Without Warning

It's been 18 months since Adrian Smith upped sticks from Core Design, took half the development team with him, moved a quarter of a mile up the road and, along with brother Jeremy, set up Circle Studio.

Since then the team at Circle has been busy working on its opening gambit - third-person terrorist shooter Without Warning - and, as Smith explained when we visited the Derby-based developer, it knew exactly what was required from its flagship title.

"It was quite an easy decision for us that the first game should be something that would tick all the right boxes for a publisher and that they could understand. So we started Without Warning."

Certainly this pragmatic approach seems to have paid off: Without Warning is the first game from a European developer to be signed by the traditionally Japanese-centric Capcom. However, the team's first post-Tomb Raider project is by no means an exercise in identikit gaming.

The events in Without Warning unravel along a 12-hour timeline that ticks from 8pm to 8am and the way the storyline has been structured has a fundamental symmetry with edge-of-the-seat TV drama 24, a fact that Smith himself acknowledges.

"The strongest link to 24 is that we're trying to base it around time and give people the notion of time, which doesn't normally happen in videogames," he says. "Also, the multi-threaded story involves each character doing something different, but they're all sort of dependant on one another."

To fully exploit the timeline idea, Circle has included six playable characters - three Special Forces soldiers and three civilians - with the action switching between them at scripted points.

Because these jumps aren't always sequential, character paths often intersect in the story, providing multiple perspectives of events. One minute you can be engaged in an intense firefight on the ground and the next you can be high up on a gantry watching the same skirmish you were involved in moments before.

Conceptually it's a great idea and should work well in practice, thanks largely to the action taking place in and around one environment: a chemical plant seized by terrorists somewhere on the west coast of America.

Certainly a chemical plant is the perfect backdrop for a game - the sprawling facility offers a variety of areas, taking in offices, docks, treatment plants and a train terminal, and also provides all the hazardous and highly combustible objects that you could wish for.

Smith also outlines the main benefits that setting the action within a single location has from a development point of view, especially when compared to the globetrotting exploits of a certain intrepid explorer.

"With Tomb Raider we always had to move Lara from location to location and, as daft as it sounds, it was quite hard to do. As well as the story having to link all the bits together, it also required a lot of assets."

Upon playing Without Warning, additional benefits become apparent in terms of level design. The very nature of such a facility lends itself perfectly to shepherding the player along a designated path - a fact that Smith doesn't make any apologies for.

"It is a linear game. It's driven from point to point and I don't think that's a bad thing. The whole 3D wandering thing is fantastic for the type of game that warrants it, but Without Warning doesn't warrant it."

And we'd have to agree. Aimless exploring would simply interrupt the action and disrupt the explosive ebb and flow, which is really what Without Warning is all about - carefully guiding the player from one set-piece to the next, whether it's terminating terrorists, diffusing bombs or rescuing hostages.

As it is, Without Warning promises to fulfil exactly what it sets out to achieve - it's an accessible, ballsy and ballistic blast-'em-up that, while relying on a host of conventional gaming mechanics, feels distinctly different thanks to its unique approach to storytelling.

Perhaps more importantly for Smith and his team, Without Warning should also help to establish Circle as a credible Brit developer that is perfectly happy living life without Lara.

Without Warning will be released for PS2 and Xbox in autumn 2005