E3: Darkest of Days is something new: A time-travel shooter

Darkest of Days previewed at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles yesterday, revealing its novel premise: a time-jumping first-person shooter set during famous battles and events from history.

Developed by 8Monkey Labs and published by Phantom EFX, the game is set in the Civil War, World War II and the destruction of Pompeii, among other eras.

Playing on the screen in front of us was the battle of the Little Big Horn, the one in which Gen. George A. Custer met his demise. If you're someone who yells at the television when historical shows are inaccurate, you'll appreciate this. All the battlefields and cities are completely historically accurate, which for a history buff like me is incredibly cool.

We also got to see a perfect re-creation of Pompeii during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., the Battle of Tannenberg from World War I and a POW camp from World War II. We got to check out the fighting, and we saw a small glimpse of the time-travel home base with a woman on a screen labeled "Mother."

"We wanted to make time travel believable," Phantom EFX chief executive officer Aaron Shurman told a group of visitors. "There are a lot of games that have done it kind of hokey. ... We just wanted so bad to have that believable time-travel game. So it gave me a chance—since the game has been rolling around in my head for 10 years and I've dreamt it and I've visualized it—I wanted to put the gamer in all these different spots that they've never gotten to experience in games before. The American Civil War, —Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history—and have it be wide open and not be stuck in a trench or something, only fighting five guys at a time. ... Antietam, Pompeii, World War I, all these darkest of days."

Shurman explained the premise. "Once time travel is invented, they find out people are dying in these events that were never meant to die, once they go back and start researching," he said. "So your mission is to go back and save these people who aren't meant to die and find out what is going on. ... You are Alexander Morris. You're a guy fighting with Gen. Custer at Little Big Horn. You recently got attached to his unit, and you showed up a few days early. ... Seconds before your demise, you get saved by a time-travel agent. You end up finding that you've been conscripted into an army of time agents that's made up from MIAs all through history. Action individuals. Once time travel is invented, I can't send you [points to a man in the room] back to the Civil War, because it's a dangerous place, and you might get killed, and that would ruin your history. You may become a doctor someday and save somebody famous or write a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. All that may change, and we can't afford that. So I have to find expendable people. And the way to solve that is MIAs. So we go back and snag these people, because they're expendable."

Darkest of Days has five big things about it that differentiate it from other first-person shooters, Shurman added. "Number one, it's got a brand-new look," he said. "We're not using the Unreal Engine." There were gasps in the room. "That's big for a lot of gamers," he laughed.

"We built a totally new engine that supports the things we wanted to do, called the Marmoset Engine [a play on the company's name, 8Monkey]," Shurman said. "The reason we needed this engine is the next big thing about this game. Massive battles. If I put you with Gen. Custer at Little Big Horn, I can't have you seeing five Indians run around you. I need hundreds of them. We can support 300 people on the screen at the same time. Each with their own A.I., each with their own set of animation, everybody doing their own thing, trying to survive their own day."

The game also accommodates the need for wide-open battlefields, Shurman added. "Seeing tons of enemies gives you the option to charge, ... probably not a good idea, ... or lure a few away and kill them that way or even hide and wait until the soldiers from the opposing side thin the herd a bit before you attack," he said.

"The fourth thing is the futuristic weapons," Shurman said. "We needed something to support a wide range of weapons, including historical weapons, like a Springfield spring shot musket, that has to feel realistic, but also to have a futuristic [makes machine-gun sounds] weapon during the Civil War, which I think every gamer dreams about. And then some new mechanics. ... We use what's called the 'aura system.' On the screen, we saw a few people with a blue haze around them. Those people are meant to survive the battle. You can take them down by wounding them, but if you happen to kill one, watch out. The battlefield is frozen and time travelers whose plans you've just messed up will know where you are and take you out."

The graphics look great, and the gameplay seems pretty immersive. This is a strictly single-player game, but it seems to have plenty to keep you occupied. I can't wait to play this one for myself.

Darkest of Days will be released Aug. 25 for the Xbox 360 and Windows PC.

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