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For an area that's been blasted by radiation for the past twenty years, the sloping hills of the countryside around Chernobyl are impressively virile. The grasses have shifted from soft greens to muted browns, admittedly, but there's still a lot of vegetation, and, more worryingly, a lot of wildlife.


The first thing you kill in S.T.A.L.K.E.R (and that's the last time I type it out like that), is likely going to be something that mostly resembles a dog. It'll be hairless, with a few open sores covering a big chunk of its body, and, by and far the most noticeable thing about it, it'll be trying to eat your face.


But the dogs of Stalker travel in packs, and they'll only attack in packs. Thin them out a little with a quick bark of your gun and the rest will scatter and whine, with the stumps of what were once tails held firmly between their legs.


Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl was an incredible game, in the most literal sense. It inspired incredulity, forcing you, again and again, to question whether something was happening because it was scripted to happen like that, or just because you happened to be in the right place at the right time for that to happen. More often than not, it was the latter.


GSC were absentee developers. In this sense, that's a good thing. Throughout playing any of the three Stalker games, it's difficult to feel like their attention is ever really on you. Instead it's on organising a hillside scuffle between the dog-things and those boar-things. Or orchestrating some skirmish between two gangs of Stalkers, or maybe some bandits. Or swirling up some horrendous, travelling anomaly, that will pull you into a whirlwind of radiation and wind, before flaying you alive. But it wasn't created for you - you just happened to be the dummy that walked into it. Idiot.


It's a world that exists despite you, rather than because of you. In an industry where a game like Skyrim has enough stuff for you to stumble across and trigger to distract you into thinking this is a living, breathing world, GSC actually managed to do it, for the most part. There are still scripted sequences, but those became less and less prevalent across the development of the three games, until Call of Prypiat just dropped you into the Zone with a vague mission to investigate some downed choppers and left you to it.


It's a world that has a palpable sense of history, which makes sense, given that the game world genuinely does have history. It's modelled exquisitely on photographs taken of the real Chernobyl, only slightly altered to allow for a better game environment. So you have locations like Prypiat and the reactor, places that truly exist. But there's a disconnect from reality at the point of that reactor explosion, where the Zone starts to be filled with the weird and not-so-wonderful. Mutants and anomalies, artifacts and radiation.


And so the game makes its own history, filled with enterprising Stalkers and militant (and military) factions vying for control of this potential gold mine, despite the beyond hostile conditions and cutthroat bandits. Each game builds on this, filling in more blanks while creating larger mysteries. It's only natural that somewhere like the Zone is going to raise more questions than answers, what with its anomalies and wide swathes of highly radioactive swamplands.


You came thirty years too late, all the answers have been and gone. Everywhere is a ruin, an architectural memory that could have been caused by the original reactor explosion, or anything since. And you don't really want to investigate too much, because the game instills a clear sense of fear within the first hour. Curiosity will very much get you killed, because there are mutants and anomalies and artifacts and bandits and everything you can't see.


All of this would be moot if Stalker was just a shooter. If everything was something to kill, and everything was killed beneath the horrendous onslaught of your assault rifle and grenades. Fortunately, Stalker isn't just a shooter. It's got shooting, but it's sneakily disguised itself as an RPG. In fact, it's more of an RPG than a lot of RPGs are RPGs. Beyond the slot based inventories, the gun degradation, the crafting, the side quests, RPGs are fundamentally about choice, and that's what separates them from other games. The choice on whether or not to do something, or which of two somethings you want to do.


The choices Stalker provides you with are minute to minute, and mostly small. The most common, by far, is merely one of action or inaction. The levels are large enough to afford you with quite the view; almost everyone you come across will start off as a few pixels in the distance before you get closer. The problem being, a few pixels isn't the best indicator of whether that's the kind of guy you could sit down and trade stories about the crazy s**t you've seen, or the kind of guy who will shoot you in the head and steal all the crazy s**t you've stolen.


It necessitates anxiety. It forces a kill-or-be-killed mentality on you, because it's either that or you're on the be-killed end of that see-saw. You very, very rarely feel safe in a Stalker game, which is a sharp u-turn from the vast majority of shooters, where expressing your dominance through the form of ranged death-dispensing is the main point.


You'll die in Stalker. You'll die by the hands of the bandits who ambush you when you slip through a tunnel. You'll die by the claws of the mutated wildlife, because you were too busy looking at your map to notice the howls getting closer. You'll die by the superior weaponry of the Duty, who killed you because you walked into the wrong corner of the zone. You'll die by the terrifying face-fronds of the invisible bloodsuckers, because you're somewhere you really shouldn't be.


It's a game that makes fear palpable again, and manages it in a way that most games don't quite manage. It comes back to that randomness, the procedural nature of the AI and the unpredictable nature of you, the player. This is a world where there are things, and you have the option of stumbling across them and being killed by those things.


