Is it casual? Is it hardcore? Is it...both?
Despite the fact that the console and handheld war has been going on for a year now, the only truly successful things that next-gen developers have produced are games with next-gen graphics and interface. There has not really been a game that featured next-gen game design to go with these new methods. It's still just the same game design formulas across the consoles -- still the same setup for delivering plots in an FPS, still the same play times for huge levels. Even the Wii, which radically changed the way people interface with games, is still just using casual mini-games in its big hits. The hardcore themes of long complex play times versus the casual theme of short bursts of fun are still the two dominant formulas.
Yet a curious new development has begun to form in the way people are making games for the casual and hardcore audiences. Like a Pixar movie with adult humor laced into a children's setting, developers have started creating a new genre of video games to appeal to fans of both genres. Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice has managed to deliver a game that fits into this new genre by using core gameplay elements to create a casual gaming experience.
So how do you make a game for a new genre that will appeal to both casual and hardcore players? The casual gamer market may have an incessant infatuation with assembling colored gems and bowling, but it's important to remember that a lot of these players are ex-core gamers themselves. Many of them spent their youths whittling away at digital obstacles and don't mind a complex controller or deep game design. On the other hand, their appetite for overcoming extreme difficulty has abated a bit and they aren't liable to feel good about spending hours trying to beat a game either. Alex Macris, CEO of the Themis Group and Publisher of ‘The Escapist' magazine, noted in a lecture at the Carolina Games Summit that casual and core gamers actually spend roughly the same amount of time playing video games. What's different is that a casual gamer does not play for a sense of fulfillment or satisfaction by beating a tough obstacle, they are there to kill time.
Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice adapts to this with great effect by making each game mission clock in at about 6 or so minutes, so that the average play session consists of two or three missions before you're getting off the train or heading back to work. The difficulty can be set to the aptly named 'Casual' setting, yet the game still provides a few missions that will take multiple tries. It effectively applies the idea of not just using different controls or graphics, but actually playing a game differently -- but somehow, it still manages to come across as a hardcore title.
Like the audience it's appealing to, the game design of Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice is a bit of a hybrid in that it takes the concept of a compilation of countless mini-games and strings them into a coherent whole. If you took the design of a racing game, applied Grand Theft Auto-style car stealing, and threw in some guns for good measure, you would come up with the central car portions of the game. These levels generally consist of chasing down fleeing thugs, leaping onto cars, and gunning down their occupants. Sometimes you have a really short amount of time to do this, sometimes you have to ram stuff, and sometimes you're just racing against the clock. There are also mini-games featuring rail shooting sessions, a few sniper rifle sessions, and a great deal of effort is spent combining all these mini-games together to create missions.
Criticizing the graphics of handheld systems feels a little bit like yelling at someone for their crayon drawing not being realistic enough, but this game shows the processing power off nicely through excellent art direction. Each side has its own unique brand of vehicles that do a good job of representing the factions driving them. The Redneck Raiders all sport junky cars that look like something out of Mad Max while the elite Syndicate forces all drive Porsches and fancy motorcycles. Other gangs all have their own unique stylized cars, along with a wide host of civilian vehicles to dodge to give you some idea of the attention to detail this game utilizes. This attention is even more cleverly realized in each level of the game. Levels will have you racing through malls, across a golf course, through Alpine towns, Bayous, and other fun locales. Whether it's a few shopping carts tucked in a corner, some carefully placed sand traps, or the change in tree types to the pines that make-up the Sierra mountains, the game puts a lot of effort into tiny details to make the levels immersive to blast through. There is some overlap of replaying the same areas but the game does generally take place in one "Quasi-California" location so it's not as if it's stretching your senses to think you'd drive around the same area.
There are plenty of options for those who'd like to ramp up the difficulty. There's even a multiplayer that's good for a few laughs and you can replay missions to improve your time as well. But frankly, it feels like all those features are an afterthought and don't have much appeal when you could instead be playing a smooth, fun game of constant variety and entertainment. When you fire up Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice and think, "Okay, I'll just play for ten minutes," it's actually a viable promise. You won't get sucked into some lengthy mission that you have to pause before running to work. At the same time it's a video game that can still be played by an ex-core gamer without forcing them into a Bejeweled-esque hell of mindless colored brick swapping. It is the first game that I can actually say features what may become the template for next-gen game design. The high speed chases, quick gun battles, and huge variety of vehicles all make Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice one of the most casual hardcore games yet made.