Underworld Ascendant's developer list reads like a Walk of Fame for the genre of immersive sims - including developers from the System Shock, Bioshock, and Ultima Underworld series - and we were recently invited to test out the immersion for ourselves as we played a brand new section of the game in London. OtherSide Entertainment has the legacy behind it for sure, but this was a chance for a deeper look after our initial first impressions.
We spoke to OtherSide after playing the game to hear about their motivation going into this Underworld game, and Paul Neurath explained to us that they "didn't want to simply do a sequel or revisit those games, because we made those games in the early '90s and we've learned a lot since then, and we really wanted to push the immersive sim category forward."
We started at the very best place to start - the tutorial. A tutorial is important in all games, but it's especially important here because of all the systems in play. First, we have to get to grips with how to move in the first-person game, then interact with things, and then traversing the environment. These basics all work as you'd expect, but then the layers start falling like onions and before you know it there's a lot to consider.
One of the first lessons we're taught is the importance of stealth. It's not compulsory by any means, but we're shown how sticking to the shadows and using water arrows to extinguish torches can make the difference. After all, sneaking past enemies can save some health and hassle, especially when they're stationed above you and have arrows that can quickly chomp away at your health bar.
Once we had shown a certain proficiency in sneakiness we were encouraged to get into some basic combat, which is your usual RPG-esque experience in the sense that you press one button to attack and another to block. The enemies here offer a pretty tough resistance though, so this won't be the favoured option for many situations, especially when multiple enemies are swarming you at once.
So far so good, but there was plenty more added to our inventory during the tutorial period that we had to consider. A glowing stone, for example, illuminated dark corridors for our convenience, and there was a seed that allowed us to plant a tree at certain areas which served as a point of revival when we died later on. Then there were the food items to restore health; the various types of arrows for different purposes (e.g. a blast one to knock enemies down); and even throwing axes.
Last but not least there is also magic to consider, as various wands allow you to deploy magic in a number of ways. Levitating things is one of the most basic of abilities, but as you progress you unlock more advanced options like flames which can be used to do things like burn doors down. It's not just wands that enable magic though, as the game also lets you combine the magical runes you find in the world for various effects, such as healing yourself.
Magic, stealth, and combat form the three pillars of gameplay in terms of the mechanics, so to complement these OtherSide provides you with an extensive skill tree to upgrade your character. We focused mainly on the latter two, and with stealth our first port of call was to unlock an ability that showed us how visible we were at any one time, which translated to an eye symbol on the screen which worked almost identically to the Elder Scrolls series. Then we unlocked an ability to deal extra melee damage on enemies whose backs were turned.
With regards to the combat skill tree, this is also similar to what you've seen in other RPGs, improving your potency with particular weapons as well as other elements like the speed of your swings. There's a ton of stuff to unlock but as with any good RPG, you have to really think about how you invest your limited skill points to try and maximise the effectiveness of your chosen play style.
What's also important to consider is your equipment, as throughout The Stygian Abyss (where you're exploring in order to unite the three factions and take down an evil threat) you'll find not only armour but also weaponry to aid you in your journey. Daggers, for example, will be best for quick slashes and stealth, while a mace might be better for brute force. What's also important to consider is that you have a limited amount of space in your immediate inventory, which works a little like Minecraft in the sense that you can scroll between a certain number of items on the fly in-game, while the rest requires you to stop and access the inventory. Oh, and the game doesn't pause for you to do this.
The world around these mechanics is as detailed as the mechanics themselves, as it's packed with elements you need to consider. As well as the aforementioned light/dark contrast you also have plenty of physics to toy around with, as levers can be activated with a well-aimed throw of an object, and destruction means you can punch your way through a wooden door if you so choose. Things aren't as simple as just finding a door and locating the key; OtherSide gives you the tools to be creative in the way you approach the obstacles that litter your path. Traps also fit into this in a major way as they can be a thorn in your side, or you can use their destructive potential for your own will.
Once we'd completed the tutorial, during which all of this was made clear to us, we caught the hook of Underworld Ascendant. There's a lot to remember and there are going to be a lot of periods where you mess up trying to get to grips with things, but it's the type of experience that rewards ingenuity on the player's part, meaning that when you do eventually pull something off using all the skills you've learned, you feel like a badass at the end of it all. Patience is rewarded, and practice makes perfect, as they say.
We didn't get to see too much during our hour-and-a-half session, but in terms of the format, your task is to unite these three factions in the Underworld by taking on contracts that are posted in this forum in the hub world. They give you different missions to undertake via a number of portals, at which point you're let loose in the world to do as you see fit.
Underworld Ascendant never assigns you restrictive tasks, but instead gives you small sandboxes to use as you want, and the beauty of this is that there's no one right answer to anything. If you want you can go in like a bull in a china shop and crack enemy skulls, but the more tactical among you might want to extinguish all the lights before you take down your prey. There's loads to toy around with, and the setup ensures some really entertaining results.
"One of the reasons to make this kind of game is to give players these unique kinds of experiences," Warren Spector explained to us. "You want to differentiate one player's experience of the Underworld from another player's experience of the Underworld, and skill trees can drive that kind of difference, so if you're enjoying a particular kind of gameplay, we support you in that and then give you ways to specialise further [...] the importance of creative opportunities is doing something similar. It's driving players towards different experiences, as opposed to... I won't say most, but many games that are basically putting you on rails and saying 'figure out what the designer wanted you to do here.' We want players figuring out what to do for themselves."
We also talked to OtherSide about the changing world we can expect, to which Joe Fielder said:
"Well, I think one of the things that we looked at is areas we could innovate, the constantly-evolving world state. We saw a lot of games out there that we really enjoyed, that were these really large RPG environments that you could explore and explore, but they felt a little static over time [...] We really looked at this as an opportunity to have a smaller game, but that was constantly changing and evolving with new challenges and opportunities. That's also something that a lot of really ripe modern board games [...] have done really well."
The biggest testament to Underworld Ascendant's potential is that we walked away curious as to what we could do with this immersive sim that OtherSide has provided. There's so much packed in here, all of which is easy to learn but hard to master, and we wanted to mess around more with the physics and the core mechanics we'd seen. It's shaping up really nicely thus far, and we can't wait to see what this talented team has in store in the full package when it lands on PC on November 15 (and next year on consoles).