Tomb Raider has probably suffered the most dramatic fall from grace of any multi-million selling videogame franchise. A number of poor games and two quite shocking movies has left the big-bosomed lovely facing a fair bit of criticism from the gaming public. While Eidos, Crystal Dynamics and Toby Gard attempt to revive her career with Tomb Raider: Legend, a number of ex-Core Design employees are hard at work on their own action game.
Circle Studio was formed by Jeremy Heath-Smith and Adrian Smith in October 2003 when they left Eidos, taking many ex-Core Design employees with them. Without Warning is the first game from the studio and will be published by Capcom this October, with Lara Croft nowhere in sight.
The story revolves around a terrorist organisation lead by Corbin Derbec. He's been living in the Middle East for the last twenty years and now has plans to blow up the Peterson-Daniels chemical plant. This explosion would cause terrifying amounts of damage and put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk. You're put in control of six individuals who must try and stop Derbec from carrying out his evil plan, but these aren't your usual videogame heroes.
While this is everyday stuff for the three US covert operatives - with their special training, bomb disposal skills and high powered weapons - who tackle massive life threatening terror threats in their sleep, the other three might wish they'd stayed in bed. Ex-cop and now gung-ho security guard Dave Wilson is armed with a pistol (although this seems to pack quite a punch), Ben Harrison has nothing more than a video camera and rather weak pistol, and Tanya Shaw (a secretary) only has access to a pepper spray and fire extinguishers. Ben and Tanya weren't playable in the build we were given, but we did get to play as Dave Wilson, and his sections feel somewhat different to those played with the covert ops guys. There's a real sense of danger and fear for his life.
Without Warning is bound to get compared to 24. From the moment you start the game you're greeted by a 24-hour clock, and the rest of the game takes place over a twelve-hour period. Where it differs is that Without Warning lets players experience the same stretch of time with different characters. This gives the player a better idea of what is happening with the story, feeding you more and more information as you play. The way you play as a certain character for a small period and then leave him in a perilous situation and switch to another character works really well. There's a real incentive to keep playing in order to find out what's going to happen next in the story.
Played from a third-person perspective, the controls are intuitive and shaping up well. The camera seems a little looser than you might expect, and aiming can be a little slow, but both these areas are being worked on for the final release. When moving normally the left analogue stick moves your character freely around the environment, with the right stick controlling the camera. When in a combat situation, holding the L1 will target the nearest enemy in your line of sight and change the controls slightly, with the let analogue stick now letting you strafe. Small touches like a 180 degree spin that is performed on press of the right analogue stick, and left or right placement of your weapon controlled by the D-pad, give you even more control.
Most of the fifteen levels we played are pretty combat heavy, delivering an onslaught of enemies intent on taking you down. It's pretty exciting stuff, with barrels exploding all over the place, pipes bursting, gas leaking and gun-fire being heard almost constantly. Levels played with Ed Reagan, however, offer a slight change of pace, with Ed searching for primed explosives. He still has to take on a fair number of enemies, but not the same number that the other two operatives (Kyle Rivers and Jack Hooper) must deal with. Bomb disposal, as you'd imagine, is pretty hard, and the quick mini-game that you must complete to successfully dispose of each bomb can be quite tricky. Pictures of controller buttons move up the screen and you must hit them in time, DDR style. In a move that reflects real life, a bad move will mean the end for Ed, his body being blown to smithereens.
Enemy AI is looking pretty simple at this stage, with the challenge coming from the number of enemies you face at any one time, but Circle are working on some more advanced AI behavior that will make enemies a little trickier to tackle. At the moment the game could do with being a touch more difficult as health packs are readily available from the many empty rooms scattered around the levels.
Presentation is good, with some solid visuals and audio. The game seems to be set entirely at night, but this has meant that the explosions that go off every few minutes look even better. Taking fire also produces a nice visual effect, blurring the screen slightly with a red tint. It's pretty panic inducing and adds to the game's atmosphere. Considering that there are a few months left for Circle to optimise the engine, the game runs pretty well. The frame rate bogs down a little when a large number of enemies are on screen, and there are some draw distance problems, but these issues may well be sorted out before the game's October release.
Our time with the game has been pretty brief, and just like the end of each of the levels, we were left wanting more. Everything seems to be coming together well and we're still to experience playing as Ben the cameraman and Tanya the secretary, whose unfortunate situations could add immeasurable tension to the game. With the small changes and tweaks that are being made to the game, this could be one of the action games of the year when it is released for the Xbox and PlayStation 2 in October.
Check our videos of the game in action for a taste of what to expect when the game is released.