A few weeks back I went to see Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising at Codemasters HQ. While I was there I had a chat with executive producer Sion Lenton, who had quite a lot to say about Codemasters' take new on the military shooter. What follows is my transcript of that conversation, in which Lenton talks about the balance of realism in the game, the "documentary" feel, the horror of war, and responsibility of making a serious war game accessible to the majority of gamers.
RPS: So tell us a bit about what you're trying to do with Flashpoint.
Lenton: "What are we trying to do with Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising? Well, the original was obviously a classic, one of those rare genre-defining games, and I was here in QA at Codies when it arrived, and I was blown away with what it did. That said, a lot of shooters of many different kinds of have gone under the bridge since that time, and it made no sense to resurrect that same game. We wanted to do something that was more 2009. The original game was unapproachable, and my job is to bring that same kind of game to lots more people. That means there's a lot to consider. We do have to consider the consoles too, so we don't want to create something that is punitive, or with a learning curve that is too steep, but at the same time it would be crazy to devalue the franchise into the Call Of Duty run-and-gun whack-a-mole style gameplay. PC depth with console accessibility, that's the drive for me: to align all the platforms the game is going to be on. The PC guys should not think they're getting some dodgy port, we've made it so that all three platforms have been developed for together, head to head."
"All that said, this is a game that is challenging. As a console game, it's very tough indeed. Not a simulation as such, but it's hardcore, and it's an 18+ rating in the UK. This is a mature game. People don't need their hands held all the way through, because gamers have a certain level of experience. It's quite a hard task master. And it's all about realism, that's been one of my key words: realism. Documentary over Hollywood. Our technical, equipment and asset research has all been about seeing how these things work in the real world. We did a lot of work with the marines on this stuff, learning about radio talk, or what happens if a gun jams. All of these things feed into the experience, because we've experienced them."
"We've done a lot of work in that area, and we're really proud of our relationship with the US Marines. We got a load of US Marines playing this, actually, and they seemed to enjoy it - they totally understood about playing co-op, and they were laughing and shouting out commands to each other."
RPS: If it's not a sim, how does the realism manifest itself?
Lenton: "Realism appears in everything you see on the field of battle. From the smoke effects to the damage models. This is more like the footage you're going to see of actual conflict on the BBC News, rather than some action movie. And it's interesting to compare the reality of ordnance to how it's portrayed: take grenades, for example, the actual bang of a grenade is tiny compared to the great fireball flash you usually get in games. The explosion of a real grenade is very small, and it's the radial-effect of shrapnel that does the damage. We recreate that."
"But the crucial thing is that it's a very personal narrative. It could almost be seen as a survival horror game: just staying alive when you're at war, in a desperate situation, is often all you can do. What the original Flashpoint did really well was a sense of danger, a sense of personal danger, and we're bringing that back. Thinking back to the footage of the Falklands conflict in the early 1980s, you remember that desolate glimpse of soldiers trudging across desolate islands with all their gear? Well there's some analogy here for us. Skiira island is on the other side of the world, and you've got this friction going on for why you are there and what you are fighting for."
"Realism is in the basic elements of the game: such as how damage is handled. You don't get to squat behind a rock to be healed, instead you're in danger of bleeding to death. You've got eight pints of blood, and when those bleed out, you're gone. Even when you patch up, it's not all fine. If you've been hit you'll still have a limp. We've made the death as harrowing as possible."
RPS: Is it one-shot kill?
Lenton: "Yes. A head shot will be a kill. But it's more complex than that: you can shoot through a guy's leg or chest, and he won't die instantly, even if he goes down. You might reach his position and see him bleeding to death. It's going to be horrible to see. We didn't want to make death too light or too easy. The same damage system is true for you, which makes things more challenging. We want to make death as unpleasant as possible, and to make players more careful. You're not going to run through an open field with your guns blazing. The game will teach you not to do that."
"And I should say that the documentary thing is essential to us because we want people to feel like they're close to the reality of war. Audio feeds into that: if you can hear a machinegun firing, you're probably okay, but if you can hear bullets impacting around you, well, you're in trouble. We've captured that in the audio for this game. Hear bullets? You'll hit the deck and assess your situation. That's another lesson we learned from the marines who had seen real combat around the world."
RPS: So you'd say the gun combat was more realistic than most shooters out there?
