There were a number of obvious favourites doing the rounds at Gamescom this year. A quick sweep of the floor and press centre yielded up vastly similar names: Battlefield 3, Skyrim, FIFA 12, Assassin's Creed: Revelations to list a few. But it was SEGA who housed my two personal favourites - one of them was Aliens: Colonial Marines, which Tom previewed a few days back. The other was Binary Domain.
In case you haven't heard of SEGA Japan's futuristic shooter, imagine if you took I, Robot, mashed it together with The Terminator, stuffed it with Gears of War and seasoned it with Mass Effect. If that doesn't make you squeak a little bit with anticipation, then check to see if you're still alive. In short, the year is 2080 and robots are commonplace. However, someone in Japan has been manufacturing robots that are indistinguishable from their human counterparts, breaking several international laws in the process. Cue the arrival of a crack squad, assembled from across the globe and headed up by one gruff sonofabitch named Dan Marshall.
We got to see a little bit of it at E3 a couple of months ago - the team from SEGA Japan demonstrating the early stages of the procedural damage engine, AI, squad commands and combat, and touching upon the trust and consequence system that forms the backbone of your relationship with your squad-mates (not to mention blasting the legs off of an enormous robo-arachnid) - and things looked fairly promising. Two and a half months on and we're starting to get really quite excited.
For starters, the game's received a bit more polish. Aesthetics don't make a game, but it meant we were able to fully appreciate the level of detail that's gone into the procedural damage system. Shredding robots to pieces, watching metal plates and sparks fly all over the place, lopping off limbs left, right and centre, it's the metal equivalent of Soldier of Fortune in that respect. But there's method to the madness.
'We didn't just want to have a game where you're shooting wildly at enemies and they just fall down and die or vanish,' says game director Daisuke Sato. 'You can see with the low-level foot-soldiers: if you shoot their legs off they'll still crawl towards you; shoot off an arm, they'll simply switch hands; get a headshot in and they'll roam about bumping into things and firing on their fellow robots. It really adds an extra depth to the gameplay, players will be forced to assess each enemy - and they come in all shapes and sizes - and work out the best way to take them down. That goes for the huge bosses too.'
It looks fantastic, and anyone with nightmarish memories of the T-1000 clawing its way towards Sarah Connor will be instantly satisfied by a damage system that shows off not only a pleasantly shiny graphical engine, but some excellent AI programming too. A firefight towards the tail-end of the demo we saw deteriorated into a shambolic effort from the mechanoid party after a well-placed headshot from demo drive and game producer Jun Yoshino caused a storm of panic and three robots were gunned down by friendly fire before the wayward headless robo-chicken was finally put down.
But that wasn't the focus of the demo this time around. Back at E3 SEGA Japan had only really hinted at the possibilities of the Trust system in Binary Domain, this time we got to see it outlined for ourselves.
We start the game in the Lower City, it's very dirty and grimy, rusting in places. 'It's very much the Tokyo we know today,' explained brand manager Amy Hutchison, 'but bruised and battered by rising and falling sea levels. It's a poor place now, and not a very safe place to be. Because of that environmental change, a second city level was built upon stilts to rise above the water. The Upper City is far more futuristic, far more affluent and technologically advanced. You'll meet a variety of characters in both, and your experiences of each will be vastly different.'
You jump into the game by picking your two squadmates from a small pool. Each of them have different specialisations, each with a different background, and they'll each have their own Trust barometer which indicates just how willing they'll be to stick their necks out for you when the going gets tough. 'The Trust and Consequence system runs throughout the whole game,' continued Hutchison. 'It's constantly feeding back to you on your performance and your relationship with those around you.'
It's quite hard to showcase the length and breadth of such a system in a short half hour demo, but we got to see the extreme opposites of what can happen if you play the hero and everyone loves you, and also how the game changes if you manage to piss everyone off by being an inept tool.
We started with the latter and it was immediately clear that something was amiss. Squadmates refused to follow orders, even the simplest of instructions were met with nonchalent negatives. As Marshall blasted his way through swathes of robots, the sniper Faye at his shoulder simply muttered 'You call yourself a man' in a tone so withering that we swear we saw grown men in the room cross their legs uncomfortably.
The game plays out completely differently when your squadmates loathe you. There's no way to really get a grip on the action except through your own activities and should that go wrong, you're completely on your own. Don't expect any help from those around if you go down, we witnessed Marshall downed, close to death and in dire need of medical assistance, and his squad mates simply stood and stared, unprepared to risk their own lives to help a person they hate. It makes you wonder what exactly Marshall did to warrant such poor esteem, and that, as Hutchison notes, is entirely up to the player.
'You have to work quite hard at it to make them hate you this much,' she explained. 'You have to speak to them very rudely, very aggressively. You put them into positions where the chance of survival is incredibly low, always sending them in first to take the most damage, ignoring them when they're injured. Keep doing that and they'll hang back, they'll play more cautiously and you won't be fighting as a team any more, it'll be a very solitary experience.'
Conversely, if you hurl yourself into the fray and emerge victorious, take on the advice and requests of your squadmates and deliver, basically getting the job done well, they'll be far more amenable to any suggestions you might have. Playing through the same level again, the degree of support was increased tenfold with players able to tactically deploy their squadmates. Moreover, they'll volunteer up hints and tips during the battle, or simply take out the most dangerous foes for you before you even have a chance to blink. Steeping out into a courtyard, for example, an early sniper warning was hotly followed by Faye quickly snatching up her own rifle and dispatching the camping git with impunity, clearing your passage onwards.
Throughout the demo, Jun was issuing commands to the squad via both the D-pad and a headset, with the voice recognition software working far smoother than last time, in spite of the noisy interference from the rest of the booth. The variety in dialogue options was impressive, including registering non-combat phrases, although the responses did occasionally seem a little clunky. It remains to be seen just how extensive the voice recognition in the game actually is, although it was a nice touch for Yoshino to declare his love for Faye into the mic, only for her to tell him to 'shut up and get back to work'.
'It's a dynamic system,' says Yoshino when ask a few questions afterwards. 'Other games simply have this 'yes', 'no' response that crops up in conversations. It's very black and white, but our Consequence system is always on, it's emergent and progressively dynamic.' We asked just what sort of a bearing this would have on the storyline, whether or not we could expect to see multiple endings, to which Sato replied, without giving too much away, that there's one story, but that the Trust levels between you and certain characters could mean the difference between small events happening or not happening and lead to different advice given in combat. 'We can't really give too much away,' he said, 'but as you play through you might see one or two things change towards the end.'
Binary Domain is out over here on February 17th next year and, although we might have one or two reservations and nervous worries about whether or not it can stand out from the crowd, what we've seen so far is very promising indeed. If nothing else, Binary Domain is shaping up to be a solid, fun third-person shooter, with a cracking procedural damage system and some intriguing RPG-lite components.
And that would suit us absolutely fine.