Hellblade: New Adventure, Preview - Games Weekly

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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Hellblade: New Adventure, Preview

In the last issue We talked About The New World of Hellblade, Today we will talk about the New Adventure of Hellblade.

Before walking through Ninja Theory’s doors I’d imagined the ‘Independent Triple-A’ approach to be something of a gamble for the Cambridge-based developer. Not exactly a ‘last roll of the dice’ situation, but with the dev funding the game itself I expected the pressure to be high.

After spending the best part of a day inside the studio I get the sense that the opposite is true that, while of course there’s a lot riding on the project, the team is ultimately free to do whatever it wants, regardless of what spreadsheets say. I don’t believe it’s the only studio with this power, but this self control is a disappointingly rare occurrence for the world’s bigger studios.

Whereas publishers need to target four to five million copy sales to safeguard their investment, Ninja Theory needs to sell between 200,000 and 300,000 copies of Hellblade to cover its entire development budget. That’s under 10% of the traditional’ model’s sales target, and it means that Ninja Theory is no longer forced make Hellblade all things for all people. The type of game it wants to develop will alienate some gamers, and everybody on  the project is comfortable with that.

“I knew I wanted to just focus on one mechanic and make it really good,” says Tameem Antoniades, “and so that was combat. So I thought it should be something more mythical or set in the past, because then that’s an excuse not to have guns.” And while Heavenly Sword, Enslaved and DmC: Devil May Cry were all well received combat centric titles, he feels Ninja Theory still has room to grow with its combat mechanics.

“There’s plenty to explore. I grew up playing arcade games. I’d spend months, if not years, in the arcades playing Virtua Fighter. And the reason I like Virtua Fighter or Street Fighter, or games like that, is that they achieve incredible depth and longevity. Every fighter’s unique and every fighter’s interesting, but they don’t rely on memorisation of massive amounts of combos. They don't rely on progression systems, RPG systems, crafting... They’re just very pure experiences. It’s more about mastery and skill.
“I just want To Make a game That's Much More about your expression.”
“I’d like to explore that again: creating a system where you can express yourself as a fighter, as a player, but that you never feel like you can master. The general trend for combat melee based games is to go more towards stats based upgrades and progression systems. Over time it’s becoming less and less about the skill and more and more about the RPG elements. I just want to make a game that’s much more about your skill and expression, and in a way that’s a tougher challenge to keep that
interesting and make it feel like there’s always stuff to explore.”

It’s hard to argue with this assessment. Think of all the action games in recent years (for Hellblade is a third-person action game, not a fighter such as Virtua Fighter) and then name the ones that don’t feature pages upon pages of upgrades and heaps of RPG-style systems to keep its combat fresh. Okay, so Hellblade is going to be a shorter game than many of those titles so won’t need to maintain that purity for as long as its competition but the homogenisation of action mechanics can’t be ignored, and the thought of a new (and old) approach to melee combat is exciting.

How this purer than usual combat feels is a story for another issue as it’s one of the few prototyping elements I don’t get to see during the visit. But a huge component of fighting mechanics is enemy design, which I do pick over.

Silhouettes are key. At the beginning of the enemy creation process, scores of monochrome sketches were quickly doodled onto small rectangles of paper, and it’s from this pile of scribbles that Hellblade’s army came together. Stuart, Tameem, senior concept artist Mark Molnar and senior character artist Claire Blustin all sat on the floor and sifted through them one by one.

Those designs that made it are pinned to a giant board resting against the wall. Those that didn't are scattered on the floor in front of it, forced to look up at the monstrosities that weren't rejected.

Along the top of the board, a row of Post-it notes list the different enemy breeds: Man, Big Man, Giant Man, Woman, Big Woman, Beast, Big Beast and Giant Beast. Down the left side, a column lists the different ranks or visual effects: Iron, Silver, Gold, Burning, Wretched, Magic, Beserker and Bosses. A few entries have pink Post-it notes with an ‘X’ in black felt tip there’s no ‘Burning Woman’ type, for instance and the rest of the squares are filled with one or two pics from the pile.

A column of notes rounds off the enemy board, pointing out details that need to be added to the final character models, but my eyes are drawn to the cluster of images taken from Pinterest that helped create that original pile of sketches in the first place. As a big WWE fan I can’t help but love the fact that the beast incarnate, Brock Lesnar, was one of the inspirations behind Hellblade’s beastly foes. So that’s where our champ’s gone, huh?

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