Ubisoft have released a brand-new Q&A session for their upcoming highly anticipated title – Haze for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. What follows in an in-depth Q&A session with Derek Littlewood, Steve Ellis and Rob Yescombe.
Could you please introduce yourself to our readers, and tell us what your function is involving HAZE?
[DL] My name is Derek Littlewood, and I’m Project Lead of HAZE. Also answering questions are Steve Ellis, who is a Director of Free Radical, and our Screenwriter Rob Yescombe.
STORYLINE & SETTINGS
What is the storyline?
[RY] In 2048 there is no more NATO, no more UN. In a bid to reduce their national debts, most Western governments outsource their military requirements to Mantel Global Industries – a huge multi-national corporation with their own private army for hire. As a company, Mantel has concerns in everything from plastics to petrol, engines to computers. They are involved in providing the materials or designs for nearly every aspect of modern life. However, in this story, we focus on two of their primary businesses: their armed forces, and their biomedical support systems.
Guerrilla soldiers in a region of South America have overthrown the government. Mantel is called in to deal with the problem – to restore democracy to this war-torn land. To make things easier for their soldiers, Mantel’s biomedical department has developed a ‘nutritional supplement’ called ‘Nectar’ that enables the troops to fight harder and smarter.
You play as Sergeant Shane Carpenter – a good man, with good intentions. With all the best equipment, tactics and support, Mantel soldiers have it easy.
HAZE is set over a three-day period during the war. These few days will change the life of Shane Carpenter forever.
DEVELOPERS’ and UBI’s AMBITION + CONCEPT
How did you first come up with the concept of the game, and how has this concept changed as development progressed?
[DL] Free Radical is renowned for innovation in First Person Shooters – and HAZE will continue this trend. We have honed our skills in delivering action-packed gameplay, and with HAZE we will be wielding all our experience and making sure that we bring something particularly exciting to the table.
From the birth of the concept for HAZE, one of our chief priorities has been to deliver a genuinely moving and emotional experience – but never at the expense of the gameplay. The narrative is packed with rounded characters, each suffering or succeeding in their own human journey.
Our Art Team is the envy of the games industry. Our guys are world-class, and HAZE has provided the perfect forum for them to step out from the trademark art style of TimeSplitters and to really show what they can do. The realism of the environments in HAZE is really going to blow you away.
The game is definitely very close to our original intention. So in terms of development, our ongoing task has simply been to find as many intelligent ways to facilitate that action/emotion experience as possible. Ubisoft’s input has been invaluable thanks to their own experience in creating tactically rich, narrative-led experiences.
What are your ambitions with this new franchise?
[DL] We want to redefine the intensity and variety of emotions a player can experience in an action FPS. We want HAZE to become the definitive next-gen shooter and maintain Free Radical’s reputation for developing some of the best games in the world.
How will it differ from other next gen shooter games within the Ubisoft titles and within the competitors?
[DL] HAZE takes a unique and challenging point of view on the presentation of war in videogames. The themes of the narrative cover dangerous topics – the ethics of war as entertainment; how we absolve ourselves from the responsibility of shooting another human being, just because we’re told to. It’s edgy stuff.
I can’t say too much about it even at this stage, but it asks questions and raises issues that are worth debating long after you’ve finished the game. Visually, HAZE will certainly set a new benchmark, but we believe it will also set a precedent for the quality of writing that we believe should exist in the next generation of games.
HAZE is jam-packed with fresh gameplay concepts – Mantel provides a top-of-the-line high-tech combat package, including the latest ballistic weaponry, vehicles and explosives. However, the jewel in the crown is NECTAR, “a bio-medically engineered nutritional supplement“which enhances the performance of Mantel’s troops.
Nectar provides you with distinctive fighting abilities that are key to your success as a Mantel Trooper. We meticulously developed these ‘Nectar Abilities’ through carefully analyzing how players approach First Person Combat – you’ll see them in the gameplay demo!
As Mantel will tell you, Nectar is great! But between you and me, it has some unnerving drawbacks that the Promise Hand has been known to take advantage of…
It seems that there are still lots of mysteries un-revealed, what are you guys hiding?
[DL] Plenty! There’s more to HAZE than meets the eye, and there’s certainly more to Mantel too. In fact, every aspect of the game holds a surprise, secret or twist – the storyline, the gameplay, the graphics. Nothing is safe!
I can’t say too much about this yet, but there is a dark underbelly to Nectar too. It’s influence can get unpleasant if used improperly…
Who do you embody?
