Thursday, January 27, 2011

Valhallan Studios new title

I squinted at the little flat panel navman screen. It was hard to look at with all the glare from the Western New South Wales summer sunshine assaulting my white station-wagon, seemingly from every direction. According to the tiny screen I wasn't on any road. Brown nothingness surrounded the green arrow that represented my car. I hadn't heard the navman's eloquent, female voice for over half an hour, with it's calm, condescending perfect diction. She had shut right up since I went off the highway, down this ruler straight dirt road. I knew I was somewhere east of Wagga. The property I was looking for must have been somewhere in this general area, but wherever it was, it was off the grid. I was on my own. I pushed the accelerator and kept going, trailing dust and flicking gravel.

Immeasurable time passed. Out there it felt like half an hour, but it was probably only ten minutes. I was just about to turn back, to look for an off road that I must have missed, while glaring angrily at the GPS, when all of a sudden I saw a structure cresting the horizon of the impossibly flat landscape. The structure was a wall. Tall and concrete. Rimmed with wire of the barbed variety. I followed the gravel road right to the mouth of the only visible gate in the wall. The lens of a small security camera up on the wall above the gate spun as it focused on me. The iron gate swung open. A stocky gentleman, with a bald mango shaped head stepped out and marched up to my drivers side window. I wound down my window, perspiration dripping from my face, despite the air con howling flat out.

"Is this Valhallan Studio--" I tried to ask, but was cut off mid sentence.

"Go through the gate. Park near the white building on your left," the man said, deadpan, the glare off his bare head forcing my face into a squint.

I obeyed unquestioningly. I was clearly at the right place, and something about this guys emotionless, pig eyed stare told me not to argue. I had been told that Valhallan Studios, a small independent Australian game developer, had set up shop on a large acreage, not far from Wagga. But in actuality, this place was more like a 'compound'. The large concrete wall went right around the handful of buildings, creating less of a farm feeling, and more that of a youth detention centre. I was there to see their new title, still under development.

I parked where I had been instructed. As I opened the door and stepped out of the car two more bald headed, pig faced men came marching out of the front door of the white building purposefully towards me. They stopped with their glaring faces uncomfortably close to mine, hands at their side, fists clenched.

"Are you the blogger?" the first man said, spitting the word 'blogger' with contempt.

"Yeah, hi..." I managed.

"Chad is inside," he said matter-of-factly.

"Thanks," I muttered as the two men stepped apart to let me past. I strolled up towards the front door of Valhallan Studios, peering around the yard as I went. All I saw were the two men, eyeing me like angry pitbulls.

"G'day," came the greeting, somewhat over-enthusiastically, as I stepped inside. It took a second or two for my eyes to adjust. I managed to focus on the looming figure in front of me. If a man could be a wall, this man would be a granite wall, with stainless steel reinforced girders.

"Hullo," I said stupidly to this monster of a man.

He thrust his club like hand around mine, in what to him, was apparently a handshake. "I'm Chad VanLuen, head of P.R. here at Valhallan."

It was true. Chad had the telltale great white shark like smile of a public relations guy or a community manager. "So this is where it all happens, eh?" I quipped, waving a hand at the dimly lit room.

"Yeah, mate. Come through to the old 'war room'," Chad said, with a zealot grin.

I followed the walking bulldozer down a corridor and past an open door. I caught glimpses of more angry, bald men programming furiously at desktop computers, a patriarchal project lead standing over them, cracking the whip. Chad led me into a meeting room, empty except for a large desk and a half dozen chairs. On the desk was a flatscreen television and an X-box 360. One of the old white ones. The walls were adorned with promotional posters of Valhallans past library of games. 'The Decapitator', 'RPK (or Rape, Pillage, Kill)' and 'Axt Töten Fetisch' were among them.

"So, your new game..." I started once we were both comfortably sat down, my mini digital recorder on the table, taping.

"Jackboot Jack 3," Chad said proudly.

"Oh, a sequel?"

"Yeah. It's a sequel. We didn't develop those games, though. We just managed to secure the rights to the series recently, which is a big boon for us. Jackboot one and two were pretty big overseas. Especially Europe."

"I've not heard of, um, Jackboot Jack is it? Did it ever get an Australian release?"

"Well almost," Chad grimaced. "It was just about to come out here when the government had it declared a hate crime."

I paused a moment. "Sorry...did you say the game was declared a hate crime?"

