Lair: Beyond the Bridge
We take to the skies in Factor 5's highly anticipated dragon flyer.
April 12, 2007 - Though we've already seen Lair a number of times and a decent stash of screens and videos have been released, details about the game beyond the recognizable "bridge level" have been kept rather mysterious. Sure, we've known about some of the game's mechanics -- the ability to physically assault other dragons, take to the ground to do battle and more -- but we've only seen these elements in small doses. This past week, however, Sony and Factor 5 gave us a couple of hours to dig our heels into Lair to get a fiery taste of what's to come in some of the game's opening levels.
One of the biggest lingering questions about Lair right now is its current status and expected release date, so we'll get that right out of the way. The version we saw was an alpha build, but it sounds like the game is pretty close to making it to beta. Factor 5 says that its development process makes for a quick progression from the "first alpha" to the final finished form, and that we can expect to see Lair on store shelves this July. Indeed, dragon battles on our PlayStation 3s are a mere three months away.
Not only will you be able to buy the game in July, but Factor 5 also confirmed that there will be a downloadable PlayStation Network demo at some point. It's unclear as to whether the demo will hit before the final release or after, but isn't supposed to be too far off either way.
In order to keep Lair's story at an extremely high level of production, its tale is told in a very linear fashion. However, individual missions will allow for branching goals, giving players the ability to play them as best they see fit. If you don't want to worry about the troops on the ground and would rather focus solely on the skies, you can go ahead and do that.
Speaking of the ground, many folks have assumed for some time that you're able to get off your dragon and partake in a little hand-to-hand combat. It turns out that this isn't true. While it may have made for more variety, Factor 5 says that this not only doesn't make sense from a character perspective (you're a dragon rider and not a soldier), but that the studio has put its development efforts towards gameplay variety in other areas. While you will find yourself on foot on some occasions (such as at the start of the game), these sections are simply there to enhance the experience a tad as your only goal is to get to your dragon and take to the air.
Although you won't actually be able to take out a mace and jump into unarmed battle, you will be able to land your dragon and cause havoc while on the ground. Once you've touched down, you're able to ram through soldiers and other beasts, unleash spreads of fire and more. Pressing the Triangle button orders your dragon to eat a hapless and unfortunate soldier, giving it back a bit of health. One of the major design elements that the studio wanted to get across as well is that the dragons aren't simply planes but creatures that are capable of waging physical combat and so forth, and to this end it looks like the studio has accomplished its goal.
As for those other elements of gameplay variety, Factor 5 promises that Lair will continuously introduce new systems to the player throughout the entirety of the adventure. Though you'll begin by simply flying around and killing dragons and peons as you'd expect, you'll eventually learn how to pick up and throw creatures (like horses), grab onto objects and shake them loose to cause structural damage to the environment, earn advanced physical attacks and more. The studio is keeping mum on exactly what other things we'll see, but we've been promised that there are "major" changes to what you'll be able to do in at least one point of the experience.
These other mechanics will not only help keep Lair feeling fresh, but will provide necessary ways to win battles with enemy dragons and the other miscellaneous creatures. Your dragon's fire attack will work against the weaker creatures, even the low-end dragons at the start, but the bigger dragons you'll see more often as you progress will be virtually immune to fire and you'll need to take part in some physical work to get rid of them.
You've no doubt seen footage of some of these tactics, like being able to jump to another dragon and dethrone its rider or slam into the beasts to take them down. By targeting another dragon and then ramming into it, you'll be placed into a bit of a one-on-one combat scenario where you can perform these moves. Jolting the controller to the side will cause your beast to slam into the other and hopefully knock it out of the sky, though you also have full control over your speed and such so you can perform advanced techniques, like quickly slowing down to toss in a couple blasts from behind.
These battles look reasonably cool, but the Sixaxis control recognition still needs a tad bit of work before release. If you move the controller up at all while trying to slam another dragon, which you will often do naturally if it's above you at all, it will cause you to perform a 180 spin. Useful in air combat, you likely won't mean to do this while trying to rough up another beast. Unfortunately, this happened to us more than a few times on accident, though hopefully the controls will be tightened up a little before release.
