Creative Assembly are best known for their Total War series of RTS games on the PC, with their most recent title, Rome: Total War, earning both critical acclaim and high sales. Spartan: Total Warrior is SEGA and Creative Assembly's action title for the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube. We spoke to Sophie (kali) Blakemore, a designer at Creative Assembly, about the game.
Pro-G: Firstly, could you explain a little about yourself, your role in the game's development and you previous experience in the industry?
Sophie: My work on Spartan is as part of the design team and has included contributing to the dialogue, script, storyline, gameplay scenarios, UI flow design, the manual, and tutorials. Everyone here at CA is gifted in many areas of work, so everyone's contributed in some way to each and every area of the game.
I've been in the industry for 6 years now - I started off in LEGO Media QA for about 18 months when I left university (with a degree in Religious Studies...), then moved to Design and Assistant Production work. Since then I've concentrated on Game Design, in addition to a lot of personal and company-related interviews, articles and TV work.
Pro-G: Who is the Spartan and what is the story behind the game?
'The Spartan is this awesome warrior, raised in the city of Sparta after being abandoned there.'
Sophie: The Spartan is this awesome warrior, raised in the city of Sparta after being abandoned there. On the eve of a great battle against the Roman Army, the Spartan has a vision and is told to embark on a quest to repel the invading Roman Empire. This mirrors the Spartan's personal quest to discover his true identity - his name, origins, and parentage. This epic journey takes him out of Sparta, through Badlands inhabited by brutish Barbarians, to the transcendental town of Troy, haunted by spectres of Trojan soldiers, through the cultured city of Athens, and finally to Rome itself.
Pro-G: The game has been in development for a long time. What is the main reason for this prolonged development?
Sophie: We needed this time on it to get the technology to where it is today. When we first started developing, over 3 years ago, the engine could only support about 30 NPCs onscreen at once. Every week the team would tweak the engine, push the boundary a little bit more, and add in a few more NPCs, until we finally achieved the massive many vs many encounters we had wanted to. We're also a bunch of perfectionists - to ensure the game is the best it can be, most of the team works late into the night, living on take-out curry and pizza deliveries, never seeing their families and living so nocturnally they end up afraid of the sun. They call it the scare ball.
Pro-G: How have you managed to create a game engine that allows for so many on-screen soldiers?
Sophie: Technically, we had to create the engine from the ground up - there was nothing else around that could even come close to attaining the massive numbers we wanted to support. To accomplish the optimum gameplay and graphics across all 3 consoles, we had to create bespoke engines for each of the platforms, rather than porting it across. As you can imagine, all of this took a lot of hard work and dedication, but having a talented team with a vision gave us the impetus and the continued momentum to keep working at it.
Pro-G: One of the reasons why Rome: Total War has been such a success is the sense of epic battles. Players really feel like they are taking part in something on a large scale. How has this been translated to Spartan?
Sophie: The sheer number of characters onscreen totally immerse the player in the thick of the battle. When you're surrounded by an entire army of Romans, fighting for their very lives against you and your Spartan allies, and you're taking hits left and right, raising your shield and using it to shove away the closest attackers, rolling behind another group to decimate them with your Rage attack from behind and watching in glee as their headless corpses stutter and stumble to the ground, jumping to avoid an incoming barrage of arrows - then you feel like you're taking part in something on a large scale. The locations are colossal too, and all fully explorable because we pre-render it all. This really is an epic game.
Pro-G: Do you fight against the same armies that you fight in Rome: Total War? Do these armies have differing strengths and weaknesses?
Sophie: This is a very different game to our PC Total War series. The Spartan encounters a plethora of different enemies during his mission, all of which are fully AI controlled; each has an individual fighting style, weapon, tactical approach, etc. You're having to constantly adapt your own strategy to match the enemy you're facing. For instance, the Romans tend to be quite disciplined and orderly (depending on their rank) - they'll fight in groups, taking on weak opponents or ganging up against stronger ones. Then you come across the barbarians and it all changes - this bloodthirsty lot have no sense of noble duty, no sense of team play - they simply charge at you, screaming bloody murder. The most frightening of all the barbs is the berserker - he has these crazy Freddy Kruger-style blades on his fingers, and a stunning (literally!) headbutt attack.
Pro-G: God of War was recently released for the PlayStation 2. Being a third-person hack'n slash set in Rome, some similarities are bound to be drawn. What sets Spartan apart from that, admittedly great, game?
Sophie: They are quite different genres. The main difference is that Spartan: Total Warrior is about gigantic many vs many battles where the player has the ability to turn the very tide of the battle - it's an epic, cinematic experience. God of War focuses more on one vs several events. Really, the only similarity is that both games feature a Spartan as the main character - the comparison ends there.
Pro-G: The combat engine will play a big part in keeping the game fresh. What have you done to ensure that players won't become bored after a few hours of play?
Sophie: We refer to the combat in the game as Action and Reaction - you have to react to the shape of the battle around you and change your actions to suit it. You instinctively know what move you want to do, and spontaneously know how to do it. This is not a button basher, but it's not a complex system of multi-combo-learning either. There are 2 attacks that can be combined with any of the 4 attack modifiers - this creates a whole multitude of different attacks that are very easy and intuitive to perform. This is a game where you fight against enemies, rather than fighting against the control system.
The combat in the game is so satisfying. Each hit you perform on an enemy feels like it's really connecting with flesh and bone, and each weapon feels totally different in your hands. The hammer is so heavy you almost feel tired after using it - you can practically feel the lactic acid burning through your biceps. I can't tell you what pleasure it gives me to pull out my bow, hold down the Power of the Gods modifier, fire off a radial arrow and just watch as the enemies' heads just pop off their bodies, gibbing in a glorious cloud of blood and cerebral gore. It's the variety of moves you can pull off - all built on such a simple, intuitive control system - that gives the combat such depth. I love shield-bashing Romans off the edge of high buildings, seeing their limbs flailing wildly as they plummet towards their inevitable demise. But my favourite move is with the Twin Blades of Athena, when your Rage Bar is full, darting round the surrounding Romans and scissoring off each of their heads, taking in the devastating effect as the now headless bodies stumble around.