Death to Spies 3: Ghost of Moscow is the cancelled third game in the Death to Spies franchise, in developed in 2010 by Haggard Games and to be published by 1C Company on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. While the original project was never released on the 7th generation of consoles, the game was later reworked and rebranded as Alekhine’s Gun and published by Maximum Games for PC, Xbox One, and PS4 on March 2016.
Previous Death to Spies chapters (Death to Spies and Death to Spies: Moment of Truth) were set during World War II and the protagonist is a member of the Soviet counterintelligence agency SMERSH called Semyon Strogov. In Ghost of Moscow players had to use stealth to resolve different missions and kill enemies without being detected, exploring non-linear levels with multiple ways of completing objectives, somehow similar to the Hitman series.
As one member of Haggard Games explains, Death to Spies 3: Ghost of Moscow was originally canned because of internal changes at 1C Company:
“Not related to the game. It’s more of their change in business strategy. They closed almost all projects in development and all their internal studios after financial problems and focused only on distribution/publishing already finished products.”
To continue development of the title, Haggard Games ran two crowdfunding campaigns: one on Indiegogo in 2013 and another on Kickstarter in 2014. Unfortunately both campaigns failed to reach the funding goal but they were later able to collaborate with Maximum Games to continue the development of the game as Alekhine’s Gun. This new version follows the same SMERSH (now KGB) agent, Semyon Strogov, who was recruited in the CIA during the 1960’s to untangle a plot inside the United States that could spark nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States.
The original beta version of Death to Spies 3 had two other playable characters: Olga Godunova-Lopes and Victor Kovalev. Players could switch between each character at any time during a mission. Alexegy Agamalov, lead developer of Haggard Games was able to provide more details about some the cuts and changes made on the game:
Matt Redmond: I’ve noticed from media, such as screen shots that Victor Kovalev and Olga Godunova-Lopes were to be playable. Was that removed for gameplay balance or to focus the narrative on Semyon Strogov?
Alexegy Agamalov: They were removed because of complexity. It was too much work to design/balance/playtest/focus test/etc.. And we had to cut some features to release the game in time. (After we signed with Maximum Games additional work related to consoles were added). Story also did change, some levels were redesigned to be played by Semyon only.
MR: What kind of abilities were planned for Victor and Olga?
AA: Olga was able to attract guards and other NPC’s, also climbing into some special places (such as small passages not wide enough for the men). Victor was a sniper and knife master, able to hide in shadows or grass. Semyon was able to use disguises.
MR: How was the story modified as the characters were reduced to only Semyon?
AA: Story was completely changed. First story was based mostly on Bay of Pigs invasion. We also had to change the story because rights on it belonged to our previous publisher.. Well, mostly there was gameplay feature cuts (like removing multi-characters), levels were redesigned. Two of the levels were changed from Cold War era to WW2 era (Dts1 levels remakes).
MR: Did Maximum Games decide to pick up the title as they announced plans that the company wanted to expand their publishing portfolio to more mature/adult games? Or was because of the original gameplay demo? (And how much of the game was completed before Maximum Games picked up the project?)
AA: I can’t speak for Maximum Games, but I guess it was a way for them to expand their portfolio. As for how much it was completed, on the moment of signing with MG, Death to Spies 3 was about half-way completed for features/gameplay and 70% on content (graphics/animations/sounds/etc..)
In early ‘00s Quantic Dream was trying to expand their portfolio with many different projects for the 6th generation of consoles (Dreamcast, PS2, Xbox, GameCube), announcing a few titles that never seen the light of day: Omikron 2, Quark and (b)Last.
(b)Last is for sure one of their most obscure and mysterious project, with only a few details and low-quality images to remember its existence. As far as we know it was meant to be an action game / beat ‘em up in a sci-fi / fantasy setting mixing together Lovecraft tales and the Matrix movies, with weird tentacle monsters, laser weapons, super powers and many different characters to interact with.
While Omikron 2 was probably Quantic Dream’s major focus at the time, only a small team of artists and developers were working on (b)Last: unfortunately the project was soon canned for unknown reasons, but we can speculate the studio fell into some issues while developing so many different games at the same time, making it hard to create a quality, fun game.
