A year ago to the day, we brought you our first hands-on preview of Beyond Flesh and Blood, a third-person mech shooter set in a futuristic, dystopian version of Manchester.
While the Pixelbomb Games-developed title showed tremendous promise back then, it was still in a pre-alpha state and was very much unrefined as a result – with our demo being full of placeholder animations and plagued with frame rate issues.
Twelve months on, however, an awful lot has changed. Having been scouted by Microsoft late last year, who saw the potential in both the game’s concept and the talent at the Manchester-based studio, Beyond Flesh and Blood was enrolled into the company’s coveted ID@Xbox program. Since then, the team have overseen a drastic transformation in the very make-up of the game, with the most notable change being a complete port of BFaB to Unreal Engine 4 from the older, clunkier UE3.
At its core, Beyond Flesh and Blood is a gritty, and ever-so-slightly gory, shooter set in a post-apocalyptic 2281. In the game’s main campaign, players lead protagonist Ethan out on a mission to provide support to Earth’s peacekeeping organisation, the UGR. Ethan pilots a variety of combat-equipped mech suits in a reimagined, ramshackle version of Manchester, with his assignment soon disintegrating into a bloody battle for survival against the fearsome mutants and scavengers who roam the city.
On the basis of the extended queues and positive feedback for the game at this year’s EGX, the months spent rebuilding BFaB in Unreal 4 definitely seem to have been worth it. If its more polished graphics and tighter gameplay mechanics aren’t enough to grab your attention, then perhaps the recent addition of virtual reality and Oculus Rift support to the game will – though this is still very much a work in progress.
At this past weekend’s Play Expo, which was fittingly held in Manchester, we managed to catch up with project lead Phil Muwanga to find out more about how Beyond Flesh and Blood has come on from his perspective over the past year, as well as question him on when we can expect to see the game finally hit store shelves.
Adam Lloyd: We actually saw a little bit of Beyond Flesh and Blood at last year’s Play Expo, so to start off Phil, could you tell us about how the game has progressed over the last 12 months?
Phil Muwanga: Well, back then we were still showing off our Unreal Engine 3 build, and it was actually at Play Expo last year that we met a chap called Lee Stott from Microsoft. He took a bit of a shine to the game, and helped us get into the ID@Xbox program. Unfortunately, to be in ID@Xbox and to come out on the Xbox One, we needed to port the whole game from Unreal 3 to Unreal 4. So we’ve spent the past eight months switching engines, which has been a nightmare – but we’re finally through on the other side of it now.
AL: Excellent. So are you finding that switching to UE4 is going to help the game in any particular way, other than the obvious graphical improvements?
PM: Being able to rebuild the engine from the ground up – while it’s been hell – has allowed us to fix a few issues that crept into our codebase. And also, Unreal 4 is a much easier engine to work with. Epic have done a wonderful job with the engine and it is a joy for us to be able to use it.
AL: At the moment, the game is looking pretty polished, besides a few animations and such. Are there any main areas on Beyond Flesh and Blood that you need to work on before it will be ready for release?
PM: We’re just at the stage now where we’re able to show Unreal Engine 4 content to the public. That means our combat mechanics are just about there, and we’re hoping to receive feedback to help us make tweaks to these. We are also trying to polish the first seven levels of the game, which should be heading out in Early Access in time for Christmas. Then once that’s done, we have another 19 levels left that just need a lot of love, really!
AL: In terms of the story, is there anything you can tell us about it so far?
PM: The mission that we’re showing here is actually the opening mission of the game, which is where you are thrown in at the deep end playing in the Prototype suit. You have all the different powers and abilities unlocked, and then you actually fail the test that you have to do. Our story then takes place five years after this event, where the life of Ethan, who is our main character, has taken an interesting turn because he failed this test, and he starts off piloting a Mk I. This allows us to show the players what they’ll be able to experience by the end of the game, but then we have a story reason for all the powers being taken away from them.
AL: The game is set in Manchester, so it’s got a bit of a local vibe to it. Can we expect to see any particular landmarks from the city in the game?
PM: Beyond Flesh and Blood starts out in front of the Hilton on Deansgate. Most of the game takes place on Deansgate, but we’ll also be heading to Albert Square, the Triangle, the Arndale… if you’ve ever been to Manchester, there will definitely be a lot of landmarks that you’ll be able to recognise.
Obviously, it is set 200 years in the future, and 100 years since the end of a nuclear war, so that has allowed our artists the creative freedom to do our own take on Manchester. But we are a Manchester-based studio, so we have tried to capture the essence of our hometown.
AL: So in this dystopia, then, I guess the trams will actually run on time?
PM: *laughs* We do actually have our sky trams, which are mainly used by the enemies in the game as spawn points. So if a tram turns up, some people may come out of it that will try to murder you.
AL: *laughs* Fair enough. So today, similarly to the last time we saw you, we’ve played what is a wave-based horde mode, essentially. Are there any other aspects that we’re going to see in Beyond Flesh and Blood in later missions?
PM: We are mainly focused on our single-player story, which is a six-and-a-half-hour long campaign that is fully voice-acted. The reason why we show these arena-based maps at expos is because it’s an easy way to allow people to play with the combat mechanics – but the bulk of the game is an entirely linear story, with a lot of set-pieces and cutscenes in it.
AL: You mentioned that you’ve been picked up by ID@Xbox, so you’ve got an Xbox One release coming up as well as Steam Early Access. Are there any plans to release on PS4?
PM: Plans are in motion to make that happen, and we’re just waiting to hear back on that. We’re aiming to be out on all platforms in the first quarter of next year.
Chris Mawson: Another major change recently made to the game has been the introduction of VR and Oculus Rift support. How has that effected your development process and design philosophy?
PM: It’s interesting, because in the story of the game, Ethan is actually piloting these rigs through a headset that looks like an Oculus. So we’ve been able to tie it into the story: the interface you use on VR is the same one that our protagonist uses in the world.
We’ve only had our Oculus for about four weeks now, so we’ve just got the game working. There are a few cardinal rules of VR that we are breaking at the moment – like taking camera movements away from the player – but the main reason why we’re showing it off at expos is so we can get feedback from the public and to try and make a polished experience that will not make anyone feel [motion] sick.
CM: I understand you’re getting your hands on dev kits for the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR as well, so I guess you must be planning to support all three major VR headsets eventually?
PM: As I said, we are planning to be out on as many platforms as possible, so if it works on Oculus, it will definitely work on Morpheus and SteamVR.
AL: Thanks very much for taking the time to speak to us.
Beyond Flesh and Blood is scheduled to launch on Steam Early Access by the end of the year, with a full release planned on PC, Xbox One and potentially PS4 in Q1 2016. For more information on the game, you can follow its official Twitter page, @BeyondFBGame, or download a (2014 pre-alpha) demo via its official website.