We love playing a bit of 'spot the gimmick' here at Xbox World. As there are now plainly more 360 shooters in development than there are babies gestating in wombs internationally, isolating the one little bit of decoration which is supposed to make an FPS stand out from the crowd is great fun. But with their first console release, Metropolis Software think they're a little cleverer than most. You may think that the gimmick in They is the customisable weapon system, or the levels of different AI invested in your enemy. The developers themselves, however, insist that the number one tool in their armoury is... mystery.
While Lost got put through the videogame mangle and came out as a duff cash-in title last issue, Metropolis went back to the Lost TV series for inspiration, trying to create a story for their shooter which had the same level of intrigue and unpredictability.
Cut and run
After showing us the game for the first time, IMC, the people behind the game, explained the approach: "When creating a sense of mystery, it's important to show things, but not explain them. Too many cut-scenes show you exactly what you have to do." In many ways, games like Bioshock and especially Assassin's Creed may have got there first, but we're still keen to explore the twists and turns of They's story...
You play a grizzled cockney soldier, fresh from years of nasty terrorist-splattering duty and back home in London. But, in the year 2012 (as that's only a couple of years after the release date, we reckon it will change), he's placed right back in the firing line when an army of annoyingly murderous robots invades the planet, seemingly from nowhere. Your entire squadron is wiped out, and you're left with not just the task of locating survivors, but finding out who sent the robots, who controls them, and how to put a stop to it.
Robots In Disguise?
A crucial part of getting to the bottom of this mystery will be untangling the hidden meanings in the completely controllable cut-scenes - Life on Mars-style dream sequences, in which a ghostly little boy leads you towards each clue, are just one example of what's on offer... but can even he be trusted?
Don't worry, the main body of the game still involves trudging around the rubble of famous cities with enormous customisable guns blowing away robots... and in fact, not just them, but phantoms. Each of the fifteen kinds of robot obviously has basic programming which means they can only fight you in an automated, predictable way, thanks to simple AI.
But when a phantom takes control, each robot poses a very different threat, with intelligent AI that will stop at nothing to crush you. So what do you do? Kill the robot and allow the phantom to take over a new droid, or kill the (much tougher) phantom and then worry about blowing up the empty shell of the automaton? And if the phantoms are controlling the robots, who are controlling the phantoms...? Well, we'll leave it a mystery for now.
PC release is confirmed for early next year, and the 360 version has been in development for six months already - but They has yet to settle on a publisher. However, despite being only a very early build, the game we got hands-on with was showing loads of promise, up to scratch both visually and aurally... It's definitely the Brit-centric central mystery that's marking it out for our special attention, though.