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?
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.
Pro-G: How will experience affect Spartan's skills during the game? How much scope is there to make your warrior unique?
Sophie: We have a simple but rewarding RPG-style system where you're awarded a number of points at the end of each level, which you can attribute to one of three skills: Power of the Gods (PotG), Health or Damage. This allows the player to customise the Spartan optimally for their playing style; if they use the Power of the Gods to reinforce their attacks, they should probably focus on raising this stat which will give them a larger PotG bar in the game. If they find they're more into the sword-to-sword combat that the game provides, adding points to their health and damage is wise.
Pro-G: Can the Spartan use any magic to take down enemy soldiers?
Sophie: Oh yes indeedy! Each different weapon discovered along the journey has its own unique magic associated with it. The Twin Blades of Athena produce an electrical lightning attack; while the Hammer of Beowulf shakes up encircling foes with a violent earthquake. The Medusa shield calls upon the Medusa's petrifying powers to stop the enemies in their tracks, and the Spear of Achilles has innate fire-based powers. You'll find it's important to keep varying your attacks, experimenting to find the best way to take out each new enemy type.
Pro-G: The game looks to have a large number of environments. Are any of these interactive in any way?
Sophie: We're really chuffed with the fact that all the locations are totally explorable, 100% pre-rendered and therefore fully interactive. Anywhere you can see in the game, you can get to and explore. The entire environment is loaded at the start of a level, so there's no annoying loading breaks in between sections of levels. You'll find hidden secrets to collect, such as Arena Bonuses, which open up cool powerups and pickups in the Arena mode of the game. You can also discover unlockable concept artwork. We've also made NPC characters interactive, so that civilians and prisoners talk to you and each other, sometimes revealing game tips or secrets. Take your time to really investigate your surroundings and you'll be pleasantly surprised at the level of ambient detail.
Pro-G: Can players expect to face any bosses at key stages of the game? If so, how do these differ from the hordes of soldiers that you face throughout the majority of the game?
Sophie: As each level culminates, the player will encounter some fantastic bosses based in Greek and other ancient mythology. Watch out for the Minotaur's overwhelming charge and the Medusa's petrifying powers! Again, with each new boss, the player will have to figure out the best way to defeat them as they all have unique properties, attacks, defence systems, and combat techniques.
Pro-G: The Arena mode looks to be a place for die-hard fans to test their skills. Will you have any online leader boards so players can compete for the best survival times?
Sophie: Yes. At the moment we have internal leader boards so the whole team can try to get the highest score - so far the testers are excelling and whupping our asses, but we have enough time between now and release to change that.
Pro-G: Combat is clearly the focus of the game, but will this be accompanied by any puzzle solving or other gameplay types to give the game a little more variety?
Sophie: There's plenty of stuff to do besides fighting - allied NPC characters will call on you to carry out search and destroy operations to take out particularly threatening artillery machines. There are also stealth elements where you get to sneak around enemy camps, and reconnaissance missions which see you locating and protecting allies in trouble.
Pro-G: Are there are unique features to a specific version of the game? Have you played to any of the strengths of each console?
Sophie: Because we've developed simultaneously across all three platforms, we've been able to milk each console. For instance, the Xbox version has depth of field perspective (blurring things in the background, for those non tecky peeps), while we've managed to get "bling" effects (High Dynamic Lighting Range) working really beautifully on the GameCube. Each console has its own version of the game, specifically crafted for it to achieve the best possible result on that platform.
Pro-G: Do you have any plans to take the game to other platforms? Perhaps the PC or PSP?
Sophie: I probably shouldn't discuss anything in the pipeline. ^_^
Pro-G: Finally, why should people be excited about Spartan: Total Warrior when it is released this winter?
Sophie: Ask yourself if you've ever been immersed in the heart of a bloody epic battle which rages all around you, surrounded by almost 200 troops, calling on magical powers and brutally decapitating anyone who tries to mess with you, impaling your foe on the end of your sword and kicking them 100 ft off the end, dodging incoming arrows and whacking opponents to the floor where you can follow up by fatally plunging your weapon into their visceral organs. If the answer is no, then there's a few damned fine reasons to be excited.
Thanks for your time. Spartan: Total Warrior is expected to be released in October for PlayStation 2, Xbox and Nintendo GameCube. Expect a thorough review near its release.