Privateer 2: The Darkening
It's been nearly a year since young Jeremy brought us a report on the filming of a new game from Origin. We learned that it starred Clive Owen (of Chancer fame among other British tv roles), Brian Blessed (dead famous, but if you're not sure he was the bloke who was the boss of the birdmen in Flash Gordon), David Warner and Christopher 'interactive' Walken, and we also knew that this was another of EA's mega-budget Wing Commander type things - but that was about it.
After some considerable time, and lots of reports in loads of magazines, newspapers and even Film 96 (!!!), we've managed to get a look at the gameplay. We'd always assumed that it was going to be a bit Wing Commander-y and our suspicions were confirmed when the name of the product was changed to Privateer: The Darkening -but oddly, no screenshots had been made available and no one seemed to be commenting on anything. Well, all that's over now. I've played it, talked to the producer (Erin Roberts, brother of Wing Commander supremo Chris Roberts) and we now know the reason for the delay.
W-e-l-l, the thing is... Origin have had this 3D engine thing knocking around for ages. Those of you who've stuck with the pc for a while will no doubt be familiar with the Origin back-catalogue: plenty of notoriously over-powered but basically excellent games. Anyway, the real turning- point among the collection was when Strike Commander was released about three years ago. This particular game did a rather fab job with texture-mapped polygons and the like, and although it ate processor power like a lardy fat-boy in a school dinner queue it was rather impressive.
This engine then went on to power Wing Armada, Pacific Strike and ultimately Wing Commander III. By the time Wing Commander IV was released, it had to be said that this engine was getting a little old. Privateer: The Darkening initially started off with yet another tweak of this engine, but by Christmas 1995 both Erin Roberts and his team of three programmers were far from happy with the results they were getting from the three-year-old dinosaur. So what did they do? They ditched it. The whole bloody thing, along with all the 3D models, all the texture maps and all the other 3D work they'd done. They then set about replacing it with another far more advanced 3D engine based on Argonaut's b-rhnder technology (see panel).
And the game?
Okay, okay, I said I'd seen it and played it... so... To sum it up in terms of things you know well, imagine the storyline of Wing Commander IV and the level of complexity that this represents, then throw in a good measure of Blake's 7 (for the acting), couple this with both the original Privateer and a serious dose of Elite before finally adding quite a serious amount of TIE Fighter for the combat sections. The result is an extremely ambitious game that spans three cds and works very well towards producing a game with numerous paths through it. You can 'play the story' in the same way as Wing Commander by simply following the leads that the fmv bits give you; alternatively, you can plump for the Elite route by just flying around, trading and beating the shit out of any helpless looking cargo ships you happen to bump into.
One thing I would like to mention is that the ships in The Darkening are some of the best I've ever seen in a space combat game (that isn't Star Wars-based). There are literally hundreds of different classes of fighters, bombers, cargo ships and warships which you can buy/ capture/nick, as well as an extremely impressive array of 'big' ships which trundle around the seriously large universe that the team have produced.
Of note are the capital ships that the military have a habit of cruising around in. Now, I'm sure you all remember the capital ships in WC, yeah? They were big... but you'd never believe that they contained the hundreds of fighter ships that they allegedly did, would you? Well... with these you would. Before I left EA's office in Manchester Erin gave me a quick glimpse of a massive space battle that they were testing out. Take my word for it - there were hundreds of fighters zipping around and in the middle of it all was a capital ship which, if you flew from end to end at full throttle, took more than 30 seconds to traverse. Believe me - it's big. And the surprising thing was that the b-render engine seemed to be coping with it all admirably on a mid-spec Pentium.
Download Privateer 2: The Darkening
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Before we go any further, I would like to conduct a little experiment to see if I can read your mind. Nothing too taxing you understand, and I promise it won't hurt a bit. I'll just say a word or phrase and you write down everything that comes into your head on that subject. Right, here goes: "Interactive movies". (Short pause, sound of grey matter whirring into action accompanied by a wry smile.)
I'll hedge my bets a little here, but would I be a million miles away if I presumed you thought of at least four or five of the following: hammy, out of work, two bit actors; Plumbers Don't Wear Ties; Mark Hamill; blue screen; FMV; Wing Commander 3 and Under a Killing Moon; Mark Hamill; linear plot and storyline; MPEG; non-interactive; ninja pc required; adventures; nice graphics; and, er, wait a min... Mark Hamill?