[RY] Sergeant Shane Carpenter – a young soldier with his heart set on doing the right thing.
Will the player be able to play different characters?
[DL] The single-player experience is all through Shane’s eyes. But in multiplayer, you and up to three buddies can play through the main narrative in co-op.
Who are the main enemies in this game?
[RY] The rebels group, known as ‘The Promised Hand’, are led by a vicious would-be dictator called Gabriel ‘Skin Coat’ Merino.
Merino earned his nickname thanks to the coat he is said to wear – made from the flayed skins of his POW camp inmates.
GAMEPLAY AND GAME DESIGN
How does the player progress through the game? Is it one seamless world, a series of levels, etc?
[DL] It’s a completely seamless experience – no loading screens, no missions select screens. This was a core aim from very early on in the project, because we’re trying to create a realistic, immersive game world – and there are no loading screens in real life, my friends! We wanted to give the player a real sense of continuity throughout the game, so rather than simply jumping from one location to another, you’ll catch a ride in a Mantel vehicle to get there instead. Think of it as a road movie through a war.
What weapons and devices are available to the player to execute the mission?
[DL] Mantel manufactures a wide range of technologically advanced ordnance, all of which will be available to you as you play through the game. Thanks to their extensive biomedical support you’ll also benefit from regular Nectar administrations, making you the strongest and most powerful soldier on the battlefield.
Can you give details on the various online features available?
[DL] First up we’ve got cooperative play through the main campaign. This has always been a feature we felt added real replay value to the TimeSplitters games so we were really keen to retain it in HAZE. Besides, any gamer and their friends interested in coop will be in for a treat with HAZE – which is why we’re offering for the first time in the FPS world a real, entire 4 player coop mode ! It means that the single player campaign is entirely playable with 3 of your online buddies. Cherry on the cake is : you can jump in and out of your friend’s game seamlessly.
We’ve also got a variety of objective-based multiplayer maps that will support a great numbers of players online. The really cool thing about these is that they aren’t just standalone experiences – each is objective based, with its own miniature story that ties into the main narrative of the game.
ENGINE / TECH
How is it to develop on PS3? What can you do with this console that you couldn’t do with previous-gen consoles?
[SE] It’s great. Working on PS3 has allowed us to create vastly superior environments that verge on photorealism – full-screen effects, High Dynamic Range (HDR) and obscenely complex shaders. Its more challenging than ever before, but the power is greater than anything else that’s out there.
Why did you choose to develop your own engine rather than license something like the Unreal engine?
[SE] Developing a next-gen engine is no easy task, but we wanted to be completely in control of the games that we are making rather than having to put up with limits that were imposed by a third party. After we finished our previous-gen development, we threw away everything, and set about creating the ultimate next-gen engine and toolchain, designed to meet our needs from a technical and artistic point of view, and fit in with our development pipeline. I think the results speak for themselves, and Haze is just the beginning.
How about parallelism? Does the engine support multiple processors?
[SE] Yes, it has to. The architectures of PS3, X360 and high-end PC’s are fairly different, but they all have one thing in common – parallel processing. The challenge for us has been in designing a solution that will work well across the platforms.
What is your experience with next-generation development? Is it harder or easier than previous generations?
[SE] It’s much more expensive, and much harder on many levels. From a management point of view, trying to get 100+ people to share the same vision and all pull in the same direction is harder. From a development point of view, the quality bar that we are aiming for means that everyone has to produce better work than they ever have before. Of course that is harder.
Have you encountered any significant design or technology hurdles during development, or perhaps have some entertaining anecdotes?
[SE] There are always design and technology hurdles when making a game – some days it seems like that’s all there is! Parallel programming is fairly new territory, so that has been a challenge. Other unexpected challenges have been in dealing with the vast quantities of data that is now involved in developing a game. We’ve had to create several fairly complex distributed systems for things as diverse as lightmap generation, asset conversion, compiling the code, and even our backup system – a bespoke linux-based system that provides instant access to over 50 terabytes of data in over 1 billion files. An entertaining anecdote? Our AI characters used to be able to bounce grenades off 5 different walls to land directly at your feet. The challenge has been in making them fallible.
We’ve also updated our Media Section with six brand-new high-resoultion screenshots. You can view these screenshots in either our Xbox360 Media Section or our PS3 Media Section … or both? Let us know what you think of the Q&A and content by leaving us your comments below.