Beyond Flesh and Blood Developer Interview – Phillip Muwanga & Lee Blacklock

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There were lots of cool indie games on display at this year’s EGX Rezzed, and among the titles I was keen to try out and play was the latest playable demo of Beyond Flesh and Blood, by Mancunian studio Pixelbomb Games.

If you missed my impressions on the demo, here’s a quick rundown on Beyond. The game is a third-person mech shooter set in a post-apocalyptic Manchester in the year 2281. When a meteor containing some nasty extra-terrestrial creepy crawlies hits the planet, you’re sent in as a mech pilot to retake key strategic Earth cities (AKA Manchester) and get them back under control from gun-slinging bandits and bitey alien lifeforms. From what I’ve played and seen of the game so far, it’s shaping up to be a cool shooter that brings some interesting new tweaks to the mechanical mayhem of the mech genre.

I had the chance to chat with the two project leads, Coder Phillip Muwanga and Game Designer Lee Blacklock and talk about Manchester, mechs, meatsplosions and more.

Tom: What was the original inspiration for Beyond Flesh and Blood, and what inspired you to make a mech shooter specifically?

Lee: We’ve got a big love of anime and mechs, and being a dev company in Manchester, we wanted to set the game in a post-apocalyptic version of our city. We thought that a combination of these two things would be quite a playful scenario.

Phil: The basic thing is we love mechs, we love science fiction, we love action games, so we are finally able to make the game that we want to make.

Mech games in the past such as Steel Battalion and Titanfall have traditionally favoured a first-person camera view to get that cockpit experience. What was the decision behind deciding to go with a third-person camera?

Lee: Interestingly, when people ask us what the genre of the game is, we say that it’s a third-person action shooter, which is different from your typical mech shooter. It’s a third-person game, you just happen to be controlling mechs. We absolutely love robots and all forms of them, from the Japanese ones to the big stomping western mechs, so things like Steel Battalion were a big influence.

Phil: It pains me that I never got to play Steel Battalion on the big forty-button controller. I like the idea of a game where when you die, if you don’t press the eject button, you lose your save file. That’s a wonderful thing!

Townhall Concept

The game is set in Manchester, and the maps feature prominent Mancunian landmarks in their design – did you run into any issues with getting permission to use their likenesses in-game, and what other locations are you planning to get into the final game?

Phil: The main thing is that you’re fine to use the exteriors, but if you want to use the interiors then that’s when you need to get permission. But, of course, you can make a building that’s inspired by something, and that’s okay. For example, we’ve replicated my favourite bar in The Triangle – mainly because I want to fight in front of a bar that I drink in! (Laughs) There are a few other areas that we’re not talking about, but the main focal points are Deansgate, The Triangle and in front of the Hilton. We’ve purposely stayed away from having the Man United or City stadium because if you pick a side then we’ll alienate half the audience!

Lee: I think for us is the fact that the game is concentrated in the city centre as well, so to go to another location would mean jumping out of the city and we really want to focus on that sort of overgrown future version of Manchester.

Phil: The political answer is we have members of our team who support Man U and members who support Man City.

BF+B Play Expo Stand

You demoed the game last year at the Manchester Play Expo – how was that experience, and do you have any plans to take Beyond to any other shows or Expos after Rezzed?

Phil: Yes, that was a wonderful Expo. It was nice to do an Expo in our home town with a game that’s based in Manchester – we got a lot of positive feedback. There are a few big shows that we’d like to take it to, but we are mainly focused on just finishing the final thing now. What will be quite nice is that once we’re closer to release we’ll have a more stable build, so we won’t have to spend quite so much time getting a build ready to tour at Expos. It is important to get the game out and to talk to members of the press so that people can hear about it.

The game is designed as a singleplayer experience with a solo campaign, but have you got any plans to implement any online multiplayer features into the horde mode maps at a later date?

Phil: The gameplay that we’re showing here is from our wave-based mode – this is an added extra that comes with the game, the singleplayer story is the primary focus. We’re not showing much of that because we don’t want to spoil the story. Let’s just say that it does take place in these areas here, and that it involves mechs and people being torn to pieces.

Within the world that we’ve made, there are various factions and it would be wonderful to do a multiplayer shooter where they fight against each other. We’re talking and thinking about that, but at the moment we are focusing on making the best singleplayer experience that we can. The campaign is our focus. What we didn’t want to do was to tack on a multiplayer component just to have a tick on the back of the box. If we were to do multiplayer, we would want to be properly focused on that.

Lee: When we’ve been developing in the studio, we’ve actually switched the player camera around and switched to the other AI classes that we’ve got so we can run around as them. It’s not going to happen for the game, but it’s just what we’ve been doing in-house just to have a play around, so like Phil said that’s given us the multiplayer ideas, and we’d love to do a lot more in the world of Beyond Flesh and Blood.

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I appreciate that you don’t want to say too much about the story, but what challenges did you have in writing a story around what’s essentially a faceless robot character?

Phil: The interesting thing is that you can’t die in this game. You’re in a space station in orbit, so if you’re suit is killed then they just send in another suit from orbit. It is not a big deal for them (The United Global Remnant, the in-game faction you play for). We try to tie this mechanic into the gameplay of the world – these soldiers on the ground, because they can die, they will comment on the fact that you’re not really there or that it all feels like a game to you. These are some of the areas that we wanted to explore in this.

Lee: We’ve not really had difficulties, but it’s more about the amount of choices we’ve got – we’ve got to keep narrowing it down. Like Phil said, there’s lots of themes we’d like to explore but it’s a case of just how many of these we can effectively explore in the timeframe.

