The Engine War is Won
In the battle of the 3D shooters this Christmas, Shogo delivers a whopping first blow
by Dave "Fargo" Kosak
Shogo's move to the market is like like a quiet Tsunami about to make landfall. Self-published by Monolith Productions on a tight budget, Shogo: Mobile Armor Division (formerly known as Riot) has coasted quietly along on a wave of fan-driven support and word of mouth. The game is based on a new 3D engine entitled "LithTech" that's hoping to woo gamers and licensees alike with hardware compatibility across the board and some amazing potential for creating gaming worlds. It's safe to say that Monolith's future in the industry depends almost wholly on the success of their new engine -- and hence on Shogo.
It's also safe to say they shouldn't be worried.
In 1998 we've seen the release of two game engines. While Unreal blew people away with looks, all indicators are pointing to LithTech as the new King of the Hill. Graphics? Speed? Compatibility? Portability? Expandibility? Gameplay? It's all there.
As a technology demo, Shogo is a tremendous piece of work. As a game it's even better. We suspect that Shogo will be jostling for mindshare with the likes of Half-Life this Christmas, a game that's easily spent many times more on marketing. The secret lies in some solid technology combined with great gameplay ... and just enough variety to keep things interesting.
Jason Hall of Monolith attended a recent BeatDown LAN party, where he let some 80-odd Quake fans try the game out. Be sure to read their comments on Shogo to see why everyone's talking. You can be sure the PlanetQuake crew gave that sucker a good kicking of the tires, so let's look under the hood and see if we really have a sleeper hit on our hands.
Shogo is an Anime-style space opera where players must complete various missions either on foot or within one of four gigantic "mechs" (huge humanoid robot-like things, seen in innumerable Japanese cartoons that many of us have come to love.) This meant that the graphics had to be believable whether you were running between mountains, office furniture, or skyscrapers -- a feat that Shogo pulls off without a hitch.
The engine as a whole was fluid and impressive. Large open areas were rendered just as speedily as tight corridors and multiple enemies and special effects could fill the screen with little slowdown.
Part of this fluidity is due to the fact that the LithTech engine scales models down depending on distance -- in other words, a complex model can be shown if it's right next to you, but as things get more hectic or as models get farther away, polygons can be removed for better performance. This allows for groups of bad guys to storm on the screen without your framerate taking a huge hit, so you can expect your mech to turn a corner and suddenly find itself face to face with a couple enemy mechs, a few tanks, and a handful of infantry hiding behind distant cars with missile launchers. You've been warned!
|Detailed city environments
to explore on foot...
|...or blow up
with your mech...
The models themselves have a style of their own. Skeletal animation is used, although the people look a little bit "chunky" thanks to the way their joints intersect, rather than bending. However, the animation is motion-captured and very fluid, and the skins fit the Anime feel of the game (the main character, Sanjuro, looks a little comical and nonplussed throughout his various predicaments.) Where the models really come to life is with the mechs; here, the intersecting joints look perfect, and the models have just the right look: hardened machinery but organic movement. Their idle animations are totally lifelike, as they look around or fiddle with their weapon (I swear the biggest mech even looks like it's flexing its muscles). They also have the ability to transform from a walking mech to a flying vehicle with all the flare you'd expect from any classic animation (if you're at all like me, Voltron, the Transformers, and Robotech will be burned forever into your childhood memory.)
We've come to expect colored lighting, lens flare, and even colored fog thanks to Quake II and Unreal, all of which are executed in Shogo without a problem. The attention to detail doesn't stop there, with bulletholes leaving gouges in walls and wounded enemies splattering blood on nearby surfaces (the bloodstains spread and fade.) Enemies will also react based on where you hit them, stooping over if hit low, bending back if pegged high, and so on.
Every good anime cartoon is littered with giant round explosions, curling smoke trails, and oceans of splattering blood -- Shogo does all that with ease. The special effects also add to the gameplay -- in mechanized combat, your machines can dish out so much damage that a whole city block can become obscured in smoke, allowing you to totally mislead your opponent or get taken by surprise when he comes flying around behind you or down from a rooftop. When you hit an opponent, you know it; when you get slammed, you feel it. There's an important tactile sense that Shogo captures with its graphics that other shooters miss out on.
A final note on the graphics engine ... LithTech is based on a Direct3D architecture, which means it works across a whole slew of video cards to begin with. Couple that with a software renderer and OpenGL support and you've got an engine that will practically work with any system -- no waiting for patches or grabbing separate downloads for every video card. That's great for gamers and good news for would-be licensees, as well. Get used to the LithTech engine -- you'll be seeing a lot of it from here on out.
Sound and Music
The theme of the game is carried across with the sound effects -- everything from the menus to the in-game effects have the instantly recognizable anime sound to them. Every time mechs clash or your character jumps you'll be brought back into the mood. The explosions are satisfyingly huge, enough to rumble the walls. (I like that.) Footstep noises and directional audio also add to the gameplay, as they did in Quake II or Unreal.
The voice acting is both good and bad. The main characters are fine, and Sanjuro is particularly well written and acted. ("Great," he moans as he's forced to tightrope across some power lines at one point. "Now I'm a pigeon.") Some of the bit-part characters have such goofy-sounding voices that it almost takes the game too over the top.
The music is dynamic, and loads/changes faster than the dynamic music for Unreal. There are enough tracks to keep you from getting bored throughout the single player game. All of them are of good quality and every tune fits the theme -- the opening credits are even sung in Japanese!
The dynamic music is used to great effect in some areas. At one point in the single player game, your character rushes into a nightclub to rescue a friend. Far from the expected resistance, the nightclub is, in fact, devoid of life. The designers opted to have no music during this sequence at all -- as you rush from one empty room to the next, peeking through doors and into bathroom stalls, you hear nothing but your footsteps. When the building is suddenly rushed from all sides by enemy soldiers, the music instantly thunders into a raging combat beat. Nice touch.
Next up: Looking at how the single-player and multi-player games pan out.