Recently, we had a chance to sit down with Adam Gregerson, managing director of Sirius games and the lead designer of Escape from Paradise City. He took us through a build of the first few levels of the game, where we had a chance to go hands on with the upcoming RPG strategy hybrid. Due out next month, Escape from Paradise City is the spiritual successor to Gangland, a 2004 release with lofty goals, but that just simply fell short of the target. Escape From Paradise City is a similar style of game, however it's core gameplay has changed in such a way that overcome many of the flaws that plagued Gangland.

The premise of the game is a little cliche as you are a criminal sent to work by the NSA to infiltrate a criminal organization - think of it as an easy way to avoid a ten by ten cell for the next twenty-five years to life. Throughout the sixteen chapter single player campaign you'll switch between three characters, each with their own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. You'll start out as a practical nobody, and by taking over neighborhoods and making yourself known, you'll move up thought the criminal food chain and eventually go face-to-face with the big kahuna himself.

Every area in the city you play in contains a number of neighborhoods. As to be expected the levels are small to begin with and quickly get larger in both size and scope. Each neighborhood in the city has attributes, money, trait points, and power value. In addition you'll find that each offers a number of "services", such as henchmen, arms dealers, and skills trainers to name a few. You'll also find a handful of quest-givers in each area offering you a series of sub quests (protection, item retrieval, etc), that reward you with items that you can't get anywhere else.

Each neighborhood also has a boss who takes care of business, to capture a neighborhood you need to defeat the neighborhood boss. After he surrenders, you've then got to ensure that he moves through the area safely to inform the locals of the new kahuna in town, after which he comes to work for you. Capturing a neighborhood gives you those attributes, notably the trait points which can be used to purchase new skills, as well as any power skills associated with the neighborhood (as discussed later).

The tech tree is broken down into various categories depending on the character in which you are playing. Porter is a very hands-on character, with some leadership attributes; his tech tree emphasizes more of the marksmanship and combat roles. Boris on the other hand is the complete opposite, his tech tree is very leadership oriented and much less on combat - he relies on other people to get the job done. This is an essential part of the game, with the proper leadership training you can establish a following of gangers to help defend your neighborhoods or attack adjacent neighborhoods, and as you capture these areas you'll receive further points to put towards your tech tree. This is the direct link between the RTS and RPG genres; capture an area and allocate those points towards additional skills for your character. And while the idea of traits isn't new, how you obtain them is a somewhat unique approach.

Where Paradise City differs from traditional RPGs is after you spend the trait points to obtain the level required for a skill, you still need to purchase the skill from a skill trainer. All traits in Escape from Paradise City are passive skills. For example, recovery gives you both a defense bonus and unlocks skills which become available via a skills trainer. For simplicity, every skill trainer can teach every skill. There was discussion as to allowing only certain trainers to offer specific skills, however this simply added another level of abstraction to an already deep strategy game.

Escape from Paradise City also has the notion of Power Skills. These are god-like skills which are available at any time and are more environmental based then traditional skills. Accessible via a menu in the top left, power skills play a vital role in your success in the game. They can provide reconnaissance, backup, or a quick escape from a battle gone wrong. An example, the satellite scan allows you to scope out surrounding areas, and plan a more tactical approach to eliminating the resistance. Another power skill allows you to call a vehicle, to make a quick escape. Other skills include the ability to plant a car bomb, launch a poison attack on a part of the city, call in an assassin or a sniper, or simply use friends in high places to call in an air strike. The game offers this wide variety of power skills that will prove useful, and essential, in successfully capturing Paradise City.

The game offers two different vantage points which will affect how you play; street mode and strategy mode. In strategy mode, you can move the camera freely around the world, pan, zoom, rotate, and check out the other neighborhoods in an isometric view. From here you can direct the character via point and click of the mouse. In street mode, it's more of the Grand Theft Auto perspective, a third person view where you move the character around like an action game. The mode you prefer will influence your style of play, each has their strengths and weaknesses (for example, in street mode you can strafe while being fired upon to avoid getting shot). However, you'll likely find yourself using the strategy perspective, as this game just feels more natural in that mode.

Combat in Escape from Paradise City is not a traditional action-model; it's more of a strategic-combat system and is different depending on which vantage point you choose to play. Described by the producer as being inspired from the World of Warcraft model of combat, the game allows you to select a type of attack or trait, and then right click on a target to attack the enemy. Each skill helps the attack in a different way, for example a legshot attack may cripple an opponent quickly and can prove quite useful. You can also combine skills for a more effective attack. An example being the combination of a legshot and burst assault; you can quickly cripple an entire group of enemies. The main difference between combat in the two vantage points is that it's easier in the strategy mode, however the street mode offers more flexibility and more freedom to move, thus making you more difficult to hit.

One of the biggest complaints with Gangland was the feeling that the city was simply devoid of life, the developers have really taken Escape from Paradise City to the other extreme. The streets are bustling with traffic, and this is a very detailed and gritty world - you'll feel like you're in the worst parts of L.A. The detail is quite outstanding; seamless day and night transitions, moving clouds, weather (notably rain) effects, and even the shadows on the ground move as time passes. Visuals are easily one of the strongest elements of the game, as the screenshots really don't do it justice.

In terms of multiplayer, the game offers up an eight player setup that emphasizes team play. Two modes are present, the first is assassination, where the goal is to kill the other team's bosses a specific number of times, and the second mode is domination, in essence to conquer the other safe houses in the city. While I didn't get to go hands-on with the multiplayer due to a few technical issues with the network and the game, the content that is present seems like is good extension of the single-player mode, but nothing I can see really taking away the emphasis of the single player experience.

One added touch I've come across is the sense of humor you'll find in the game may give you a good chuckle, notably some of the creative names and comments littered throughout the tech trees. An example is with Porter, one of his high-level skills is entitled Bloody Mess, and described as "knowing who to hit is not always as interesting as knowing where to hit". Another example is the "friends in high places" skill of Boris, which gives you half-price air strikes, among other benefits. Here's to hoping this sense of humor sees it through to the final release.

While it may look like a GTA clone at first glance, the resemblance really ends there - this is a strategy game through and through. All played in real-time, is has a combat system inspired from World of Warcraft, and a good blend of various genres. Simply put, it's quite different from anything I'd ever seen before. Now, if you're just looking for your next GTA fix, look elsewhere for this is a deep strategy game rather then your standard run-and-gun shooter. On the other hand, if you enjoyed Gangland, then you'll really enjoy Escape from Paradise City. If you though the premise of Gangland was good but stuttered on execution, then it may be worth checking this one out when it ships next month.