Severance: Blade of Darkness
Name a game in which you can chop off someone's arm and senselessly beat them into submission with it. Doesn't happen does it? Well, all that's about to change. Severance: Blade Of Darkness looks set to rekindle the gaming violence debate in glorious 'rivers of blood' style. Codemasters has accepted the fact this gore-fest will carry an 18 certificate and, although the Warwickshire based publisher is more renowned for its family values (Micro Machines, TOCA, Colin McRae), it is more than content to go along with the BBFC's adult entertainment ruling. After all, violence creates publicity in the knife-edge world of computer entertainment, and where there's publicity (good or bad), there are sales.
Interestingly, the media-friendly Codemasters is also keen to shake its image as the softly, softly publisher and, with annual profits soaring to more than $70 million, it seems that the time is ripe for one of the industry's oldest publishers to risk incurring the wrath of the Daily Mail and its tireless anti-violence crusade.
Blood & Bones
But if you're thinking that all this blood and hype is probably just a cynical attempt to boost sales and cover costs for what has been a stellar five-year development period, you might be surprised. Severance is more than just a bloody mess; the bones of the game are very much in place. Spanish developer Rebel Act Studios has created a phenomenal engine (well, they've had long enough to do it) boasting realistic looking mutilation, convincing physics and some of the best lighting we have ever had the pleasure to witness. During one part of the game the player walks into a room adorned with flickering torches to discover there's an enormous hellish shadow on the alcove wall.
As you slowly edge around the corner to face what must be Satan himself, you discover the truth; the shadow is owned by a diminutive runt who's taken advantage of the illusionary effect of the torches to leave you needing a clean pair of pants. Effects like this are used with great aplomb to create a formidable atmosphere from start to finish. Surprisingly, one area where the aesthetics do, in fact, look slightly under the weather is the predictable reflecting water; there's simply not enough random movement there to fool the eyes into thinking it's anything close to realistic. Still, with any luck, that'll be high up the pecking order on the developer's tweak list.
Curiously, the gameplay will have more in common with arcade fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Streetfighter 2. Your nifty array of combatants can knock out two or even three-hit combination moves, which is a lot more intricate than your usual third-person adventure. Instead of simply charging up to a foe and mindlessly flailing, you actually have to think carefully about what would be the best move in that particular situation.
Should you go for a low leg sweep, or possibly a powerful arcing headshot to dispose of your tormenter quickly? There are an almost infinite variety of attacks, defences and combination moves on offer. Mastering those should prove to be one of the major lasting appeals of the game.
Yet Severance is an action/adventure through and through, make no mistake about that. The story is the cliched fantasy formula of four adventurers (Knight, Barbarian, Amazon and Dwarf) who set off on a perilous quest ofgood against evil.
The player chooses which character to play as, and then attempts to hack their way through 17 levels of flaming skeleton warriors, pig-ugly ores, golems, zombies, and - of course -enormous end-of-stage bosses. In total there are more than 30 kinds of monster in the game with various degrees of intelligence assigned to each.
On some of the later levels, the fights are immense. Battles take on epic proportions as neither player nor computer manages to get the upper hand. Metal hits metal and sparks fly as you slowly gain ground and then lose it again. If your opponent's weapon does breach your defences, a wound will appear at exactly the spot where you were hit. Likewise wounds appear on your foes; you can even lop off arms or legs to leave your hapless victim thrashing on the floor before dying from loss of blood. Don't think you will be immune from the same kind of treatment though. The enemies in Severance will be capable of taking off your head with soul-destroying ease. During development, our psychopathically inclined Spanish friends even toyed with the idea of allowing monsters to carve off your limbs so that you can crawl and flop about on the floor howling in agony. They eventually dismissed the idea after discovering that it messed up the balance of the game.
