Video game development is notoriously complicated and protracted. A single project can suck up years, span countries and continents, and employ thousands of talented staff. And why? Because the rewards are great, not just financially but in terms of technological advances and artistic achievement.
With an exclusive launch title for the Xbox One, RYSE: Son of Rome, Crytek is a German games studio taking a huge risk of their own. Not only is this a new genre for the company, branching out from the first-person CRYSIS and FAR CRY shooters for which they're famous, it's also a new intellectual property on a new platform. Any one of those factors would be cause for sleepless nights.
"Alright guys, what are we doing here?" jokes PJ Estevez, Design Director for RYSE. He starts running through the list: "New IP? Check. Okay, that's hard. New genre for the company? Check, that's hard. Let's innovate on the camera. And while we're at it, let's tell a really great story and push performance capture into the next gen. Check, check, and check."
"So, we really set ourselves high goals. Going from making sci-fi FPS to Ancient Rome, we wanted to show there's another side to Crytek and another dynamic that people might not have expected."
RYSE began life as a first-person brawler for the Xbox 360, a dedicated Kinect title with full motion control and voice commands instead of a gamepad controller. Thirteen months later, the game has been reconfigured as a third-person action-adventure for a new platform with a new control scheme. While the story remains the same -- players assume the role of Marius, a legionnaire of the Roman empire entangled in a web of treachery and revenge -- the framework has undergone some dramatic differences.
"Definitely, the combat system is different," says Estevez, "but the thing I like to point out to people is that things like the cinematic camerawork, facial animations and brutal executions, they still resonate in the game. Those parts carried over from one version to the next, they're very much the heart and soul of what RYSE is supposed to be."
And of course, the historical setting of Rome is something else that informs RYSE, where the lush graphics, lighting and sound are used to recreate the ancient civilisation in all its pomp and splendour. "Every generation has its own interpretation of Rome, ranging from Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, to Ridley Scott's Gladiator," says Estevez. "There really hasn't been a great game set in Rome other than the Total War series, and those are from the perspective of a tactical general. We're trying to tell a story about the guys on the actual battlefield."
To better tell that story, RYSE relies heavily on motion-capture performances, the process of which was split into three distinct phases. "One is the casting, using actors who we thought could play the parts. We hired a lot of British stage and film actors, and made sure that they really fit the role," explains Estevez. The second was working with Andy Serkis and his mocap team at The Imaginarium.
"The Imaginarium's part was capturing the best data possible on the motion-capture, and it always came to us super-clean and ready to go. And as soon as we had that data down on the technical side, the next question was how do we build a Marius that is a one-to-one representation of our actor, John Hopkins?"
Looking at some of the expressions on the faces of the in-game characters, it really does look like a new benchmark in graphical realism. "People might think that it's overkill but it's not, not when you can see the kind of fidelity we can achieve," says Estevez. "This is like a line in the sand: you can go back to doing what feels like a bad high school play, or you can take this next step forward."
Early on, the team decided that they wanted to use the same character in-game as they do in the cinematics, thereby making the transitions seamless. So when Marius does his OTT executions when stomping barbarians, those actions were actually mo-capped by the actor playing Marius. "We laughed about it, because we had him do a bunch. 'Alright John, we need a little more 'ARRGH'. We did tons of libraries of that stuff, and hand-picked the ones that worked best for the game."
But while the art direction is spectacular, is Estevez concerned that the violent content is going to cause some controversy? Or at the very least, limit their potential audience? "We have to portray combat as a life or death struggle, and we really can't pull any punches with this stuff. If you're a soldier and the fastest way to deflect a blow is to take off a limb, that's what real warriors did back then. The last thing we wanted to do is water that down. But at the same time, we try not to glorify the gore. It's a fine line."
Based on the criteria of mo-cap animations, fluid camerawork and realistic combat, RYSE is an unqualified success. But whether it's going to be a hit for the Xbox One...
We had a chance to play a demo at a press event prior to launch, and we can honestly say that our impressions were positive. The fighting system is as complicated and as simple as players want it to be, and the visuals were spellbinding. Moreover, we were itching to keep playing well past our allotted time. On that basis, we have a sneaking suspicion that Crytek's gamble could well pay off. Big time.