KISS: Psycho Circus - The Nightmare Child
Let's have a quick game of word association. Ready? Ex-Daikatana developers leave Ion Storm and start creating their own first-person shooter based around the exploits of sad supergroupers, Kiss. What's the first thing that comes into your mind? Now that's not very complimentary is it? And if we printed words like that then we'd be taken off the shelves at Will Smiths.
Basing a game around rock dinosaurs like Kiss is a risky business. On the one hand it's going to sell to die-hard fans who must, simply must, own everything connected to their idols. Flip the coin over and you've got a title that's likely to be ignored by die-hard gamers who know that these sort of licenses are often a way of hiding utter trash masquerading as entertainment.
But not in this case. Despite the fact that Psycho Circus is almost completely devoid of innovation, from the distinctly unremarkable AI to the Doom homage in the second realm and secret hiding places, it's an entertaining game that's well worth $35 of anyone's hard-earned cash. How so? It's simple really. Behind our cries for realism and human-like Al, one important point can get overlooked: games are supposed to be fun. Psycho . Circus is a blast for three very important reasons: level design, monsters and weapons. Get these secret ingredients in place H and you're in a no-lose situation. (Take note John Romero). Before we look at these in closer detail, let's just fill you in on the basic storyline. Four members of a band turn up at a seemingly deserted circus and are accosted by a man-woman with a crystal ball. Before you know it, you're in charge of saving the world, through four distinct realms of the Psycho Circus You have to play all four characters through all four realms, and, although there's a suggested order, you can tackle any of the realms at any time.
By choosing to build the game around the marvellously flexible LithTech engine, Third Law has been able to flex it's muscle by designing levels that move from claustrophobic corridors to massive landscapes, canyons and ravines. It's something that id has never been able to code into its admittedly superior Quake engines and it suits the style of this game perfectly. The LithTech engine also delivers the looks that we've become accustomed to (Daikatana notwithstanding), although it does sell us short on water and, with next-generation blasters like oyagenmminent, it's going to look dated before the boxed copies hit the shelves. But that's something we're willing to forgive.
Then there are the monsters. If you've read our preview then you'll know that the one feature we were looking forward to was the Horde technology, which promised swarms of creatures on-screen at once. Now we've played through the full game, we're pleased to report that it's in place and it works a treat. Even on a mid-end system we didn't suffer any slowdown, despite tackling dozens of creatures, from scuttling the Headless to Flaming UniPsychos and Fat Ladies.
Cleverly, all of this frantic action disguises the fact that the AI in the game isn't really up to much. It's not quite as bad as the disastrous Daikatana, but you won't find anything displaying the tactical awareness of the Half-Life troops. However, with a level tull of creatures that can follow you wherever you go, and taking into account the mix of flying and ground-based creatures with melee or long-range attacks, it doesn't matter. The strategy that you have to follow is dictated by numbers and actually find yourself M halfway through the game I before realising that you haven't even had time to stop and think about the Al.
Another new strategy is introduced via the spawning points. These contraptions spew out smaller creatures (up to the rotten Gasbags) by the bucket load, so you can't just dig in and keep shooting, otherwise you're going to run out of ammunition just before you get overwhelmed. Instead you have to destroy the nests before trying to clear the screen of your adversaries.
As mentioned, this does lead to a small problem. The way the levels have been designed, it's sometimes extremely hard to reach the spawn points. In the second realm, spawn points have been placed on upper levels, which doesn't stop the creatures from dropping down and attacking you while you're trying to deal with bigger problems. By the time you've managed to make it upstairs, your ammunition can be severely depleted making it hard to progress through the game without constant recourse to the quick save key. It's the biggest irritation in the game and it could be solved by a dynamic ammunition system which takes into account how low you are and doles out the bullets accordingly.
It's a damn shame as well because the range of weapons is excellent, and having to stare down at five or six empty f barrels can be a heart-breaking experience. The weapons are surprisingly effective, from the melee weapons like the sword, gloves or battleaxe, through to the magma and zero cannons, and up to the four ultimate weapons that are granted to each of the four characters.
The balance is excellent. All of the weapons have their place, and all are effective, even the assorted melee stuff, which doesn't normally work. There's no alternate fire mode, which is a bit of a shame, and there's no sniper rifle (although you can zoom in at any time by using the Hawkeye option), but there are some neat little touches, such as the way you have to use the super-whip to haul yourself across huge ravines or up into places you wouldn't be able to access normally. Another nice touch (and completely in keeping with the arcade style of game) is that each of the creatures you attack has a life bar so you can see how much damage each weapon is doing and how much longer you need to keep battering away until the thing gives up the ghost.
