Legendary: The Box Hands-On Preview

When the generic heavy metal kicks in during Legendary: The Box's opening CG sequence, you know you're playing a video game. But soon after this cliched clip, you're in control and fleeing from swarms of griffins through the streets of New York while powerful beams pummel the ground, their points of contact becoming epicenters for visible shockwaves that throw cars skyward, create rifts in the city streets, and cause buildings to crumble. A first-person shooter from the ex-Medal of Honor developers Spark Unlimited, Legendary seems to emulate shooters both uninspired and innovative, though from the gameplay sections I sampled, the mixture of influences unfortunately leans more heavily toward the former.

The game's first overly standard element comes from the story, casting you as an unwitting thief persuaded by a surely clandestine group known as The Black Order into opening the mythical Pandora's Box. Unleashing all the world's evils in the form of mythical beasts like griffins, minotaurs, and wolf-like creatures called "limos," the box also grants you some powers after branding your hand with what the game refers to as a signet. To restore order, you're forced to side with an equally mysterious group of secret-keepers known as The Council in battling both the Black Order and the various beasts who now roam the world.

Following the heavy metal intro depicting your character opening the box comes a disaster movie-like gameplay sequence that was undoubtedly the most impressive part of my preview. "First it's wonder, then surprise, then shock, and then run like hell," Legendary producer John Garcia-Shelton told me in describing the game's first chapter. "We're now in the 'run like hell' part." While I'm not sure I detected the entire range of emotions Garcia-Shelton described, the running like hell part was certainly tangible.

Fleeing down rupturing roadways as screaming pedestrians were siphoned up toward the darkening heavens or snatched up by griffins and seeing cars thrown about like toys felt terribly immersive, despite the linearity of the gameplay segment. It was easy to see the developer's war shooter influences in some of this level's aspects--the destructive world-ending shockwaves of Legendary replacing a World War II shooter's constant mortars--but Spark certainly did a great job conveying the chaos of the situation in this interactive segment.

While having a level like this start off the gameplay seems promising, it certainly wasn't indicative of the rest of the game's levels. The other gameplay portion I previewed was a level later in the game that played like a fairly derivative shooter save for a few noteworthy elements. You progressed through a pretty linear and unremarkable path while carrying your standard shooter loadout, meandering through some dilapidated buildings along the way while shooting Black Order soldiers and various beasties. Spark told me they wanted to show off the monster AI in this segment, which was neat, but nothing spectacular. The wolf-like limos clamored over the outsides of buildings, entering windows or leaping wildly about. They were harder to kill than soldiers, as some of the armed foes didn't even return fire, but the creatures weren't especially intelligent.

The game tries halfheartedly to implement a you vs. soldiers vs. monsters mechanic similar to Propaganda's upcoming Turok reimagining. In standard gameplay portions, the monsters will indeed engage in battle with enemy soldiers and vice versa. But unlike the dino-hunting title, you aren't given the opportunity to actively pit the groups against each other outside of scripted moments. For instance, you can choose to shoot the lock on a beast-holding cage and let the limo loose on a few soldiers or kill the soldiers yourself, but there's not really a way you can manipulate the beasts or soldiers to attack each other in standard gameplay situations. I'm hoping chaotic segments similar to the first level's appear more often in the game than Spark showed me, as that segment skillfully masked the linearity of the level with dynamic progression, whereas the later level had its confining course laid bare.

Yet another game featuring a character's magical hand, your signet-branded palm gives you the ability to finish off beasts by siphoning off their life force, called "animus," and using this to heal yourself. This was the only power my character had at this point, and seemed fairly ancillary.

Despite my mostly underwhelming impressions, there were several in-game elements and areas I didn't see which sounded promising. Spark said the story would be told through a combination of cutscenes, interactive gameplay, downloaded PDA data, and in-game dialogue. If Spark implements the other interactive storytelling mechanics well, it could certainly bolster the title's immersiveness, despite having several canned cutscenes. Garcia-Shelton stressed that Spark wanted to make sure action-oriented gamers weren't "overburdened with a narrative," though I can't see why non-playable cutscenes would burden gamers less than a story told during gameplay.

At several weeks away from an alpha build, the game was still at a fairly rough state when I saw it, with its visuals a combination of mildly impressive environments, choppy framerate, and some less-than-perfect character models. The title will also feature a multiplayer mode, which Spark hasn't revealed much on, other than saying it will include the game's monsters. The title doesn't ship until June, so the developers should have time to clean it up substantially by then, and hopefully deliver on emphasizing more of the title's strong points.

Legendary: The Box is slated for a June 2008 release on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.