Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway
28th Nov 2007 | 14:22
Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford is one of the most enthusiastic game developers you're ever likely to meet. We know, we've met him a few times.
He's also extremely passionate about the studio's new Brothers in Arms game, Hell's Highway, and equally passionate about the World War II material that's been the subject of the series since Road to Hill 30.
Hell's Highway continues to story of 101st Airborne paratrooper Sgt. Matt Baker, with a fictional plot set against the backdrop of actual historical events.
For its third game in the series, Gearbox is covering Operation Market Garden, the ill-fated Allied operation launched in September 1944 that, if successful, would have likely ended the conflict by Christmas of the same year (we've all seen the war movie A Bridge Too Far, right?).
With Pitchford in town today and demoing the latest Brothers in Arms game, we dusted off the dictaphone and got quoting.
First of all, the game's been heavily delayed - why?
Randy Pitchford: Well, we never announced a launch date. Ubisoft has. But our strategy from the beginning has been to make a game we're proud of. We have some invention, we have some things that have never been done before by anyone let alone by us. And with that comes some uncertainty.
So our strategy is to commit to our ambition and to take the time we need to succeed with that. And so we're not going to cut things of just to reach a launch quarter and we're not going to affect the game negatively if it's not ready yet.
You said in during your demo you had around 3,000 items to fix. Have you got any idea when the game will be ready to ship?
Pitchford: A lot of our planning, scheduling and our predictability, looks very much like within the first quarter of 2008. I don't want to say that there's zero uncertainty, but there's more certainty that we've ever had so we're starting to feel comfortable giving that.
We're manoeuvring around the first quarter - February/March time frame.
You're now into the third game in the series. Are you concerned it's going to become a one-trick pony?
Pitchford: An interesting question. Thinking about it that way would be like saying all shooters are one-trick ponies. Certainly there's some of the same elements that we've done before - I've shot a weapon at an enemy in other games... I've collected things, so those things still exist.
Brothers in Arms adds an element of tactics and the ability to command squads. Hell's Highway adds a number of new elements - new special teams that give me new tactical options on the battlefield, new destructible environments/destructible cover that changes the decisions that I make on the battlefield and my options for winning.
Also, the chances for me to lose when the enemy's shooting through cover that I'm hiding behind. It changes the game quite a bit. And there's a lot of variety too, not just in the gameplay but also in the background, in the level design and the ways that you progress through these environments and the tactical encounters we run into.
And then of course there's the options with vehicles and tanks and just neat things. It's a pretty dense and varied experience. I think out of the Brothers in Arms games, certainly it's the best one by far, and it's also I think the most flexible in terms of letting gamers play it the way they want.
In the first couple of games, we were really interested in forcing the concept of flanking. We wanted to make that to be pretty much the only way the player could succeed.
In Hell's Highway we're opening it up so that if you're more of a run-and-gun shooter you can find ways to win. And if you're really tactical you can find ways to win.
There's lots of ways that you can find to win and enjoy the game and I think that's not only going to make the game more accessible but also make it more interesting and more varied.
You're main competitors are Medal of Honor and Call of Duty. What do you think of the direction those properties have taken in their latest games?
Pitchford: I think Medal of Honor is in trouble. It's a great franchise, and a lot of people love the franchise, but I think somebody really needs to get hold of that franchise who cares about the subject matter and understand what the real promise and the fantasy is.
I think they're confused right now. They're partially speaking not as a dedicated World War II game but just as a game. If you're just going to make a shooter, there's other subject matter you can pick that give them more flexibility to do the kinds of things that they've been wishing to do. Like upgrading weapons and things like that? That doesn't belong in an authentic war game.
What they really need to do is focus on the fantasy. There's some clear talent working on the games, there's some nice looking art and good level design and clearly they have some production capabilities - they're able to get them done and ship them.
But there's something just missing about what's in the heart of what the fantasy is of playing these kinds of games and I think somebody needs to get hold of that franchise that really cares and can do that.
Call of Duty - I've always loved the Call of Duty games and I think that the Infinity Ward guys are brilliant.
If I had to guess - I mean, I'm not them and I don't want to speak for them - but they seem to me to be really good first-person shooter developers and I think that they imagine themselves not necessarily as ones that care specifically about World War II but care a lot about making a good first-person shooter.
And you can see it in the game. The games are really fun. But now they're doing the modern thing. I think Call of Duty 4 is a great game and it's a good backdrop for the kind of gameplay that they're looking for.
But the games also portray a kind of surface approach to the subject. They always do a survey of the war, covering lots... you start at the beginning and you fight to the end, you're a bunch of different units and different angles.
Brothers in Arms tends to be more like the war films. When we watch Saving Private Ryan it's not about the entire war, it's about a squad in a situation, and that's the fantasy that we're trying to fulfil.
So while we're interested in a particular type of gameplay, it's very different from both Call of Duty and Medal of Honor in the sense that it's about squad combat, it's about tactics.
There's a different level of depth there with Brothers in Arms than you see in those games which are more popcorn shooters. They just fun, get in and shoot some guys, you know.
So what's happening with the Alien first-person shooter you're working on?
Pitchford: (Laughs) I can't talk about that. I know a lot of people are interested in hearing us talk about that. It's amazing, it's going great, it's a dream come true to get to be able to work on it. But I can't reveal anything at this point.
OK. Final question - when we spoke with you just before the launch of Road to Hill 30 we seem to recall you saying that with the Brothers in Arms series it was your plan to follow Matt Baker through the entire World War II campaign. Is that still the case?
Pitchford: We care a lot about Matt and he has a story... in Hell's highway he's at a precipice and, without spoiling it, through the game you will be uncertain as to whether he's going to suffer from shellshock and go mad or if he's going to be able to pull through.
The resolution of that question could help our audience understand where we might go with the franchise next. But I'll be happy to talk about that once this is out and we have more time to think about that.