As promised, Quantic Dream showed off their newest title at Sony's E3 Media Briefing, bringing the house down with a moody and atmospheric introduction to Beyond: Two Souls. Rolling out a heavy-hitting exclusive as an opening gambit was certainly a gutsy nod to the fans (those who weren't disappointed by the absence of Kara-esque themes of Artificial Intelligence and humanity), but as new character Jodie Holmes glumly stared her way through the video, more questions were raised than answered. Will Beyond be another interactive movie predicated on watching rather than playing? Why the Two Souls tagline? What, if anything, does gameplay actually involve?
Thankfully I was able to enjoy a one-on-one guided tour to an expansive section of Beyond hidden behind the closed doors of Sony Europe's press paddock, wherein I quickly learned that David Cage has undergone a major paradigm shift. Quantic are determined to ensure that their latest venture is unequivocally a game first and a movie second: putting the action in players' hands as much as possible while retaining the cinematic look and feel for which they're famed. Beyond: Two Souls is one of the most deeply impressive reveals of the show, and promises to trump Heavy Rain in terms of direct feedback and visceral poltergeist sandboxes.
If Heavy Rain was a film that masqueraded as a game, Beyond will be the exact opposite: a game that constantly looks like a big-budget, slickly-edited movie.
The demo started with Jodie (voiced, as you probably know, by Inception's Ellen Page) fleeing the police for as-yet unknown reasons, managing to catch some well-earned sleep on a train speeding through a rain-soaked pine forest. As she slumbered, however, players beheld the scene from the perspective of her spirit partner Aidan: a supernatural entity who watches over her and acts as her powerful, even vengeful, ghostly guardian angel. As a spirit, Aidan is free to move through solid object and watch the action from any angle - with players able to freely glide around the environments using the Sixaxis' tilt and triggers. The demonstrator aptly showcased this new freedom of movement by stalking through the train, gleefully sliding through walls and seats, in order to eavesdrop on the other passengers, and then zooming out of the carriage to watch the train from a hundred meters away. Aidan is invisible to humans, but can telekinetically interact with objects and animals much like a traditional poltergeist, and exert a horrific insidious influence that we'll cover later in the article.
From this lofty vantage point, however, Aidan was powerless to watch as the train stopped and police boarded a distant carriage in order to check the passengers' tickets. Invisibly stalking the officers was an empowering and voyeuristic thrill, but it soon became apparent that they'd eventually catch up with Jodie and identify her as a fugitive. Fleeing back to her heat, Aidan woke her up by psychically flinging a water bottle at her head (Aidan can interact with numerous objects in certain scenes), and the action changed to her perspective as she got up and started walking away from the approaching cops. Sadly, they identified her with a wanted bulletin, and charged after her, chasing her down the length of the train as she threw objects in the way. Emerging onto the roof after desperately fighting off the pursuing officers with some QTE sequences, she was forced to leap to the forest canopy below protected by a psychic shield from her ghostly companion.
This scene first appeared to be a conventional cutscene with QTE elements, much like Heavy Rain's chase sequences, but it soon became apparent that Jodie's movement was actually directed by the player. Indeed, running through the carriage was controlled by the left thumbstick, with quick time events appearing intuitively in order to trigger optional events like knocking over a cart or delivering a swift kick to a police officer's undercarriage. Dynamic animations, such as rocking and stumbling to the motion of the train, help to make these real-time gameplay sections look like a perfectly scripted scene even through they evolving depending on your every action, and act as testament to Cage's eye for filmmaking techniques. Making a game look like a movie, even though you're in total control, is a sensational feat, and one that made Beyond as thrilling to watch as it must have been to play.
Picking herself up off the forest floor, Jodie began to run through the lush environment, guided directly by players and occasionally being presented by an intuitive QTE to leap over branches or pick over rocks . The dynamic animations allowed her to realistically stumble over sloped terrain, with the cinematic camera angles once again making the sequence resemble a completely scripted video (right down to her every footfall and reaction). Upon being confronted by a pair of police dogs, however, Beyond switched into more familiar territory as a selection of button presses and stick rotations allowed her to lash out, struggle against their attacks and brutally stun one with a rock from the ground. Showing me the same scene twice, my guide demonstrated how these events aren't just binary victory/failure criteria, as Aidan can come to her aid if pressed and scare off the ravening canines with an otherworldly, necromantic howl. Whether this will weaken him for future confrontations remains unclear, but Beyond definitely promises to provide the non-linear trappings of its predecessor and use QTEs as narrative divergence points rather than insta-fail cutscenes.
Jodie managed to shake off her pursuers and eventually discover a main highway, upon which a small squad of troopers guarded an SUV and a police motorbike. As she took cover, the perspective switched to Aidan, and gave us our first look at one of the 'possession sandboxes' that will make for one of Beyond's most exciting gameplay features. Aidan can take direct control of numerous enemies and objects (the scene playing out in different ways depending on your choice), so after surveying the encounter by floating around the group of soaked policemen, he opted to take over a trooper and walking him over to the boot of the police cruiser. Selecting a shotgun from the weapons tray, the enthralled cop proceeded to fire wildly into the air, providing the perfect distraction for Jodie to sneak in and steal the bike from right under their noses.
Quantic's focus on gameplay over passivity extended to the motorbike chase, allowing players to directly steer the speeding vehicle by tilting the Sixaxis and accelerating with the trigger. Even as the camera angle switched to follow a pursuing helicopter, players remained in full control, providing a new and deeply visceral take on the action that will help to better root players in the world (indeed, they will be players rather than watchers). Jodie used Aidan's shield to smash through a SWAT roadblock, leaving the stunned troopers to rally and regroup as she sped towards the nearest town.
Sadly, the SWAT Team weren't as shaken as they first appeared, and promptly surrounded Jodie once she'd entered the town's high street. Taking cover from the dozen officers in the theatre, Jodie desperately called for Aidan for assistance, starting a much larger possession sandbox. Freely swooping around the expansive area to size up the situation (a dozen well-armed troopers, snipers on the rooftops and a helicopter overhead), Aidan quickly turned the seemingly-impregnable siege into a nightmarish, violent rout.
The first target was a rooftop sniper, who Aidan possessed in order to turn his weapon on his fellow spotter before eating the barrel of his own pistol. An assault trooper proceeded to throw a grenade into a petrol station, creating an enormous petrol explosion that set several officers on fire, screaming and running from an opponent they could barely comprehend, let alone see. Moving into the helicopter's cockpit let Aidan possess the pilot, who was compelled to crash the vehicle straight into the blockade, killing yet more panicking enemies and turning the street into a blazing killzone. After choking one of the last remaining troopers with telekinetic force, he finally collapsed the town's clocktower into the street, putting the rest of the squad into flight or pinning them under hundreds of tons of rubble. In the full game, players will only be able to choose a few of these options, creating plenty of potential for replayability and meaning that certain combinations will be more beneficial to the story (in this case, Jodie's escape) than others.
The SWAT Team dead or running, Jodie emerged from the theatre and approached their dazed commander, proclaiming, "leave me the f*ck alone, or next time, I'll kill everyone." The screen faded to black, bringing my time with Beyond to an end.
While Quantic Dream has yet to showcase much of the emotional backstory that will play a key role in humanising Jodie throughout our journey through fifteen years of her life, it's clear that they're set to deliver a visually stunning and darkly engaging PS3 exclusive, and one that emphasises real gameplay and choice. We'll be watching Beyond like a hawk over the coming months, and bring you the latest as we hear it.