Console quality games are a hard sell on Facebook. Each day millions of people log into Facebook to tend their virtual farms or play colourful candy puzzle games, while the hardcore shooters or robot-powered action role-playing games attract daily users in the low ten-thousands. What's it going to take to get traditional gamers playing on Facebook?
How about a 3D arcade beat-em up from the creator of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto and the lead designer of Diablo and Diablo II?
That's exactly what developer nWay is bringing to Facebook. The San Francisco based company was founded in 2011 by game industry veterans for the purpose of bringing console-quality multiplayer games to the web a mobile platforms, and they gathered together some real heavy hitters to get the job done. Folks like David Jones, the founder of DMA Designs (eventually Rockstar North), where he created the puzzle platformer Lemmings and the original 2D Grand Theft Auto. And Stieg Hedlund, the lead designer for the first two entries in the Diablo series. These are gaming legends, and ChronoBlade is now their passion.
ChronoBlade is an arcade-style brawler with a look and feel that completely betrays Hedlund's influence, right down to the red hit point and blue power globes located on either side of the screen. Characters that would be right at home in a Diablo game do battle against a wide variety of fantastic foes as they battle to save the universe from the villainous Chronarch Imperium.
In a brilliant bit of design, ChronoBlade's setting is a series of parallel worlds, banding together to fight against a common foe. Such an open game universe gives the nWay unlimited possibilities when it comes to expanding the game — all of time and space and fantasy is wide open. The adventure begins on a Viking-themed world, but from there it could go anywhere — steampunk, Lovecraftian horror — anywhere.
The characters you'll play come from these many-varied worlds as well, so expect a diverse cast.
This is Aurok. He's a Viking barbarian type. Depending on how you spend your skill points (each character has two skill trees filled with active and passive skills) he can focus on being resilient or being... well, an arsehole. One of his abilities — Mock — grants him increased damage from every enemy within earshot when he fires it off. Tell me that's not an arsehole move.
The big-handed Lophi is more my speed. Hailing from a Lovecraftian world of dark magic, she wields various arcade fetishes in battle. She can be about finesse, but she can also be about the crazy. In fact one of her skill trees — Summoning — relies on random items drawn from the depths of inky darkness (taking some poetic licence there). For instance, the ability "Something Heavy" drops a random heavy thing on her enemies' heads. She's also fast and quick to air juggle her foes. If I needed an imaginary girlfriend, Lophi would be my first choice.
Stieg Hedlund (Diablo, Diablo II, StarCraft) and Jordan Patz (America's Army, Star Trek D.A.C.)
Earlier this week designers Hedlund and Jordan Patz (America's Army, Star Trek D.A.C.) walked me through the game via WebEx, the meeting platform that magically transforms fast, fluid gameplay into a series of Viewmaster slides. They walked me through the adventure map for the Viking area, split up into a series of stages with mid-bosses in place to teach players important lessons about game mechanics like blocking and stringing together combos. They told me that each playable character will have somewhere between 60 and 80 combo attacks available to them. They walked me through various bits of loot, power-enhancing and look-changing equipment sorted by power levels that should be quite familiar to Diablo fans (that's a running theme).
They tried to show me the smooth arcade-style combat, but WebEx was being a dick.
So today I played it for myself. It's so good.
Even using keyboard controls (the game is built on Flash 11, which should one day support an Xbox-style controller) the fighting was fast and fluid. The arrow keys move the character about the screen. The A-S-D keys handle blocking, strong and light attacks, and the Q-W-E are reserved for special abilities. I tore through giant spiders and goblins like I'd been doing it since birth. I got blown up by an explosive spider egg sac during a boss fight, sure, but that only happened once. I learned my lesson.
I didn't get to play multiplayer, though I did take a stab at earning a position in the weekly score tournament (the position I earned was last). Multiplayer is a focus for ChronoBlade — the developers have an old four-player arcade machine in their office for testing purposes — but the initial rollout will focus on single-player.
Even though the game is currently in closed beta (and therefore subject to change), it's already in a state I wouldn't hesitate to recommend playing.
Prior to my demo with the designers I had a chat with nWay's co-founder and chief creative, David Jones about the decision to launch the game initially on Facebook. "We want ChronoBlade to be hyper-accessible — playable on anything. Facebook is our launch platform. There we can fine-tune the game, release weekly builds and see what's happening. Facebook is great for testing." It'll eventually be on Android and iOS, but do you really want to wait?
As for the general aversion to hardcore games on Facebook, Jones and crew think the problem might lie in an aversion to browser plugins. Most console-style games on Facebook and other web platforms use Unity 3D, which requires a special plugin is installed to run. This scares away the casual player. "Flash is ubiquitous," said Jones.
So the casuals are potentially taken care of. Why should the "hardcore" gamers play ChronoBlade? It's Diablo the beat-em up, crafted by legends and completely free to play. Here's the beta sign-up website. See you in game.