So, how did I do? Did I miss anything? (We'll forget the bit about that "adult" cd you picked up at a car boot sale, shall we?) Almost perfect? Well there you have it; conclusive proof that just about every interactive movie released so far on the pc has been just a bit cack. Or should I say, has the reputation of being a bit cack. So if this is the case, why is it that EA and Origin spending upwards of $5 million on an interactive movie project?
Big bucks and loadsa lovies
Well, you see, EA being EA want to do something different. It sees the future of pc entertainment as being much closer in terms of production and direction to the movie industry and it's keen to push back the boundaries in an attempt to take the lead. And we're not talking lame movie license deals here, we're talking next generation home entertainment. As Adam Medhurst, Creative Design Co-ordinator, puts it: "The Darkening represents the beginning of a new evolution in home entertainment. We're approaching the stage when medium is of no relevance and we aim to be the first to produce a product that is recognisably the next step in interactive entertainment."
And what will make The Darkening so different from all the other interactive movie releases that have been forced onto an unsuspecting games buying public, I wonder?
Adam remains totally unfazed by my scepticism. "There are already more components to The Darkening than any other cd release to date. It has so many different facets. The result is a superior world that offers the user a new level of immersion. I want people to go home and play The Darkening instead of just turning on their tv sets and watching Coronation Street. I want them to interact with real characters, played by people who can act, in a "feature film" quality environment."
A tall order perhaps when your audience is hooked on Reg's toupee and Raquel's lovelife?
Adam's more optimistic: "We want to get the player emotionally involved in what's going on. That's why we're using professional actors, recognised names in the film industry, to give the game extra weight. And we're not relying on computer-generated graphics to set the seen. Instead, we've opted to build the sets, just as we would if we were making a "normal" movie. That way we can ensure that it is of the same quality as a feature film and uses the same filming techniques, such as multiple camera angles and panning, to give a sense of pace and tension." And has it worked, I muse?
"It's all so much more intense," argues Adam. "The way that the light reflects off the characters, and the set is infinitely more realistic. Something you could never recreate when you were working with rendered sets."
So it's better than Wing Commander 3, I proffer?
"Well, the technology used in Wing 3 is now over a year old," asserts Adam. "The new video compression software we're using in The Darkening is far superior - as good as it's going to get considering the hardware available at the moment." So I'll need an even faster Pentium then? "Errh. We haven't set a minimum machine specification yet. Although we do recommend an 8Meg machine."
Game, sets and top video compression
A quick guided tour around Studio 2 at the world famous Pinewood Studios (where they are filming a crash scene, and a stunt man is being "blown" through the side of the set), and a quick peek at the rushes is enough to convince me that Adam's got a point.
The quality of the production is much higher than anything yet seen on the pc in terms of atmosphere and quality, and it's, well... it's just so big. Just to give you an indication of the scale of the production, there are seven studios at Pinewood, and EA are filming in four of them.
The sets are massive, and each one is constructed from a special kind of polystyrene. which is then carved into the appropriate shape to give the impression of a stone wall, rock face, prison cell etc. It's then painted, decorated and lit. the actors do their bit. and then it's all torn down to make way for the next set. All in all. a very time consuming and expensive business, with little room for error and re-takes...
Mega sets and mega actors
The atmosphere on set is understandably tense, but I still manage to grab a few words with Aaron Roberts (yes. brother of Chris, of Wing Commander fame) the Executive Producer, to talk about the game.
To say that Aaron is very excited about the whole project is like saying a Ferrari is quite a fast car. Having worked as assistant producer on Privateer, he now wants to do things his way. 'The Darkening represents the next generation of the Privateer/Elite genre of game. What we're trying to offer the player is more choice, more freedom and get them emotionally involved by giving them real choices instead of just two options, and combine this with realistic characters who give real responses."
But with all this filming and money you're blowing on mega sets and big name actors, isn't there always the danger that it's going to be just ever so slightly linear? I venture. "No way!" says Aaron, shaking his head. "Sure, there is an ultimate goal, but there's not just one ending to the game. The player has the choice to follow the main plot and multiple sub* plots if he (or she) wishes, or they can just do what the hell they want. Fly anywhere in the galaxy, talk to whoever they want, or just concentrate on building up their ship. It's totally up to them. There is no pressure for them to stick to anything linear." But isn't there pressure on you to use the big names you've got as much as possible, otherwise there's the danger that the player will miss large chunks, isn't there?
