals to scare away - a much more difficult design concept. An in-game editor was simply a road too far for the first version. With a fully original game, you can't do everything. You must focus on getting the core game right first. We'd be here forever if we'd tried to do multiplayer now, but doing it in the future will enable us to get it right. Then, everybody will be able to recreate their own homes and offices and scare the pants off their friends and colleagues!" Ghosts in the office? Believe me it will happen - I've seen it, and soon my pretties, you will see it too.
Zen And The Art Of Good Ghost Mastering
All of the 47 ghosts in Ghost Master are divided into families. There are six main such groups: Sprites, Disturbances, Elementals, Vapours, Frighteners and Horrors. Each of these is again divided into a sub-family with, for example, Gremlins: Unleashed! and Wisps both being part of the Sprite family. Each family has certain haunting powers in common, although these diversify with each ghost. The type of family your ghost belongs to will also affect which areas of a house they can haunt. For example, Ghastly, the young man showing off in the screenshot here, can only be bound or fettered to areas or objects which radiate emotional disturbance. These can be as obvious as a murder site or as obscure as a stuffed moose's head.
Ghost In The Machine
Spirits Of Gaming Past
Despite the popularity of ghosts and demons in the movies, their appearance in gaming has been surprisingly limited. Among the exceptions of note are 1996's ' underrated LucasArts heaven-and-hell simulation Afterlife, and EA's Haunting: Starring Polterguy, put out on the Mega Drive back in the early '90s.
Haunting was a third-person character-driven strategy/adventure game revolving around a Beetlejuice-style teenage ghost called Polterguy, whose mission was to search the underworld for ectoplasm. There are more than a few similarities with Ghost Master in this forgotten nugget - at least in terms of concept - as Polterguy needed the ectoplasm to help him take revenge on the snooty and nefarious Sardini family by scaring them from their homes. With flying skulls and sofas that growled, it was the game the words ghoulish-romp' were made for.