The AI seems to be finely tuned with a fair amount of organisation amidst the enemy ranks. A few of the sneakier denizens plan their attacks in groups of three or four in an attempt to overwhelm and confuse you. Other monsters are sneakier still; Liches will operate in units of four and vomit a lethal poison into your face when close enough. Some monster groups will even have leaders, if you can take them out first, your chances of survival will be greatly increased. During early skirmishes, monsters aren't so bright; you'll find it easy to carve your way through the hordes, with arms, legs and heads soaring through the air in all directions. It's quite clear that Rebel Act has decided that under no circumstances should they compromise their 'art'. There's no green blood here. This is gushing, oozing and spurting red stuff.
There are fountains of blood as far as the eye can see and dismembered bodies litter the floor like autumn leaves. If you kill somebody on some steps or stairs, the blood trickles down and forms a nice little pool at the bottom. Alternatively, you can watch in disgust as recently detached heads bounce off walls and roll onto the floor leaving distinctive crimson trails in their wake. If Rebel Act hasn't considered developing Advanced Abattoir Simulator for Codemasters it certainly should do.
Heads Will Role
So have we really got an action/adventure with as much gameplay as gore? Mike Hayes, Codemasters' marketing director certainly thinks so: "While the cleverly done gory combat sequences will attract everyone's attention to Severance, it is the immersive role-playing adventure and intricately detailed graphics that will win the game its followers," he coos in that distinctive marketing language.
To a certain extent his claim is true (characters can level-up and learn more powerful attacking moves), but don't expect the role-playing intricacy of Dens Ex, Vampire, or System Shock 2.
Still, with around 100 weapons lying around waiting to be used, players are encouraged to find a weapon they like, practice with it and ultimately attempt to master all the moves that particular item has to offer. It's also worth bearing in mind that most of the higher-level weapons have at least one unique special move associated with them. So, if slicing creatures in half horizontally with a sword is getting kind of boring for you, you can always look out for a large axe and attempt to decapitate two ores with one swing. The novel variety of ways in which to rearrange your enemies is enough to make your local butcher squeal.
You'll even find that some characters are more adept at using certain items than others. The Amazon, for example, is not really up for staggering down a dimly lit corridor dragging a sword the size of a horse behind her. The 7ft tall Barbarian on the other hand would fare better. Then there's the Dwarf; he's so good with an axe he could shave with it - if he wanted. It's a case of finding a combination of character and weapon type that you are most happy with.
Beware though, characters tend to tire quickly. Once again it depends on the character as to how quickly they weaken, but when they do,you will need to make sure there are no nearby enemies to threaten your hero while he rests.
There's also a small puzzle element to the game; nothing too taxing mind, that would ruin the flow. The average brainteaser might consist of a doorway blocked by boxes that must be burnt in order for you to pass through. Oh yes, keys, buttons and levers also make an appearance - well, it wouldn't be a third-person adventure without them.
At the moment, the level design is still something that both Codemasters and Rebel Act are working on very closely. In fact, a lot of work is going into one of the Amazon-only levels to ensure there are distinctive landmarks the player can easily identify. Hopefully, with this kind of attitude from the developers, we can expect the castle, temple, dungeons, catacombs and Severance's numerous other locations to be the kind of places where we won't actually mind getting lost.
One of the more conventional areas of debate that could divert argument away from the filth and slaughter is the interface and control method. Firstly, this action/adventure will not feature any somersaulting, tightropewalking or daredevil manoeuvres of that ilk. That's Lara territory and Rebel Act doesn't want to go there. Severance territory is strictly running, jumping, ducking and diving with plenty of swinging balls of fire.
The control method, therefore, is a relatively straightforward affair. Players use the mouse to look around and attack, and the cursor keys to walk. Double-tap the forward key and you run. There s also a targeting system, as seen in Legend Of Zelda. Using this, you can select an enemy and remain facing them regardless of where you move. You can also defend yourself with your shield for when you need protection.
