PS3 Interview

Haze talk with Derek Littlewood

Free Radical's project lead takes us in hand

We're relaxing in an oh-so lifestyle lounge area, in a particularly well-manicured corner of the PlayStation House in London's east-end. We've been playing PS3 FPS big hope Haze, and now we're going to sit down for a chat with Free Radical's project lead, Derek Littlewood.

How long has the game been in development now?

About three years.

What was your last project?

Technically we started working on the engine after Second Sight, but our last project was TimeSplitters: Future Perfect. It was really after this that we started properly working on Haze.

Are you a subscriber to the idea that a developer can and perhaps should stick to one genre, and work to perfect the formula? Free Radical certainly seem to be getting good at sci-fi influenced FPS games...

I think there's definitely merit in this idea. I mean, we certainly have a lot of experience working with first-person shooters. You get a lot of things "for free", if you see what I mean. We can work on refining, rather than inventing. Certainly there's not the need to come up with so much from scratch.

On the other hand, if we were just to go "we'll refine what we did last time around" I don't think we'd be happy that we were really pushing ourselves. So in a way even though its an FPS, creating Haze has had as many challenges as if we'd had gone off-course to create an RPG, or an RTS or a racing game.

I do think the team of people at Free Radical, not just me and Rob; the programmers, the animators, the audio producers, i think if we pushed them to make a different kind of game then they would still deliver excellent results in any genre. We're good at action games, and we'll probably always be making action games, but at some point we'd like to show what we can do elsewhere as well.

Is the game built on entirely new technology? How advanced is this tech?

Its a completely different world. The volume of things to consider... when you're making a game for the PS3 everything is an order of magnitude more advanced than on the PS2.

Is the PS3 daunting or liberating?

Well... its always a bit of both. I'd be a bad project lead if I panicked in the face of the technology, but when I do say "wow, we can do all these great things", its then a case of saying "yes, but how can we do all these things", in the timescales, etc. There's many exciting opportunities but also difficult challenges to overcome.

The work it takes to maintain a coherent vision, especially in terms of artwork, is so much harder, because the resolution and everything has stepped right up. The time it takes to produce things, too. It's not a case of saying we'll have this level in 6 to 8 weeks, its more a case of we'll have this ready in six months.

The timescales are so much longer. Maintaining coherence between the time schemes becomes that much harder. So, a few challenges there!

How does the plot evolve in the game? When will we start witnessing our character's transformation from corporate grunt into freedom fighting fighter?

It's quite a few levels in. About a third to half way through. At which point you become a rebel.

Is there a political point to this?

Not... necessarily. There is a message to the game... related to the story. There's a political element, parallels, which you can draw in relation to present real-world events. Situations globally.

But it also has something to say about the way games present war. The way things become artificial, black and white. War is about having a laugh with mates. But the reality is more muddy and gritty. Certainly it's morally 'muddy'. We're also, trying to present this, and trying to offer a different perspective.

The political side is not being played up, although it was mentioned a lot earlier on, but really we'd like people to draw their own conclusions from the game.

So you've worked hard on gritty combat..?

Its about the contrast. Haze is not a realistic depiction of war. It isn't. You can't try and recreate that sort of 'hell', when someone's sat on their sofa with a nice cup of tea. But we've tried to highlight a contrast to make people think about it, so when people do start to consider things, and eventually swap sides [in the game's story] it does make sense.

We want people to think. We don't have to make people fight to make them think about it.

The game was originally due out last November. But it was delayed. Why was this?

The extra time has allowed us to fully deliver on the features in the game. People ask "what new stuff have you added?" We haven't, but what we have done is been able to really polish up a lot of the stuff already in there.

There's a misconception amongst gamers that when a game goes out the door developers are 100% happy. No flaws. That's not true. When I look back at TimeSplitters 2 and Second Sight I think, "I could have fixed that, that should be there, that could be better". The extra time has allowed us to really work on these things.

We already had an ambitious feature-set. The multiplayer stuff, the four-player drop-in co-op, the seamless progression. We have two full styles of play. Most games spend all their development time on one. But we have two! Making them interact entails a lot of balancing work!

Do you watch the competition?

Of course! Last year was a great year for FPS games. BioShock, for example, has an incredible atmosphere - its a very interesting place to explore. The feeling of choices is great. Then there's Halo, Call of Duty... CoD4 was fantastic. I've always had a great respect for Infinity Ward and CoD4 is possibly their best work.