"Yeah. I suppose so. if they just hang around in space doing nothing. But just by going through the motions of playing the game, they will interact with characters, be given clues and leads, which they can choose to follow or ignore. It'll never be just a case of doing nothing. You've got to remember that the plot dictates that to a certain extent, you are being hunted, and you'll have to take some kind of action if you are to survive."
So the pressure's on then? "In a way. but what we've tried to do is make it as user-friendly as possible, with simple, but attractive interfaces and a "keep it coming"kind of scenario to keep the player involved."
Something for everyone
So who exactly is the target audience, I wonder? "Well, hopefully there'll be something in it for everybody at every level; novice or die-hard gamesplayer.
By getting some big names involved with the project, we've made a conscious effort to attract the passive gamer who has maybe only played the odd adventure or combat sim. At the same time, we've tried to make the whole thing as rich and diverse as possible, so it will appeal to anyone who has played and enjoyed games like Elite, TIE Fighter and of course, the Wing Commander games."
Adam beams enthusiastically when I ask him if there's anything else he'd like to add.
"Well, at the end of the day it's a game, so it must be fun. We think it's a lot of fun."
Rest assured dear readers, from what we've seen so far, The Darkening looks like it'll be more than that. It'll be fab, with a capital "F".
Store In A Cool, Dry Place
The Darkening is set in a futuristic universe, comprising of eight planets. The player controls the main character, Lev Arris (played by Clive "Chancer" Owen), who awakens from cryogenic storage, after being asleep for ten long years. He was originally diagnosed with a life threatening disease, which was considered incurable, and as a result was put in "cold storage" until a cure could be found.
His pod has been salvaged from the wreckage of a drifting star freighter called "Canera", which was mysteriously attacked by ships of an unknown origin. Lev has lost his memory and now has to find out who he is, where he's been and where he's going. The thing is, to do this, he has to "interact" with various dubious characters, some of whom want to see him dead. The decisions he makes, who he talks to, who he trusts and what he does, will ultimately decide his fate.
Although the teim "interactive movie" mspiies disgust hi most gamers, Origin's proven prowess with the Wing Commander series marks Privateer 2: The Darkening as a promising prospect. I ike its popular predecessor, this Privateer blasts oil with a combination of space warfare, equipment trading and upgrading, and full-motion video adventuring that stars luminaries like Christopher Walken and John Hurt. In between storytelling sequences, the gameplay focuses on completing combat-laden missions like hunting down crooks and reconnoitering planetary systems.
The gaming world was taken by storm in 1993 with Privateer, a game that combined the intergalactic shoot-'em-up with the strategic trader/smuggler, all based in the ever-popular Wing Commander universe. It was non-linear and original, and more fun than a barrel of floppy disks. It carved an indelible place into many gamers' hearts, and it was obvious that Origin would give us more of what we wanted. _Privateer 2- (originally titled simply The Darkening) is just that, with enough of the old to get us excited, and with enough original features to make it worth the money.
Origin, while presenting it as a sequel, stresses more on how new the game is, rather than how similar it is to the original, and rightfully so: "Strap in tight and jump into the ultimate space combat trading experience! In Privateer 2, there are no rules. You can fly over 100 different missions in 18 different ships. Check out whatever you want -- unique planets, space stations, bars, prison pits and more. But without money, you're nothing. Ship upgrades, loadouts, repairs, wingmen, information -- everything here costs money. You'll have to hunt, trade and fight to get it. Only the fastest and most savvy survive. Incredible new space combat engine enables hi-speed battles between bands of pirates, greedy police, desperate privateers and you."
This is where the widest diversity in opinions comes in. Gamers who have not played the original will most likely be very pleased with the game, although other Wing Commander veterans may be disappointed that the game is practically unrelated to the original universe depicted in the series. Instead, we see little that is familiar other than planet names. While this is a let-down for avid Wing Commanders, this is even more so for players of the original Privateer.
This game is missing many of the original elements of the original Privateer. There is no slave trading (of captured enemy pilots), you can't pilot cargo ships and you don't have to maintain relations with any outside factions. These "oversights" have upset a lot of avid fans who expected a high-tech version of the original with a few additions and nothing removed.
