The last Operation Flashpoint game was interesting, but sadly flawed. The big open worlds, the sand-box approach to the mission objectives, and the inflated realism mixed in with high-paced action - all sounded great in theory, but a poor online population , dodgy AI and a myriad of other bugs and nuisances just brought it all down. Red River, the sequel, hopes to blow all of that out of the water. We sat down with Executive Producer Adam Parsons to find out how.
Strategy Informer:What would you say were the biggest 'lessons' that you took from Dragon Rising that you wanted to improve for Red River?
Adam Parsons: You can’t be everything to all people! We felt Dragon Rising over-stretched and therefore fell short in several key areas. This resulted in making Red River a much tighter, more focussed experience.
As a business we have to balance what we can do against time and budget, like any other developer, and still present a game that engages and resonates with our target audience. We took stock of where Dragon Rising’s successful co-op formula worked, and identified the areas we wanted to improve, responding to critical feedback, internal focus testing and information taken from the community.
Making our game more accessible whilst ensuring we maintain the core values that make Flashpoint unique was key for us, i.e. We wanted to remain authentic whilst appealing to players of more traditional first person shooters, who yearn for a more challenging and cerebral type of experience.
To lower the barriers to entry for players who haven’t experienced a game like Red River, we’ve added more assists to the newer player. These can be toggled on or off, and in higher difficulty settings they’re off by default. This means we keep the hardcore players in a zone they’re conditioned to whilst helping new players to find their feet and understand the game’s subtleties.
Some of these are features like the ThreatHaze. This was a feature we’ve been hoping to get in to support the threat radar, showing enemy last known position as a red haze, whilst known positions are displayed as red markers. To clarify if the enemy is down and incapacitated we change the colour accordingly to amber. This allows the player to prioritise who he addresses first in combat, and with much more exacting enemy accuracy compared to a standard FPS this is incredibly important. Tied together with three levels of aim assist, streamlined command radial, one button healing and slot-based inventory we made great progress on concentrating on gameplay rather than battling with controls.
Strategy Informer:Why did you choose to the set that game in a real country - in this case Tajikistan, as opposed to another fictional location like Dragon Rising's Skira?
Adam Parsons:Flashpoint players expect an immersive, believable military backdrop to the game’s story, and Tajikistan was a perfect fit for the tale we wanted to tell. In our near-future fiction the US has made great strides in Afghanistan, whilst neighbouring Tajikistan collapses from the inside. With the US and China are both anxious about the impact of this unrest, they both look to enter the country and quell the country’s insurgency before it threatens their own interests in the region. This brings them perilously close to each other, in a live warzone.
Tajikistan’s geography is varied and interesting and a great fit for the type of combat featured in Flashpoint. Having a real location enabled us to commission a photographer to gather reference, something that was far too dangerous for the team to do! The imagery we received back showed really varied architecture and in many places, beautiful vistas, which is something our engine can handle very nicely.
Strategy Informer:What improvements have you made to the AI in this game?
Adam Parsons: Off the back of Dragon Rising, we knew there were a lot of areas that needed tightening and tuning. The AI was a lot better than most people gave it credit for, and people often perceived issues with the AI in Dragon Rising which were actually the result of ancillary systems, such as animation and physics. Rather than pile on lots of new features, each with their own issues, we’ve spent a long time analysing our AI and making a large number of low-level improvements to the AI’s behaviour.
This is mostly focussed on getting the AI to do more automatically, either as a result of player input or from mission creation. We’ve introduced convoy behaviour which dynamically reorders the convoy when vehicles are destroyed, stops and repairs attacked vehicles and follows roads which has been used to full effect in our Rolling Thunder FTE (Fire Team Engagement) as well as several of our missions. Examples of low level improvements include autonomous use of falling back plays, faster, smoother bounding movement, and increased player feedback on orders and status updates.
Strategy Informer:Aesthetically, we understand you've been playing with the visuals in order to add some authenticity to the game. Intentional artefacts, glitches etc... What do you hope to achieve with visual 'tricks' like these?