Phil: The hardest bit that we’ve had is trying to squeeze all of our ideas into this game. It is a combat-focused game, so we want the gameplay mechanics to tell most of the story, rather than have a lot of expensive cutscenes and FMVs. Those two fields do not have to be mutually exclusive; we do have a story that we want to tell, but we are focused on making a fun, enjoyable gameplay experience. At the end of the day, we are a small indie studio – we’re not a big triple-A studio who can afford to hire all the animators it takes to do your cutscenes.

Mark 1

When I played the previous demo myself I used mouse and keyboard controls. I’m normally a player who favours using a controller, but I have to say I thought that the way you’ve designed the keyboard controls was spot-on. You really get a feel of each mech’s weight and momentum, especially the Mark 1.

Lee: That’s definitely something that we want you to feel as you go through the different mechs – we will have four mechs, so as you go through each one that feeling will feel different, but we still want it to feel very meaty. Like you were saying, in the Mark 1 you can really stomp around with it. The mouse and keyboard controls still need work though at the minute, they are still in development so that they can be even better.

So there’s four mechs in total?

Phil: You start off with the Mark 1 – he’s basically a walking JCB; he’s a slow engineering mech and can’t dodge so far. He can use his size to tear people to pieces and to pick up large objects and to interact with the world in a very physical way. As you move up through the marks they become smaller but more agile, but they lose the physical powers that the Mark 1 has.

Next is the Mark 2 – he’s the baby brother of the Mark 1. He isn’t quite as strong, but he’s faster and a more agile engineering mech overall. He’s still not purpose-built for combat, but he does have a welding laser which is really effective. The special thing about this mech though is that he’s got awesome extendable arms; if you think of the Mark 1 as the JCB, then the Mark 2 is like the forklift version if you will. Obviously it’s still very powerful – he can use his arms to extend himself up in the air and slam down on enemies. We’ve used his arms in a number of the sync kills which are unlocked through story means.

Eventually, you get to 4th mark, the Prototype Suit.

Mech Landing

Is that different from the Prototype Suit featured in the demo then?

Phil: Yes – I know the terms are the same, but the Prototype Suit that you’re seeing here is the prototype that we internally made as our test, and not the finished thing.

Lee: We made this in-house prototype so that we could get a sense of its scale and movement speed, and how that will differ in comparison to a larger mech.

Phil: The actual Prototype Suit in the final game is an advanced suit which has all sorts of interesting tweaks to it. It’ll be able to do all sorts of wonderful things.

Unlike a lot of other third-person shooters, you’ve got these big open environments in Beyond which aren’t littered with a load of conveniently-placed thigh-high walls to hide behind for cover, plus you can actually improvise and arrange your own cover using the items in the environment.

Phil: One of the choices that we made was that the player cannot take cover in our game. The AI can, but you instead have to rely on the suit’s powers and abilities, and the fact that you can slow down time and dodge. I love Gears of War, but I don’t want to make another game where you hide behind a chest-high wall, wait for yourself to auto-heal and then you come back. It’s why, from a gameplay point of view, you don’t recharge your health; the only way to get your health back in Beyond Flesh and Blood is to kill your enemies, so you can’t hide. If you want to stay alive, you’ve got to get into the fray and get into the fight.

I like the game’s tower mechanic – it’s a cool way of reining in the player’s power and reach without it feeling overtly restricting.

Phil: The main reason why we have them is that in the singleplayer campaign, we don’t like it when the player encounters an invisible wall, so the towers are our way of leashing the player to where we want them to be.

Lee: The story element of it is that the pilot controlling the mech is on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, controlling his mech with his mind – he constantly needs connection to that mech through the towers, so when you die, that connection is severed. Another mech gets sent in and your mind reconnects to the replacement.

In one of your previous interviews you mention that you specifically didn’t want the game to be too hand-holding when it came to difficulty. Is that a personal reaction against the design of modern shooters, or rather a case of giving the game some of that old-school shooter difficulty?

Phil: I’m an old-school gamer – I like games that are hard, that you actually have to think about them and learn the gameplay mechanics. One of the things that I don’t like is when people take a dislike to a certain game because it doesn’t feel like a game that they already know. If you don’t like a shooter because it doesn’t play like Call of Duty, then fair enough that’s your personal choice, but perhaps you should try and learn that game’s own gameplay mechanics. The configuration of the pad doesn’t have to be locked, I’d much rather a game dev did different things with it.

As for the holding hands bit, I like hard games. It pains me that nowadays quite a few games just give you this sort of rollercoaster ride. We want our players to really have to think about the game and understand the mechanics to be able to progress.

Speaking of old-school, Beyond has some crazy levels of gore going on – is that also a throwback to older shooters like Unreal Tournament and Quake and things like that where gore was a big part of the shooter zeitgeist of the time?

Phil: We are late ’90s gamers. I like games with gore in them. The big thing that I always say is that we’re not making a torture-porn game – it is over-the-top action movie gore, where you shoot someone and they explode into gibs. The violence is easier to palate the more extreme it is, as it takes on a cartoon-esque vibe.

Lee: Phil is also working on a new dismemberment system, and new sync kills – the melee kill animations that the mechs perform they tear people apart. We’re still working on them, but we’ve managed to get a lot of the new animations in. These are going to be a lot more detailed – we’ll be releasing some more footage sometime soon.

