Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dante's Inferno

God of War meets Dead Space in Hell. That’s how we first described Dante’s Inferno and it wouldn’t be risking the wrath of Hell to suggest that’s how EA’s infernal epic looks now.

However, reducing the game to comparisons no longer does it justice. Sure, it plays like God of War – something the developers admitted to us – and it’s made by the same studio that handled Dead Space, but thanks to the game’s unique vision of Hell, it’s unlike anything we’ve seen before.

“When it comes to the environments in the game, we’ve tried to be as faithful to the poem as we could,” explains Jonathan Knight, executive producer on Dante’s Inferno. “Some sections, such as the Wood of the Suicides, or the Styx Marsh and the lead-up to the City of Dis, are pretty accurately re-constructed in the game, based directly upon Dante’s descriptions of what he imagined.”

To give you some idea of what that might be, the trees in the Wood of the Suicides are made up of people who took their own lives, constantly twisted and petrified in torment. The road to the City of Dis is a similarly cheery place: here, sinners are trapped inside burning coffins, eternally scrabbling to escape. Sure beats warehouses, docks and generic urban sprawls.

This adherence to the poem extends to the characters. Figures such as King Minos (judge of the dead), Phlegyas (guides Dante and Virgil to Hell) and Charon (ferries the dead across the River Styx) appear pretty much as they are in The Divine Comedy. In fact, Knight is keen to point out that “only when it comes to the story, and to the sins of Dante and his dark past, did we feel the need to really deviate and add new layers”.

He goes on to give the reason for this, saying: “We wanted to make an action game, and so it was important to create drama and conflict. Rather than a simple pilgrimage to find Beatrice, we made it into a rescue mission to save Beatrice from the clutches of Hell. We also gave a bigger part to Lucifer, made him a strong antagonist, and it sort of grew from there.”

Of course, the biggest departure from the poem is Dante appearing as a war-bloodied, self-wounding Knight of the Crusades and not a politically savvy pre-Renaissance poet. Let’s face it: sharp, 14th Century Italian literature doesn’t sell games. This is where the God of War comparisons start to kick in. Dante’s Inferno is a violent, third-person action game with a flawed hero and a slick, simple combo system. Even the buttons are the same as the ones found in God of War. However, instead of reeling in horror when confronted with the question of similarity to Sony’s multi-million dollar franchise, the developers at Visceral actually welcome the comparisons.

“It’s fair and flattering” says Knight. “We are obviously making a game in the third-person story-driven melee combat genre, and games like God of War, Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden are among the best in that class. We are honoured to be mentioned in that company. If the controls remind people of those games, then we hope that’s a good thing for gamers. What we’re focused on are the things that set Dante’s Inferno apart from the crowd.”

And what sets Dante’s apart? Technically, the game does look and play very smoothly. The team has already pledged its commitment to making sure it runs at a solid 60 frames per second, which – despite usually being a stat for the hardcore tech nerds – is important for reaction-based slashers. From a more gameplay-oriented perspective, Knight is keen to talk about the Righteousness system. Righteousness is morality with an action twist.

“In the game, the player is given the choice to punish or absolve the damned, the demons and the minions of Hell. This choice isn’t just made in modal interactions with the damned, it’s made constantly in finish moves in second-to-second combat throughout the game,” explains Knight. “Over time, the more you absolve, the more you’ll contribute to a Holy bar, which in turn leads to leveling up the Holy path. At each new level, the cross becomes stronger, and new abilities and modifications open up. The same is true down the Unholy path. You can level up both paths slowly, or more quickly by choosing one path or the other.”

In other words, think inFamous, only with the option to be good or a jerk built in to every significant encounter. And, much like we saw in Sony’s lightning-flinging action game, you’re rewarded with extra abilities and exclusive magic attacks the more extreme your alignment becomes. Throughout the game you find relics (unique weapons), which are either Holy or Unholy. Depending on how you’re playing the game, these relics will be more or less effective – so if you’re following a righteous path, don’t expect too much from your Unholy pick-ups.

“All the different systems are tied into this overall theme of choice: to punish or to absolve. We think it fits very well with the theme of free will, which was so important to Dante Alighieri, and it gives players more options in their play style,” claims Knight. We’re not sure choosing a preferred method of slaughtering unbaptised babies with knives for arms was quite the ‘free will’ Dante Alighieri had in mind when he wrote The Divine Comedy, but it does make for an entertainingly gruesome spectacle.

Dante in the game uses his scythe to produce the kind of finishing moves that would make even Kratos queasy. One example sees him slipping his scythe inside the body of a grotesquely fat enemy in the ‘Greed’ circle and snatching the blade back out, roughly chopping the creature in half. That’ll be an ‘Unholy’ finish, then.

However, we’ve also seen examples of ‘righteous’ finishes, where Dante presses his Holy Cross into the face of a fallen opponent and reduces them to a pile of glowing dust, presumably freeing their tormented soul. It’s all done with a Quick Time Event sequence, just like the God of War series. That seems like a bit of a disappointment considering games like Ninja Gaiden 2, and later down the line, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow have started to move away from QTEs as a resolution to epic (and occasionally not-so-epic) boss battles.

With so much violence and some downright horrific imagery in the levels (as a side note, Knight tells us that there was some material considered too nasty to appear in the final version of the game, but he won’t say what) it only seems like a matter of time before the knee-jerkers and banner-wavers start to close in on Dante’s Inferno in a big way.

EA staged a fake Christian protest at this year’s E3 games show in LA to drum up publicity for the game, and this seems to have kept other objections at bay – presumably for fear of doing EAs work for them. Knight takes an impish view on the subject, saying: “People have had 700 years to protest against the poem, and not much has ever come from that approach. The game is an adaptation of this incredible work of fiction, and that’s just what it is: a work of fiction. It’s a fantasy about a guy fighting the demons of the afterlife, as well as his own demons, in pursuit of the love of his life. What’s not to like about that?”


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