Over the past few months there have been quite a few developments with Deadly Creatures, Rainbow Studios' forthcoming insect-em-up. The camera and controls have been tweaked, and the combat system has been redesigned - but none of these announcements have been quite as spectacular as the revelation that that the game will feature appearances by Hollywood royalty in the form of Dennis Hopper and Billy Bob Thornton.
Sadly neither star will be appearing as an insect - Dennis Grasshopper would have been ace - but it's still a fairly impressive coup, nonetheless. The two A-listers will in fact appear as the game's only two humans - a pair of ne'er-do-wells who are searching for Civil War gold in the desert. The developers say that they are going for a No Country For Old Men-style plot, but of course the twist here is that you'll be witnessing events unfold from the perspective of a tarantula and a scorpion. Let's not forget that both these little guys will have their own competitive story going on, with player control switching between the two critters on alternate chapters - and there are also a couple of medium-sized beasties who make several appearances throughout the game, including a particularly disgruntled rattlesnake. The game's basic concept is unusual enough as is, but the inclusion of a thriller-like plot has certainly piqued our interest; from what Rainbow Studios has told us, it sounds as though the story builds to a rather cool conclusion - though we won't spoil any surprises here.
While the presence of Hopper and Thornton will certainly make a few waves, those of you who have been following this title will probably be more interested in hearing about the improvements that have been made to the core gameplay. If you read Wez's hands-on preview from earlier this year, you'll recall that he had a few concerns about the camera's habit of getting snagged on scenery. This now appears to have been ironed out, and the wise inclusion of a 'breadcrumbs button' ensures it's much harder to get lost. When playing as the tarantula you'll often find yourself crawling around on the underside of branches, caves and the like - so it's always helpful that you can summon an arrow showing you where to go. At times you may lose track of where the ground is, but trying to jump whilst upside down will result in your arachnid simply making a weird wiggle-like hop. In other words, you're not that likely to commit accidental suicide - although missing a jump is still an instant kill in many circumstances.
Hopping around and exploring is still the defining flavour of the tarantula levels, while the more tank-like scorpion gets to take things slower, dishing out pain with his claws and barbed tail. Combat is still a major factor for both invertebrates, but scrapping has been overhauled to be more strategic and less of a random waggle-fest. Until relatively recently, all attacks were mapped to waves of the Wii remote and nunchuck; now you'll be primarily focusing on well-timed button taps, with motion controls used to trigger more powerful (but riskier) power attacks. Mr Scorpion has the luxury of blocking, but his eight-legged rival is forced to jump in and out of his opponents' range, leading to a more guerrilla-style mode of battling... assuming that an insect can be said to be guerrilla-like.
One combat feature that may divide potential gamers is the use of QTEs for pulling off finishing moves: once an enemy has been battered down, you'll hit the nunchuck's C button and follow a series of onscreen cues. QTE tend to get a lot of hate these days, but in Rainbow Studio's defence we'll say they work very well here - principally because the finishers themselves are very violent. While it's really quite fun to rip off a wasp's wings by swinging the two remotes apart, our favourite move was the scorpion's lizard execution: he bends them back on themselves until their necks snap like a twiglet. For some reason, this manoeuvre made us think of a bizarre insect-snuff version of Wrestlemania.
Indeed, these human comparisons are somewhat unavoidable. While Deadly Creatures is clearly a rather dark and brutal game, there's something undeniably amusing about the personalities that have been given to all the creepy crawlies. When the rattlesnake makes a sudden appearance, we could swear that the tarantula looked worried or perhaps a bit upset. We're fairly confident that real-world insects don't have such complicated feelings, but for some reason it works really well here. It's a testament to the animators that the silent heroes seem to have such strong characters - but then squirmy animation has always seemed like one of the game's strengths. Both insects and their environments are looking very nice, but you do get the sense that the Wii is being pushed quite hard since the frame rate can get a bit choppy when there's a lot going on. This issue appeared to be more prevalent in the tarantula level we played, perhaps due to the more complicated scenery; it never made the game unplayable, but it was certainly noticeable, all the same.
The final release of Deadly Creatures will offer 10 levels to scuttle through. Your abilities will be gradually unlocked as you progress, based upon your combat experience and the demands of the surrounding scenery. As you play you'll also be able to unlock concept art by collecting and eating grubs hidden around each stage - Rainbow Studios told us that these images will be well worth finding, given the effort that's gone into designing the game's critters.
Of course, the primary appeal of this project is still going to be its original concept. Deadly Creatures is really quite an odd game, but it's a highly original one too. It's always nice to see developers exploring new territory, so we'll be keen to see how the full experience plays out come February.
Deadly Creatures is due for release exclusively on Wii on February 13, 2009.