Which probably isn't the best way to recommend or laud a game. Who wants to die over and over? But that's part of the point; the Stalker games create an environment that is apathetic of you at the best. It doesn't make allowances, or pay any undue attention to what it is that you're doing, and that's liberating. It means the game has stepped back and allowed you the space to enjoy your own story, rather than the one that has been prepared for you. Even if that story is some minor, insignificant tragedy that is followed by a quickload and a second attempt, it's yours.


The first time I played Call of Prypiat, it took me about an hour to establish myself, get a better gun, make a few friends. In the middle of some marshland, I start to hear this wooshing whip sound, like a tornado flying right by my ear before coming back and doing another flyby. It was one of the few warnings you get in Stalker, and this was a warning of a blowout, a heavy, deadly radiation storm that will flay you alive if you don't find cover. Helpfully, the game provided a marker towards a nearby cave, and I legged it.


Despite the darkness, the way the stone walls muted the outside winds was reassuring. Besides, I had a flashlight, and a sleeping bag, so I should be fine. A moment later, I had light. A moment after that I was back out in the storm again.


I'd rather be flayed alive than share a cave with a dozen sleeping blood suckers, all of them standing straight upright, arms planked to their sides, and head slightly hung, face fronds quivering with each breath. Screw that.


Last weekend, GSC closed its doors, and with it, there's a good chance that Stalker 2 will never see the hazy, slightly irradiated light of day.


It's impossible for a studio closure to be anything but a bad thing. People's jobs are lost, projects are abandoned, and legacies are ended. But such is the homogenisation of games that it's difficult not to expect some of these closures. The people who play games have only so much money to spend on them, and so when a genre gets crowded, it's inevitable that some games won't do so well, and the developers who make those games fall by the wayside.


When the developer that closes isn't crowding a genre, when they're actually forging their own way and creating something grand and unique, something that should be a trailblazer rather than a sideshow, it's difficult not to feel like this is a greater tragedy, like we're not just losing a competent studio but instead an entire future, a way that games could have gone but didn't. It's happened too many times, and that it's still happening, when it's so much easier to reach your audience, to create an audience thanks to the internet, is heartbreaking.

Eurogamer


To developer Relic, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine represented a good first attempt at third-person action on console.


Eurogamer's Space Marine review awarded 6/10.


"Was it our best work?" mulled producer Andy Lang when quizzed by Eurogamer. "It was our best console work."


"I'm pretty humble; I don't look at [criticism] and get all upset. I thought most of the reviews were fairly on the mark with what they had to say; the character design does get a bit repetitive and certain parts of it, just how the game plays - we didn't have time to really polish that stuff to where we wanted to get to. There wasn't anything that was oh-my-god shocking in the game.


"We're not super surprised by [the scores]," he added. "Of course we'd always like to have higher scores, but with our feature-set and coming out late in the console cycle - it's really hard to have that feature-rich game. We did our best to deliver that blockbuster experience. And the scores landed where they landed."


Andy Land revealed how Relic - renowned for PC RTS games - would persistently ask itself, "Are we crazy trying to bring this game to consoles this late in the cycle?" What's so special about this late in the cycle? "Because it's so competitive," said Lang, implying other high-profile games on second, third iterations.


"It was a new experience for many of us on the team," he recalled, "but we did bring in a lot of new talent that have worked on these games before to flesh it out. And Relic's pedigree of pushing for quality that we've done in RTS titles - we really tried to bring that level of polish to a third-person game.

"With regards to the strategy genre, we're on our fifth, sixth iterations; with this genre we're just starting out."

Andy Lang, producer, Space Marine


"With regards to the strategy genre, we're on our fifth, sixth iterations; with this genre we're just starting out."


Lang thinks it would have been "really cool" to have co-op at Space Marine launch, a month ago. That feature will soon be added via the Exterminatus DLC, due 25th October.


"If I look at when I play a Space Marine," he added, "I look at adding more puzzles, more variety to the gameplay experience, so the player has to think a little harder when they're entering an encounter when they're entering a space.


"Challenge the player a little more," he said. "Just more refinement - more polish in that area is something that I would really have loved to gotten in."

Space Marine entered the UK all-formats chart in second place, and now lingers in 11th. US sales for Space Marine are expected on Thursday.


"We had realistic goals for the title, of course, being the first title in a franchise," the Relic/THQ PR interjected, refusing sales numbers, explaining that they were still being processed.


Direct enquiries about a sequel were denied. But referrals to Space Marine as (above) "the first title in a franchise" and (above even further) "with this genre we're just starting out", were two examples (of a few) hints at the future.


In July, Relic said discussions about Space Marine 2 were "literally, just starting". Marketing manager James McDermott teased "some of the more popular fiction within the 40K universe" as a likely source base. Space Hulk? Horus Heresy?


Andy Lang told us that Relic, as a whole, housed around 170 staff across three teams. All enquiries about projects other than Space Marine 1 were blocked, but to assume a Company of Heroes 2/Dawn of War 3/Space Marine 2 split doesn't require too great a leap of faith.

Dawn of War 3 hasn't been formerly announced but clearly is happening. Company of Heroes 2 is also heavily rumoured to be in development.


