2009 seems destined to go down as the year of the military sandbox shooter simulation. Well, that and the year of the fighting game. And the year of the triple-A delay. Ah screw it. Let's just say that by the end of 2009 we'll have seen two milisims, as they're called, released. Bohemia Interactive's Arma 2 is already out, and jolly good it is too. Now it's Codemasters' turn with Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Here, in an interview with senior game designer Tim Browne and art director Mike Smith, we learn why it's the thinking man's shooter and what the team really think of Bohemia's game.
VideoGamer.com: The game seems unashamedly hardcore at a time when most first-person shooters aren't.
Tim Browne: I know my demonstration was, unfortunately, I did die few too many times!
Mike Smith: You were crap!
VideoGamer.com: I don't know if you were crap. The game looks pretty hard.
TB: One of the things about the game, and it's something that we've been focusing on over the last two months, is balancing and the AI. Everything else, other than a bit of polish on the graphics, is there, and for the last two months we've been working on it and we're getting very close now. That build you just saw was about a week old, so things are even better now.
Now, it's very difficult to talk and show off things at the same time as playing. Like I said I was trying to show more of the mission in a short space of time. Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is definitely your thinking man's shooter. It's got lots of action in, it's got loads of explosions, loads of weapons and loads of vehicles, but it's more about the tactical side than just being John Rambo.
Unfortunately as you saw a couple of times I didn't really wait to check certain places were clear of enemies and ran into a hail of bullets. But we're very proud of keeping the whole one bullet can kill you ethos. Unfortunately I didn't get to show you the damage system. The damage system allows for you to take wounds where you're just bleeding, or just light wounds as if the bullet has grazed you, so you're very slightly wounded and it only affects you slightly.
MS: Tim got shot in the head from quite close range because he wasn't paying attention to what was going on during his presentation. But the way generally people play the game is they first run in expecting it to be like other shooters and stuff, and then they get shot in the head quite quickly. You kind of go, right, I get this. It takes a little while sometimes, like a couple of play-throughs where you die a few times. It kind of twigs. People think about it a little more. They use binoculars to see where the enemy are. As Tim said it's the thinking man's game. It's got much more depth than a lot of other first-person shooters, especially around at the moment.
We think that people are crying out for that. There's been so many games where, come down this way we'll show you a big scripted sequence, come round this corner. This really opens up. You've got this massive island. You can go pretty much anywhere you want. It's going to click. People are going to think, my objective's there - I could go completely all the way around and get a different take on it. I don't have to follow this prescribed route.
But, for people who are so into their tunnel shooters we hold their hands quite a bit. We've got an RV system - you might have seen those little yellow flags? They're basically a visual aid to take you through a route through the mission. So people who are like, oh I'm a bit lost, there's all this world, I'm not sure where to go, playing on normal difficulty, which is our easy mode, we hold your hand and say, go here, go here and go here. We hope we've got enough accessibility in there and we've spent a lot of time recently on this to make sure that we introduce people to it and they get it and then give them enough time to get comfortable with the game.
TB: One of the things is we do allow the player to turn off the RV system at any time. It's not on on hardcore. It is on on normal and experienced, but you can turn it off. Like I said, not everyone is au fait with military tactics, so we're giving players an idea of where to go. Because this game is a sandbox tactical shooter, you can attack an objective from 360 degrees. We let the player choose how to attack. We give them tools to do it, like an anti-tank javelin missile, but they can choose to use it early on in the mission or later on. You don't know what's going to turn up.
The other thing is, our missions aren't linear. It's almost like a puzzle game at times. There are multiple different tactics you can use. Some will work brilliantly, some won't work brilliantly, and some will just fail. We don't tell the player what they are because, really, we don't know exactly what they are. The AI decides where to go.
MS: I think that's a very important aspect actually. The AI plays out differently depending on what you do each time. We don't have scripted moments. We don't trigger an event when the player gets to a certain area or anything like that. It's the AI deciding what to do all the time. There's a huge amount of replayability. You could take a different route. You could act in a different way and the AI might just fall back because you scare them. There's so much complexity in there that I think when people go back to playing a standard tunnel FPS, they're going to feel hemmed in. They're like, what? I want to go around that hedge! It really opens your eyes. Once you've been playing this for a while and you play something else, it's like, wow!
VideoGamer.com: What competitive multiplayer features will the game support?
TB: There is competitive multiplayer. We have two different modes. One is called Annihilation, and that is kind of different areas around the main island map. We've chosen some choke points where it's basically big engagements and lots of people fighting.