Adam Parsons: It’s more than just “tricks and artefacts”, we believe we fell short graphically in Dragon Rising. There are expectations to be met out there and I’m afraid it’s the sad truth that some titles are judged on their appearance before they’ve even got out of the starting blocks. That’s not a problem we’re going to encounter on Red River. Codemasters' internal studios have a reputation of delivering some of the finest visuals seen in racing titles and we saw no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do the same with a FPS.
The glitches and artefacts you refer to are the last layer in a complete re-working of our rendering, lighting, post processing and visual effects tech which we now share with all our racing titles via our EGO tech. The idea behind them is to present a world to the player that aligns with their experience of modern combat as seen on sites such as LiveLeak and through the many visceral “helmet cams” that have started to creep onto YouTube. Ironically this footage is as real as combat gets to an awful lot of people.
Strategy Informer:Competitive multiplayer will not be featuring in the game upon release - is adding in competitive multiplayer something that could be on the cards as DLC? Or are you abandoning that side of online gaming completely for Red River?
Adam Parsons: Red River is fully built around the co-op experience, and with our join-in-progress feature this means that your friends can join your campaign or FTEs whenever they want to, without waiting for prescribed checkpoints.
We’ve got no plans to include competitive multiplayer as DLC for Red River. However, if and when we do return to PvP multiplayer with the Flashpoint series, it’s got to be right– we were adamant that we didn’t want to do a “token” competitive online experience with Red River just to tick a box. We’ve got a long-term strategy for Flashpoint, which means we’re not cramming in features just for the sake of their inclusion.
However, don’t underestimate the amount of work we’ve put into the Fireteam Engagements. These are detailed co-operative game modes which provide a strong replay value and that classic competitive-style score-based game mode.
Strategy Informer:Part of the decision to not deal with competitive multiplayer we understand was to focus more on Co-op. What changes/improvements have you made to the co-op system for Red River?
Adam Parsons: Yes, co-op is at the very core of Red River. Four people can play as any class during the campaign and FTEs. Then if you die and prefer to change class, you can do - that’s the freedom of choice we give. The front end is built around inviting your friends to play as smoothly as possible, the leaderboards push you to set fireteam high scores and the join in progress means that your ideal fireteam configuration is only an invite away.
Also, with the four classes available (Rifleman, Auto Rifleman, Scout and Grenadier) you can unlock weapons, equipment and skills with our new XP system B-Mods (player enhancements) and specialisms (kit enhancements) will fundamentally alter the way your preferred class plays, whilst still keeping our gameplay authentic.
In addition, CSP (core skill points) are earned depending on how well you complete each mission. These can then be spent on improving your core soldiering skills such as stamina and aiming accuracy. These improvements carry across all classes.
Strategy Informer:You've also said that there won't be an SDK or even a mission editor for any platform - obviously enabling custom content is harder to do on the consoles, but what about the PC community at least? Modding is still a big part of PC Gaming.
Adam Parsons: Changes to the way that we build our environment and create our missions has meant that providing our tools externally was just not practical within the development time available for Red River. We got a lot of feedback that our mission editing technology didn’t go far enough in Dragon Rising so, like competitive multiplayer, if we re-introduce this feature, we want to do it justice, and not just add token support.
Coming off the back of Dragon Rising, which was stretched too thin to hit the high quality standards we push for internally, we had to spend time getting the fundamental gameplay right on Red River. Although this meant going back to basics in several key areas, we feel that this was a challenge we had to undertake to give us a base from which to build and evolve the ambitious vision we have for the series. We’re now immensely proud of what we’ve achieved in Red River, and feel confident that we now have a solid foundation to build upon.
Providing mod support and/or a full mission editor across all platforms (which is what we’d insist on doing) would have drained vital time and resources away from improving this key core gameplay.
Strategy Informer:Of course, modding can be done even without an SDK. Would you take active steps to prevent this type of modding? Or are you simply adopting a "we won't help you, but we won't stop you" type of attitude?