Lenton: "Well unlike, say, Call Of Duty, the combat is generally at a medium-range distance - a few hundred metres, say. Making that interesting for the player has been a significant challenge. It can't just be two guys shoot at each other from behind a rock and half a kilometre until one of them is dead. So that's where team-work comes in. You are the leader of a fire-team, there's you and three other guys. You command them via a radial menu, which is a system we're very pleased with. It becomes muscle-memory as you play, so you have sort of combo moves: "flank left and attack", sort of thing, with just a few button presses that become totally instinctual. We teach the player these basic moves, so your players can lay down suppressing fire so you can flank, and they become second nature. The morale system ties into this, obviously, you'll see enemies falling back if things are looking difficult for them. They'll even chuck out smoke grenades to cover their retreat. And the same is true for you: smoke is real cover, AI can't detect you through it."
"Suppression is essential, of course, but it's not flagged with any icon or anything. No "they are suppressed", it's about real feedback. And that's realistic to war: when the marines attack their first play will often be to get the enemy's heads down, so they can move in. You'll actually see enemies hit the deck or dive behind cover when you fire, and it's then down to you to make the most of those opportunities to win."
RPS: Tell me about the environment itself - those are some rather large looking islands, which I understand are based on some real islands out near the China and Russia end of the Pacific? How open is it, really?
Lenton: "It's a big old map we've got here, about 225km square of area, and you can go anywhere. The missions in the campaign tend to be from west to east, and we're trying to get a sort of visual language going with the missions. When we originally focus tested the game we got the impression we were on exercises in the lake district, so we did another art pass to make a scar across the island in which the battle takes place. It gives the players more visual clues about where they should be going, and where the action is going to be. I'm mean we're not going to create a trail of glowing breadcrumbs for you, because we can do this with art assets: we can have some ruins there, a bunker here, some ruins there, and the human brain naturally sees those as areas of interest, and so you're lead to keep your attention going in a certain direction, because it's more visually interesting. It's the racing line, the best play through the level. People do stick to it, too."
"On easy mode you'll have a HUD element to highlight these things for you too. That said, you don't have to follow this line. The game is completely open. If you want to hike for miles to come into a new angle you can. Go collect your thoughts in the woods like I did in the original Operation Flashpoint. We have tools to optimise this, actually. We've logged all the movements of the testers through the terrain too, so we can actually see where they go, and how the approach something. You can see QA guys who have played through a couple of times deviating off and exploring other angles of attack. That's helped us balance the game."
"In terms of atmosphere there's several layers: we have a beautiful weather system and day-night, but we also have this theatre of war element to it. The battle will be going on all around you, and you'll see the results of that across the landscape. We're trying to stay away from HUD and AI indicators. A plume of smoke should tell you where the action is without there being a big glowing arrow."
RPS: You've talked a bit about difficulty levels... "easy mode"?
Lenton: "The world in Operation Flashpoint is set. The difficulty levels don't change the amount of damage or how many enemies there are, or their AI, instead it's a case of what elements there are helping you, and what aids are on screen. Driver aids, assists, so to speak. On easy you get a cross-hair that changes colour for friend and foe, you get full direction of incoming damage, you get a hit-indicator, you get waypoints. On hard mode, you have a compass and a weapon menu, no crosshair. Iron-sights only. We're trying to cater for extremes, but keeping the game ultimately the same experience. You can't be all things to all people, but we're hoping that people will start on easy and start removing elements."
"And the toybox is big, so there's loads of learn: there are loads of vehicles, weapons, artillery, and so on. You don't have to be a chopper pilot to fly a chopper, however. It's tricky, but it's not impossibly hard. We wanted it to be a challenge and not an arcade thing."
"Of course all this ties into online, too. The entire campaign is a four-player co-op experience, because there's four men in your fire-team. We know that can work. Four player co-op is proving to be a rather popular feature right now. You're going to be able to drop straight into that with our online game."
RPS: And this build of the game is looking pretty finished. You're all set for release?
Lenton: "We're content complete, but there's lots of tweaking and tuning and testing to be done. We've got about a month or so of balancing to do. We're caveats away from the finished game."
RPS: Thanks, Sion. We'll look forward to getting our hands on it later this year.
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is set for release on October 6th in North America and October 9th in Europe.