Highway to Hell
As World War II first-person shooters go, the Brothers in Arms series has always distinguished itself from the lone wolf approach of Medal of Honor and the wolf pack approach of Call of Duty by letting you be the leader of pack, controlling up to two squads of soldiers, using them for cover fire while you flank, and vice versa. But as we learned while talking to Randy Pitchford, the president of Gearbox Software and the game's executive producer, the third Brothers -- Hell's Highway, which Ubisoft will release on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC this August -- will be distinguishing itself even further with some new mechanics.
Crispy Gamer: How is this Brothers in Arms different from previous ones in the series?
Randy Pitchford: Well, this is the first game in this [next-gen] round, so we're able to do things with this technology that we couldn't do before. We chose to invest where Brothers in Arms is strongest, and where its identity is: squad combat, authenticity and the brotherhood between soldiers.
In terms of squad combat, we kind of made the last game a little too rigid about firing and maneuvering to the point where that was the only way to win. You'd find the places from which to suppress and flank, and take them out that way. It was a new concept for a shooter, but unfortunately it was also the only way to win and that took some of the fun out of it. So now we have a couple things to open it up a bit. We have more units at your disposal. You now have up to three teams, with one of them being a special team that might be equipped with a heavy machine gun or a bazooka.
We've also added destructible cover. In the past, if you hid behind a wooden fence, you'd be safe. A lot of games do that. But now, like in real life, wooden fences shatter and can't protect you forever. Some cover is harder to destroy than others, so you have to factor in the strength of the behind which cover you might hide, the strength of the cover the enemy is behind, and do you have the equipment, like a bazooka, where their cover won't matter?
We've also invested way more into the story. I think people are really going to get sucked into the story and we've also found ways to entwine the cinematic language into the gameplay. We have this action camera that -- let's say you get a headshot, one that goes under the helmet, what we'll do is move the camera in close, cut to slow motion, and show it very cinematically. It's kind of like what they do with the crashes in Burnout. It actually started because when we'd play the game and something cool would happen, we would pause the game so we could look at it in slow motion.
As for the authenticity, we always do our homework. This time we bought some aerial recon photos from the British government, who did recon every three hours before, during, and after Operation Market Garden, which is the battle our game is centered on.
Crispy Gamer: Did you have to sell them on this idea?
Pitchford: I didn't do the deal myself, but as I understand it, they knew who we were and what we wanted to do, and they wanted to help us.
Crispy Gamer: Gotcha. I want to backtrack a second. You now control three squads?
Pitchford: You build up to that. You start alone in the beginning, but by the third mission, you've got a couple squads to command.
Crispy Gamer: One thing you've added is the ability to go prone, as past games only let you crouch, and you've added the ability to duck for cover in a way that's been described as similar to Rainbow Six: Vegas. Why did you decide to add these moves?
Pitchford: Well, we actually added that kind of cover system before Vegas came out -- we've been working on this game for too long, I think -- because we wanted to add the ability to interact with the cover, to feel like you could lean around the corner. What gave us the confidence to try this wasn't Vegas but Gears of War, because we licensed its technology, and were able to see it before that game came out; it showed us that you could do a game where you see your character on-screen, but it still feels like a first-person shooter. I even told [Epic Vice President] Mark Rein that they'd made the first third-person first-person shooter.
Crispy Gamer: So does your cover system work like it does in Rainbow Six: Vegas, where it switches to third-person?
Pitchford: Yes. The game is first-person until you dig in, and when you do, it switches to third.
Crispy Gamer: You do realize, though, that by including this, people will compare your game to Vegas?
Pitchford: Yeah, but that's cool, it was a great game. I think it's a little more complex than our game, but I like those games.
Crispy Gamer: As you said earlier, the setting of the game is Operation Market Garden, which had Allied soldiers trying to secure three bridges in the Netherlands. But the mission was ultimately a failure. Why did you decide to base a game on a failed mission?
Pitchford: You ever seen the movie "Titanic"? You know going in that the boat is going to sink. But because you know that, the character drama is amplified, it creates this tension that wouldn't be there if the boat didn't sink.