Apart from the occasional fireball-shooting sword, arrows, throwing knives and chucking body parts around, Severance is about getting up close and personal. As far as Rebel Act and Codemasters are concerned, you've got to get into the thick of it and have a bloody good time. If you're looking for wizards and spells, you can forget it. Jonathan Smith is a game designer at Codemasters who is working closely with the Spanish contingent. He explains why they wanted to stay away from the magic pixie thing: "We wanted to focus on combat. This is a visceral, kicking you in the face, chopping your head off, slicing your arms off, punchy fighting game. Magic users stand at the back of the room and wave their hands a bit."
So there you have it. Kicking, chopping and slicing. That's Severance in a nutshell. But that's not quite the end of the story. There's a multiplayer version too. Modem or Network players can enter into an online arena where they challenge other players in one-on-one combat. Players will not actually be able to use their singleplayer characters however. Instead, there will be a separate online-only system that will probably involve players moving up a ranking system, gaining new moves as they progress. It's a simple concept that's not trying to infringe on anyone's online territory, especially Diablo 2. As an added bonus for what is really a single-player adventure, it's a worthy addition.
It remains to be seen whether Codemasters will eventually be ordered to tone down the violence when the BBFC get to play a finished version, but if the worst comes to the worst, it looks like Severance will be able to stand on its own two feet anyway. Find out for sure next month when, after five long years, Severance is served.
Download Severance: Blade of Darkness
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Usually, when you're commissioned to write a six-page review, the first thing that enters your mind is 'how the hell can I write 3,600 words about this?'
It doesn't matter how good or bad a game is. The simple fact is that, in most cases, if we're honest, we all know that 90 per cent of the titles knocking around your average games emporium fit into a specific category with common gameplay routines.
So, it's not often that you find a seemingly straightforward game that's so crammed full of features you feel totally vindicated in giving it the unadulterated full works.
Spanish developer Rebel Act's debut offering of Severance is one of those very rare and joyous occasions.
At first glance you wouldn't think Severance was any different from numerous other third-person hack 'n' slash fantasy funfests. In fact, initial reaction is one of slight disappointment; the basic walking, running and jumping animation is really quite stiff and there are no lithe acrobatics to speak of at all. Lara must be wondering what all the fuss is about...
Adapting to the controls is also a bit of a problem. For some reason, Severance contains about twice as many keys as your usual action game and there's no gamepad option, either, helpful tutorial does its best to clear things up, but with a keyboard overlay included in the package, it's clear that Codemasters is aware that the control system could be simpler. In short, this is a game that takes some time and patience to get into, but when you do... well, there's no turning back. Delving deep into the game, you eventually hit upon an infectious addiction that's not only surprising, but also admirable. Severance encourages you to launch into your foes with the unbridled frenzy of a velociraptor on PCP.
Oh yes, we're talking the kind of abhorrent violence that makes you cringe and duck in your chair to avoid being splattered. We're talking severed heads flying through the starlit sky. We're talking fountains of blood spewing forth after deliberate and intentionally aimed thrusts. We're talking big, red, 18-certificate and inevitable tabloid-led repercussions on the moral-eroding qualities of modern videogames. There's no doubt that the shock tactics will aid Severance?s reputation and profile - it's a proven strategy that's worked on many an ad campaign in the past. What's refreshing here is that underneath all the gory hype lies an exceptional game. Severance actually possesses innovations. Gasp. Yes, as we said in last month's preview, the five-year development time has been well spent.
On most games of this type you eventually hit a psychological brick wall where you suddenly realise that you've been robotically dismembering people for the past three days and have forgotten why. Severance manages to push that particular barrier so far back you wonder whether it's there at all.
As soon as the slicing and dicing reaches that vaguely numbing stage where you've become cold, emotionless and detached from reality, your character advances a level and learns a brand-new 'combo'. All of a sudden, a basic action/adventure is transformed into Streetfighter 2 or Dead Or Alive 2, or any number of arcade/console beat 'em-ups you care to remember. However, the difference with this is that you're not in the limited confines of a small 2D arena. Here there's a whole 3D world to explore - and annihilate.
