Poetic Justice: Beowulf Interview
Ubisoft discusses sharing assets with the movie makers, why you won't be seeing Angelina Jolie in the game, and how it nearly outgunned Halo 3.
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Centuries before Shakespeare pointed his quill towards Denmark, an unnamed poet was already telling tales set in the northern land. The four-thousand-or-so lines of poetry contained in the legendary manuscript Beowulf have inspired countless creators over the ages, including, notably, Lord Of The Rings writer J.R.R. Tolkien.
This month, director Robert Zemeckis will bring the tale to virtual life, in his fully-computer-animated feature film adaptation, and Ubisoft has tagged along, creating a game that could just be the first of Beowulf gamers see this year.
Alexander Remy, associate game manager on the project at Ubisoft's Tiwak studio in France, is no stranger to licensing. Though this is his first game as part of the development team, for the past three years he's been in Ubisoft's licensing department, dotting Is and crossing Ts to make sure that license holders are happy with their final products.
There's a balance that's required from licensed fare. The game first has to be faithful to its source material, so that those coming to the game from the film won't immediately snub it as a cheap knock-off. But according to Remy, Ubisoft has taken a slightly different route for Beowulf.
"To be honest, and I hope we haven't been selfish, but we designed the game more for hardcore gamers or for gamers themselves, and we always thought - and don't tell Paramount - we want to do a game that would make gamers want to see the movie and not the opposite," Remy told us at an event in London in October.
It's easy to see why. Compared with other fantasy creations such as Tolkien's Middle-earth, Beowulf's world is an altogether more violent and visceral place. Our hero, Beowulf, is a Norse warrior, called to Denmark to slay a beast and who assumes the throne for good measure. He has the power of 30 men and the enemies to match. In short, he's no Frodo Baggins.
Remy and the rest of the team at Ubisoft Tiwak, who previously worked on Rayman and the Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter games, have chosen their inspiration for Beowulf in an unlikely pair of sources: God Of War and Pikmin.
God Of War as a source is, perhaps, easy to understand. The world of Beowulf is a vicious one, with enemies regularly being torn apart and the blood flowing like rain off the frosty mountain slopes. But Pikmin? That part of the gameplay is used more for controlling the rest of your clan mates. Ubisoft has not shown or spoken much about these sections, but it appears to have more than a passing resemblance to the squad mechanics in GRAW.
"It's a simple, intuitive and funny way to interact with your men, but you're not micromanaging them as a group," said Remy. "It's really a group of people you're interacting with."
The attention is very much on the action parts of the game, something Ubisoft has worked hard to refine, making it approachable and enjoyable without dumbing it down so much that more experienced players will tire of it quickly. Keeping the gameplay interesting meant taking two different approaches.
First there's the combat system, which uses predefined sequences of button presses to pull off more and more outrageous combination attacks. There are also several weapons to choose from, including swords, spears, and war-hammers. You'll even be able to fight barehanded, and should your weapon break during combat, you'll be able to rip another one from an enemies hands. Making it play well is the result of a lot of sweat. The team went through around 15 iterations of the controls to make sure it got them right.
The neat thing about the controls is that once you've learned combos for one weapon, you'll be able to transfer the button-press-sequences directly over to a new one. You'll pull of different moves, but not at the expense of having to learn ever more attacks. Remy described the combos as "intuitive once you've learned them, but the output is totally different whether you play with one weapon category or the other one."