And then there's Infiltration, which is a very cool mode where you either choose to play as the United States Marine Corp on a smaller sized team, so there's only ten people in that - there's three fire teams, a sniper team, and two spec ops teams - and they have an objective to get in and destroy. However they've got to play against 22 PLA, so it's an unbalanced but balanced game mode. They can choose whatever tactics they want. It's quite good. It's something we've been playing a lot recently at work, testing balancing, that kind of thing. It's great fun because there are so many different tactics you can use - again, 360 degree map.
VideoGamer.com: How many players is that in total?
TB: On console it's eight players on both modes. On PC it's 32 players. The console game won't suffer from lack of people though. We're so proud of the advanced AI we've got in the game, that's in the game you play on console.
VideoGamer.com: So it makes up the numbers with AI bots?
TB: Absolutely. You still have 32 people playing at the same time; just some of them are AI. That allows players to come in and either be on the same fire team, or say the three of us are playing, you come in on one fire team, you'll be a fire team leader, I'll be a fire team leader, he'll be a fire team leader, so we've got entire fire teams below us. You also have the squad leader.
We are planning on DLC in the future. That's about all we're saying. We're not just giving people the game and going that's it, we're off doing something else. We fully appreciate the support the community has given us, and so we're going to be supporting the community for a long time to come with Dragon Rising while developing additional products.
VideoGamer.com: What's the latest on the mission editor? As far as I'm aware it's PC only. Is there any chance it might come to the console versions as well?
TB: It's something we made a decision about a long time ago when we realised how difficult it was on the console. Never say never, but it's a very tricky point. We're very proud of the fact that we're releasing the game simultaneously on PC and console, which obviously the original title didn't do - it took a long time before it came to the console market.
In that respect, yep, it is a bit of a niggly point that the console gamers are annoyed with. Unfortunately it's something we can't do anything about at the moment. But never say never.
MS: The key thing with this iteration is it's the first one we've developed obviously. We've got the EGO tech we've leveraged to do this. Obviously we had to change it quite a bit to achieve this level of sophistication. It's such a big streaming world. We really wanted to make sure that the core experience is really solid. We ploughed all our time into that. The core infantry experience is as good as we can get it. It's as close to war anyone can get. Future kind of stuff? We've got loads of cool ideas.
The PC mission editor is the exact same one our guys used to generate missions. It's very strong. It's easy to just jump in there and put some stuff down. It's got an immensely powerful back end. So, leveraging all that on console would have been an absolutely monumental task. We wanted to concentrate on the game and making it top notch.
VideoGamer.com: Do you see the Operation Flashpoint brand as one that could be turned into a franchise? Perhaps not yearly updates like Call of Duty, but perhaps every two years?
TB: 100 per cent. Codemasters have put a lot of time, effort, money, blood, sweat and tears into Operation Flashpoint, so it would be foolish to release it and then that's it. We've got a very big community following. We're hoping that's going to get even bigger with the release of Dragon Rising. It's a product that Codemasters is very proud of. So yeah, it's pretty easy to assume that Operation Flashpoint is here to stay. We can't say any more on that.
MS: We can do so much with the technology we've got.
TB: Yeah. There are so many different locations and conflicts and things we could do with Flashpoint. It's not as if we don't have a huge amount of things to choose from.
VideoGamer.com: So maybe in a couple of year's time we might see another Operation Flashpoint game?
TB: Who knows?
MS: Wait and see!
VideoGamer.com: I can't not ask about ArmA 2. Have you guys played it?
TB: I had a bit of a look at it. We've been rather busy trying to finish Dragon Rising so we haven't had half the amount of time we would have liked to play on it.
VideoGamer.com: The game's out now. From what you've seen, what do you think?
TB: Me personally, I think the game's interesting. It's got some very fun things in it. It's a different game to what Dragon Rising's all about. After playing it I'm pretty happy with the decisions we've made on what we're doing with our game. Would you agree?
MS: Yeah I think that's pretty much spot on. It's interesting what they're doing. I'm very proud of what we've done with Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising.
VideoGamer.com: So you think there's enough difference between the two games for people to be able to distinguish between the two games?
MS: It comes from the core game experience. Someone picking up and playing our game, even if they're not a milisim head, or if they are, I think they'll connect with ours quicker. We've spent a lot of time making sure accessibility is paramount.
TB: A lot of people have said you're either going to choose Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising or ArmA 2. I totally disagree. Why go for one over another?
VideoGamer.com: Money, I guess. Some people can't afford both.
TB: True, but we are releasing several months after Armed Assault. It's one of those things. There's room on the shelves for both titles, as far as I'm concerned.
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is due out for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 on October 9.