Phil: With the Unreal 3 build there was only so much that we could do. Now, I can tear any limb off any person and punch holes in people – basically all the things that my sick mind wanted to be able to do to people in games! (Laughs)

Printworks

How was the transition going from the Unreal 3 engine to Unreal 4? I’m guessing that it wasn’t just a simple ‘right-click – save as’ process?

Phil: No – I’ve not had much sleep over the past two months and the whole team has been working incredibly hard to port all of the assets over. It’s worthwhile, but it’s not a simple job; we’ve had to rebuild the game from the ground up.

Lee: I think Epic have done some things to help this process, like there are exporters for things like content, but it’s still a big job to move the code base over for our AI, the shaders, the dismemberment system and a lot of the assets.

Phil: It’ll be worthwhile, but I’ll be glad when it’s done because we have a nice stable build here, we need to get our Unreal 4 build to feel as polished as our Unreal 3 build does.

Lee: We’ve definitely got both feet in Unreal 4 now, but it’s just a case of continuing on with that process.

I’ve read that you’d also made changes to the enemy AI since the previous demo – how exactly have you changed those systems?

Phil: They are smarter, we’ve used everything that we’d learned in the Unreal 3 build to make the Unreal 4 AI a hell of a lot better. They have squad-based AI now, so they know where you are in relation to the rest of their teammates and will try to flank you. The AI is an important part of the experience – we don’t just want them to blindly fire at you. We want them to apply pressure.

Lee: Even in the AI themselves, we’ve got separate classes of AI that will respond to you slightly differently as part of their own AI class but will operate together as one when part of a squad.

On a related note, can we expect to see any more extra-terrestrial enemy types in the final game i.e. ranged variants?

Phil: We aren’t talking about that faction yet, but let’s just say that we have a crack team of artists who are making some interesting content. (Laughs) We do have to keep some things back for the singleplayer.

The game is coming to the Xbox One and PS4 after the PC release – do you have any plans to use the unique hardware and features of those consoles? Any plans to use the DualShock 4’s touchpad or the Xbox One’s Kinect?

Lee: With the Kinect personally, aside from what we’re doing with our game, I was really excited when it came bundled with Xbox One. Now that it’s an optional extra, you can never be sure that every user has a Kinect, so we’re not 100% certain about those elements.

Phil: Unfortunately because the marketplace has now been split with the Xbox One, you need to cater for people who don’t have one.

Anything in mind for the PS4 touchpad?

Phil: It would be nice, but just as long as it doesn’t influence the core gameplay too much.

Any plans or thoughts on integrating VR or Oculus Rift support into the game in the future?

Phil: We’re aiming to get the game to run at a stable 60 frames-per-second, but to integrate VR we would have to half that, and do it all in 3D. It’s something we’re not heavily focused on – we’re focused on making this the best singleplayer experience that we can, but just for my own personal pride I would like to see it working on Oculus.

Lee: I’ve played other games on VR and I think it’s an excellent experience so I hope that it definitely does take off. It’s interesting now that Valve is releasing its own VR headset (the HTC Vive) now.

Phil: It does feel like this is now an actual thing; VR is happening, and the future is all about these new headsets.

It’s funny how VR is still a concept that’s in vogue today after it turned out to be nothing more than a kind of a gimmicky fad back in the ’80s with things like the Nintendo Virtual Boy. In such a short period of time it’s come back and it’s now a very real possibility and practically an inevitable thing at this point.

Phil: I think it was at EGX last year that I played Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus, and that was a mind-blowing experience. If that is just the baseline of it, then the future is going to be bright.

Lee: Yeah, and that was on unreleased hardware as well, so hopefully it’ll just keep getting better and better.

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Anything else that you’d like to say about the game that we didn’t get chance to cover? When can players expect to get their hands on the final version of the game – Summer 2015 right?

Phil: Yeah that’s correct, we have a free demo of the game that players can download from our website (www.beyondfleshandbloodgame.com) so if you’re interested then you should get it downloaded.

Lee: Also, for anyone who’s interested in the game to keep an eye on our content releases, as we’ll be releasing more things to do with Unreal Engine 4.

Beyond Flesh and Blood Pre-Alpha Demo – First Impressions

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 (Played on PC)

Cotton and guns – two things that Manchester is most famous for according to Alan Partridge. However, if Alan Partridge was a keen PC player with a penchant for mechanised brutality, then I’m sure he’d be quick to add a third notable item to that rather brief list – mechs.

That’s thanks to Beyond Flesh and Blood, an upcoming third person mech shooter by Pixel Bomb Games, which is set in a future post-apocalyptic version of Manchester. While not the first game to design a shooter that features a virtualised Manchester – that honour goes to Insomniac’s Resistance: Fall of Man – Pixel Bomb, themselves a Manchester based development studio, have taken it upon themselves to combine their home city with their love of giant mechs to create an exciting new shooter for PC, Xbox One and PS4. Forget Madchester; this is Mechester (sorry, I had to do it).

The story goes a little something like this. The year is 2281 – after a catastrophic global war, the remnants of society have split into two groups – on the one hand you’ve got the United Global Remnant who now live in a space station in Earth’s orbit, known as the Tree of Life, whilst on the other you’ve got a group of rogue scavengers who still skulk about on the planet’s surface. When a meteor containing some nasty extra-terrestrial creepy crawlies hits the planet, you’re sent in as a mech pilot to retake key strategic cities back under U.G.R. control. Any guesses as to which city you’re sent to?