Crispy Gamer: In real life, this mission was attempted by airborne divisions who parachuted in. Does that mean you play as a paratrooper?
Pitchford: Yes. 101st Airborne.
Crispy Gamer: Now Baker, your main hero in this series, had been in other units before, ground units. When you guys first started working on this series, and on the Baker character, you didn't plan to eventually do Market Garden and have him be a paratrooper, did you?
Pitchford: Yes, we did. It wasn't as detailed as it has become, but we did plan ahead. But then, the 101st Airborne was made out of a number of different units.
Crispy Gamer: So then does the game have you parachuting in, like you did in Medal of Honor: Airborne?
Pitchford: No, because that's dumb. And Medal of Honor proved it.
Crispy Gamer: I liked that game!
Pitchford: It was alright, but [the parachuting] didn't make the game better, it made the game worse. It just wasn't fun. Think of it this way: If parachuting simulations were fun, there'd be a lot of parachuting games. And the parachuting part isn't the big part of being a paratrooper, anyway. It's about jumping out of a plane into enemy territory with just what you can carry. Those guys took out tanks -- that's hardcore.
Crispy Gamer: You've obviously got the single-player mode figured out. Will there also be a co-op mode?
Pitchford: We chose not to invest there because I don't think we're quite there yet. And I mean "we" as an industry. You have to design levels just for co-op, and we decided to invest the time and money in a strong single-player mode because most of the people who buy our game do so for the single-player experience.
Crispy Gamer: What about competitive multiplayer?
Pitchford: It plays a lot like the PC version of Counter-Strike. It's a very team-based tactical game that takes our squad concept and applies it online. It's 20 players, and when you begin, you can ask to be the squad leader or on the assault team or on the special team, which changes depending on the map -- it might mean you're in a tank. Depending on who wants what, you might get what you want or you might get assigned, but each round is quick, they're three to five minutes, and objective-oriented.
Crispy Gamer: But what's to stop someone who isn't the team leader from ignoring them and doing what they want?
Pitchford: Nothing. People will play like that. It happens all the time in Counter-Strike.
Crispy Gamer: Is there a reason you're not also including the usual multiplayer modes like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag?
Pitchford: Yes. We already have great places you can play them. If I want to play Capture the Flag, I'll play it in some other game. I'd rather offer something that you can't play anywhere else.
Crispy Gamer: What about an online mode where you're playing one-on-one, and each person controls a squad of artificial intelligence soldiers?
Pitchford: Yeah, we had that last time, and it was cool, but we couldn't think of how to add to it to this version so we skipped it. We're kind of weird, we don't make games to make money; we make money to make games. Part of the fun is trying things that haven't been tried before, or offering things that wouldn't exist if we don't do them.
Crispy Gamer: How many multiplayer maps will you have at launch?
Pitchford: I don't know. I don't remember. We built a bunch, some are done and we'll include them at launch, and there are some that are almost done, which we'll deploy later. I just don't remember how many there are.
Crispy Gamer: So besides historical accuracy, is there a reason why you've never licensed the Dire Straits song for your game?
Pitchford: We've thought about it. I love Mark Knopfler. We might one day.
Crispy Gamer: Is it safe to assume you're also not getting AC/DC's "Highway To Hell" for this one?
Pitchford: Ha! We actually did something last year where we had to show stuff internally to some people, so we cut some footage of the game to "Highway to Hell," and it looked awesome. But when you hear the score in "Hell's Highway," it's very appropriate for the game, which is very important to me.
Crispy Gamer: Lastly, given that one of the most successful games in the Call of Duty series is the one that went modern instead of back to World War II, has there been any thought of doing a modern version of Brothers in Arms, even if it doesn't have the Brothers in Arms name?
Pitchford: Yeah, those are the kind of decisions?. We don't have any plans for that yet, and we don't approach things like that. But then, I don't know that we'll be in World War II forever ? I just don't know. Though I will say there are plenty of compelling stories that could be Brothers in Arms stories in all time and space.