Either one of those games, or both, were expected to be announced at Gamescom. THQ had promised a "big" announcement at the German games show but it didn't happen; THQ was barely present at all.


THQ has never revealed why. Perhaps it was because, days before, THQ announced 200 lay-offs.


The Relic/THQ PR, however, told Eurogamer it was because some projects weren't ready to show yet.


"That one was just a case of sometimes with development cycles what you think you'll have ready to show isn't, and plans change, so we just changed our plans on that one and we look forward to making announcements in the future," he said.


"But at this moment in time there's no time-frame we can put on it."

Video:

Eurogamer


In an interview with Eurogamer World of Warcraft lead systems designer Greg Street discussed the development process behind Blizzard's next-gen MMO, codenamed Project Titan.


"We've had some key members go over to that team to work," he explained.


"When we interview new people, there's a chance they'll come under our team, and there's a chance they'll go onto that team. We meet with those guys quite regularly to say, 'Hey, here's an opportunity to do something different. Do we want to do it differently to how WOW did it, or are we happy with the way it worked out?'"


"We get to bounce ideas off each other that way," he added.


Asked if the WOW team was ever tempted to bring a Titan feature forward for an upcoming WOW expansion, Street highlighted one such recent occasion.


"The other day a designer was apologising, saying, 'Are you going to be mad if we steal that idea?'"


"Game designers steal ideas all the time. We build on what other games do. It's hard to look at many features in WOW and say, 'Blizzard were so brilliant for coming up with that in a vacuum.' We're building on what great game designers have done since they started making games."


Eurogamer attempted to nonchalantly ask just what that stolen Titan feature might be, but Blizzard sadly declined to comment further.


Little is known about Project Titan.


But we know it is already playable. "We're very confident in that product. It's an awesome one. We're playing it already," Blizzard COO Paul Sams said in March.


"It is a total ball to play. We think that the reach of that product is greater than anything that we've done before. We're very excited about that. I believe that it's the type of game that will have a very long life, much like World of Warcraft has."


Sams added: "The thing that we hope will happen is that it will not stop World of Warcraft but we believe will eclipse it."

Titan carries a rumoured release date of late 2013, according to a leaked internal slate.

Video:

Eurogamer


We know about Titan, we know about two more StarCraft II games, we know about two more World of Warcraft expansions, we even know about a Diablo III expansion - so what is this "Unannounced Game Title" Blizzard is hiring for?


The "Software Engineer, Tools" will be a part of Blizzard's "newest game team". "This is a key role on a new and exciting project within the company," the job description declares.

The "Unannounced Game Title" has a section of its own on the Blizzard jobs board. Titan, the "Next-Gen MMO", is listed separately, as are World of Warcarft, StarCraft II and Diablo III.


Could this "Unannounced Game Title" be a completely new IP?


An alleged internal Blizzard release schedule leaked last November, detailing all releases up 2015. We don't know whether its genuine, so take with a pinch of rock salt.

Eurogamer


Titan may be but a whisper on the lips of Blizzard - but the MMO to "eclipse" World of Warcraft is already playable.


"We're very confident in that product. It's an awesome one. We're playing it already," revealed Paul Sams, Blizzard COO, to Gamasutra.


"It is a total ball to play. We think that the reach of that product is greater than anything that we've done before. We're very excited about that. I believe that it's the type of game that will have a very long life, much like World of Warcraft has."


Sams added: "The thing that we hope will happen is that it will not stop World of Warcraft but we believe will eclipse it."


Titan carries a rumoured release date of late 2013, according to a leaked internal slate. But of course MMOs are subject to the wild winds of change - much more so than any other genre of game.


What else do we know about Titan? That it's not World of Warcraft 2, but "something completely new and fresh". And that's about it.


World of StarCraft? One fan got so excited that he started making World of StarCraft himself using the StarCraft II modding tools. Activision's lawyers shut him down, but only to change the name. Blizzard owns the name World of StarCraft already, you see - a pragmatic purchase or a revealing one?

Video: Is this fan-made StarCraft MMO a glimpse of the future?

Eurogamer


Blizzard's mysterious Titan MMO won't be a sequel to World of Warcraft, CEO Mike Morhaime has revealed.


Speaking at the annual DICE summit in Las Vegas – as reported by Ars Technica - Morhaime explained that the new title, rumoured to be launching in 2013, will instead cover bold new ground.


"Without giving away any details, we have some of our most experienced MMO developers, people who spent years working on the World of WarCraft team, working on this project," he said.


"We're really trying to leverage all the lessons we learned through the years. Some of which we were able to address in World of Warcraft and others that maybe because of the design decisions we've made, you just can't address.


"So we're kind of taking a step back with all that knowledge to make something that's completely new and fresh. We're not trying to make a WOW sequel."


In related news, Activision-Blizzard CFO Thomas Tippl yesterday confirmed that there will be at least two releases from the developer between now and the end of 2012 – though didn't confirm what those would be.

...

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