I’ve been checking out the latest pre-Alpha demo of the game (Version 0.04) which gives the player the chance to pilot two powerful mech variants in two large crumbling outdoor combat arenas. Each level is essentially a Gears of War horde mode style map; you’re pitted against wave after wave of human rebels and necromorph-like alien assailants and you need to blast them away before they can destroy your mech. The two different mechs that you can use each in combat (or Tactical Combat Frames to give them their proper title) provide distinctly different weapons, modes and attacks to use on the mean streets of future Manchester; each suit offers its own distinct flavour and style to the combat.

Smash

The Mark 1 is your prototypical bread and butter big mech; a bulky yellow powerloader-like robot, complete with a shotgun, lasers, pulse bombs and missile salvos to destroy pretty much anything that happens to piss you off.

Mech Landing

The Prototype Suit on the other hand is a smaller armoured battle suit, something more akin to the MJOLNIR armour that the spartans in the Halo games wear. This suit offers some more physical attack options than the Alpha suit, such as a powerful ground pound move (speaking of Halo, it’s similar to the move of the same name in the Halo 5 Beta) which delightfully chunks any enemies caught in its blast radius. Lovely.

The two maps available in the demo, Albert Square and Beetham’s Folly (Deansgate), which are, of course, modelled after the real life Manchester locations. As a player who’s already familiar with the city, it’s a delightfully surreal experience to see familiar sights and buildings from the city now turned into beautiful The Last of Us style decrepit ruins, overgrown with both natural and alien fauna.

Town Hall

There’s something particularly cool about robo-rampaging around these Manchester locations that I’m sure present day Mancunian gamers will no doubt enjoy. Plus, it’s great to see areas of England in video games that aren’t just set down south in the capital for a change.

Tower

Anyway, let’s talk about the gameplay. An interesting tactical mechanic that the Pixel Bomb team have implemented into the game is that your mech can only operate in areas of the level that are within the signal range of the U.G.R’s control towers. Start to move out of bounds and your mech will gradually start to lose signal, which ultimately causes you to lose a life/mech if you keep going. At first, you’ll only control one tower and you’ll subsequently find that you can’t venture very far into the level at all. Whilst this can feel a bit frustrating and limiting initially, you can quickly expand the boundaries of your fighting space by hacking new towers, which then grants you more freedom to move around the level and blast, scorch and demolish foes to your heart’s content.

So, one of the first jobs you’ll want to do when starting a level is to get hacking away at the level’s towers in order to give yourself more room to manoeuvre before things properly kick off. However, in the later stages of a level, you’ll need to be keeping an eye out for enemies trying to take your towers offline in order to restrict your movements, which creates an exciting tug of war power struggle between you and your cannon fodder. In addition, you can also hack various gun turrets and missile batteries in the area to aid in your defensive efforts, as well as activate force fields to close off areas to the attacking human and alien hordes.

From my time with the demo, the human rebel AI is good, but they have a tendency to feel a bit like cannon fodder after a while without ever feeling like much of a serious threat in combat; they tend to either run straight at you and make themselves easy targets in the process, or skulk behind cover in fixed positions and wait for you to come and finish them off. On the other hand, the alien AI is very aggressive and very much a threat; they will often make a beeline straight for you once they spawn on the map, and they can quickly tear your mech to pieces in seconds if you’re not quick to blast them, so together a combination of two enemy types definitely keeps you on your mechanical toes so to speak.

You can pick up your fallen attackers’ weaponry from time to time, as well as environmental debris and items which provide a temporary change from your mech’s standard arsenal, although it’s not always clear or apparent just how to use whatever you’ve just acquired. I found picking up and using rebel assault rifles and shotguns to be easy and straightforward, but for some reason I couldn’t seem to be able to get my mech to throw the molotov cocktails once I’d scooped them up. My mech would just keep them clutched in its arm like it was a fine bottle of Chardonnay that it was saving to swig down later at a quieter moment. It was probably just me being an idiot and not doing something correctly or otherwise it’s something minor that will be fixed in the final game.

Speaking of things you can find on the battlefield, the thruster pack power up you are sometimes awarded with adds some extra abilities to your mech that permanently increase its manoeuvrability for the rest of the match. These include the ability to perform short dashes which allow you to quickly get out of the line of fire, to perform mid-air boosts which allow you to zoom across platform gaps and the ability to charge up your standard jump so that you can reach greater heights. It’s just a bit of a shame that the thruster pack is a separate power up that you have to acquire, and not something that is inherently built into your mech from the start; it makes navigating around each arena much more of a smooth and enjoyable process. It’s a small point, I know, but without the thruster pack, your mech feels like it’s just missing a crucial element when you fire up a new level and it’s not automatically equipped.

Laser

Now, time for a bit of a confession; I’m primarily a console player who doesn’t play an awful lot of shooters on the PC these days (heresy, I know), so I accept that I’m not exactly an expert on how a shooter should feel control-wise on a mouse and keyboard. In my opinion though, Pixel Bomb have taken what could have been an overly complicated and fiddly set of controls (yes, I’m looking at you Steel Battalion and your 40+ button controller) and assigned them to a control layout which largely feels simple to use – even for a PC noob like me.

With a bit of practice in the tutorial, I was soon stomping around, darting around corners and piloting my mech with ease. The weapon system felt a little strange with this setup at first, as the majority of your weapons are fired all by using the left mouse button in different ways, but I actually found that this actually makes things way more concise and simple in the fast-paced nature of the combat so that you’re not constantly scrolling through a weapon wheel every few seconds. Perhaps it’s just because I’m primarily a console player, but I have to say that there’s just definitely something undeniably cool about playing a mech game with a keyboard, as it gets across that tactile feeling that you’re directly manning the controls of the mech in a way that you don’t quite seem to get when using a controller.

