"You rock at this game!"
It's a sentence I don't hear very often, largely due to the fact that there are very few games I can honestly say I "rock" at, but FuturLab's previous game Velocity is one of the few in which I'm genuinely confident in my own abilities.
I wasn't playing Velocity when I heard the aforementioned compliment over my shoulder from James Marsden, FuturLab's managing director, however; I was at the Eurogamer Expo playing its sequel, Velocity 2X. And it is, so far as I'm concerned, a very good sign that the new game felt so immediately familiar beneath my thumbs that I could start playing and immediately "rock" at it -- even in the all-new platform sections.
Velocity, lest you're unfamiliar, was originally a PlayStation Minis game that was subsequently enhanced and rereleased as Velocity Ultra for Vita. Ultra was a straight remake with only a few minor tweaks such as improved graphics and Trophy support; Velocity 2X is the first true sequel, combining the original game's top-down puzzle shooter action with some side-on platform shooter segments. These aren't separated into their own discrete tracks -- most levels will demand that you both fly your ship through the constantly-scrolling obstacles and occasionally dock for a brief bout of on-foot action to unlock a gate before proceeding on your way. Consequently, you'll need to get good at both parts to succeed.
It's fortunate, then, that both parts of the game feel so coherent and consistent with one another. If you can successfully navigate your ship through the original Velocity's perilous mazes, you'll have little difficulty guiding protagonist Kai through the platform segments. There are a few differences, of course; Kai can shoot in all directions, much like Samus in Metroid, while her ship may only fire normal shots forwards and powerful bombs in four directions. Kai also throws physics-based telepods to bypass obstacles, whereas when she's in her ship she drops static telepods in order to be able to return to specific areas at a later time -- perhaps to take a different path, or to collect unlocked bonuses.
The current build of the game crams most of its tutorials into the first level, which is something Marsden isn't happy with. "In the final game, we'll spread the tutorials out a lot more," he says. "Probably over something more like fifteen levels or so. We're also thinking of completely ditching the concept of lives -- Velocity is all about speed, so the fact that dying just wastes your time a bit is more than enough punishment. We've found with this build that people are hitting a difficult part -- particularly in the on-foot parts -- then running out of lives and just leaving the game rather than trying again." This appears to be a growing feeling in development -- Assault Android Cactus, which we took a look at yesterday, similarly dispenses with lives, instead preferring to penalize the player by, again, wasting their time and costing them some of their score.
The addition of the on-foot segments, and by extension the higher profile of Kai as an on-screen protagonist, was a conscious decision by the team to aid with both storytelling and giving Kai more of a personality, Marsden tells me. While the original Velocity featured occasional comic book-style static cutscenes between levels, you'd be forgiven for not knowing that the game actually had a female protagonist or even what her name was if you weren't paying attention. Velocity 2X will have a much stronger emphasis on the ongoing story thanks to more in the way of secondary characters, a journey through several more visually distinct environments and a true antagonist to fight against -- though at the same time it will still have the medal-chasing of the original, encouraging a significant amount of replay value even once you've made it through all the available levels.
So there's plenty in the new game for established fans of Velocity to like, but how was Marsden intending to bring newcomers on board? What's his pitch to new players?
"We just point at the art," he says with a grin, indicating the huge, striking artwork of Kai that dominates FuturLab's booth. "It's brought a lot of people in."
I ask Marsden a little more about the art. It's similar to that seen in Velocity Ultra, but with a few refinements. Was it always the team's intention to have such a bold, distinctive style?
"We actually started with pixel art," he explains. "But we quickly decided we wanted to do something more distinctive. Pixel art is becoming a bit like vinyl -- more of a niche thing. It's nice for that retro vibe, but some people see it now and get switched off."
There were certainly plenty of people lining up to play Velocity while I was at the booth, and everyone seemed to be coming away impressed with what they saw, so they were doing something right somewhere.
"What we really wanted to do with the art was channel Flashback," says Marsden, referring to Delphine's classic -- one of the few games from the early '90s that still holds up extremely well due to its distinctive visuals. "We were a bit worried because of that recent remake, but then they completely changed the art style." Yep, and it got panned, too. "We like to think we're the true spiritual successor to Flashback."
Interesting. So were there any other influences on Velocity and its sequel?
"Not really," says Marsden. "Before Velocity, we'd never made a shooter, and before 2X, we'd never made a puzzle-platformer. The way we work is that we get the mechanics in place and let them guide development rather than specifically trying to copy something else. If there are any influences -- besides Flashback, that is -- then I'd probably say Turrican for the multi-directional shooting? We got into a bit of trouble on Twitter earlier when we admitted we'd never played Metroid, which is the game people more readily associate with that mechanic."
What about the music? The original Velocity had a strongly "Amiga" vibe about its electronica-cum-chiptune soundtrack, and what we've heard of the new game's soundtrack appears to follow suit.
"Yeah, the Amiga-like feel was very deliberate," says Marsden. "But with the music, we were also inspired by things like the recent Deus Ex [Human Revolution] and sci-fi movies like Oblivion -- that very distinctive synthesized electronic sound."
Velocity has been an exclusively Sony title to date -- initially a Minis title for PSP and PS3, then a Vita game, now PS4 and Vita for the new game. Any interest in expanding to other platforms?
"We're here because of Sony," Marsden says. "We did initially contact Microsoft and Nintendo, but they weren't interested. It was just a locked door. In Microsoft's case, it felt like they didn't really know what they wanted to do. Sony is investing in the medium and recognizes the potential of indie games, and we're glad to be part of that."
And with games as good as Velocity 2X on the way, the future looks very bright indeed -- for Sony platforms and small, passionate developers like FuturLab... and, of course, gamers, who are the ultimate winners from all of this.
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