I, however, am not one of them. While I miss some of the classic touches of the original, I really enjoyed this game a lot, along with many of the enhancements from the original game. The acting is excellent (if at times a little overdone), there are many available missions, cargo pilots and co-pilots, and the plot is non-linear. Even after you have won the game, it continues on, and there are still several side-plots and missions developing (several with full-motion video) from that point out. Although I don't think it is as classic a game as the original, it is still definitely very enjoyable.
The interface in Privateer 2 is both fresh and impressive, but it is fortunate that you can turn parts of it off at times. Don't get me wrong -- the first time I played the game, I was really taken aback by the obviously well-thought-out interface, the excellent landing sequences, the beeps, bells and whistles, and the transitions from different locations and menus. Unfortunately, after seeing and hearing the exact same sights and sounds twenty times, it can get a little irritating. However, almost all these items can be activated or deactivated. I found myself deactivating most of these features after a couple of days, but actually began to miss them later on. While the transition movies and interface sounds are excellent, I am very glad that for once a company has given the user the ability to choose which ones he/she wants.
Privateer 2: The Darkening features quite possibly the best 3D space flight engine available, with the possible exception of Darklight Conflict, which is also produced by Electronic Arts, Origin's mother company. Both the speed and the look of the engine surprised me, running smoothly under all but the most straining conditions on a P133. The ships are not the blocky, squarish hulks they used to be. This game features smoothly-shaded, well-designed ships, as well as many excellent visual effects. Beyond the newer (but not uncommon) effects like lens flaring and Gourad shading, there is obviously attention to details, as in the smooth flash that occurs when a shot or missile disperses itself along a ship's defensive shields. The full-motion video is about the same quality as that in Wing Commander IV but, unfortunately, the intended film noir effect makes for a video that is way too dark to see well in places. Still, this game has set a new standard, and is especially commendable for doing so in spite of its emphasis on the trading and interaction that occurs planetside as well.
The sound itself is done well in most places of the game, although the music is lacking at times. Battles sound rather good, enough to make the neighbors complain of the low bass thump of a torpedo rupturing the hull of a capital ship. On the other hand, the music is all MIDI (non-Redbook audio), and while it is not totally annoying, it is a step below mediocre on occasions.
The most lacking area of audio in this game is in the video sequences. There are multiple places in the game where plain poor direction and editing step in, as an actor will say something in a low voice as he turns away from the camera, right as the background music builds up. It is something like trying to understand someone talking with a mouth full of crackers, except with the crackers, you know that they'll eventually swallow, and you'll figure out what they were trying to say. This is an obvious blunder in my opinion, since no matter how you try, you simply cannot understand what is being said in certain parts of the game. Fortunately, this does not happen all that often, and not in really crucial parts of the game. All in all, while the audio has its sparkling moments, there are a few oversights that detract from the quality of the game as a whole.
The documentation is pretty much standard for a game of this type; sufficient enough to play, but not enough to keep you from searching either the web or your local computer bookstore for a guidebook. While Privateer 2 has a nice map and some decent documentation, it is obvious that just enough was left out to make a strategy guide desirable. All in all, the manual deals with all the basic facts you need to know to play the game -- it does little more than teach you the fundamentals and point you in the right direction. While this is not uncommon in manuals nowadays, it would be nice to have a little information in the form of either strategies or tips.
Windows: Intel Pentium 75, 8 MB RAM, 40 MB hard drive space, 2X CD-ROM drive, local bus video card which meets the VESA 1.2 standard (capable of SVGA 640x480x256), SoundBlaster/SB Pro/SB 16/Ensoniq Soundscape/Pro Audio Spectrum /Pro Audio Spectrum 16/Gravis Ultrasound, mouse (joystick HIGHLY recommended)
Privateer 2 : The Darkening is a very fun game. The game does have its share of shortcomings: the AI is often mediocre, the game is DOS-only, there is no multiplayer support, and the video is dark and the audio hard to hear at times. In addition, fans of the original Privateer will likely be upset by The Darkening's lack of resemblance to its predecessor. However, this is a game that doesn't need to stand on the strength of the original, and is probably even more fun if you think of it as a new, totally unrelated game. The movies are well-done, the graphics are satisfying, and the game has an altogether great feel. If you enjoy a good blast-'em-up and don't mind smuggling a little extra cargo in the hold, this game just may be for you.