Drones

Having said that, I personally found that some of the keyboard controls could feel a bit awkward and clunky at times. In particular, activating the slow motion precision aiming ability on the keyboard felt like quite a convoluted procedure – you have to click the right mouse button as you simultaneously tap left shift, but if you hold left shift for slightly too long then your mech will start to race forward as it’s also the run key. This makes things a bit awkward if you’re wanting to snipe at fast moving targets from afar without your mech lurching forwards at a crucial moment. For a skill that you need to consistently use in order to take out targets at range, it definitely took a while to get the correct timing down in order to aim accurately in slow motion. Admittedly, the game is designed to be played with an Xbox 360 controller first and foremost, which probably elevates this issue altogether, or like with the molotov cocktails, it might be just me being an idiot again.

Charge Attack

In contrast to the issues I had with the long range shooting, the game really nails the up-close and personal mech on flesh brawling with flying colours. Perhaps I’m a bit too bloodthirsty for my own good, but in my opinion one of the game’s greatest strengths is its heavy emphasis on guts and gore. While Manchester is often (unfairly) labelled as the rainy city in real life, in Beyond Flesh and Blood, it’s certainly raining an awful lot of blood at pretty much any time of day. The ease with which you can eviscerate the attacking rebel humans and curb stomp them into nothing more than greasy red Deansgate pavement stains feels disturbingly great. There’s a hefty sense of weight to your mech, particularly when using the Mark 1, and it’s a real rush (pun intended) being able to thud into a frail fleshy human at speed and pulverise them into great big bloody chunks with just a single click of the mouse.

Corpse

Alright, look, I might be a tad bit bloodthirsty, but the liberal use of gore and giblets gives the game this old school Unreal Tournament sort of feeling which works surprisingly well within the game’s more serious post-apocalyptic aesthetic. In particular, the various animations that your mech performs when dismembering some poor futuristic Mancunian soldier always made me chuckle (I’m definitely not a psychopath, I promise), and they imbue what would otherwise be cold and unflinching robots with a gleefully malicious attitude. Despite this, the high frequency with which these zoom-ins happen did start to get a bit irritating after a while, as they greatly slow down the action and pull you out of the experience a bit, particularly when they happen to trigger every couple of minutes.

Sunset

Perhaps one of the greatest concerns I had before even playing the demo was whether a third person camera view would best suit a mech shooter? For a genre which is typically associated with intricate first person cockpit immersions, the decision to go with a third person perspective felt an unusual design choice. From my experience of playing previous mech shooters such as Titanfall, which places a great deal of its emphasis on the simulation of climbing inside and piloting the giant Titan mechs, I was worried that the third person perspective of Beyond Flesh and Blood would lose something by eschewing the traditional cockpit view.

The game’s curved onscreen interface and futuristic heads-up display certainly help to create the impression that you’re inside the mech and directly piloting it first-hand. Although I personally feel that you somewhat miss out a bit from not having an internal cockpit view that gives a first person perspective of the action, the game goes a great way towards capturing that feel of piloting a robust heavy mech through the way its gameplay mechanics and the controls nicely intermesh with one other. You definitely get that great sensation of having all of the mech’s weight and power at your fingertips when playing; you feel like you’re controlling nothing short of a walking death machine on legs as you romp around the crumbling red brick ruins and pulsating alien hives of post-cataclysmic Manchester.

Additionally, the developers have stated that one of their main intentions with the game was to particularly focus on the “visual atmosphere…we’ve made one of the most enhancing features of the game its environments – using visually stunning playscapes to accelerate your experience.” Using a third person camera allows them to do exactly that, as well as show off the majestic mechs in all their shiny glory too – even though when you’re using the Mark 1 mech, it does take up roughly a third of your screen’s real estate. However, like I mentioned earlier, the area of the screen that you can see shows off some great set pieces and environments to fight in which look very promising even this early on in the game’s design.

So, all in all from what I’ve played so far in the pre-alpha demo though, From Beyond Flesh and Blood looks to be shaping up into being a fun mech shooter that’s full of promise, lasers, and pints and pints of blood.

I’ll be talking to the Pixel Bomb developers later this week at EGX Rezzed and also hopefully getting the chance to try out the latest Unreal 4 version of the demo which they are debuting there, so stay tuned for an upcoming interview piece and further written impressions in the near future. Until then, if you want to get in on the Manchester mech mayhem yourself, then simply download the demo to start eviscerating humans and aliens to your heart’s content. Just don’t forget to wear an apron – it’s bloody up north.

Video Games Live Review – Manchester Apollo, 1/11/14

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Howdy doody! I thought I’d have a go at penning my first live music review on the thematically blog-appropriate topic of the Video Games Live concert, held on the 1st November at the small but mighty Manchester Apollo venue in Stockport.

I’d been to the venue for the first time about ten years ago. It was first ever gig actually; me and my best friend from school (who was also named Tom funnily enough) went to go and see our favourite band, The Offspring, play a fantastic set two years after their 2003 album Splinter had come out. Naturally then, I’ve got rather fond memories of that raucous gig; the bright strobing lights, the ear-splitting buzzsaw guitars and the strong reeking smells of sweat, weed, alcohol and gleeful teenage pop-punk abandon, all percolating together in the smoky air like a tangy and bitter miasmatic ghost of my generation’s youthful nihilistic counterculture.

