With each leap, wall run, and slash of his sword, the Ghostrunner gets one step closer to learning the truth. Surely, when folks sit down with the full version of Ghostrunner later this year, many will be compelled to find out just what's going on in its far-future world and how its super-agile warrior protagonist fits into it all. This first-person action title will no doubt attract players with its setting, story, and visuals. Recently, though, Ghostrunner had a super-short PC demo that had some folks loading it up over and over for one thing: speed.
Led by Polish developers One More Level, along with Slipgate Ironworks, 3D Realms, and publishers All in! Games, Ghostrunner feels like a nexus of peaking trends in game development. It's an indie title flaunting graphical fidelity that few studios could've dreamed of at the start of this console generation; on PC it's pushing what's possible with today's ray tracing cards. Its neon and gunmetal add to a growing pile of cyberpunk settings. What makes Ghostrunner look special in these crowded fields is the velocity built into its foundations.
Game Director Radosław Ratusznik doesn't wait a second to give me a "yes" when I ask if speedrunners already smashed the team's expectations. Ratusznik estimated the small PC demo, now unavailable, might only take about 15 minutes on a first playthrough. Completing it in under 5 would be impressive. The world record manages it in just over 2 minutes and 32 seconds.
That run goes through the demo's fast, quick-to-reset combat encounters without any deaths or pauses, while also subverting Ghostrunner's design. "They even showed us how to skip some parts which we thought were unskippable, to be honest," Ratusznik says, noting that the incredible times posted on the demo also came from incredibly fast discovery and mastery of techniques and exploits. The world record, held by top Titanfall 2 record holder bryonato, is possible thanks to a combination of skill, Ghostrunner's intentional tech, and some first-person movement tricks that One More Level inadvertently created.
"There were strafe jumps many years ago in first-person games, and in our game we've got our own vocabulary," explains Ratusznik, "because they are using something which they called 'ledge boosts,' which allows them to move so fast." Ratusznik emphasizes that this speedrunner discovery both made the developers happy and, as they tried to replicate it themselves, turned out to be nigh-impossible to perform consistently. Ghostrunner's designers will consider removing anything that's too easy to exploit, but tricks like ledge boosting are likely to remain untouched.
Speedruns and no-death challenges kind of seem like the ultimate point of Ghostrunner, and from talking to Ratusznik and Narrative Designer Jan Gąsior, it sounds like every other aspect from story to visuals is taking that into consideration. Built on Unreal Engine 4, Ghostrunner's clearly pushing the limits of current hardware with that iteration of Epic's tech, which is neat in its own right but can be at odds with the performance speedrunners need.
In pursuit of a smooth, unwavering frame rate, speedrunners can and will turn down graphical settings until they can get it, but One More Level wants the best of both worlds. Digital Foundry's test of the demo found that turning on ray tracing for Nvidia RTX graphics cards took a serious toll on frame rate, but that's far from a guarantee of how the feature will perform upon release. "I think that we will have to do something like a full game pass where we're looking exactly at the RTX effect," says Ratusznik, "and it will take time for us to get the best possible quality and to optimize it properly."
Real-time ray traced lighting is still pretty new for developers at this point—"that's why we're calling it, still, an experimental RTX version," Ratusznik clarifies—but it's one well suited to the glowing holograms and wet concrete of Ghostrunner. As an aside, I ask Ratusznik if he's interested in the advancements of Unreal 5, which promises better support for high fidelity assets and real-time lighting; while he's not saying anything about the new tech or next-gen consoles as they may one day relate to Ghostrunner, he's excited. "It looks amazing, that's what I can say. I think that our next game should be made in Unreal Engine 5, definitely."
For all the ways One More Level is pushing tech, and that speedrunners are pushing the game in turn, my look at an extended Ghostrunner demo suggests it's playing it fairly safe and smart in terms of story. There's a cyberpunk mystery afoot, with questions of who the protagonist is and who he can trust, but it's also told in a conservative way. All the better, perhaps, for folks who'll be blazing through it over and over.
The Ghostrunner speaks, but not much. I got to see a couple sequences taking place in the Cybervoid, the network plane running parallel to the monolithic Dharma Tower that comprises Ghostrunner's flesh-and-blood world. In slower-paced Cybervoid segments (not devoid of platforming, and likely tricks and skips), One More Level will dole out exposition and tutorials for new abilities. Throughout the experience, though, the Ghostrunner won't be a chatterbox. Gąsior name drops The Mandalorian and Geralt of Rivia as inspirations for Ghostrunner's particular breed of strong, silent type.
There'll be more story beats off of the critical, efficient path if people want to find it, but the extended demo gives the impression that the developers want neither the Ghostrunner's personality or the events he's caught up in to hold players back. "I'd say it's a design philosophy that lets the player get as much of the story as she wishes," Gąsior says.
To finish out the demo, Ratusznik and Gąsior tease one of Ghostrunner's boss fights, and again, the goal for these is to preserve the game's fast flow for first-timers and speedrunners alike. The encounter shown—a giant column spewing out lasers—will present both a combat and platforming challenge with rapid checkpointing, right in line with the rest of the game.
"These bosses are not bullet sponges, so you can assume that several hits are good enough to destroy it," Ratusznik says. "It's something that should be quite fast and also quite challenging, so the gameplay loop should not be that long." When Ghostrunner launches for PC, PS4, and Xbox One X later this year, we'll find out just how much speedrunners can further slash down ideas of how long those loops should be.