UL: Does QD canceled projects live in this new project? bLast, Quark… other? DC: We usually start several projects at the same time. Over the last years, one of them get so much interest from publishers that we had to cancel or at least postpone the others. Each Quantic Dream’s project requires up to 80 people and all our attention. It is difficult to start several original project with the same ambition in matter of quality…
At the moment only a couple of images are preserved from (b)Last, we hope to be able to save many more artworks in the future with the help of former developers who worked on it. If you know someone who worked on (b)Last, please let us know!
The premiere game of Tomonobu Itagaki‘s Valhalla Game Studio, primarily made of ex-Team Ninja members Devil’s Third was released in 2015 to incredibly divisive reception. This would come as no surprised as the title was in development on and off for the good hunk of six years. Starting development as a Microsoft published Xbox 360 title only to move to a multiplatform title under the now defunct THQ, only to soon after transfer to the Korean Publisher Doobic, a partnership that promised mobile and PC releases as well, who too would end up going out of business, finally resting on the Nintendo WiiU as a Nintendo published title.
The game was first formally announced at E3 2010 by THQ,(who later that year would announce the ill fated Insane) after Itagaki met with Danny Bilson, who would stay with the game until the end. Announced as a PS3/360 title the game looked to be an action game with a deep focus on mixing gunplay with melee combat. While that much is true in the final WiiU release, one big change can be seen right away. Despite being used for the reveal trailer and title logo, the 3 characters that had been shown would end up replaced by the new protagonist Ivan. Not much is actually known of the original cast of three, but the male character focused on in the trailer bears a resemblance to a villain in the final game named Big Mouse. Another change that can be seen is the excursion of wall running in the final release.
The game would not be shown off more until another trailer the following year, this time focusing on the Japanese celebrity Hard Gay (Masaki Tsumitani) going on a tour of Valhalla’s studio. Despite being four years before the eventual release, in this video a boss (Saha Grundla) and many characters from the final game can be seen.
Another drought of information would come, this time for three years until randomly showing up at E32014, this time by Nintendo. The game had made a drastic change from the last time shown and the lead protagonist was the easiest to see. This would be the first time the game would be shown off in any real detail including a multiplayer mode, according to Itagaki a main reason for Nintendo picking the title up to begin with. The title would then release the following year, despite promises of Nintendo polish, the title would be plagued with issues relating to framerate and lower end graphics, which would give off a very last-gen feel. The contributing factor to polish issues comes from the title shifting through almost as many engines as it did publishers. Starting from proprietary to the Darksider’s Engine, ending with Unreal 3.
Despite the lukewarm reception of the WiiU title in most regions outside of Japan, Valahalla also released a multiplayer-only PC version in Asian territories and their subsidiary Soleil is developing the upcoming Naruto to Boruto: Shinobi Strike for current consoles. Valhalla also opened up a headquarters in Vancouver to watch over each of it’s subsidiaries.
Project Nano – also known as Blueprint – is a cancelled third person, open world cooperative shooter being developed by Epic Games. The project was going to become their new major IP following the popular Gears of War series, and was scheduled to be released for Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC. A few details about this obscure game were already leaked online in November 2013 thanks to VGLeaks but we’ve managed to gather some more info about this ambitious project thanks to an anonymous source.
Nano started development in 2008, around the same time Epic were also working on Gears of War 3. GoW3 was later released in September 2011 as an Xbox 360 exclusive title, but Nano was meant to be Epic’s “next gen” IP, a multi platform (PS4, Xbox One) series planned to be a successful trilogy. Epic put a lot of time and money in creating the Blueprint trilogy, a “noir adventure in the grim and desperate world of 2043”, but unfortunately the series was abandoned after a few prototype demos. The studio had to put Blueprint on hold in 2010 / 2011 while they were struggling to complete Gears of War 3, initially planned to be completed in early 2011 but then postponed several times. It seems that after GoW3 was shipped they continued to work on Nano for a while, albeit without success.
While Nano was never officially announced by Epic, they did show some parts of the game in their Samaritan Unreal Engine 3.5 tech demo revealed at the 2011 Game Developers Conference. Looking at Samaritan we can have a better idea of the style and graphic quality they were targeting for Nano, even if the playable prototype was still too early to look nearly as good as this tech demo.
In mid 2013 former Epic Games design director Cliff Bleszinski wrote a bit about the difficulties behind the development of Nano (and Samaritan) on his personal Tumblr, as reported by Kotaku:
“Q. What was that “Samaritan” demo that Epic produced a while back?