Whimsical poetic aside over, the Apollo had seemed like such a massive venue to me at the time, as a dumb fifteen year-old with too much hair gel smeared into my greasy mop, but today, as a twenty-four year-old with no hair gel in my naturally greasy mop, the isolated, jaunty venue now appeals to me because of its small size – it combines the intimacy of a small dingy club gig with the grandeur of an old music hall; there’s a sense of busyness and bustle to the atmosphere without it feeling too claustrophobic.

Inside, the venue had several large TV screens set up above the orchestra’s seats, which showed a variety of daft video game-themed clips and an amusing yet ultimately tragic Ms. Pac-Man film (the ghosts always get you in the end) before the lights dimmed and the show started, or perhaps more appropriately, booted up.

The Hungarian Virtuosi Orchestra stroll out onstage (complete with a full choir) and tune up, followed by the principal violinist, and the conductor. Suddenly, Tommy Tallarico, Video Games Live Head-honcho and guitarist, races out of the side of stage, fancy Les Paul guitar in hand yelling “GIVE IT UP FOR CASTLEVANIA!” The show was well and truly underway with an ecstatic roar from the crowd.

The orchestra blasted through a medley of the classic Castlevania game themes whilst Tommy ripped out some fast neo-classical lead passages on his axe (sorry, I had to get that in there as it’s Castlevania). Up above all the fast bowing and plucking action onstage, corresponding footage from the games was displayed on the aforementioned big screens; it was definitely an exciting and in-your-face start to the concert.

The evening (the very first video games concert to be held in Manchester apparently yet also unsurprisingly) was this juxtaposition of an all-out rock concert meets quiet reserved symphony orchestra, and the result was for the most part a successful one. The pieces where the orchestra were the sole or main focus, usually with minimal percussive instrumentation, were particularly great. However, the attempt to blend orchestral-led arrangements with the attitude of a rock concert, minus a rock band, quickly began to wear pretty thin after the strong pseudo-metal Castlevania opening. I’ll get to these qualms shortly, but let’s talk about what was great about Video Games Live first.

The first half of the evening was, in my opinion, by far the strongest; the choice of pieces and the varied pacing of the set really allowed the orchestra to shine in their own right. Barely dropping the pace from the opening number, a brief pre-recorded video clip from Hideo Kojima himself kicked things right into gear with a fantastic rendition of the Metal Gear Solid overture, which in my opinion was the highlight of the set. Throughout the medley, Tommy sneaked around the stage in a cardboard box, Solid Snake style, a small but enjoyable touch that got some decent chuckles from the crowd, and the use of the series classic “!” alert sound, complete with bright searchlights sweeping the stage added some daft amusing game-like immersion for the audience.

In between his duties as lead guitarist, Tommy acted as the evening’s compare, and encouraged people to yell, whoop, shout aloud and let loose throughout the evening, which he described as a celebration of music, art, games and their status as a central pillar of contemporary popular culture. While I managed to restrain the urge to yell things like “PLAY THE KILLER INSTINCT THEME! NOW!”, others did not, which lent the proceedings a raucous rock gig atmosphere as opposed to the stereotypically fussily quiet of a classical music concert.

Hot on the heels of Metal Gear, much like everyone’s favourite fast blue rodent himself, was an arrangement of the Sonic the Hedgehog themes – another strong highlight. This orchestral-led medley was a joyful delight, and it was nice to hear the quirky melodies of the series played on the organic timbres of the orchestra as opposed to the crunchy metallic timbres of the Sega Mega Drive.

An unexpected surprise was a performance of the title theme of The Secret of Monkey Island; the jaunty reggae-inspired pirate theme which translated surprisingly well to the orchestral sound palate, and helped to provide a bit of variety between some of the more cinematic pieces. One of those more cinematic arrangements, the Uncharted series Nate’s Theme was an absolutely sublime highlight, featuring some fine brass and string playing, giving the piece the understated majesty it deserves.

However, towards the tail end of the first half, things started to slide back into rock show territory, and that’s where I felt the show was at its weakest. To be fair, sometimes things worked well in this rocked-up mode – seeing Tommy blast through his pride and joy Earthworm Jim tunes New Junk City/Anything But Tangerines with a big shit-eating grin across his face was a massive highlight, don’t get me wrong. But at other times, the set tended to fall down somewhat in places where the pace was shifted into rock/metal gig territory. As much as it was entertaining to see Tommy running about the stage and yelling like a young 1980’s era James Hetfield, it kind of clashed a bit with the more refined less-is-more approach of the symphony orchestra.

In fact, speaking of Metallica’s lead singer, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between tonight’s Video Games Live concert and Metallica’s critically acclaimed 1999 collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the provocatively titled S&M concerts and album. Video Games Live has obviously taken great inspiration from this previous blending of two usually entirely separate musical genres, and for good reason – Metallica’s S&M concerts were absolutely fantastic; a perfect pairing of classical chalk and metal cheese.

Crucially, Metallica’s blend of metal and classical was successful because it was absolutely full-on from both sides – alongside the full sonic spectrum of the San Francisco Symphony, you had the four horsemen of the metalpocalypse all fully set up with their massive PA systems and speakers, the well-worn rock cliché of walls of Mesa-Boogie amps and cabs, and, crucially, Lars Ulrich’s sprawling drum kit fully mic’d up. It was this epic, no holds-barred clash of the titans of two typically non-combined genres going full-throttle at each other with everything they’ve got that made the performances so compelling.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t really be said of tonight’s setup with Video Games Live. The audio equivalent of an Achilles’s heel for the entire performance was the lack of a live drum kit. Instead, all the drums, beats, percussive loops of the evening were piped through the PA as processed, pre-mixed samples to which Tommy and the orchestra would play along to like a backing track. Whilst this worked adequately enough, it seemed a strange workaround to have built the entire live show around – why hire an entire orchestra to play live music, and yet neglect the percussion section which provides the core foundation of pretty much all video game music?

