Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway
7th Jun 2008 | 11:00
After a few years thoroughly exhausted of all things Allies vs. Axis, it looks like the games industry is finally ready to return to World War II again. Call of Duty 5's heavily tipped to be returning to the theatre, and Ubisoft had a surprise showstopper on display this month as well; Gearbox's gorgeous Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway.
Whilst checking out the long, long coming instalment for ourselves, we managed to squeeze in a chat with producer Stephen Palmer, who explained exactly why we should be bothered about WWII shooters - or this one at least - once more.
How big is Gearbox now? You seem to have swelled up a lot since the early days...
Palmer: We're at about 180 employees. Yeah, we've grown quite a bit. We really enjoy having quite a lot of things going on. We have pretty discrete development teams, so as you can imagine even if individuals aren't shared across teams certainly what we learn about Unreal Engine 3 and techniques or even feature sharing is. We're always committed to quality but we understand that we actually have to release games to sustain ourselves as a business. We'll leverage technology across teams in order to make that happen faster.
You say that, but for a moment we thought Hell's Highway would never come out. Why has it been in development for so long?
Palmer: Gearbox is committed to quality at the end of the day and this is a really big story, it's a big game. It's going to take people upwards of 15 hours to play through this whole game and that's a pretty big game for a first-person shooter. Plus, we've got such a rich, deep story that it took a long time to develop these cinematics and storytelling elements. Putting it all together was a momentous task.
We might not have anticipated how long it was going to take originally, but we were committed to it, kept our heads down, kept working on it and got it done. I think the results are going to be worth the wait. We're serious about our release date!
And Brothers in Arms: Double Time on Wii seems to have vanished altogether?
Palmer: That's done. It's going to be coming out at about the same time as Hell's Highway.
Will it have the same subtitle then?
Palmer: There's still some talk about that. It's been done for a while actually. We want to release all of these new titles at once.
Seeing Hell's Highway in person, we must say it looks fantastic. Are you using any of the updated tech from Epic's Unreal Engine 3.5?
Palmer: We're always taking advantage of new things that they put in their engine. Clearly there's a point where we have to ship our game and we can't continually integrate new things. We take technology that furthers the game, we don't just take it for the sake of it. For instance Epic recently added the fracture system where things can be destroyed; they added that much later than we needed a similar thing for Brothers in Arms, so our implementation isn't the same as theres. Maybe a future Gearbox game will use the Epic version because it'll be easier to maintain compatibility.
You're one of the last WWII shooters left out there. Surely you must have noticed the success of other WWII FPS series, like Call of Duty, in moving into modern day settings?
Palmer: We noticed! I think you can tell a good story in any setting and a lot of people actually really love World War II. I think the fatigue comes from games and products that don't take seriously the historical significance of what went on and use it as a backdrop for random action. That's not what we're doing.
We're not just taking a World War II time period and creating a game inside of it; we're looking at history, we're saying what was compelling about history to people that want to relive it. We're putting you in the shoes of real soldiers in real situations, with real historical figures. But it's an historical fiction as well; Matt Baker wasn't an actual person, but he's going to pump into people like the commander of the 507 and you're going to see these figures and what actually happened to them.
Referencing all these real events and real people in a FPS game... where do you draw the line? When does it become inappropriate?
Palmer: I don't know if it ever becomes "inappropriate". We have a great deal of respect for the sacrifice that people made and we're doing good justice to real history. The lines are more about, 'do you need to try to precisely walk in the steps of a particular person?' And because it's interactive and because it's a game it makes more sense to contextualise the steps you're walking; it's an historical fiction. There are a lot of historical fiction novels about characters that didn't necessarily exist, but you learn a lot about the time period and the events they're participating in.
Forest Gump was a great movie, but there was no Forest Gump. You still got to learn a lot about the time period by seeing it through his eyes.