E3 2011 – NeverDead Hands-On Preview
Konami tries to put a unique spin on the third-person action genre this winter with its release of NeverDead for the Xbox 360 and PS3.
Following Bryce, a 500 year old immortal, players take to the streets with dual-wielded guns and a big slicey sword. Both guns can be fired independently with the shoulder buttons and, at least for our demonstrations, one was a pistol while the other was an SMG. This actually felt like a nice combination as I could fight with both precision and speed.
The swordplay takes a little getting used to. You pull back with the right stick – up preparing for a downward slash, while left or right will prep a horizontal attack – before pushing the stick in the opposite direction to actually execute the attack. This is such an unusual mechanic that for the first few minutes of my play test I was aiming with the right stick and pressing through every button to perform the slash (yes I skipped the tutorial message). Nothing about the game leads you to think the blade combat would be handled this way and I have a hard time figuring out how it’s justified. Sure one trigger is used to lock-on and the other is taken up by the block, but there is such an emphasis on dodging and evading that I feel an attack button would be better suited.
Once you get used to the sword mechanic it feels okay, especially the ability to charge your strike, but it ultimately comes across as unnecessary. The real draw of the game, however, is in Bryce’s immortality. If attacked too much Bryce can lose his limbs. This includes each arm, each leg, and even his torso. That’s right, when completely weakened you roll around as just a head. Limbs can be collected by rolling on to them, and their order isn’t predetermined (I saw a head connected to a single arm and single leg). The reason for this system isn’t just to weaken an immortal, though.
Bryce is capable of intentionally removing limbs and tossing them in a desired area. The first use of this was to distract dog-like monsters with a thrown arm a la fetch. When thrown high enough the creatures even leapt in the air before happily jostling it around. A thrown limb can also be triggered to explode. When asked about using limbs for traps, the Lead Designer didn’t indicate that this had really been intended. Limbs holding guns can still fire but cannot be aimed. This results in a humorous situation of limb flailing around, pushed by the kickback of the guns.
In one instance of a guided demonstration I was shown Bryce removing his head and tossing it onto a shed to grab a hidden collectible. Immediately afterward the head was tossed into a fountain that blew it up through a high window of a previously inaccessible building. After enough time the rest of Bryce’s body was regenerated from the head. Puzzles like this are going to need to be frequent and variable to keep me interested as the overall mechanic provides very limited enjoyment.
Another large mechanic on display was the idea of destruction. Certain parts of the environments (walkways, pillars, etc.) can be destroyed by Bryce and used to defeat enemies. And because he’s immortal, getting caught in the rubble can be a strategic risk, trading recharge time for multiple kills. Though not shown, I was told that destruction will also play a much larger-scale role later in the game where disasters ravish highways and buildings.
So how do you make a game staring an immortal challenging? The first is the most reasonable. When reduced to a head, Bryce can be consumed by certain enemies, resulting in a game over. The idea is that he’s still alive, just reduced by stomach acid to an unplayable liquid (to this point the term “death” was never used in the Q&A, replaced instead by “game over”). The second chance for an early end screen is also reasonable as there will be playable flashbacks of Bryce before he became immortal. How gameplay will change to make these segments interesting is unknown but the dismemberment mechanic will obviously be out. The final method of a game over has me a little scared. Throughout much of the campaign Bryce is accompanied by the special agent Arcadia who, unlike Bryce, is mortal.
When wounded too much Arcadia must be revived by Bryce. If exposed to too much damage Arcadia will die and it’s the end of the player’s mission. I cringed at first explanation of this possibility as it reminds me all too much of the painful Knight’s Contract, a perpetual escort mission. Hopefully Never Dead will take a cue and keep Arcadia’s involvement limited.
In the end I’m not ready to dismiss NeverDead, but I’m sure damn skeptical. The controls (besides the sword) felt good and the action had a good pace. I’m just going to need to see several more creative uses of the dismemberment mechanic to convince me of its worth. I won’t hold my breath for the story though it was really protested that a game like this should be taken seriously. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see when NeverDead hits the U.S. this winter. Check back then for our full review.