The samples, beats and textures being played through the speakers were fine, but they would have worked so much better with a more powerful live foundation backing them up. Processed beats can sound incredibly heavy and awesome in a lot of contexts – i.e. the studio album – but when you’re going for a live rock show, you can’t really substitute them in place of a live mic’d up kit without them sounding weak.

Yes, there were several timpani drums present, to be nit-picky, but the decision to not include a drum kit is definitely a puzzling choice, as it’s such a key component of nearly all the music and songs that were in the set list. Of course, playing processed beats and samples through the venue’s PA works well enough, and is in some cases, more authentic and appropriate for the more lo-fi soundtracks in the set list, but the lack of a significant ‘live’ percussion section was very noticeable when the ensemble were playing the larger orchestrated pieces of the big blockbuster titles. With no drum kit, as well as no bass or additional rhythm guitars, the bottom end completely falls apart when Tommy isn’t riffing away with power chords, meaning that many of the rocked-up numbers simply fall flat after their build-up when the main melody kicks in.

The lack of a live kit could really be felt in Silent Hill 2‘s Theme of Laura, a fantastic piece and a personal favourite of mine, which, thanks to the tinny sampled percussion backing, felt less a melancholic and moody ’90s garage band rock out and more of a woolly fuzzy dirge, the likes of which would probably cause Pyramid Head himself to droop his gigantic iron-clad head in disappointment.

The same could be said for the ensemble’s performance of the Halo medley; what I thought would be a key highlight of the Video Games Live set, and an integral part of me buying the ticket for the concert in the first place. Unfortunately, despite a promising start, it really wasn’t much to listen to. Starting with the choir performing the game’s iconic Gregorian monk chant and building the excitement to critical levels, Tommy unleashes a roaring wall of distortion that marks the start of the One Final Effort theme (the music to the big Warthog escape sequence at the end of Halo 3). Strafing around the stage with his Zemaitis Les Paul copy like a guitar-wielding Master Chief, Tommy blasts out the ascending power chord chugs of the climactic theme, everything building to a delightfully heady rush, and then…he stops playing chords and swaps to the melody. At which point, the entire bottom end of this wall of sound just completely drops out, and you have to strain your ears to just about catch the rhythm and pulse of the sampled drums over the trebly lead melodies of the guitar and strings.

It’s a shame, as Tommy clearly is a red-hot guitarist with some mean licks up his musically gifted sleeves, and it’s exciting hearing him knock out a high-energy solo; it’s just that when he goes into this Van Halen/Steve Vai shredding mode, there’s no layers there underneath what he’s playing to back him up. I couldn’t help but feel that having a live drum kit and an electric bass player would massively help the overall sound, and provide some much-needed low end. Additionally, having some more electric guitar players on-stage performing Malcolm Young-style rhythm duties to help Tommy out with the multi-layered parts would massively help with the louder pieces and sections I’m sure.

As the set list for each gig is largely determined by fans voting for their favourite songs via social media platforms, it’s safe to say that Manchester is home to an incredibly large number of Final Fantasy fans. This fact in itself certainly isn’t a problem; in fact, quite the opposite I think it’s something to be celebrated. However, their heavy-handed influence on tonight’s set list was certainly a case of too many feathery-haired Final Fantasy cooks spoiling the broth (and probably breaking many SALSA food hygiene health regulations too).

Every other franchise was sensibly limited to one song/medley, to keep things moving along and fresh, but there were at least four or five segments of Final Fantasy songs, which no doubt took up valuable set list time for other franchises. Admittedly, this is a series that I’ve not played much of, nor has it ever really appealed to me, so I’m aware that I’m no doubt in the minority here, but there were just simply too many songs from the beloved Final Fantasy series in the set list I felt, which gave the second set a particularly stale feeling.

Just to be fair, as much as I’m a big fan of the Halo soundtracks, if we’d had a set list that went through not only Halo 3‘s One Final Effort but also Halo 4‘s Never Forget, Halo 2‘s Peril, Halo Reach‘s Ghosts of Reach and Halo 3: ODST‘s We Are The Desperate Measures etc., then I’m sure I would have felt the same way – absolutely way WAY too much of a good thing!

Having to hear the theme from practically every other Final Fantasy game in existence, and to not get a single rendition of the universally appealing Mario theme (we were instead encouraged to sing it aloud in unison as some sort of audience-led encore instead, which felt a bit cheap to be quite honest), was disappointing to say the least.

However, the second half did pick up towards the end, featuring a fantastic Street Fighter II medley, which featured some strong and inspired interpretations of the classic character themes of Guile, Ken and Ryu. This really helped to give the proceedings a much-needed shot in the arm after the audio avalanche of Final Fantasy arrangements, not to mention the repeated misfires of the guest band Random Encounter.

The young teenage-looking band, brought over from the States as friends of Tommy, were just simply not up to scratch for tonight’s concert, and were ill suited to playing a venue of this size. The accordion-led four-piece rock band were unfortunately brought out far too frequently throughout the evening and proceeded to mangle their way through some fan-favourite Zelda themes; themes which would have certainly been much better suited to the full orchestral treatment. I wouldn’t have minded their amateurish performance had it been just a one off, but unfortunately they were brought out again and again, each uncharismatic and ‘heads down’ reappearance bringing forth a louder and louder collective groan from the audience.