The physical attacks are important not only for taking out dragons and such, but boosting up your Carnage meter as well by netting you bigger multipliers. Measured in tons of damage, your Carnage meter will be part of what works towards earning your end-level medals in the game, which work very similarly to what Factor 5 did with medals in its previous Star Wars games. These medals will earn you new moves and other rewards, and tie directly into your online leaderboard ranking. Though there won't be any sort of multiplayer, you will be able to track how good you are via the game's online leaderboard. And speaking of rewards, Lair is one of the first games that will officially make use of trophies for PlayStation Home. Details behind what you will earn them for are scarce, but they will be included even if Home isn't scheduled to launch until after Lair is released.
Some environments in the game will indeed be destructible, though it's on a case-by-case and level-by-level basis. In missions where one of your goals is to outright attack and attempt to destroy a city, you'll find plenty of objects that break apart. What we saw didn't feature too much of this, with most of the destruction delegated to things like barrels, crates and other scattered objects, so we'll have to wait and see to find out just how much this is true for other sections of the game.
As for other whiz-bang technology goodness, Factor 5 confirms that the game will run at a rock-solid 30fps at both 720p and 1080p. The game indeed ran quite well when we played it, with nary a hitch in framerate to be found. This is rather impressive as levels can be as large as 32x32km in size, which is allowed by Factor 5's use of streaming mesh technology, an offshoot of level of detail models.
Lair also makes use of a fluid dynamics system for its impressive water technology, which looks fantastic even up close. This means that boats and objects are actually buoyant and float as they naturally would. Explosions cause waves in the water, which in turn rocks anything that the waves come across. The fluid dynamics do look to be surface based, meaning that water can't spill over the sides of boats and cause them to sink, but it is rather impressive nonetheless.
The use of this water technology is evident in the game's first level, "Day of Terror." Enemy ships approach your shores by sea, so you take to your dragon and are charged with taking them out. After destroying a good dozen ships or so, a fleet of dragons heads your way. This is where you'll get your first real taste of air combat and it's clearly the game's bread and butter.
One thing we noticed is that being as dragons are hard to distinguish from a distance, your dragons have red fire while your enemies' have blue. This makes it a bit easier to tell them apart, though you'll still have to play a bit of a guessing game from time to time. Flight control is reasonably easy, though as you're using the Sixaxis for input it isn't perfectly precise. This setup still works, though, as dragons aren't mechanical planes and do have a will of their own, making the controls feel a bit more believable.
Once you know who you want to take out, a lock-on mechanism will set them in your sights. Unleashing a single breath of fire will toss out a large ball of flame while quick, successive shots will be smaller and weaker until you give it time to recharge. All of this works fine in theory, though there are still a couple of kinks that need to be worked out, namely the fact that when a locked-on dragon passes by you the camera will follow it in an awkward manner and you'll have no idea where your own dragon is heading anymore. Once you flip back, you could very well be face-to-face with the side of a mountain.
In a later level, "Blood River," enemy armies and catapults are attempting to destroy a cargo vessel carrying goods to your city. Taking out the catapults is easy work, but a fleet of dragons are close behind, as are large mantas carrying thousands of troops. Once these soldiers hit the ground, the battle becomes hectic and you need to manage your attacks well. One of the goals here requires that you take out 2,000 soldiers before your city is destroyed, which seemed to be a rather slow-going task as they're spread out a bit. Heading to the ground and running them over works better than being in the air, but 2,000 men are not quickly trampled.
One of the cool things about the ground armies is that the game plays out these battles in something of an internal RTS engine. The two armies fight independently of your control and the outcome isn't set in stone, so sometimes unintended things will happen. This means that you won't always know whether or not your army will be able to hold off the enemy and you'll have to swoop down and take out a few soldiers of your own to sway the battle back in your favor.
As much as we had a chance to see of Lair, there's still plenty more that we don't know about it yet. As mentioned, the game is currently slated for release in July with a downloadable demo hitting the PlayStation Network sometime around the same time. For now, head to our media pages and have a look at plenty of new screenshots and HD videos.