Blacksite from Midway is being released later this year and has its hands full trying to fight off a barrage of high profile first-person shooters. We caught up with Harvey Smith, Creative Director on the game, to discuss what sets the alien-themed game apart from its rivals.
Pro-G: For Blacksite, what were the goals you wanted to achieve?
Harvey Smith: Goal number one was to make a fun, fast-paced shooter. Most of the games I've worked on have been hybrids of some sort, with RPG elements (as with Deus Ex) or some radical new tech (like voice communication in FireTeam). Secondary goals involved interesting use of squad, interesting use of breakables for tactical purposes, our squad morale AI, and co-op gameplay. All things I love. However, I'm also fascinated by small towns. Especially dying small towns. Who hasn't wanted to run through the streets of a mostly-empty town at night? And I'm also furious with the leaders of my country... there are so many bad things happening right now in terms of loss of civil rights, the application of military force, the undermining of science, and the general corruption of government by monopolistic or furtive financial forces.
So Blacksite does a lot of things. It's a fast-paced "thrill-ride" FPS, set in small US towns. The player is surrounded by a chatty Delta Force squad (who sometimes panic). The game's fiction is really subversive and the environments ooze atmosphere. One of my core values could be described as "alternation of gameplay," which is why some of our missions are based around vehicles, some are on foot, two are rail shooters, some are indoors, some outdoors, and at least one involves you on the ground alone, with an ally up in a chopper, firing at the targets you "paint." Another one of my goals was "polish." I admire developers who ship games with great sound, great lighting, fast frame rates and good storytelling.
Pro-G: With the video game industry dominated by first-person shooters is it not a risk to enter such a saturated area of the market?
HS: Probably, but I love shooters and RPGs. So I've spent most of my 14 years as a game designer making shooters and RPGs.
Pro-G: Did you use any films/books as inspiration for the game?
HS: When Children of Men came out, I'd say it moved the needle in terms of atmosphere and vibe. Also, movies like Three Kings or Blackhawk Down were influential to our team.
Pro-G: Lots of first-person shooters these days are trying to offer a deeper experience as opposed to the traditional run and gun shooter of the past. Where does Blacksite fit in?
HS: Well, I've got some experience with that... But there's something to be said for purity. Taken together, there's plenty of depth in the game... Blacksite is definitely a shooter, with a squad, squad morale, vehicles, non-standard locations, iconoclastic fiction, and our breakables system.
Pro-G: On-foot action is one thing, but vehicles add some fast-paced excitement to proceedings. What will Blacksite deliver in this area?
HS: I think driving is inherently fun, when the vehicle physics are tuned correctly. We've got driving missions where you can occasionally get out and explore some small location. We've got driving missions where helicopters harass you, lots of jumps and turret-top action.
Pro-G: The on-rails sections look spectacular and are great fun. Do these controlled gameplay scenarios allow you to do more?
HS:I've never worked on a rail shooter. I said, "If we're going to do a couple of these, let's go for best-of-breed". I'm happily surprised by how fun they are. People reacted really well to the helicopter rail shooter. No one has seen the humvee rail shooter in the Iraq missions yet. I think it's even better.
Pro-G: Co-op play is a big draw for gamers, especially in first-person shooters. What can you do with a friend in Blacksite?
HS: We've got some stuff that we're saving to announce closer to ship. But co-op is a blast. There's a special difficulty setting that makes it challenging but thrilling.
Pro-G: Additionally, online competitive play is almost essential in an FPS. Are you doing anything here that hasn't been seen in other online shooters?
HS: Our competitive multiplayer is traditional in many ways, by design. But our Abduction mode, where the team sizes change constantly, is really interesting. Shooting it out in a trailer park is more fun than most people would imagine.
Pro-G: Games based outside of reality can be extremely creative in their visuals. Even though Blacksite appears to be entirely based on Earth, has the alien theme allowed the designers to be inventive?
HS: That's one of the great art fallacies, I think. People tend to think that games can't be visually inventive unless you're in the belly of an alien whale or in some alternate dimension made of already-chewed gum. In trying to hit the small town atmosphere, we've had a lot of fun. Middle of the night, standing alone in the street under a blinking traffic light. Very cool.
Pro-G: And the Unreal Engine 3 must have helped?
HS: Unreal is amazing. Gears of War might be the best art-directed game ever. We learned a lot from that.
Pro-G: In terms of new technology in the game, the destructible objects look like they'll add more than just eye candy...
HS: The destructibles are much more than eye-candy. We feature a few vanity objects, like a statue that breaks into 30 pieces, but mostly we use the destructibles for combat cover. It's really cool when the world is flying apart around you. You might see an enemy in the distance duck behind a concrete pillar, then hit it with a sniper rifle, blowing a chunk out, exposing his head for your next quick shot. It's really expressive in terms of tactical gameplay.
Pro-G: How have you found working across the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, in what I'm guessing is your first next-gen product?
HS: We really stumbled working on the tech for my last game, Invisible War. But it was next-gen, but a few years too early. That was a mistake and it really robbed the environments of their scope, object density, ambient life and depth in general. All of which I considered critical for Deus Ex, the game I made right before Invisible War. So I got burned, more or less, by biting off too much technologically. Blacksite utilizes that next-gen tech in much smarter ways.
Pro-G: Finally, for gamers that are perhaps already writing off Blacksite due to the number of great looking shooters arriving later this year, why should they be less hasty?
HS: We're fast and sexy and optimized for fun. Always bet on black.
Pro-G: Thanks for your time.