Deep Shadows' previous game Boiling Point ended up as the poster child for the 'buggy but beautiful' brigade. Its striking cocktail of Deus Ex, Far Cry and GTA was somewhat undermined by its many issues. To quote sparsely from the contents list of the first patch: "posters in bar vanish as you turn away from them", "dog does not cast shadows", "jaguar floats across screen at treetop level".
Our recent visit to Deep Shadows' Ukraine headquarters revealed one startling fact: Boiling Point was made by 13 people. Which is a little like everyone in the Gamer office, on a whim, deciding to have a crack at constructing their own Taj Mahal. White Gold is Deep Shadows' second shot at Boiling Point, except with the benefit of experience, a still-slim-but-more-reasonable 30-strong team and an express desire to not let it out into the world in a similar state. Co-founder Sergey Zabaryansky stresses that's a mistake they're going to avoid at all costs.
It's not the only misstep they want to avoid. "The distances between different military bases were too long," Sergey continues. "You could take quests and travel twenty minutes to another place, where you kill someone in two minutes before going back." They're aiming to create a tighter game, with a vehicle always on hand if you want it. "The game itself becomes more dynamic, more interesting." It also breaks up its areas a little - Boiling Point was set in a valley, while this is a series of islands. Hopping between them in helicopters provides a natural structure - in fact, getting off the initial island is your first goal.
There's more here than just a polished Boiling Point, though. A light RPG system, for a start. By gaining levels you're able to pick a perk from a list of about 30, each of which personalises your character. Some are straight combat boosts, others give what are almost trade skills, enabling you to skin animals and sell the hides. Thievery skills do things such as improve your lockpicking - which works on a resource system, picks having a chance to break each time you use one. Thievery skills will reduce that chance. One skill even makes you more resistant to booze.
But the real core of White Gold's appeal is its distinct take on a freeform world - a few notches more serious than most games of the type. While the visually similar Just Cause is happy to let you go on a rampage, White Gold creates a far more convincing world. You can talk to anyone you meet, as long as there's not a war going on. Even a GTA-clone perennial like stealing a car can have depth. Some cars are simply locked, requiring a key. They have petrol. They have tyres that can be shot out. There's a high level of destructibility in general. You share these islands with seven factions, all of whom can be charmed or alienated by your actions, and you're left to get on with it however you choose, and to live with the consequences.
Many games make that sort of claim. The difference here is that we know Deep Shadows can make a game that does it. They've done it before. The question is, in the time left, can they make it work as well as we all want it to? Here's hoping that White Gold doesn't turn out to be fool's gold.