Dragon's Dogma Preview (PS3)

The pressure must be on for the team behind Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma as the game approaches launch. This isn’t any regular release, no - the game marks a bunch of notable milestones for the company. The milestones Dragon’s Dogma marks include it being the first ‘true’ open world game the company has produced, the largest ever team on a Capcom game with over 150 people working on it back in Japan and, most notable of all, the most expensive game Capcom has ever produced.

Pawns are vital to survival in the world of Dragon’s Dogma
As such there’s quite a bit riding on it, and I got that sense from Capcom as they demoed the titles at a UK play-day last week. We weren’t allowed to play Dragon’s Dogma, but members of the game’s development team sat down to show a version of the game that was essentially ‘content complete’ with the entire huge open world open for exploration – and we could watch a member of the dev team explore for as long as we wanted to get an idea of just how open the world is.

Despite only being announced for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 the title was running in a development environment on the PC with an Xbox 360 controller equipped – though all the in-game menus referred to the PS3. We were first shown the character creation system, newly revealed in depth at this event. Seeing the team generate a female lead character what was immediately clear was the depth the system had to offer. Right away we could see that for female characters there were at least 40 different hair styles, and they could then be coloured individually from eyebrows and such, which 36 different types of eyes were also available.

You can even pick from 12 different types of legs, so if you want a lady warrior with Chun-Li thighs you can, or you could also have somebody more thin and frail. Features like eyes and noses can also be edited manually past the selection of what ‘type’ you pick. With eyes the type will affect the eye shape, but then you can move the eyes to be closer together or further apart, bigger or smaller and so on and so forth to help make a truly original looking character. There’s a unique emphasis here on making something original that imbues who you want your character to be. You can even pick a posture and stance – and that’ll effect how your character carries themselves – if they stand in a heroic pose or a timid stance, if they look masculine or feminine.

When you’re done creating your character your creation zips into the in-game world of Dragon’s Dogma and will appear in all the game’s real-time cutscenes exactly as you created them and in whatever gear you have equipped on them. An entirely single-player title, Dragon’s Dogma’s allies come in the form of ‘pawns’ – AI allies who you can bind to you. You can have up to three pawns with you. Two of them will be recruited as pre-set characters, but one - known as the ‘main pawn’ – can be customized as much as the main character, letting you have a permanent companion whose look you have defined.

I saw Dragon’s Dogma back at E3, and I have to admit that the core of the gameplay I played back then left me a little cold. It felt and looked rough, and while I didn’t get to go hands-on here I’m extremely happy to report that the visuals have been markedly improved. The visuals, lightning and shadows all look much better than they did at E3, and the frame rate appeared to be a ton more stable too. There were still some small issues of polish with the game – the main pawn was equipped with a cape that was clipping through his body even when he was standing still, but the game overall looked and ran a lot better than the previous build I’d played, and I left very reassured about a game I was rather concerned about before now.

We saw a good chunk of the game’s open world, and there was quite a variety of locations spanning the usual high fantasy gambit – we saw a castle town bustling with NPCs, wide open fields, cavernous valleys and mountainous areas – ending our time with the game with a view of a beautiful vista out to a large castle in the distance that we were assured the player could simply walk to and visit. Capcom were keen to note that is a key concept throughout the development of Dragon’s Dogma – the idea that everything you can physically see is something you can move towards, interact with and explore. This would make it a true open world, and set it apart from titles like Dead Rising that give the illusion of an open world but are actually more closed in.
Combat allows you to take on any of a number of styles of role you want
The castle town we visit in the demo looks large from outside, but when you get inside it becomes clear just how big it is. There’s a host of buildings, plenty of smaller roads and back alleyways and lots of NPCs walking around. Capcom explained that the NPCs in Dragon’s Dogma work on their own individual 24 hour schedules and have basic lives they live out – they won’t just stand around and wait for you to talk to them. This, too, is intended to help build an open world. The development team set out to make the game feel like the world of that tiny castle town for instance continues to live on even after you leave the area – thus giving the game more of a true ‘open world’ feeling.

While the game looks a lot like an Action Adventure game, RPG elements are clearly present – especially when the menu’s opened. There’s a world map styled to look like it’s printed on old medieval-era paper and a full quest log. In the castle town the player picks up a quest and heads out towards the quest by using a fast travel system. The fast travel system requires use of an item, thus limiting how often you can do it. Like Elder Scrolls you can also only fast travel to locations you’ve already visited. After fast travelling from the town out to a field the player and her three pawns come under attack from a gigantic Gollum-like creature.

Made from rocks that have been fused together into a ‘living body’ of sorts with magic, the creature is two to three times the size of the player. It is here we see something else different about pawns – their personalities. Pawns speak out during the game, alerting the player to things of interest in the environment. One of the pawns actually spots the giant enemy before the player, commenting on how on earth they can take down such a giant enemy. In combat this plays like an action game with RPG elements – each of the four face buttons on the controller has a move attached to it, and pressing the triggers can modify that – so there’s a different set of moves on the buttons when holding down a trigger, for instance.

You have full control of your character’s movement like an action game, but move load-out and progression is handled more similarly to an RPG. Your pawns, meanwhile, act independently, though their actions will depend on their personality and class. A more timid pawn might choose to stay back and sling spells, while the main pawn accompanying the player today was a tank, rushing in and engaging the enemy right away. Basic orders such as to attack or to regroup and run away are available to the player, too, but it seems most of the preparation for how pawns will act in battle should happen before hand.

After a while of attacking the enemy one pawn suggests the weak point is the glowing balls of magic energy which hold it together – obvious when you think about it. Reaching those requires for the player’s character to climb up the creature, like a mini-version of a Shadow of the Colossus boss battle. Quickly the player jumps onto the creature’s back, climbing up and stabbing a tone of several weak points to immobilize the enemy while pawns distract it below. At points, the creature deliberately moves erratically to try to throw the player off.

The battle drags on and takes time, with healing, revivals and continual attempts climbing the creature’s back. If nothing else, this shows that the approach to individual enemies – even non-boss enemies – has been carefully considered, with unique mechanics for taking some down. Back at E3 I fought a Chimera, cutting off its tail first to weaken it before taking down each head individually. While the main player character was using a bow and arrow, up-close and personal they can also pull a knife and we were told in the demo while the game is in a way based around traditional class concepts they wanted everybody to have an option in every situation - thus the knife for a traditionally long-range attack class. Warriors will have a basic, weaker long-range option as well.

The philosophy is that everything you see you should be able to visit by just walking there...

I spent a long time not sure what Dragon’s Dogma was intended to be, but now I properly understand I’m very interested. It’s a Japanese take on the Western Action RPG, inspired in equal measure by games like Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age as much as Devil May Cry and Final Fantasy. That sounds pretty damn interesting. What I saw was still a small chunk of what is clearly a massive game content wise, but the marked improvement over previous builds I’d played makes me excited to see how the game’s development team will tighten it ahead of its March 2012 release.

Most Anticipated Feature: Nothing specific as of yet, we'll need to wait until we get some hands-on with the game to see how it handles.

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