HAZE Interview (PS3)
Mike Bowden: For those of us who live in caves and might not be familiar with Haze and Free Radical, care to fill us in on who you are and what it is?
Derek Littlewood: Haze is set in the year 2048, with players taking on the role of Sergeant Shane Carpenter. There’s been a rebel uprising in a remote South American country by a rebel faction known as ‘The Promise Hand’, and Shane has been drafted in by Mantel – a private military corporation – as part of their peace keeping force there.
One of Mantel’s specialties is biochemical research, and a recent product of that research is the ‘bio-enhancing medication’ known as nectar. Nectar is an all in-one combat enhancer, making soldiers faster, smarter and tougher, as well as having a range of other useful effects, like giving its users a sixth sense with which they can predict danger a moment before it occurs, or the ability to see even heavily camouflaged opponents, and it’s used by all Mantel soldiers, including Shane.
Initially Nectar seems like a great bonus, making you an incredibly effective fighter, but as you progress deeper into the war zone you begin to experience horrifying flashes of a bloody, corpse-strewn alternate world, and start to see another side to your high-spirited, fun-loving squadmates; a brutal, murderous, almost inhuman nature. There eventually comes a crisis point where your supply of nectar is cut off and suddenly it’s become clear that that ‘alternate’ world is actually the real world, and nectar has been clouding your vision the whole time.
With the realization that Mantel have been controlling him using nectar, and that the Promise Hand are merely defending their homeland from Mantel’s invasion, Shane changes sides. From that point on you’re taking the fight back to Mantel, not only free from nectar but using your knowledge of it to give you the edge.
The story is told continuously and seamlessly, so you’ll see no loading screens as you progress through it, and all the narrative is told from Shane’s first person perspective, really enhancing your feeling of immersion. We’re supporting up to four player co-op online and the two sides offer completely different styles of play, giving masses of replay value including a uniquely asymmetric multiplayer mode, for which we’re supporting up to 16 players online.
The game is Free Radical’s first next gen title – folks might have heard of us from such games as TimeSplitters 1, TimeSplitters 2, TimeSplitters: Future Perfect and Second Sight – and it’s being released on PS3 in May.
Oh, and I’m Project Lead on it.
Mike Bowden: With the release date finally announced how excited are the team right now?
Derek Littlewood: About as excitable as a puppy on its birthday. Except without the leg-humping. Mostly.
Mike Bowden: What has been the chief reason for the delay? Has it simply been a marketing decision or was there something within the development process holding things up? Care to share?
Derek Littlewood: There wasn’t really one big reason for the delay, just a combination of factors, really. Simply put, we realized that the Christmas release date we were headed for previously wasn’t going to give us the opportunity to fully deliver on the promise of all the different features in the game, but with the extra time to refine and polish, I really think we’ve been able to do just that.
I hope gamers appreciate how difficult it was for us to make the decision to delay the game beyond the Christmas market in order to ensure that we deliver them a better experience in the end; I realize it’s been frustrating, particularly for those hardcore fans who have been looking forward to the game since we first showed it all the way back at E3 ’06, and I’d like to thank them all for their patience. I hope you agree that the wait’s been worth it.
Mike Bowden: With just a couple of months to go, what areas of the game are you currently polishing? Why have you chosen to leave those areas until last?
Derek Littlewood: There’s not really anything you leave till last as such, it’s just that polishing is an iterative process. Your first layer of polish is always very rough, you get things ‘about right’ and then move on, but then you come back and make things a little bit better, and you can go on doing that over and over again pretty much forever, each time making the game that little bit better. It might get better by a smaller amount every time you do it, but it’s still getting better, so it’s worth doing.
So we’ve just continued to polish all the core aspects of the game as much as we can. If I had to call out one area of the game that’s seen more polishing than any other it would be the balancing of the asymmetric combat between the Promise Hand rebels and the Mantel troopers. If you think about it, most games spend their entire development period polishing just one style of play, but with Haze we not only have two different styles of play, with unique strengths and weaknesses and differing abilities, but they also have to completely balance out in our 16 player online multiplayer modes.
We’ve spent just enormous amounts of time with the balance between the two factions, tweaking the rebels here, the troopers there, and I think the result is a balance that, with an earlier release date, just wouldn’t have been possible.
Mike Bowden: How many hours a day are you guys working at the moment, getting any sleep?
Derek Littlewood: Days? Are they the things that happen when the big blue room outside the office appears?
Mike Bowden: What has been the most challenging aspect of the game so far in terms of development and why?
Derek Littlewood: Definitely the way the game constantly streams throughout, meaning the player can play from start to finish without seeing a single loading screen. The amount of data you’re streaming on the fly to create the sort of high-res, lush environments you’ll see throughout Haze is just insane, and the amount of technical problems we had to solve that we’d never encountered before were huge.
But when you see its effect on people, you know the effort’s been worthwhile; one journalist who came to see the game had to be dragged away after about three hours because he’d just been rolling through the entire first third of the game without noticing that he was progressing from one level to the next. He described it as ‘relentless’, which pretty much sums it up for me too.
Mike Bowden: If you had to pick out one feature of the game that we gamers might taken for granted that was very difficult from a design point of view what would it be?
Derek Littlewood: Probably the balance of the nectar system in the game, and the way that troopers can use it to gain an upper hand over the Promise Hand rebels, but then the rebels can similarly exploit certain aspects of it to restore the balance.
For instance, as a Mantel trooper I can ‘dose up’ on nectar to give myself a range of abilities like nectar foresight, which highlights all enemy soldiers with a bright orange glow, even in the darkest or most densely populated environments, making it easy to pick them out and attack them. But then on the other hand, as a Promise Hand rebel I have the ability to ‘play dead’, which exploits the limitations of nectar by fooling Mantel troopers into thinking I’ve died, causing me to fade from their view; this gives me a short window of opportunity to get the jump on them and strike that killing blow.
Every Mantel trooper ability is countered a rebel ability, and vice versa, which was a massive logistical problem to both design and balance, but I think most players will accept that it ‘just works’ without thinking about how hard it was to do. Which, of course, is how it should be; playing the game right now I’m glad that we made the effort to get it right, and I think gamers will be too.
Mike Bowden: As you have now probably played the game many times over yourself, what do you enjoy most about it? (If it’s possible to remain objective that is)
Derek Littlewood: It’s got to be the four player co-op; I’m just always finding ways to both co-operate and compete. I like the way that there’s a few subtle aspects of the game that allow you to bait your co-op squadmates too, for instance the ability to smash a Mantel trooper’s nectar pack and send him into an overdose state: ‘Hey mate, how you doing?’ – SMASH!- ‘GYAARRGH! Who did that!?’ Most satisfying, although less so when their nectar-fueled overdose rampage brings them charging in your direction, guns blazing!
Mike Bowden: How much has the constant multi-format speculation affected your team? Have they been able to shield themselves from the press, or has it made things difficult at all?
Derek Littlewood: I can appreciate the frustration that many gamers have felt about the multi-format speculation, but that’s just the thing – most of it has been speculation, not fact. And when that results in people getting angry at the development team, I think that’s a bit unfair. But then, we equip our teams with sturdy iron pants here at FRD so they can generally weather any amount of angst. Plus they’re wipe-clean, which comes in handy.
Mike Bowden: What about your future as Creative Lead? Are their any projects you are working on or will be working on that you can talk about or even allude to?
Derek Littlewood: As soon as Haze is done I’ll be throwing myself into a tricky duo of projects: ‘Having a life’ and ‘Remembering what my family look like’. Release platforms TBD but you can be assured they won’t have the word ‘exclusive’ anywhere near them.