There are around 250 different moves, including exotically named creations such as Rage of the Goddess, Northern Lights and Snake's Breath. Each of the four characters has a favourite, but it's left up to the player to find out who's better suited to what. There are even certain stages that can only be reached if you're using a specific character. A direct result of all this is that you can complete the game with four different characters and experience new surprises each time you play. It's a nice touch, and one that should improve longevity. Some may even perceive this form of experimentation as verging on RPG territory. There are others who wouldn't even consider comparing it to the likes of Deus Ex, Diablo II or System Shock 2. And sure enough, this feisty wannabe has nowhere near the complexity of any of those.
Yet there are other elements that add weight to its RPG aspirations. All characters begin the game with zero defence and power ratings. Each time you advance a level these attributes will increase. They will also change depending on the type of armour, shield or weapon that you use. There are also a few potions lying around which can be guzzled to temporarily increase your skill.
The arsenal at your disposal is absolutely mind-blowing. There are approximately 100 objects of destruction to choose from, ranging from fire-belching blades to traditional bow and arrows. Some of the more bizarre items you may or may not be tempted to use in anger include spades, severed limbs, rocks and chairs - you name it, you can use it. Playing Severance is like finding yourself in a pub fight where anything not nailed down is used as a lethal weapon. Fire also comes in very handy. Not only can you pick up unlit torches and light them to find your way around dark areas, you can actually set fire to stuff. Near the start of the game there's a room with an exit blocked by boxes. The solution is to simply burn the boxes to get through.
It's common sense really, but with so many adventures of this kind, all too often it's common sense that's missing. Severance doesn't take it too far though, and if you're looking for a completely cerebral experience, you're in the wrong place. Puzzles are not a strong point here. Sure, there are various points in the game where there's a break from the wanton mutilation and you get a chance to push a few blocks and pull a few levers. Spinning blades, swinging balls of fire and other standard obstacles also make an appearance, but that sadly is about the size of it. The only possible way you can get stuck or confused is if you get lost in some of the bigger, more complicated maps.
We could say that Severance's level design is not the best in the world, but that would be a bit unfair because the maps are actually very interesting and imaginative. The truth is that the levels are so big, players are bound to get disorientated. Maybe there's been a slight breakdown in communications between the Spanish developers and Codemasters on this one but, in our experience, it's usually better to break the stages down to smaller, more digestible, bite-size chunks. Still, that is not the case, so you're just going to have to work on your sense of direction and keep your wits about you.
The eerie atmosphere of Severance is spot on. The dark, brooding music rouses itself into a crescendo of crashing cymbals and booming bass drums during battle scenes, and is undoubtedly the perfect ambient accompaniment to the grizzly medley of grunts and screams. Other sonic wonders include the slow crackling of burning torches and the gushing of waterfalls. And like in Thief: The Dark Project you can also hear the conversations of guards as you creep up on them. While this is not necessarily a revolutionary idea, it fits in well with the general tension Severance has to offer.
Stealth is something you can either ignore or play along with. If your character preference lies with the Knight or Barbarian, it's unlikely that such a subtle approach will be to your liking. If that is the case then, no problem - you can crash through the stages making as much noise as you like, waving your sword about and throwing your hands in the air like you just don't care.
However, playing as the Dwarf or Amazon casts a different light on the situation. The Amazon in particular is not so well equipped to deal with toe-to-toe scuffles and tends to be more effective when lurking in the shadows, picking off enemies with a well-placed arrow to the throat. It's easy to gawp in admiration at the effectiveness of the lighting and shadows, but it's the physics engine that really steals the show. When barrels are smashed, small shards spin across the floor. Blood drips down walls and staircases in the most lifelike way, and other objects - or, indeed, limbs - roll down slopes until they come to a rest at the bottom. Convincing it most certainly is, yet sometimes, totally against your conscious will, it's all too easy to lose concentration mid-battle and admire the physical perfection of the destruction around you.
It's advisable not to lose concentration too often though. All 30 species of enemy you come across during the course of the game's 17 enormous stages prove to be adept fighters. They don't just stand there and let you carve them up like a Christmas turkey. Hell no. Those that have shields use them with the uncanny intelligence of a human opponent, and those that don't make full use of their ducking and dodging abilities. Some of the more organised denizens attack in groups with some of them even having the sense to use a decoy fighter while others circle around behind.