And there's even a few dollops of humour. The different creatures that are sent out to destroy you have an uneasy alliance with each other. One stray shot and this is gone, leaving them to slug it out with each other while you tiptoe back to the safety of the spectators gallery. With the amount of creatures on screen at any one time, this is pretty well balanced; it doesn't happen too often but when it does, it's usually right when you need it.
There are also a few jukeboxes scattered around. Use one and a Kiss track drops onto the platter and starts blaring out of your speakers. You might like this (who are we to say?), but it put the willies up us, and instinctively we backed off and fired a shot, which destroyed the jukebox and stopped Gene in mid flow.
And, on the subject of humour, the game itself is a cheeky twofingered salute to Third Law's ex employer Ion Storm. Think about it. Daikatana is a FPS that's set across four distinct realms, populated by a wide variety of creatures. In each one you get access to a multitude of different weapons, including the fabled Daikatana sword, and you can upgrade characteristics such as jumping along the way. Trouble is, the game stinks. Psycho Circus is also set across four different realms, with different creatures, weapons (including a sword that actually does a bit of damage) and the ability to collect armour along the way that upgrades your powers. It's also a quality game.
Psycho Circus doesn't rewrite any of the FPS laws, but it succeeds in refining and tweaking and proving that there's still life in the genre. It's not going to win any awards and there's a general feeling of deja vu, particularly in the second realm, but as a means of passing time there's a lot worse on the shelves of your local shop. Third Law has had to withstand a lot of criticism about its abilities but Psycho Circus has done just enough to prove all the critics wrong. Who's having the last laugh now?
Download KISS: Psycho Circus - The Nightmare Child
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
"Hello. Here I am, Here we are, We are one. I've been waiting for this night to come, Get up. Now it's time for me to take my place, The make-up running down my face, We're exiles from the human race." These might sound like the lyrics from the latest Spice Girls' track, but they're not. In actual fact these are the profundities from the title track of the brand new Kiss album. Psycho Circus. Why should you care? Because later on this year the Gathering of Developers is rolling out a game inspired by the Kiss vision.
Unless you're a fan, this simple fact is going to leave you distinctly cold. Games based on film or pop star tie-ins are renowned as being absolutely shockingly terrible, but we reckon that Psycho Circus: The Nightmare Child may just have the capacity to surprise. And that's why we're here -to fill you in on the juicy gossip and explain why we think the game is actually going to be pretty good.
For a start it's a first-person shooter that's going to use a heavily modified version of the LithTech 1.5 engine, as seen in Blood II and Shogo. And if you're a bit of an anorak about your 3D engines, you'll know that this means it's going to look absolutely top notch. Take a glance at these early screenshots if you need a bit more gentle persuasion. If you want more technical details, the modifications are going to include saturation blending, gourard-shaded models and all-new player movement physics. The other big feature to watch out for is the fact that the developers have tweaked the code so that you can expect to see loads and loads of drug-induced Kiss-inspired demons coming at you at once, something that the FPS genre hasn't really seen since the good old days of Doom.
What else? 25 twisted freaks (the developers words, not ours), 12 weapons, 16 artefacts (like, wow, man) and a slew of boss and mini-boss encounters. You get to play one of four playable characters (based, funnily enough, on the current Kiss line-up) and as you progress through the game you can unlock and master unique abilities. Despite this, we're not expecting much else apart from a good, old-fashioned first-person shoot 'em up, although with the power of the LithTech engine and the promise of monsters galore we're getting strangely excited about this one. And no, before you ask, we're not Kiss fans, although Mark Hill's first ever album purchase was Dynasty, a fact he's keen to keep quiet. Shame that. Unfortunately, despite the fascinating possibilities, Gene Simmons' tongue (reach of around 46cm according to one particularly excitable fan) isn't going to feature in the game as one of the weapons. This is a fact that's bound to distress the legions of female 'Kissers' around the country.
Unreal Tournament and Quake III might be great games, but if you're looking for a story-fuelled single-player shooter, then you can forget both of these.
In fact, games that fit this particular bill are a bit short on the ground, and if you've B played through Half-Life and V its sublime, but short-lived, B add-on pack, then you're B pretty well stuffed. Forget Daikatana. We reviewed it in the last issue and it's not much cop. So where should you look for solo thrills next?