Adam Parsons: Our core pillars are not PC modding or simulation. We’ve taken what we consider to be the best parts of the old Flashpoint DNA and have brought it bang up to date, reflecting modern gaming styles and ensuring it works across all platforms, not just PC. We focus on the same experience across all formats, without unfairly specialising on just the PC version.
Strategy Informer:One could say your main competition is Bohemia's ArmA series, which seems to be doing quite well at the moment. What would you say are the key points that differentiate you from them?
Adam Parsons: I completely disagree, I’m afraid. We have never considered them as direct competition whatsoever, they are much more simulation focussed, hardcore and PC only. A small portion of the PC community continues to compare us, but in all fairness I think they are well served by that franchise. They want a hardcore, realistic military simulator, which isn’t what we’re offering, and don’t believe many consumers want. (Ed: Well, that's me told?)
We’re interested in offering something unique – something that is much more authentic than other FPS titles, and provides a tactical challenge as well as testing your FPS skills. We see ourselves much more as “the thinking man’s First Person Shooter”, and don’t regard ourselves as a mil-sim in any way. We want people to have fun in the context of authenticity, not to have fun constrained by it, resulting in a sterile experience shackled by scientific exactness.
In today’s games industry, you’ve got to keep innovating and striving to improve. The Flashpoint series is over a decade old, and gaming has moved on in that time. We feel we’ve brought the franchise bang up to date and what we have produced is a more accessible, authentic, tactical squad-based experience that is great fun in co-op or single player.
Strategy Informer:China is one of the antagonists in the Red River narrative, and they were used in Dragon Rising as well. Is the 'PLA' something you see yourselves running with a lot, much like other franchises like to use the Russians?
Adam Parsons: We talk about the Flashpoint DNA and how it’s grown. Superpower conflict is part of this DNA, and is not something we want to lose from the series. As you say, the token, Russian-based army has been heavily used in recent games, and we feel the PLA give us a different flavour. However, we have spent a lot of time introducing a third force in the form of insurgents for Red River.
Another part of the series’ DNA is about identifying believable “Flashpoints” to immerse players within. Tajikistan is one such location and in fact, Tajikistan has proven to be even more of a Flashpoint than we’d originally expected, appearing in the news frequently since we announced the game, underlining the choice for the region and the political canvas it provides. Whether the PLA appear next time, who knows? It’ll be driven by what’s right for the next game we’re making, not because we prefer a particular enemy.
Strategy Informer:Do you think entities such as Russia, China, the various middle eastern factions etc... are doomed to always be painted as the antagonists in popular culture due to history and in many cases the current climate?
Adam Parsons: No, I don’t think this will always be the case. I’d love to see a conflict which explains both sides of the story to a believable military campaign. At the end of the day, we look to provide a believable, authentic “Flashpoint” that players can immerse themselves in, not take sides or paint one particular group as “the bad guys”.
Strategy Informer:There's been no news of a release date yet, but is there a window you'd like to aim for? Dragon Rising managed to do well despite being released in the busy Winter period - is that something you think you can handle again?
Adam Parsons: We’re looking at Q2 2011 for release. Red River is a unique offering in the FPS market, requiring a more tactical, considered approach rather than a ‘run and gun’ style of gameplay and we think there’s an appetite for this amongst gamers. We can’t wait to get Red River into the public’s hands, and we genuinely believe that once players have experienced it, corridor shooters won’t be enough any more.
Strategy Informer:Anything else you'd like to say to the readers?
Adam Parsons: Sure! We’d really like everyone to look at Red River to see the progress we’ve made over the past 12 months and the love and blood that’s gone into it. It offers a more tactical, authentic infantry co-op experience that we hope will resonate and make people think about shooters in a different light. We’re always open to listening to new ideas that work well with the direction we’re taking the series and we can’t wait to see the high scores for the FTE missions in Red River! Enjoy!
So there you have it, some insights and musings from one of Red River's front-runners. We're told there will be some hands-on opportunities sometime soon, so with any luck we'll be able to bring you some hands-on impressions of the game. It's sounding interesting so far though, we just hope it can deal with the troubles that the last game had. Let's wait and see, shall we?