Who Shall Have A Fishy, On Their little dishy, when the boat comes in? Promethean Design, that's who. Don't be surprised if you've never heard of them, because it's a name they've only recently adopted. And don't be surprised if their previous moniker - East Point Software - is unfamiliar too, since for the last four years they've produced nothing but conversions of other people's products, including PC versions of Aladdin and The Lion King for Disney, and - shhh - a none-too-wonderful Mr Blobby game (if I'd been asked to do it, I'd have come up with a kind of beat 'em up in which you get to repeatedly stab the pink monstrosity with a broken beer bottle), alongside the occasional weird promo title (one of which was, bizarrely, written for Abbey National). Over this period they've garnered valuable experience and swelled in size - from a team of six to a mob of 24. Now they want to concentrate on producing original titles of their very own -hence the forthcoming release of F1 Powerboat.
It would be very easy to dismiss F1 Powerboat as simply another racing game, albeit one with an extremely waterlogged racetrack, Easy, that is, until you see it in action. Even at this unfinished stage, and without the assistance of a 3D accelerator card (all brands will be fully supported in the final code), it looks astonishingly good. The water, in particular, looks and moves just like the genuine article, with wonderfully realistic reflections and fluid, undulating waves being the order of the day. Better still, the boats really do seem to behave like boats. They don't have the appearance of mere objects stuck onto the surface of the river - they bob up and down, skip over the waves, dip underwater, just as you'd expect them to. If you're susceptible to sudden bouts of seasickness, you might as well stick your fingers down your throat now, because after five minutes with fit Powerboat, your stomach muscles will be given the kind of workout that the manufacturers of Ab-Roller Plus (the only abdominal workout product that locks you on target) can only dream of. You'll puke so hard, it'll smash through your monitor and fill the damn thing to the brim, leaving you with a fizzling vomit box squatting on your desktop like a television permanently tuned to Barf UK - the TV station where stomach waste is king. And you'd also have to contend with a sticky, sour-smelling keyboard too. Ergh.
Sorry, where was I? Ah yes - Lowestoft. I was in Lowestoft, at Promethean's HQ, watching FI Powerboat in action and bending the ear of Russell Ritchie - the leather-trousered founder of the company...
Let's talk boat
Why powerboats, then, eh?
Well, for starters, I'm quite into powerboats and I've always been into speedboats. I've had four or five boats, and I've been interested in them for years. I had my first boat when I was about 16.1 like the speed, that's what it is.
Have you done much research?
Oh yeah. There's a place just down the river where they hold powerboat races. Also, the consultant on F1 Powerboat is a guy called Steve Clarke, who used to publish Powerboat International. He knows every single Formula 1 driver there is, he's taken hundreds of photographs... he's an expert.
What other games have been influential during the production of F1 Powerboat?
Well, everyone on the team is a dedicated gamer, so we know what games are out there. If anything's been influential, it would be mainly other race games. The idea for the game its elf been kicking around for about two and a half years, but until recently the technology to do it just wasn't there. We wanted to do a 3D engine, but we didn't want to make one that was just like everybody else's. So we drew up a list of the things that weren't being done - like proper shadows, reflections, and real water physics. And we decided that this was where we were going to set our goals.
Is this an arcade game, or a realistic simulation? It's fun to play, but it's also very realistic. For example, boats have 'power trim'. When you go along a straight, you trim the engine up slightly which lifts the boat out of the water and gives you more speed. That's when you're in danger of flipping. When you first start playing the game, you'll just have a throttle. Later on, you can start using the power trim, which requires more skill. Apart from flipping, if you don't trim down when you come to a corner, you're just going to slide off and crash into your opponents or into the riverbank.
That's one example, There's also real water physics to contend with, which really haven't been done before. When it's all finished you'll have the boat skipping and doing weird and wonderful things off the waves. Also, we've recently put wind in the engine. If there's an object in the water, and it's got a certain area, the wind will blow it around, and it'll get stuck until the wind changes again, or whatever.
What other unique features are there?
We don't know of another 30 game where you can be partially submerged - your view can be split by the water margin; you can see above and below simultaneously. The reason we insisted on that is that when you take a jump, as you land you'll bob under the water for a moment, just as a boat does. One thing I think we've definitely achieved here is that we wanted these boats to look like they really were in the water. The reflections and shadows have really helped us there. We're still in the process of tweaking the buoyancy in order to get it spot on.
It certainly looks pretty...
Oh yeah. We've got different levels of transparency, we've got fogging effects, night-time levels... we've even used a polygon sky. If you look at things like, say, Porsche Challenge on the PlayStation, they've used a beautiful backdrop which looks absolutely incredible. Trouble is, if you're going to start banking and rolling - as powerboats do when they turn corners - it all turns to shit. It's also essential for when a boat does a 360 degree flip. With this engine, you'll be able to see aeroplanes passing overhead as you spin through the air, before plunging back underwater when you land. It runs in hi-res (640x480) and it's going to support Direct3D and all the accelerator cards. There's no warping of textures. And there's lots going on. There's ducks, swimmers, tractors at the side of the course... all sorts.
How many tracks are there?
At the moment there's nine, but we're hoping to get ten in. Are they quite linear, or will there be secret short cuts? Well, in just about every race game available now, you're on a road, and you pass things, and that's more or less it. What we're aiming for is more participation from the driver. There are lots of things you can do to screw up your opponents.
What kind of things?
Well, take the Russian course for example. (He loads it up to illustrate his point.) Now, let's say you're in a five-lap race, okay? As you come round this corner there's a boat floating in front of this sewage pipe here - which is a potential short cut with a jump at the end. Right now it's blocked by the boat. But over here there's a crane, holding a container which is hanging over the water. Now, down here is the cab for that crane, which you can clip with your boat. Hit it once, and you crack the glass in the windows. Hit it again and the glass cracks a little more. Hit it a third time, on your third lap, and the container drops, lands in the water, and immediately adopts real-world physics and floating attributes. It starts to float downstream, so you never know where that obstacle will be on the water.
When that happens, the boat blocking the pipe entrance moves away, giving you a chance to take the short cut - but you have to be quick because eventually the container will float right round the corner and block the pipe at the other end.
That's just one example of the kind of secret features we've replicated in all of the tracks.
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