Comic-Con 2011: Rise of Nightmares Hands-On Preview

You don’t exactly get to put your hands on anything when it comes to Rise of Nightmares, Sega’s upcoming Kinect title. The game is one of those awkward motion control games, and since You Are The Controller, I guess the closest you can get to any tactile sensation is to put your hands on yourself.

Nonetheless, you can, in fact, play Rise of Nightmares, but it’s definitely weird to do so. This is the very first action game I’ve tried with the motion controller, and it’s not unlike, say, Doom 3 in its first-person 3-D setup. This is at once pretty cool and extremely strange-feeling.

Rise of Nightmares is also pretty hardcore. It’s a survival-horror game, and a brutal one at that — just check out this trailer. Within 30 seconds of the start of the demo I played, some poor NPC got his hand hacked off, followed by a hatchet through his skull. This is not intended for the same audience as Dance Central.

The demo started with my character, whom I have no understanding of whatsoever as far as physical appearance or any other such information, strapped to a chair in some kind of dungeon, across from the unfortunate fellow with the missing hand and dissected brain. Operating this horror was some kind of mad doctor, who paced back and forth and threatened death upon me. He was assisted by some kind of zombie nurse, a dead-looking woman who also appeared mostly lobotomized. He was preparing to finish me as he had that other guy, the one whose skull wound was still trickling blood down his face.

Suddenly, a phone call. The doctor snatched it up and it sounded as if he was fighting with a nagging wife before he stalked off, leaving instructions for my death should I move. One of the nurses was actually preparing to do it, and quite brutally in what appeared to be my facial region with some kind of sharp implement, when suddenly she was brutally sliced apart — by some old guy who seemed to have been my buddy. He was bepony-tailed and exasperated. Hopping loose of my chair, the pair of us headed out into the hall to make good our escape.

Now I had control of Rise of Nightmares for the first time, and believe me, it was a strange experience. Moving emulates walking in as much as you put one foot forward, Hokey Pokey-style, to move forward. The further in front of you your foot goes, the faster you move. Pull your foot back to stop, put it behind you to walk backward. Turning your body left or right turns your character left and right, and before long you can put some awkward motions together to start traversing the game.

Because of the nature of the Kinect, moving is never easy. Motion control is inherently a process in which you make more motions than you mean to as you get into the action of the game, so the Kinect would sometimes lose me as I shifted my weight or start to think I wanted to rush straight at the face of danger when I didn’t realize I was leaning back unconsciously. The Kinect sensor was also constantly berating me for being too close to it, which caused my attempts at forward motion to get lost as well.

But after a bit of a learning curve, I got the hang of the game. Weapons and items that appeared on the screen could be picked up by my raising my hand in front of me as if giving the “Halt!” crossing guard motion, and after a second the Kinect would recognize what I was up to and give me a cursor I could swing around the screen. Highlighting the item, or a door, say, would allow me to interact. If the object could be picked up, I’d pick it up (and if it was a weapon, I’d equip it). For doors, I had to give them a shove; switches and the like demanded switching-type motions.

So I progressed through the castle, occasionally stopping off to check doors and occasionally running into zombies. These things are gross and shambling, but not especially bright. Occasionally they carry weapons, but basically, ever battle was one of attrition in the demo — I was required to swing away with whatever I had until I won. Raising my hands brought them up in the game, which raised my weapon as well. If I was barefisted or carrying something like brass knuckles this meant taking on a boxing stance (although with both feet firmly planted beneath me, as I didn’t want to go walking threateningly into or away from any zombies). With a blade or blunt object, I could swing with my weapon hand as if cutting or bludgeoning. Keeping my hands up blocked automatically, and Rise of Nightmares assigned snap targeting for me so I could focus on the fighting.

Actual combat had a bit of flail-until-victorious feel to it. Punching was especially difficult because I often would swing too fast for the Kinect to read my actions, but there’s definitely something satisfying about hacking away at a zombie with an imaginary cleaver. Combat felt a bit House of the Dead-like, but in the melee style, and it was always a bit harrowing, which I guess is exactly what Rise of Nightmares is going for.

Eventually I found my way into a disgusting bathroom, not long after my gray pony-tailed companion got brutally sliced in half by a guillotine-like booby trap that descended from the ceiling. It severed his lower extremities completely, and I was treated to an awesome few moments of him crawling toward me, begging for help, with his legs remaining where they’d fallen. A second later, he died, absolving me of all obligation, so I headed on and found the bathroom.

After searching it and finding a vial of exploding chemicals for my new weapon, tossing a hunk of pipe I’d been bludgeoning the undead with, I discovered my objective — a toilet filled with red, bloody water. Raising my hand, I plunged it in to search for my prize: a key to a nearby door. I was left to swish my hand around in the toilet for a few seconds until the key was revealed. Then I pretended to pull it free. As I turned around, I found myself yet again surrounded by zombies. Emulating the holy water tossing of Max von Sydow in The Exorcist, I blew them up with my vial of weirdo chemicals.

I brought the key to the locked door and headed through, using Rise of Nightmares’ auto-move feature, activated by raising your right arm as if you’re about to swear an oath. Inside was a strange room where part of the power seemed to be out. There were a few zombies around, one of which turned and screamed at me, rendering me unable to move, with the Kinect demanding that I cover my ears. In doing so, I was able to circumvent her siren scream, and once I’d regained control, I rushed her by sticking my right foot out and splashing explosive chemicals all over her.

Next, I found a switch nearby to activate the power and open the door across the room. And, behold, the coup de grace of my Rise of Nightmares demo — a chainsaw. Snagging that and forgoing explosive chemicals, I activated a nearby switch, unleashing a horde of undead and starting two large blades criss-crossing the center of the room, creating a massive booby trap.

Time to go to work with the chainsaw. I lifted my hands in emulation of holding the saw in front of me, then pushed it forward to actually run it. It sliced up zombies in a predictably satisfying way, making quick, dismembering work of them. When they were in pieces around the room, I made my away across the trap, waiting for the blades to move clear before “dashing” across as best I could, my right leg stretched way out in front of me in a lunge. On the far side there was more chainsawing to be done before I climbed some stairs and the demo came to an end.

Rise of Nightmares, for the most part, had a good handle on its combat system. It’s satisfying to grab brass knuckles and step up to zombies like Rocky, or pick up a stabbing implement and go for their faces. Each weapon handles a little differently, both in attack and in the motion you use to attack with it, and Nightmares has all those motions down.

Getting around was a little wonkier, and the game’s auto-move feature was pretty nice, although holding your arm up like you’re reciting the Boy Scout oath gets tiring in a hurry. Navigation is a touch frustrating, with turning while moving often resulting in awkward overshooting, but it wasn’t a game breaker since most objects can be interacted with from some fairly large distances. Combat pretty much handles the heavy lifting for you by locking you to the nearest threat and then cycling to each new monster as you defeat the last one.

Rise of Nightmares is certainly hard-core-ier than the games I’ve seen on Kinect up to now, and that’s a welcome change. Unfortunately, it may just be too damn strange for mainstream appeal. It’s dark and gory and weird, but playing it is a heavy mix of unwieldy and uncanny. It doesn’t feel too natural, and while it’s fun, I have trouble imagining working through the whole game on my feet, waving around and constantly trying to turn my shoulders left and right while remembering that, yes, my dumb foot is forward and that’s why I keep bouncing into walls. There’s potential here, but weirdness may outpace it.

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