THERE CAME AN ECHO

Irid­ium Stu­dios is mak­ing re­al­time strat­egy more per­sonal

EDGE - - HYPE -

Al­ter­na­tive con­trol schemes have rather fallen from grace since Mi­crosoft’s Kinect propo­si­tion flopped and the de­vice re­ceived a de­mo­tion back to pe­riph­eral sta­tus. It’s a trend Ja­son Wish­nov, lead de­signer on voice-con­trolled RTS There Came An Echo, is keenly aware of, though he faults the im­ple­men­ta­tions, not the cen­tral idea.

“The games that have used al­ter­na­tive con­trol schemes haven’t tended to have the depth, nar­ra­tive or game­play ex­pe­ri­ence that core gamers, or what­ever you want to call them, have come to ex­pect,” he says. “I mean, name a Kinect ti­tle that has the pre­ci­sion and depth of a game like Bay­o­netta 2, a mod­ern FPS, or any­thing re­ally. The games that tend to come out are ex­er­cise games, Dance Cen­tral, or that Sesame Street game by Dou­ble Fine – all of which are pretty fun, but they’re not some­thing that’s go­ing to ap­peal to a large seg­ment of the tra­di­tional gamer pop­u­la­tion. So I’m try­ing to break the mould; I’m try­ing to le­git­imise an al­ter­na­tive con­trol scheme as some­thing that’s OK for a game that hope­fully has quite a bit of depth. But it’s an up­hill bat­tle, and a dif­fi­cult per­cep­tion chal­lenge.”

On early ev­i­dence, the Irid­ium team might just be on track to over­turn the common per­cep­tion. While we ini­tially had some prob­lems with char­ac­ters not re­spond­ing to or­ders in the al­pha build, last-minute tweaks to the game’s Bri­tish ac­cent recog­ni­tion de­liv­ered an im­mea­sur­able im­prove­ment. And when There Came An Echo’s sys­tems co­a­lesce, the ef­fect is won­drous.

Char­ac­ters can be or­dered by name, or you can tell “every­body” or “every­body but” to do some­thing. You can also ask your charges to swap be­tween their weapons – a stan­dard pis­tol and one of four spe­cial guns, which in­clude a sniper ri­fle and a grenade launcher – and change bat­ter­ies, which power both spe­cial weapons and shields. Plus, you can add “on my mark” to syn­chro­nise your com­mands be­fore boom­ing “mark” into the mic like you’re star­ring in an ac­tion thriller.

While There Came An Echo isn’t the first game to use voice com­mands to con­trol troops – Tom Clancy’s EndWar and Odama pre­ceded it – it’s a more in­ti­mate one thanks to its much tighter fo­cus, re­sult­ing in a more per­sonal re­la­tion­ship be­tween you and those you’re or­der­ing into the fir­ing line.

“I’ve al­ways been a huge fan of nar­ra­tive in games,” Wish­nov says. “I think EndWar missed a re­ally great op­por­tu­nity. In that game, you were just or­der­ing th­ese generic army sol­dier guys – you didn’t re­ally feel much for them and it didn’t mat­ter if they died. But with There Came An Echo, I re­ally wanted to re­in­force that re­la­tion­ship and make you care about the char­ac­ters. You’re re­spon­si­ble for their wel­fare, and if they die, it’s prob­a­bly your fault.” Thank­fully, fallen com­rades can be re­vived with a burst of elec­tric­ity, while the force­fields that sur­round each fighter will take a rea­son­able amount of pun­ish­ment be­fore giv­ing in. Cover fur­ther bol­sters your team’s chances of sur­vival, of­fer­ing a de­fen­sive bonus by re­duc­ing en­emy ac­cu­racy.

“It’s a fine bal­ance to want to strike,” Wish­nov ex­plains. “If you’ve lined up your sol­diers in an op­ti­mal po­si­tion, and the en­emy sol­diers have done the same, then you’d the­o­ret­i­cally just sit there as bul­lets fly back and forth, and that’s pretty bor­ing. So we’re try­ing to achieve this feel­ing of ur­gency, but at the same time we couldn’t make it too in­tense – like, say, Star­Craft – be­cause you’re in­her­ently limited in your ac­tions per minute due to the speed of voice.”

Those or­ders will be de­liv­ered even more slowly if the kind of cre­ative swear­ing born of un­re­spon­sive con­trols is ever a fac­tor, and while tra­di­tional in­puts are sup­ported, There Came An Echo clearly de­pends on its vo­cal in­ter­face be­ing near flaw­less. But when you’re bark­ing at agents to flank the en­emy and it’s all work­ing as planned, it’s un­com­monly easy to get swept up in the mo­ment.

Long shadow

While There Came An Echo looks like a 2D iso­met­ric setup in screen­shots, it blends 2D back­grounds with 3D ge­om­e­try. “The en­vi­ron­ments in the game are ac­tu­ally all hand-painted 2D sprites,” Wish­nov ex­plains. “But then we cre­ate 3D ge­om­e­try and make it in­vis­i­ble – it’s com­pletely in­vis­i­ble un­less light is be­ing cast upon it, or in the ab­sence of light to cre­ate shadow. Then that’s placed very pre­cisely in front of the sprite in an or­tho­graphic cam­era to show the 2D sprite but still have the light­ing and shad­ows fall cor­rectly on the struc­ture. So it cre­ates a pseudo-3D ef­fect.”

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