OMIKRON

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Omikron Nomad Soul Preview by David Laprad

I have been held spellbound by the development of Quantic Dream and Eidos Interactive's Omikron: The Nomad Soul for nearly two years. The reason is simple. Since the project's beginning, the team at Quantic, with the blessing of Senior Designer Philip Campbell, has laid bare each and every nuance of the development process through their website. Without a doubt, this has been one of the most candidly open projects to date. During a time when most companies protectively clutch their genius for fear of intellectual burglary, Quantic has parsed their creative agony and technical dilemmas in a public forum. It's been a fascinating process made all the more so by the press' near inability to get a firm grasp on just what this title is about. Quantic's openness, while straightforward enough, has actually left the title open to all sorts of subtle shades of interpretation. Thus, numerous canned theories have been swapped in an attempt to pigeonhole this offering, with the predominant one being the reassuring "action-adventure." Bless the gods, because the mystery is at last solved -- in part.

I was granted my first glimpse of Omikron at E3 in 1998. At that time, it was little more than a technology demo that showed off the facial motion-capture technology and a fighting sequence. Those two early clues indicated the game was going to contain intense battles and interpersonal exchanges. But would it be it more of an action or an adventure title? Reports that emerged from E3 in May further confused matters, with a majority of claims landing squarely on the side of action. Having played the most recent beta, I can confirm that Omikron is an epic real-time adventure that contains arresting moments of intense action. I opened this discussion with the admonition that the mystery has been solved -- in part. I have spent hours within the beta's grasp and still feel as though I have barely captured a glimpse the complete experience. The story unfolds in chapters that require hours to complete and can progress in a wholly non-linear fashion. The city of the title and the realms that proceed it are immense. But perhaps the one thing that bestows the gameplay with its epic feel more than anything else is how it expands our comfortable precepts of what a real-time adventure is and what it should allow us to do.

Omikron opens with an ominously elusive exposition that sets the tone for the ensuing mystery. I watched obediently as a ball of light materialized in a warehouse and dropped a bewildered male character onto the floor. There were no clues regarding who or where he was, though this changed soon enough. A demonic creature leapt from a nearby wall, lifted our bewildered hero by his throat and hissed, "I've been waiting for you." The potent slap that followed forebode a fast and painful death, but the creature abruptly disappeared when an automated law enforcer, fresh from its appearance in the film RoboCop, smashed into the room and rescued our hapless hero. "You have been the victim of a violent assault. Go home, rest and rehydrate yourself," it dictated in icy metallic tones before grinding off. And then the protagonist, Kay'l, stood and the adventure began. I actually sat there for a moment waiting for something to happen. The entire sequence had played out smoothly within the in-game engine and dazzled me with its polished effects, but now it was time to assume control and step forward. But step forward into what?

I spent a few minutes jolting around the warehouse and getting familiar with the control scheme. It is less reminiscent of Tomb Raider than one would assume from analyzing screenshots. There are actually a number of different control modes used depending on the situation at hand. In the warehouse, Kay'l was able to run, jump, and lift a Magic Ring off the floor and place it in his inventory. There was also a first-person mode that enabled him to glance around and get better situated, though there was no character movement allowed when using this. As I soon discovered, Omikron is not about acrobatic exploration; thus, the movements available are very basic. While not a liberating step forward in character control, the game offers a carefully prepared scheme that gives players the precise mechanics they need when they need them.

After becoming acquainted with Kay'l, I stepped into the fray. There have only been a few instances when I have actually felt something shift inside me while playing a game. As I emerged from the cramped warehouse and into the real-time city streets, it happened again. It was as though I had stepped out of my computer and into Ridley Scott's masterful futuristic vision, Blade Runner. Pedestrians and vehicles filled the pavement, and neon shone unsteadily from storefronts. The entire scene had a gloomy oppressiveness that was truly something to behold. In fact, the only things missing were Harrison Ford and the anachronistic cola ads. I spent several jaw-dropping minutes immersed in this virtual reality, observing the pre-programmed traffic patters, attempting to interact with the only mildly responsive pedestrians and absorbing the immense, futuristic, pseudo-gothic architecture. It was apparent just moments into the adventure that the lavish visuals indicated wonderfully executed art direction.

Despite the teeming city streets, there is a time and a place for interaction. The pedestrians and traffic are there for effect and are quite convincing, but they are not the focus. I directed Kay'l to bring up a device on his arm that serves as the core inventory management and interface system. The player uses this device for a number of things, including calling up a vehicle called a Slider that moves him from destination to destination. Once at his apartment, it became immediately apparent that Omikron draws heavily from the adventure genre. There were items to gather and place in inventory, including clues that would lead Kay'l to the Police Station, his place of employment. He also met and conversed with his wife, who revealed that he and his partner had been missing for several days. The conversations were presented in the traditional adventure format of branching selections. Omikron moves forward in this manner, with the player gathering and using items, purchasing goods from stores, interacting with characters and deciphering clues that open up new areas. Prior to leaving the apartment, though, Omikron showed another side of itself that was all the more intense for its sudden insertion into the slower-paced adventure mode.

The adventure is initially so open-ended it is overwhelming, though as the story broadens, it also becomes more focused. The rich plot-letting is mirrored in a graphical shifting from region to region that includes winding catacombs, glacial plains and an ancient floating metropolis. Each area is rendered with atmospheric precision; for instance, the city contains red light districts bathed in radiant neon, ancient architecture blended with futuristic milieus, and canals that reflect the brilliant colors and lights. A tip of the hat must go to the artists, who are infusing Omikron with a characteristic French flair that recalls the futuristic radical Moebius.
These environments and the manifold characters who inhabit them are given birth by a feature-filled 3D engine that, refreshingly, does not attempt to bludgeon the player with its dazzle and brilliance. Instead, it renders a world that is both graphically elegant and processor efficient. The outdoor areas are spacious, and even in places with huge buildings reaching into the clouds and dozens of pedestrians and vehicles pouring over the landscape, the frame rate remains smooth and consistent. This is due in part to a discriminating fog algorithm that shrouds distant objects, though when I shooed away the fog and increased the amount of activity in the city, things did not discernibly slow down. Support is included for Direct3D and Glide, though hardware acceleration is not a requirement. Those who utilize it, however, are treated to 16-bit color depths and graphics resolutions that go as high as 1600x1200. The engine contains a number of state-of-the-art techniques, such as reflective surfaces, transparency, pre-rendered shadows and realistic character animations.

The model animation is the real sweet spot of the engine, with motion captured faces synced to real-time voices, and faces that stretch and show character and emotion. Lips form actual words and facial expressions change according to the tone of the discussion. My one reservation is that there is not enough variety to the pedestrians and vehicles within a given scene. It is a bit disconcerting to see 20 of the exact same woman waltzing around, though I guess one could assume they all forgot to call each other to see what everyone was wearing.

The transition between indoor and outdoor areas is handled not only with technical precision, but also a bit of flair. When the player moves from an indoor area to an outdoor one or vice versa, the camera switches to the new location and does a dramatic sweep around the character, establishing the fresh surroundings. This is a nice way to smooth out the transition between self-contained areas. It bears mentioning that the transitions between major segments of the game promise to be just as cool. It is no secret that David Bowie has been contributing his talents, both in terms of music and integration as an interactive NPC. Upon completing the first significant clump of gameplay, Bowie's theme song for the title plays while the camera swoops through the city as though it were filming the introduction for a 21st Century Miami Vice. It was a nice reward.

I have been indicted in the past for being overly enthusiastic about 3D action and adventure titles. Given the abundance of creativity and technical expertise being splashed across computer screens this year, who can blame me? We are experiencing a powerfully creative period, and this genre is in the midst of significant evolution. Quantic Dream and Eidos Interactive are on the cutting edge of this movement with the innovative Omikron, a superb experience that could lead the way for a new style of game. Its peerless blend of action and adventure elements has never been aspired to on the PC to this degree, and its engine has a subtle strength all its own that distinguishes it from the swarming me-too 3D graphics race. When I first saw the single-area demo in 1998, I was intrigued; when I saw the larger cityscapes and character interaction last May, I ached to get my hands on the final product. Now that I have spent several hours wrapped up in the experience, I am more eager than ever for its release.

Features:
Feature laden real-time 3D engine.
Motion capture facial animation.
Complete freedom in an active city.
Virtual reincarnation enables multiple player-controlled characters.
Adventure game mechanics blended with real-time action.
Impressive art direction.
Involved storyline.
Musician David Bowie lends his unique ambience as an NPC.


Autor: David Laprad
Source: Adrenaline Vault

Omikron Nomad Soul Preview by David Laprad Friday, July 16, 1999
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