One day I’ll be able to give the full story on that. It’s really a doozy. If journalists nag Epic enough and they give the OK I’d be glad to give details.”
Cliff’s comment about Nano / Samaritan was later removed and another Epic spokesperson gave another comment about the demo:
“We don’t have anything new to say about the Samaritan demo. Really! It was a “doozy” of a learning experience – after all, it was Epic’s self-proclaimed love letter to hardware manufacturers. Samaritan shows what developers can do with Unreal Engine 3’s DirectX 11 feature set, and in terms of R&D, it helped us realize new ways to optimize Unreal Engine 4 for next-gen game development.”
We can assume that Blueprint was already in development hell at that point, but somehow Epic was still working on Nano in 2014, when they quietly announced a new IP at GDC, as reported by Polygon:
“After selling Gears of War to Microsoft earlier this year, Epic Games is building a new game and intellectual property to carry the studio forward. During the “Animation Bootcamp: Animation Prototyping for Games” panel at this year’s Game Developers Conference, lead animator Jay Hosfelt detailed the studio’s revamped design philosophies as it builds its new game without a publishing partner. No name or release timetable was given, though concept art and character models shown during the panel resembled the unnamed hero of Epic’s 2011 “Samaritan” technical demonstration.”
Even if later this was denied by Epic Games’ PR manager, we can confirm that the main character model used in the Samaritan tech demo was indeed a character from Nano (Owen) and even the street level shown in Samaritan was available in one of the early Blueprint prototypes. By reading Epic’s comments, it’s easy to see how they don’t really want to talk about what happened to Nano, so it’s not easy to gather details about its development and cancellation.
Even if it’s not directly related to Nano (as far as we know), it could be useful to also show what Epic were able to achieve with their Infiltrator tech demo shown at the GDC 2013:
By looking at this footage we can imagine how playing Nano could have looked like in Unreal Engine 4 if only it could have been completed. Unfortunately it seems that only a series of early prototypes were created for Nano, before it was finally cancelled or at least completely changed into a different project still to be announced.
It’s interesting to notice that these Nano prototypes have plenty of music from The Dark Knight movie that was released in 2008, as well as some from Transformers. The few songs used were “A Dark Knight – Hans Zimmer”, “I’m Not a Hero – Hans Zimmer”, “Aggressive Expansion – Hans Zimmer”, as well as “Arrival To Earth – Transformers Score”. Temporary music of course but gives you a glimpse of the type of music they were trying to achieve for the game. Another great example of them working on the project in 2010 was the Toronto G20 summit, as they used a few pictures of Toronto Police cars being destroyed as well as some of the riots that took place as temporary UI assets and inspirations.
The game was still pretty early in development at this time but they keep working on it for a few years. All gameplay levels in the Nano prototype are just grey-boxes, there are a few “art levels” such as the Samaritan demo area for example, with a more finalized graphic style, but they just didn’t go that far in at that point to apply more details to any of the levels.
The Blueprint trilogy would have revolved around a tyrant government, with the main protagonists belonging to the resistance trying to defeat them. They would partnered with an intelligent AI system which is on their eyes, cleverly named “IRIS” (Internal Retinal Information System). IRIS was the in-eye implant system that enhances the protagonists’ vision systems. It would inform them about the world, characters, data from raw in-game exposition, mission objectives and combat potential within individual fights: it was basically the game’s HUD provided via a story mechanism.
Nano was set in the near future (2043) in an open world resembling the DC and New York area, where Nanotech chips have been installed into people’s necks as form of ID and several other things. The company providing this technology to the government was called MetaCorp. They provide the government an extreme arsenal of droids that patrol the streets along with peace keepers. Examples of their technology are the barricades on some streets, giant flying droids called BullRam and Springers as well as smaller ones called TechTick. Players would join the resistance to try to take down MetaCorp and the government through various means.
In this near future dystopian New York a pair of nanotech-enhanced dissidents would search for answers and revenge as they unravel the mystery of their missing family members only to spark a revolution against the totalitarian regime. The two main playable characters were Lyrik and Owen: early in the game both would acquire Nanotech powers, a Handforge (some kind of “3D Microprinter” which lets them use nanotechnology construction technology to recreate 3D objects when needed) and the IRIS Augmented Reality Systems. Thanks to Nanotech they would improve their strength, stamina and receive amazing abilities such as phasing through gates, fences, doors, etc. With the Nanotech, you could ground pound and survive heights anyone would die from and abilities to hookshot to higher places.