Frankly, it's not on. We've never had to deal with this sort of intelligence before. Rune went some way towards it, but Severance really does complete the picture. Some of the battles are truly epic, and as you slowly force a particularly skilful warrior slowly backwards, the words "there can be only one..." keep creeping into your mind.
Despite the ultra-realistic feeling of the fighting there are some extremely irritating facets that cannot be ignored. For a start, just as you can lop off a poorly defended bead, so the same can happen to you -even with full energy. There's no doubt this is the kind of the thing that's likely to happen in real life should you somehow get involved in a swordfight, hut to have your game suddenly cut short thanks to one unguarded moment is a little harsh.
Yet this uncompromising feature is completely in character with the rest of the game. In short, Severance is not for beginners - and to be honest it's bloody difficult to get anywhere without saving regularly. That said, the save option is extremely well thought out. There's no difficulty setting as such, yet the whole game rating is based upon the number of times you save. Save just once in the entire game and you are rated as 'awesome', while if you save more than 20 times, you are rated as 'poor'. The idea is to not penalise anyone for saving, but to offer an incentive to save less.
The multiplayer game is one area that is fairly dull. The basic idea is to hook up with another player over the Internet or a LAN and then fight in a one-on-one battle to the death. There's a 'winner stays on' option as well, meaning that players can queue up to take you on. The more fights you win the more moves you learn.
And that's it really. A small online adventure might have been a nice touch, but this is, in essence, a single-player game, so we should be thankful for any kind of online option at all. Still, it means that there's plenty of scope for improvement and, if Severance does manage to sell a few copies, there's a good chance more online delights will feature heavily in the sequel.
Other improvements could focus on the animation and interface, but apart from that, you have to say that Severance is an amazingly accomplished work of art. But is it a classic? Not quite. OK, the graphics and physics are immaculate, and the fighting is elegant. But ultimately Severance doesn't quite make it to the top of the tree. Of course, it's all needless violence really - but when is violence needed? Severance will no doubt upset its fair share of poodle-pampering right wing moaners, but who cares? Escapism is a personal preference. For some it means galloping around the countryside tearing foxes to pieces. Others prefer to while away the hours pretending to manage their favourite football team. In this case it's chopping off heads in a make-believe land of heroes and villains.
Which of these forms of escapism is more damaging to the moral fabric of our fragile society then? You choose.
- While the physics from Hitman: Codename 47 are excellent, they pale in comparison to the physics in Severance. This game's engine is exquisite. If you throw an object, it doesn't just land and stop, but rolls around for a bit before rocking to a standstill just like in real life. Water reflections are gorgeous and the light sourcing and shadow casting are the best I've ever seen. I'm not easily fooled by gorgeous graphics, as I firmly believe that gameplay is the most important feature of a game. But when a game has graphics like these, it becomes far more realistic and fun to play. So on to the gameplay. One particular encounter sticks out for me. An imp shot an arrow at me, which went through my arm and stayed there. So I ran off, pulled the arrow out loaded it into my own bow and fired it back at him. Heads roll, limbs are hacked off and there is no better way to initiate a scrap than by chucking the head of an enemy's best mate at him. I know I'll be keeping a look out for any future Rebel Act games. I thought your score was spot-on, as the game does have the odd flaw here and there, just as you illustrated in your review."
- Having played the demo, and disliking the control interface, I didn't hold out much hope for the retail version. However, I found Severance to be very good. The graphics are as stunning as your review stated, with the lighting effects being even more impressive. The sound, with or without A30, is also used well. Playability is spoilt a little by the idiosyncratic control system, which doesn't help when faced with enemies with excellent Al. A bonus is that each of the four characters has their own self-contained plot meaning there are really four different games to play. Providing you can cope with the controls, it's worth persevering with. A note to Rebel Act though - Gamepad Support has to be included Severance!
