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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
Tlie 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.
Download The Darkening
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP