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Shogo: Mobile Armor Division Preview
October 1, 1998

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Shogo: MAD
Monolith
LithTech

I recently took Jason Hall at Monolith up on his invitation to visit their offices in Washington and to check out Shogo: Mobile Armor Division. Here are the impressions I formed playing single-player Shogo on a very late beta of the game.

Okay, what's a Shogo?
I don't know Johnny, but I do know this. Shogo Mobile Armor Division is a first person game where you spend half your time battling on foot, and half your time fighting in giant robots (called mecha, as the term "Mech" is the property of FASA, but I don't think anyone can sue me for using the terms interchangeably, so I will). Shogo is rooted in Anime (the Japanese word for animation, though outside of Japan typically used to describe Japanese animation), a genre which many have little experience with beyond Speed Racer (if even that). Actually, since animation in Japan is not just for children, it's not really accurate to characterize Anime as a genre. Mecha stories are an Anime genre unto themselves. The Monolith guys are clearly passionate about this style, and the Anime Page on their website is a good place to get a feel for it. As for it's impact on the game, it is a comfortable fit, most noticeable in the pie-eyed characters with hard-to-pronounce names. Do not be overly concerned that you will be running around going "I just can't get used to this Anime stuff," because it's not that obtrusive.

Giant Robots? Isn't that kinda... slow?
It needs to be clear from the start: Regardless of what type of gameplay it seems to offer, Shogo is not a giant robot combat game like Mechwarrior. Though much of the game's combat takes place in giant robots, the pace of the game seems just as rapid when engaging in mech combat as when you are on foot, with the robots fast, responsive, and agile. The Monolith guys say that they recognize that it's easier to give the impression of a massive robot by making the movement slow and lumbering, but are willing to sacrifice this "realism" for more exciting gameplay. I personally think that this kind of suspension of disbelief is easier to go for than the traditional slower robots: I like the Mechwarrior series and MechCommander as well, but the biggest fans of this genre would likely admit that the prospect of the future of combat evolving into giant bi-pedal mechs lumbering around is pretty far-fetched even in the context of science fiction (can you see them designing this?: "Yes, of course, and you'll ride in the head!"). The faster mechs, on the other hand, while just as implausible as the clunky ones, at least seem desirable to use if you believe they exist: In other words, it many not be any more likely to be able to build them in this spry form, but you'd be more likely to find them useful if you did.

One of the downsides to the agile mechs, is that, especially in the countryside settings, the illusion of size is broken... even when fighting puny foot-soldier types, you don't really feel 30 feet tall, if anything, it just feels like you're fighting tiny creatures. You do get to step on the foot soldiers, however, and that can never be bad. In the city levels, the illusion of size is better maintained, as you have buildings and cars (watch your step, they're eminently crushable) to give perspective, but even then, at one point I found myself going through a car tunnel, which around my way, tend to only offer about 15 feet of headroom or less. Doing foot combat against enemies in giant robots sounds like a load of fun (at least in a game), and there are some of these encounters in the game. I imagine that looking up at a mech five times your height will help restore the sense that they're just plain big.

A feature of the mechs in Shogo I failed to check out is the transformer feature, as the robots change into vehicles, I asked if you could go the total Hasbro route and join a few mechs together, but the answer was no--I think I'm relieved. I think I can or only go so far with the mech/transformer stuff till it starts to get too goofy for me, but that's a matter of taste. For info, shots, and specs on the robots from the game, check out Monolith's Mecha page.

The Engine
Shogo uses the LithTech engine, a 3D engine developed by Monolith along with Microsoft. I didn't get to see Shogo at E3, but my honest impression of Blood2, which also uses the LithTech engine, was that seemed a trifle slow, but Shogo ran fast and smooth on the speedy machines I saw it on this go 'round. The engine supports many buzz word special effects, including 16-bit color, colored lighting, shadows, translucency and the like, and puts them to great effect, offering great pyrotechnics: Smoke trails, explosions and other weapon effects are spectacular, the weapons in Shogo could be viewed as the exact opposite of Unreal (with its subdued sound and visual effects on many of the weapons), with subtlety taking a back seat to the fun factor. I commented to Jason Hall that I noticed what I thought were efforts to keep your line of sight from extending too far, for example in the outdoor areas where there were walls of mountains on each side (reminding me of Philip Jose Farmer's RiverWorld), conveniently cutting off the rest of the "world." This is, in fact, to help keep the game playable on lower-end machines (according to Monolith, you'll be able to play the game on a P133, though that sounds a bit ambitious). It seemed that these outdoor areas were bigger than those found anywhere in Quake II, but smaller than in those in Unreal, but Jason says the LithTech engine actually handles large outdoor environments better than the Unreal engine. I did not see what I thought were any examples of such areas, but I did not play through the whole game.

What's neat about the mountains mentioned above, is they are created with an insane number of polygons, creating smooth rolling hillsides. The engine supports L.O.D. so the hills can drop polygons as they're farther off, which helps keep overall poly counts down. The models are all done using motion capture for varied, lifelike motions. The LithTech engine is the same technology behind Blood 2: The Chosen, and the plan is to release the source code (the game code, not the engine code) for both games, and I'm told it will take little effort to combine the two games into a single gothic horror/mecha hybrid. The engine is customizable, and supports scripting through the use of Win32 .dll's.

Monolith has a LithTech engine page and a LithTech Engine FAQ up if you are interested in more details on the technology behind Shogo and Blood2.

Story Elements
The back story (which you can read about here) is as intricate as I've seen for any game. The story part of the game (i.e., when you are not in combat) takes place back in your base of operations, the dropship. You are Sanjuro Makabe, "a talented young commander in the UCA Security Force." The back story is complicated, and as an example of the soap opera aspects that will unfold during the game, you have a girlfriend, who is the sister of your ex-girlfriend, who is missing and presumed dead from a failed mission that took place about a year before the game begins (heavy emphasis on presumed, it's pretty easy to imagine what might happen there).

While walking around awaiting deployment, I noticed that while none of your shipmates are armed, you wield a pair of pistols, John Woo-style. I asked if this would remain in the game, and was told it was -- if you shoot anyone aboard ship, security will see to it you have a bad day, and they seem to enjoy the element of temptation this will bring. I thought it was odd (unrealistic seems like a silly word to use in the context of games that aren't Sims), walking up to the bar and ordering a drink, automatic in each hand (you imagine your unarmed friends thinking you a bit paranoid).

If walking around armed in a no-kill zone causes your appetite for destruction to get the best of you, most everything aboard the ship is destroyable, and security doesn't mind if you run around maniacally smashing decorations with gunfire (or your Samurai sword--remember this is Anime), as long as no one gets injured.

As you walk throughout the ship you'll notice your shipmates are real chatterboxes, talking to each other, to you, I swear I caught a couple mumbling to themselves. This is really neat, but an interesting choice is made here... as a character talks, in order to make sure it's apparent who is speaking, a little exclamation point appears over their head. It's a bit distracting, and certainly does a bit to undo the effort being made to create more realistic (there's that word again) characters who actually have things to talk about. The exclamation points were unnecessary for the missions I played, since it never seemed to be vital to identify who was talking at any particular time, and when someone is talking directly to you, a little icon showing who it is pops up, making the exclamation point that much more unnecessary.

Speaking of chatterboxes, you are one too, in stark contrast to an Americanized action hero like Duke Nukem, who interjects the occasional wise crack. You play a young rebellious smart-ass type, who is constantly talking back to people (the admiral included). It's a good thing this ship doesn't have K.P. duty, or they'd need to add an 11th hand-held weapon: The potato peeler.

The Levels
The city levels for the mechs are just plain cool: I would enjoy even more King Kong style interaction with the cities, maybe a little climbing the walls, or at least reaching through windows for a helpless Fay Wray or two, but as mentioned above, stepping on the occasional car is pretty good for your gigantic power trip (though this takes a bit of getting used to, since they explode violently enough to make you think you're being attacked). As also noted above, the outdoor levels have a nice organic quality, since the hills roll nicely with no visible flat surfaces, or sharp points.

The Action
Combat is where the rubber meets the road in games like this, and it is where Shogo shines. As mentioned above, the mecha are not slow lumbering beasts, they are fast and agile. In combat you strafe and dodge, and even snap off 180 degree turns. The weapons are all deadly, explosive, and major fun. Being in a mech does not restrict you to built-in weaponry. Mechs carry weapons to use them, and you can pick them up mid-battle and use them yourself, including a sniper-rifle, complete with scope -- these guys are not going to let this mech stuff get in the way of what's fun. Half the combat in the game also takes place on foot, which gives an opportunity to double the number of weapons available to the the player, with ten weapons available when on foot and ten more when operating a mech, for 20 total. The mech's agility is similar to the foot soldiers', so the most noticeable differences between the two modes are the weapons you use, and your increased vulnerability when on foot. The mech nature of the game does not make this some PG-13 game where your victims spout oil instead of blood. The build of the game I saw offered some of the biggest blood-spatter effects I've ever seen. The blood effect itself was not that great, with very circular droplets, but it was very stylized, with what seemed like 50 gallons spattering 30 feet high from blowing up a small foot soldier. One feature of Shogo that's been announced in several upcoming action shooter games is the addition of buddies to assist you in your mission. You are sometimes part of a small task force that includes other mechs, and vehicles that need escort to complete your mission. One element I found a bit problematic was difficulty in telling my friends from my enemies. I was told there are color cues to help note the difference, but being color-blind (no lie) I find subtleties of color in most cases like this lost in the heat of battle. As previously noted, I haven't yet gotten to check out multiplayer, but I imagine this being a bigger problem in team play than in single player. Besides, I found in single player casualties among my friends often were at the 100% mark, and I didn't have to worry about shooting them once they were dead (maybe I helped make them that way--oops). I suggested that they take the (semi-useless) exclamation point that denotes a speaking NPC and remove it from that role, and add it in as a marker to show your friend or enemies in combat. I'm no game designer, so that may not be the answer, but hopefully some change will be made in this area for the color impaired like myself.

So?
In brief, Shogo is fast, fun, and over-the-top, and I had a blast playing the single-player game for several hours (which is already saying something), enough that time slipped away before we could fire up a deathmatch(!). I'm genuinely looking forward to playing this game single player all the way through. Unfortunately, as I just mentioned, I have no multiplayer experience to report (I hoped to get a hold of a copy of the gold master of the game to get my ass kicked by some of the Monolith guys before posting this, but it was not meant to be).

Back to the single player. I found it as enjoyable as Quake II: Even though it was easier than its predecessors, I enjoyed Quake II single player much more than Doom, Doom2, or Quake in solo mode (though I found Doom a more immersive, frightening experience). It was not the added plot elements for me so much as a concentration on action, and what keeps the action fun: the weapons were fun to use just to watch stuff blow up. I never found myself too mentally challenged (the enemy AI didn't seem that "I"), but it hit all the right buttons for action and carnage. My feeling is that Shogo is a perfect scratch for that same itch. The enemies seem kind of dumb, but tough enough to make it gratifying to destroy them, the levels are fun to explore, and there are weapons that are so much fun to fire off that you are going to want the cheat codes ASAP just to arm yourself for blowing things up.

You'll be able to judge for yourself soon enough. A playable demo of Shogo: Mobile Armor division is due out this Friday, October 2, just after Midnight, PDT.