A release based on the exploits of 70s supergroup Kiss? Well, why not? Kiss Psycho Circus isn't a game that's been hastily thrown together to sit on the back of the Kiss moniker. It's actually based on the rather tasty comic of the same name created by Todd McFarlane, and it's got more in common with Sandman and Hellraiser than good old-fashioned American rock. In the comic, the Psycho Circus is a macabre collective and handily enough it's also a gateway to alternate realities, which lead to adventures drawn around the deepest and darkest recesses of the human soul. Sounds like our sort of gig.
In the game, the 'Four Who Are One' (that's Kiss in case you hadn't realised) or Elders (or good guys) have been banished to the Void. The Nightmare King is getting ready for an immaculate conception, and if his child is bom before the Elders can return, he'll "swallow the universe whole, just to spit it out again in a highly undesirable form". And no, we're not kidding.
This is where you come in. Lured to the circus by false promises you're soon enslaved by an old crone who demands that you scour five realms -Fire, Water, Air, Earth and Nightmare - to restore the Elders and save the world. Each of the element realms correspond with a member of Kiss, who has different weapons, including a melee weapon (sword, battle-axe) and an ultimate weapon, such as the Beast King's railgun beater the Soul Lance. To complete each realm, you have to collect pieces of magic armour and transform yourself from mere mortal to the sex gods we know in their earthly form as Kiss. Riveting stuff, I'm sure you'll agree.
Taking a lead from the sublime Half-Life, Psycho Circus is going to include a number of smaller goals in the game that should ensure the atmosphere of is kept near boiling point. In the water realm, you'll have to escape from a flooding cathedral; and in the circus levels, you have to play your way out of some warped circus games, including the classic duck shoot where you start off providing the target practice.
Swarms Of The Buggers
You can also expect a slew of end-of-level and mini-bosses to fight against. The preview code we've played through only includes the first realm, but we've already had to contend with a flaming Unipsycho and a giant down that rolls up in a stunt car and proceeds to lob exploding skittles at your head.
As far as the other monsters go, twisted is the name of the game. Floating Gasbags, old Gypsy crones, scuttling spiders, eight-legged Arachniclowns and Ballbusters and Stumps are all waiting to strike, and with the flexibility of the LithTech engine and Third Law's Horde technology, you can expect to see literally dozens of these creatures on screen at once. Polygon counts drop when creatures are further away from you, and when frame rates start to drop on your machine. So, despite the frenetic Doom-style play, the game should never noticeably slow down.
AI has been set to account for the swarms as well, with the emphasis on variation and speed, rather than stealth and cunning.
Romero Vs Third Law
Ironically, Third Law, developer of Psycho Circus, is the group that left the Daikatana project to set up on their own, and the four distinct realms and different weapons look like a two-fingered gesture to the long-haired one. In a recent fit of sour grapes, John Romero was quoted as having no regrets about the Daikatana project.
The only thing he'd change if he could go back would be the staff. "It all came down to people, nothing to do with the game design. The design was not impossible to do with competent people. Now we have an awesome team and everybody pulled through. It took a long time to go through a lot of people who weren't used to doing their hobby as a job."
We should have a full review of Psycho Circus next month, and the fact that the team has managed to ship at almost the same time as Daikatana makes Romero's words slightly questionable. The game looks better (the LithTech 1.5 engine is vastly superior to the old Quake II workhorse) and, at this early stage, plays better.
If the finished product is tweaked properly, we could be looking at a game that delivers what Daikatana failed to - adrenaline-fuelled fun. Psycho Circus doesn't have any pretensions and it's not likely to run off with any awards for innovation, but it might just provide the antidote for the rash of multiplayer shooters, and possibly keep us going until Voyager or Alice see the light. And the best news? You won't be plagued by a raucous Kiss soundtrack that has to be switched off every time you play the game. Now that's got to be a real bonus.
It's Kinda Tragic
Rock bands and PC games are uneasy bedfellows. Here's the shocking proof
One thing we can say with certainty is Kiss Psycho Circus is going to be the best game based around a rock band, because there's not much competition. Anyone remember Queen: The Eye? A game set in the not too distant future where economic markets have collapsed, and citizens of the wortd are governed by a vast network called the Eye? Thought not You played Dubroc, one of the agents of the network, eradicating images and notions deemed subversive or harmful to the Eye. Until you discovered music. Rumours that Queen: The Brown Eye was the original title have been sadly discounted.
Or does Ed Hunter sound familiar? It was a shooting game on rails in which the scariest and most challenging section had you scrambling for the escape key in a bid to shut off the Iron Maiden soundtrack that accompanied the carnage. The evil that men do, indeed.