Earlier in the year there was Resistance, and Ratchet and Clank. Two great games. We look at all these games and note the good things about them.

Does this force you to raise your own 'game', if you'll pardon the pun?

Absolutely. Yes. We do pay attention to rival games. We don't view them as a problem, it just makes us want to do better. We look at areas to improve, as well as keep faith in our own vision. With Haze, the asymmetric combat in the game; being able to play as one of two sides with different styles and skills. That's what separates us.

Will the player have choices in the game... or is progression linear for the purposes of forwarding the story?

Its a linear story. And there's a linear flow of levels. As you progress, later levels give you more choices of approach. How you approach certain things. The main level of choice is focussed around combat situations. Abilities are key, and these unique skills give you options.

One of the things about multiplayer is that your constantly asking yourself how to approach a situation. Should i make a Nectar grenade, should I play dead, keep going and attack - lay a mine and draw people over. This is before all the usual FPS choices. The range is enourmous, and this is what will keep people playing Haze.

Enemy AI. Are there bots in the game?

Yes, there are! Nobody's ever asked about this. We are using bots, and they will work online too.

How good is the AI?

The thing about AI is that you don't want it to be unpredictable all the time. Only moderately so. If the bots ran around being totally unpredictable it would be kind of... annoying. What we've tried to do is give the sides personalities.

The troopers on Nectar, for example, are going at you constantly, like steam trains. Charging all the time. The rebels are more likely to fall back, take cover, and be more strategic. AI is appropriate.

Its all about our unique game system ultimately. With the Mantel troopers you need to keep an eye on their Nectar status. if they overdose, they go red! You can overdose the troopers, and they'll then attack their squad mates. Its all about 'feel', fighting the rebels is a very different experience to fighting the Mantel troopers.

Where did the idea of Nectar come from and how crucial is it to the experience?

Its at the heart of the experience. The troopers have a great suite of Nectar abilities. But they can also overdose and the rebels can force them to overdose. Their view of the world is sanitised. As you discover you'll find that Nectar is far more than a helping hand in battle, it also changes their view of the world and encourages them to do morally questionable things.

But that again ties back to the gameplay. For example, dead bodies fade-out from a troopers' viewpoint. Rebels can exploit this using the play dead ability. Again, it very much is part of the narrative and the gameplay. Haze is not about drug-use, and Nectar.

People have asked us whether we're saying 'drug use is good' in Haze. For starters the story shows us this is not the case... but really Nectar is just a tool. It also helps us tell the tale, as well as aiding the game experience. The game is certainly not about drug use or Nectar overall...

So, Free Radical don't endorse drug use.

[Laughs].

Does the story wrap up at the end?

Have gamers been burnt by games with inconclusive endings, where they're told, pretty much, to go and buy the sequel? Yes. Haze is quite complete in itself. While their other other elements of the universe that we could explore, there other threads that aren't finished off... but it is a complete story. It doesn't say 'here's the sequel' at the end.

If the game was a success would you like to make more?

I think there's a lot of potential in the universe we've created. There's definitely space there for other titles, definitely.

Could Haze become the PS3's answer to Halo?

I wouldn't want to speak about it in relation to that other title! We've been burnt by that in the past. I'll leave it to gamers to conclude this.

Will Haze stay with the PS3 'forever'?

This precise quote should come from Ubisoft. The problem is that there has been a small amount of fact, and that's been clear, and a lot of rumours - then people say "you said this and this!", and we're forced to say no - someone else said this for us.

i can appreciate when gamers get frustrated, i think its pretty clear what the status of the game is.

Are the locations based on real world locations?

The game is not based on one location. Its fictional. It does try to be a realistic looking game. All the locations were based on real-life reference.

South America?

Yes, it's based in South America. I think it feels, to me, as diverse as any of the TimeSplitters games. But with seamless travel. There's a great late-on sequence when you start off in a rebel shanty town, and exit the town into a huge valley with a river. You move across the bridge, and from the bridge on a distant mountain there's a little observatory. An enemy base. You then cross the bridge, you ascend the mountain, and you fight your way to the observatory. Its one continual sequence but it takes in this huge range of views and locations.

The feel we want to give is that of a road movie, you're following one character through a sequence of events, emotions, locations. Its about his development.

When's the game out?

The end of May.

Anything else you'd care to add on Free Radical's latest?

As long as they know about the four player co-op and the 16 player multiplayer - all this stuff, then we're covered.

Right, I'm off to lose at the 16 player multiplayer!

We'll see won't we...

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