Again, having played in a number of amateur bands myself over the years, I felt particularly sympathetic to their cause at first; it looked as though they had to plug straight into the sound desk, and perhaps might not have had a pre-performance soundcheck or decent onstage monitoring. Technical problems aside however, no matter how much I mentally willed them on, their playing was just too sloppy to forgive, and it just felt that they were generally unprepared and under rehearsed for the gig. They would have been much better suited to a single pre-show support band slot, rather than being repeatedly foisted onto us again and again as part of the main programme. Having paid Metallica prices for the tickets, it was irritating and genuinely quite hilarious the sheer number of times we had to listen to what sounded like a sub-par pub jam night band mangle another beloved game tune.

On top of this, frequent appeals from Tommy to back the ongoing Kickstarter for the next album started to feel really tired by the end of the night as, particularly when there were clearly cost-cutting measures going on in the current show – i.e. NO DRUM KIT! It just leant the show a generally amateurish vibe, which was detrimental to the really good performances of the first half. It’s a shame, as I’m exactly the sort of person who would have otherwise happily contributed a few quid to their cause initially, but by this point I was starting to feel like I’d paid a bit too much for the night’s entertainment already. I’d still be up for backing a Kickstarter for them to purchase an actual drum kit, or hire a backing band however, but sadly, no such plans have been announced.

The concert closed with an acoustic sing-a-long performance of the much-loved Still Alive from Valve’s Portal. Which whilst I would have liked to have gone out with something more epic, it was a nice touch, and a nice happy note to leave things on.

Overall, I really enjoyed the evening’s entertainment an awful lot. Really, I did. Reading this piece back to myself though, it sounds like I didn’t, but I can assure you that’s not true – it’s just that I was expecting an awful lot more than what we got.

I know I’ve been beating the same old (ironically in this case, non-existent) drum about the lack of live percussion and bass etc. throughout this piece, but it was such a fundamental misstep/omission in my opinion that it’s actually quite difficult to over-emphasise. It was like (clumsy metaphor incoming) looking at a fantastic sculpture or prized piece of art balanced on a flimsy base entirely of wet, soggy cardboard. No matter how nice the art/sculpture/valuable McGuffin is, you can’t help but be incredibly aware of the inadequate support holding it up, cringing at the thought of it all coming crashing down at any second. Or something…hey, look, I did warn you it was a clumsy metaphor.

It seems exceptionally surprising and disappointing that the neglect of the drums, beats and bass has happened under Tommy’s watch too – this is a talented and creative dude who’s been a massive personal inspiration to me as both a gamer and a guitar player.

Earthworm Jim is one of my absolute favourite games, due largely in part to the fantastic soundtrack; a soundtrack which features exceptionally funky drum and bass work. Songs like Down the Tubes, Anything But Tangerines, Falling/Buttville have such a focus on rhythm, power and a really strong emphasis on the low end, all wrapped up with fantastically humorous phrasing and melody that I still listen to these songs nearly twenty years after the game’s release. In my eyes, the soundtrack to Earthworm Jim is an absolute masterpiece, and a fundamental part of the game’s success and popularity.

So yes, I did enjoy Video Games Live. I thought it was great. But I also think the concert could have been so much more. If only Tommy had looked to the pink slimy protagonist of his favourite game as inspiration, and got some of his signature “GROOVY!” rhythm back, then I think this holy trifecta of rock, classical music and video games could have been something truly special.

Play Expo Photos – Manchester 2014

Gallery
Play Expo - Master Chief

“Do you feel lucky…well, do ya, Grunt?”

I spent a good chunk of this last weekend inside a box. But not just any box…

Play Expo took place this weekend in Manchester, at EventCity. As the venue’s official description itself reads:

‘EventCity is a box. A very large box. But it’s the magic that happens inside that really counts.’

I’m happy to say that both these facts are true. Yes it is essentially just a very large box, but yes, it did have that exciting magical atmosphere; the sort that you can only find at cool games conventions like Play Expo.

To move aside from all this talk of large magical boxes for one moment though, Play Expo was really good. The event was, as you might guess, about games, games, games; in all their glorious shapes and sizes, bits and bytes and bleeps and bloops.

The catalogue of games available to play was exhaustively comprehensive; going from the earliest pinball and arcade machines at the birth of gaming, right up to cutting edge PS4 games in all their shiny 1080p glory. It’s not often you can say this, but there really was something for every gamer here – even the cardboard varieties – no matter what your preferred gaming style and era.

Speaking of cardboard, I personally knew that once I saw the giant Abe and Alf cardboard cutouts and crates packed full of classic Sega Mega Drive cartridge cases, I was certainly in for a good time.

In addition, there was an immense number of Cosplayers happily wandering around, all dressed up in some painstakingly made and intricate costumes. The variety and detail of their outfits was pretty staggeringly awesome to be honest.

I managed to get some choice shots of these most ardent of fans, but there were so many that, unfortunately, unlike a true Pokémon hunter, I couldn’t catch them all. Oh snap…Pokémon Snap that is…

Anyway, whilst I mull over whichever cheesily-awful Pokémon gag to use next, let me recap; I was there at Play Expo snapping away with the camera on Saturday 11th October, so I thought I’d share my visual depictions on here. So, once again, feel free to click on the following thumbnails to see what I got up to, and the various games characters who pointed their guns/swords at me.