Lyrik and Owen are not initially members of the rebel faction: once they join, they must earn the trust of the group and would eventually rise up the ranks to be respected “captains” of rebel operations.
Other than what was already leaked online thanks to VGLeaks, we were able to gather a few more details about the two protagonists. Owen Mackinnon was meant to be a cool-headed antihero, smarter than most, trusts few, likes fewer. Haunted by his past, Owen sees the events in DC as an opportunity to get out of debt and forget the problems in his life. His story arc would have been one of redemption and acceptance, as he comes to understand it’s ok to rely on other people, and to be relied upon. Lyrik Syverson was instead meant to be the driven idealist. She begins her story searching for family members taken from her. Intense and focussed, her personal story becomes a political one as she fights against the system – and starts winning. In the eyes of the government and MetaCorp, Lyrik is a very dangerous individual: her goal is to make the world right at any cost, and to kick the security forces out of DC.
The two main protagonists had mostly the same abilities, except Lyrik had a staff for combat and Owen a knife / swords. Both can use guns and the same abilities shown in the Samaritan demo. The game was meant to be an open world stealth game with Nanotech powers, somehow similar to titles like Infamous, Crackdown, Prototype and a bit of Assassin’s Creed. The missions would progress pretty much like in GTA: the difference is that you would have been able to hide in the crowd like Assassin’s Creed. Just like GTA, doing “illegal” actions would increase your police level called “Threat Level”.
Combat in Nano was a mix between first person and third person shooting, plus beat-em-up with energy swords and an extremely interesting way to get around the city by hacking flying cars, using energy beams to climb walls and buildings, jumping around on poles and riding energy cables. You could also use stealth to resolve missions if you wish to take that route instead. Players would have a bunch of weapons at their disposal, such as LMGs, rockets, grenade launchers, assault rifles, pistols, swords and many more. You would be able to upgrade weapons as well as your abilities, plus learning new ones or purchase blueprints for new abilities at Shops. Just like the Gears of War series, Nano was meant to be fully playable in coop, with a possible multiplayer deathmatch mode too.
We’ll never know exactly what happened to Nano, but Epic Games’s expectations for their Blueprint trilogy were very high, targeting 5+ million sales worldwide for the first chapter with an expected release in 2015, and expecting the game to win many GOTY awards for that year. The studio also wanted to create their own version of Rockstar Social Club / Battle.net to be somehow used with Blueprint, as well as some kind of mobile app for the game to be able that lets players connect to social media. We can speculate that this part of the project turned into Epic Launcher for UE4.
While there are not official reasons why the Blueprint project was never completed, it’s possible that Cliff Bleszinski’s departure from Epic in October 2012 could have put the last nail in the coffin for the game. Former Epic Games president Mike Capps also retired from the company in December 2012, just a few months after a Chinese company acquired most of their share capital. We can speculate that this sudden change of management and leaving staffers could have been fatal for an ambitious and risky project as the Blueprint trilogy, in which Epic already invested a lot of resources.
The story behind The Outsider is closely linked to David Braben, a prolific game designer, recognized as one of the most influential figures in the industry, and to the company he founded, Frontier Developments. Braben started actively working in video game development in the early eighties while still being an undergraduate at Cambridge University and delivered his first title Elite in 1984, in a joint effort with fellow university colleague Ian Bell.
Elite was published by British software house Acornsoft, which mostly specialized itself in developing educational applications for the BBC Micro and the Acorn Electron, released in 1981 and 1983 respectively for the UK market by the now defunct Acorn Computers Ltd, also based in Cambridge.
Elite was revolutionary in several regards. For one, its deep mechanics and open ended nature, a revolutionary approach in a time when games used to be intense experiences set to just take some minutes of the player’s time. But it also became widely recognized for the technology running behind, being the first title to include hidden line removal in its tridimensional engine, a crucial first step in the transition between the primitive 3D wireframes and into what the more complex rendering engines would be capable of doing in the upcoming years and decades.
After the success of Elite, Braben delivered Zarch for the Acorn Archimedes, another family of home computers and the first general-purpose line produced by Acorn. Zarch would be subsequently ported to other contemporary systems under the name of Virus. It was just after this that Braben started work on the long-anticipated sequel to his awarded title Elite, named Frontier: Elite II, as well as foundation of his own game development studio, Frontier Developments Ltd, company which still nowadays operates with Braben as its CEO.