Shuffling from booth to booth at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles with my trusty right-hand man Steve Hill, I noticed that the majority of 3D-accelerated games were starting to look alike: same sort of colour schemes, same sort of anti-aliasing, same sort of lighting effects. Sure, there were great games underneath some of them - and we look forward to playing them - but we were looking for something more. Something better. Something to take us into the next millennium.
Little did we know that there was a treat in store away from the ritual bombardment of dance music and thrash metal being pumped out in the three main exhibition halls. UK-based Gremlin Interactive were showing off their games in a more sedate atmosphere, a relaxing haven that gave us ample opportunity to play Blade, which must have been by far the best-looking game of the entire show.
We've had our eye on Blade for some time now - you'll no doubt have noticed us bleating on from time to time about how excited we are about it. Rebel Act Studios, the Spanish-based developers, have been hard at work on their first ever game, and their fully-interactive 3D action adventure now bristles with more amazing graphical effects than ever seen before, or likely to be seen for some time. It's so luscious, visually, that it makes us wonder what the Iron Storms, and Epics of this world have been up to. The game really does look I that good.
Powerhouse Of An Engine
At the base of it all is Blade, Rebel Act's proprietary 3D engine. Not only does this marvellous piece of software generate the best lighting effects our eyes have ever been treated to, it also makes everything that moves in the game look incredibly true to life. In fact, realism is the key. Everything - from the near-perfect water ripple effect to the way a chair breaks into splinters when you twat it with a sword - looks so realistic. The boffins at Rebel Act have no doubt been burning the midnight oil - and it shows.
Personally, I've yet to see better lighting - the way shadows fall and move had us all gasping; a torch thrown to the floor, casting huge shadows around it, made us weep with joy. Apparently this is due to using 'light volumes' rather than 'shadow maps'. We're not entirely sure what they mean by that, but take it from us it worked - amazingly well.
Unlike most third-person hack-and-slash action games, Blade won't be going overboard on the weapons side of things, but will offer a selection of characters to play out the adventure, each with their own characteristics and skills (see Choose Your Warrior panel). To progress in the story, your character has to fight, swim, climb and jump through some pretty moody scenery. Apparently there will also be people to talk to along the way, although this wasn't evident in the version we were shown.
The action looks very gritty, with amputations and decapitations galore, and appears authentic even down to the way the blood drips on to the walls and floors. A unique targeting system also seems to help - when fighting a group of men, you can cycle through them as individual targets and always face the one you'd selected. But it's not all just fighting, there are some fiendish 'physics-based puzzles' too. The ones we saw looked like something out of The Crystal Maze - pulling ropes, lifting planks and so on, all of which looked well designed.
Orcs, But No Goblins
But Steve Hill, being the cynic that he is, wasn't completely convinced by Blade. "Goblins," he hissed. But Gremlin have promised that there won't be any in Blade. Having said that, upon our return to Blighty (and a little more research), we did uncover the fact that the game will feature ores. Which is just as bad. But we're joking, of course. Blade looks gobsmacking, and could achieve what Die By The Sword and Deathtrap Dungeon failed to - a Classic award.
With a release date set for November, Blade's designers have plenty of time to fine-tune and add all those clever little touches that make us glow on the inside. I've already seen the light: Blade demonstrates that the future of 3D graphics still has much to offer, and that eventually all games will look this way. Rebel Act want to license their engine to other companies. And if it's as easy to use and as flexible as they claim, we could be looking at World Domination. You've been warned.
Choose Your Warrior
First things first: pick which one of the four different characters you want to play as
Square jaw, heavy suit of armour. The rocky road of valour and honour is paved with the blood of a thousand souls, none of which managed to score a hit.
Agile and buxom, the Amazon woman can crush a man with her thighs, and smother him with her bosom (we hope).
The biggest sword in the land, the tightest muscles, the bravest heart... The Barbarian's strength and quick reflexes are his greatest assets.
This little guy proves that it's not height that counts, it's girth. Dwarves are apparently immune to poisonous beverages.