Mankind has all but perfected the art of thumping each other in the face from a half-mile away with .50 calibre bullets, but with Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 - City Interactive's third stab at making a game squarely about snipers - the Polish developer isn't aiming to perfect the art of simulating that. Instead, it's looking to straddle the line between fun and authentic. It's a smart move, but how exactly does it change the game? Strategy Informer spoke with Ghost Warrior 2 producer Michael Sroczynski about why murdering people from afar is so popular, balancing authenticity and fun and how CryEngine 3 has helped ease some of the former game's problems.
Strategy Informer: What is it about shooting somebody in the face from five hundred yards away that's so appealing?
Michael Sroczynski: (Laughs). It's the empowering feeling of being the hunter, I think. Because of the distance, which in the sniper's case is his advantage, at 500 yards the enemy has no idea he's about to get shot. It's your call whether to maybe let him go or take him out or give him more time to move away from his companions and so on. So I think it's the empowering feeling that's so appealing.
Strategy Informer: Is gore a big factor? A .50 cal rifle is obviously capable of some pretty horrendous things and other games have used that as a USP.
Michael Sroczynski: We didn't want to make a gory game. There were loads of ideas; exploding heads, shooting off limbs and so on. We really wanted to concentrate on, or attract gamers, with the whole sniper experience rather than just put out screenshots of guys losing their heads and limbs. There was a point where we were considering that type of stuff but we didn't want to go gory.
Strategy Informer: The problem with sniping games is, perhaps, that in 2012 patience isn't at the top of everybody's list of traits. How do you balance capturing the authenticity of being a sniper - much of which is spent kicking heels - and making the game fun to play?
Michael Sroczynski: That was a tricky one. When we started designing the first Sniper Ghost Warrior we actually said we were going to make a very realistic sniping game and it was going to be cool because snipers are cool. But then we did our homework and it came out that the sniper sits in a bush for two days just to get a phone call telling him to go home without taking a shot. So we decided we wouldn't go entirely in the realism direction, we wanted to balance fun and realism instead. So compared to your regular first-person shooter, things like the ballistics of the shot, wind strength and direction, the bullet drop and the time the bullet needs to get to the target are more important. But in real life the sniper takes care of the curve of the planet, the moisture in the air, things like that. We didn't want to go over the top, it was our goal to keep it authentic rather than realistic; make it feel right but not necessarily be exactly how it is in the real world.
Strategy Informer: Does that mean all the stuff leading up to it, finding a spot etc, has that been axed?
Michael Sroczynski: No, not at all. That's something we wanted to improve on from the first game, which was far more linear. This time round we wanted to give the player options for how they dealt with certain situations so it's up to the player to choose the sniping spot, it's up to the player if he wants to alarm the enemies and enter into a firefight using his sniper rifle or if he wants to time his shots perfectly so that he doesn't alarm the rest of the enemies. Or, of course, just sneak through the enemy camp.
Strategy Informer: Would you describe it as a stealth game?
Michael Sroczynski: The game is pretty stealthy but I wouldn't call it a stealth game exactly. Again when we were thinking about the sniper's work in the real world, taking into consideration the ballistics when taking that shot against a long distance target is one thing, but you have to get to that perfect spot first. Stealth is, in my opinion, the second biggest thing for us. So there's quite a lot of stealth and there are many stages in the game where it's smarter not to engage an enemy you come across, try to avoid contact rather than just attack everything that's moving.
Strategy Informer: How does CryEngine 3 fit into your vision for Ghost Warrior 2? What does it allow you to do that the Chrome engine didn't?
Michael Sroczynski: Well the game looks kind of okay! It's one of the most advanced gaming engines out there and we've enjoyed working with it in terms of visuals, but everything from audio to AI to bullet physics are all better. At one stage we were adjusting how the bullet drops - how much we wanted the bullet to drop - but we couldn't just say 'okay, after a hundred yards the bullet drops X' we actually had to lower the speed of the bullet. So the physics are quite advanced which allows for authentic ballistics.
Strategy Informer: You mention the AI, which was one of the weaker parts of the original game. How has that improved this time round?
Michael Sroczynski: We rebuilt the AI for CryEngine 3 and it supports some really cool behaviors. This time around the enemies won't be able to shoot headshots from the hip from a kilometre away. Now they act more naturally when in a fight with a sniper, using cover to shorten the distance and so on. They can still be deadly, because obviously an assault rifle could do lots of damage as well, but they have to be in range first.
Strategy Informer: You've written on the site that the story has been penned by acclaimed writers, is there more of a focus on story in Ghost Warrior 2 than the first game?
Michael Sroczynski: We really wanted to improve the story compared to the first one where it was more like a generic shooter story. We're still after an organisation about to deal in biochemical weapons, but we wanted to concentrate more on the character himself. That's why we built the different types of environment so we can tell the story. So there are the modern-day environments where the main mission objective takes place, but in the middle of the game we flashback to 1983 where our sniper works with a totally different crew. He's not involved directly in the siege of Sarajevo at the time but he's there on a cover operation. I don't want to spoil too much but not everybody is who they seem and that has a big influence on his decisions in the modern missions.
Strategy Informer: Do you think it's important that the player can perhaps relate to the character and it's not just a case of moving through the environment shooting people all the time?
Michael Sroczynski: Yes and I think that's something that's much stronger this time.
Strategy Informer: How does the multiplayer differ this time? Last time out it was deathmatch.
Michael Sroczynski: We have deathmatch and team deathmatch and again the multiplayer is sniper orientated so each player is a sniper.
Strategy Informer: It's an inherent problem with multiplayer shooters that everybody with a sniper rifle tends to head for either the high ground or the corner of the map and then sit down. How have you tackled that?
Michael Sroczynski: We changed the system of keeping the campers out of the bushes. In the first game it showed you from which direction the enemy shot. It didn't show you the distance so you sort of knew where to look but it didn't tell you where exactly the enemy was. This time around we don't give any information to the player, they have their minimap and the only time the player sees someone on the minimap is when an enemy doesn't act stealthily. So if you try to sprint or jump or take a shot you blip up on the minimap for a bit. That way, you can camp in a bush however long you want but the moment you take that shot you'd better change position. So that keeps the campers moving.
Strategy Informer: Have you found that players do that less now?
Michael Sroczynski: Yeah, this solution definitely changes how the games play. Even if somebody is waiting for a hint of where anybody else can be - for a shot or a bullet trace or muzzle flash - the moment somebody takes a shot he's instantly shown on the minimap so you can be sure somebody out there will be after you. It's best to take the shot and then calmly change position. Knowing and being aware of your surroundings is very important to that, so that's an addition to the system.