After publishing yet another entry in the Elite series, called Frontier: First Encounters and a sequel to Virus for the PlayStation, titled V2000, Frontier was keeping a steady flow of own-produced games covering different genres and platforms. From several expansions of the Rollercoaster Tycoon main series to A Dog’s Life for PlayStation 2 and two entries in the Wallace and Gromit game series, among others.
However, the title discussed here was anticipated to be the most ambitious project Frontier had worked in so far. Announced in the E3 2005 in Los Angeles, The Outsider was an action thriller with strong sandbox roots set to take place in the city of Washington DC and some nearby real world locations, such as the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Joint Base Andrews, and the Newport News Shipbuilding, where panic and martial law has taken over after the Air Force One has been shot down. The main character, CIA operative John Jameson has been wrongly pinned with the crime and must explore the city as a fugitive, fighting back when necessary and finding the clues to clear his name; all while running away and – ideally – keeping a low profile towards police and army forces.
The game’s plot was to be heavily motivated by the fear of terrorist attacks present back then in the occidental society and was said to reflect how a single man could feel and behave after being cornered and seemingly having lost everything in life. It definitely reminds of other widely popular action thriller films and TV shows of the time, such as 24, Prison Break or the Jason Bourne series. But more on that last one later…
Just looking at the available screenshots and trailers gives the impression that the game was meant to be yet another sandbox / open world game where the player must navigate the city and fulfill a – mostly linear – set of missions; all while blowing up facilities or driving some vehicles in the process. However, Frontier’s ambitions with this game were going far beyond this. As the tagline on the British developer’s website explicitly says “(…) The Outsider stimulates characters’ motivations in an immersive, dynamic world and storyline. This gives the player genuine freedom to change the story outcomes in a way not seen before.”
The aim was to bring something closer to Elite’s openness into a different genre and offer the player a range of opportunities to explore and discover. For example, the player’s choice between a stealthy and a more brutal interaction with the environment would have led to different consequences in the story’s progress and point it into different directions. Even in-game dialogs were influenced by this pursuit of freedom, with a quite generous range of answers to choose from in conversations with NPCs, allowing the player to get different reactions from them or again, conduct the plot in different directions.
Unfortunately, the development process of The Outsider underwent some ups and downs that led to the eventual abandon it suffered, after reportedly three years of preproduction work and another two of actual development work had been invested on it. The original publisher, Codemasters dropped its support with the title very advanced in development, which caused the dismissal of around 30 Frontier employees and rendered the company unable to cope with the enormous development costs. The exact reason as to why Codemasters would suddenly drop financial support for a title almost close to completion seems to lie in an internal change of policies and realignment of priorities after purchase of the English developer and distributor by the Indian entertainment conglomerate Reliance Entertainment.
At least on paper, The Outsider was a very promising idea and this woke up the interest of Electronic Arts, company that noticed the resemblance between the game and the Jason Bourne franchise and proposed a reworking of the title to accommodate it in the Bourne universe, as from a market perspective it was safer to bet on well-known intellectual IPs rather than risking a lukewarm reaction with a new one. Sadly, this new iteration of the game did not go forward as negotiations did not fully fructify between both companies.
The Outsider has never been seen again since then, although Braben himself had stated back in 2011 that the game had been abandoned but not cancelled. A few years passed and Frontier kept themselves busy in the meantime with a hefty variety of titles, including new entries in the Roller Coaster Tycoon series, several Kinect games or the beloved Lost Winds and its sequel for Wii.
The latest first-hand information on the game came from Braben himself in declarations to Eurogamer during the Gamescom in 2014, where he stated that “it was stopped,” and “it probably is gone for good.” Considering how much The Outsider was aiming to revolutionize the story telling in games and just try to stick out from the rest of sandbox and action games, it is indeed a pity that we never got to experience David Braben and Frontier’s unique way of interactive storytelling by ourselves.
In 2014 Frontier Developments released Elite: Dangerous, the latest chapter in Braben’s space adventure series, developed thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. The game has sold almost 2 million units in 2016 and while Frontier Developments seems to keeping up their promises with Elite, we’ll still miss what could have been with The Outsider.