"Yeah..." Chad said, nonchalantly. "You know what the government is like. Always sticking it's big nose where it's not wanted. Always trying to suppress honest, white Australians free speech."

"Um, yeah," I said as sympathetically as I could. "So tell me about Jackboot 3."

"Well, the series is traditionally a side scrolling shooter, but we're taking it in a different direction."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. Two words," Chad said with suppressed enthusiasm. "Open world."

"Oh. Cool." I said with suppressed under-enthusiasm.

"The cool, new thing about the current gaming generation is player freedom. Thats what we want in Jackboot 3," Chad said from the edge of his seat. "Jack's only real abilities in the original games were his punch, kick, jackboot stomp and pigsticker."

"I'm sorry, pigsticker?" I interjected.

"Yeah, mate. Pigsticker. It's a really cool lookin' fifteen inch blade," Chad said as he thrust a piece of paper in my face. It was a some concept art for the Valhallan redesign of the 'pigsticker'. A long, leather handled knife with a serrated edge and bloodstains on the business end.

"Cool." What else could I say?

"Yeah. Well Jack had all those things before but we want total player freedom this time around. That means more abilities. More weapons. We wanna give the player free reign over the game world." Chad was almost salivating as he talked up his game.

"Do you have any examples of new stuff?" I asked reluctantly.

"Well the cool new ability that we are all excited about is the curb stomp."

"Ah, cool."

"Yep. Just run up behind an enemy, stun 'em with a punch to the back of the head, and then you can drag 'em over to the edge of a road, then then a context sensitive action button will flash, and hey presto; you can perform a curb stomp!"

"Wow. What else?" I asked, knowing I was going to regret it.

"Well gunplay is going to play a much larger role in Jackboot Jack 3. We got all kinds of cool guns, modeled on real world versions of themselves. All the NPC's that populate the game world will have detailed location damage, and they are all deformable."

"Oh really?"

"Yeah. Why don't I show you. I have a small demo level set up here," Chad said, picking up a wireless controller and unpausing the Jackboot Jack 3 demo he had ready for me. "This is the mosque level. It's pretty early in the game."

I looked at the screen gingerly. There was Jackboot Jack. Fully rendered, light effects reflecting off his polished, knee high, spiked jackboots. The bald, leather jacket wearing avatar held a metal pipe in one hand. Chad started working the controller. He moved Jack into what looked like a nicely rendered Muslim mosque.

"Check this out," Chad grinned.

He moved his character down to the other end of the mosque, Jack running with a determined, athletic animation. Chad found a skinny, crooked backed, Muslim priest, kneeling and praying. With a pull of the right trigger button Chad directed Jack to club the priest with his metal pipe. Chad then switched weapons to a pistol. It was a Luger. Chad then proceeded to 'show off' the character deformation by emptying a clip into the priests face. Soon there was nothing but a bloody, pulpy stump where the man's head should be. Chad, the mountain of a man, giggled hysterically. I felt nauseated.

Chad proceeded to show me just how much 'freedom' was in the game.
Edvard Griegs 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' played in my head as Chad feverishly outlined all the different ways you could club, shoot, stab, stomp, mash and bash Muslims, Jews and hippies in the game.

"So Chad," I finally asked, "besides all the killing are there any non-violent ways to get through the missions in Jackboot Jack 3? I mean does the player have the freedom to play in a more subdued way?"

Chad stared at me blankly, the veins in his tree trunk neck pulsating. "Missions? There are no missions. This game isn't about any of that sort of thing. This is a world simulator. It's meant to give the player a 'sandbox' world to play in, with total freedom to do whatever you want."

"So, I mean, can you finish the game without brutalizing people?"

Agitation crawled across Chad's face. "I told you, mate. You got the freedom to do whatever you bloody want. But there is no 'finish' to the game. It's just an open world sim. With total freedom. You can fight melee, shoot, do vehicular killings. Total freedom. Get it, mate?" Chad spat, red faced.

"Oh yeah, I think I get it now." I said, glancing at the door.

I listened to Chad's diatribe about Jackboot Jack 3 a little while longer, then thanked him graciously for his time. Once back in my car I left the Valhallan Studios property as quickly as humanly possible, while trying to look as calm and at ease as humanly possible.

Chad VanLuen told me the Jackboot Jack 3 is set for a 2012 release, and is totally open world where the player is free to freely do whatever they want.

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