Last July when we went hands-on with Mercenaries 2, the future looked bright for the World in Flames. After that it all went a bit quiet. For ages. Then in January this year, EA came clean about the hold-up, before everyone's favourite silver-haired boardroom fox John Riccitiello confirmed a goal of fiscal 2009. Earlier this month, Mercenaries 2 was given a firm 5th September date on PS3, 360, PC and PS2, meaning that it would be out four months after you-know-what - potentially a deal-breaker for an openworld action game. With all this in mind, we got Pandemic's creative director Cameron Brown on the phone to find out what's been keeping Mercenaries 2, how terrifying it is to go up against Grand Theft Auto IV, and why we should all draw circles around 5th September on our calendars and radio in a holiday.
Eurogamer: Was the delay to Mercenaries 2 unexpected?
Cameron Brown: It wasn't planned in the sense that it was some marketing strategy. It was pretty simple: the game wasn't going to be the quality we wanted to be. It's a huge game and very complicated, and we're on new technology - new platforms - and we're trying to do some pretty interesting stuff. We're doing the campaign co-op in the open world, and it brings a lot of challenges. We just realised we weren't going to be quite ready and we needed more time to polish. It was like, "Oh man, this is going to be uncomfortably tight and we're not going to deliver the game we set out to make on that schedule," so luckily we had the structural backing where we were able to delay it.
Eurogamer: Was there something in particular that held things up?
Cameron Brown: Not really. Mercs is a very systemic game where everything is layered on top of each other, so it was more to do with getting it all to work simultaneously. It's a game that encourages the player to be experimental and to approach things in an uncontrollable way, so we had to put a lot of thought into error checking and safety nets and a robust engine. So it wasn't one specific thing, but we were scrambling to finish and didn't have that landing strip we needed to make sure this thing was robust enough to put in the hands of the general population. No one wants to buy a game that looks cool but is busted and won't let you do the things you want to do. This game in particular we really needed to spend a lot of time polishing, and making sure the player can't get us into weird states.
Eurogamer: Of course, this month sees the release of Grand Theft Auto IV.
Cameron Brown: Which game is that? [Laughs]
Eurogamer: Do you see yourselves as a competitor to it?
Cameron Brown: Not really. GTA is such a phenomenon; so huge that I don't think anyone is really a competitor to GTA in a manner of speaking. I guess we're a competitor in the sense that we're in the openworld genre, but I would actually call it more of a colleague. That's what we aspire to be. And not just in terms of sales - everyone working in the business would love to sell those kind of numbers - but more because we owe a huge debt to GTA. We all found GTA III to be a landmark game in terms of really bringing that open-world design philosophy to a mainstream audience. I still feel a warmth towards GTA III and I still acknowledge the debt we have there.
I think Mercs has gone in a different direction as it has developed and is a very different-feeling game. GTA IV and Mercs 2, when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, have a very different emphasis. In Mercs 2 you're travelling across an entire country through all these cities and you're really focused on different activities to GTA, where it's much more about that city.
I don't get the sense that someone who's going to buy GTA IV is not going to buy Mercs 2; I don't think it's an either/or decision for anyone. I am really, really fascinated to play the game and see what they've got up their sleeves. Everyone's obviously got high expectations for Rockstar and they're constantly setting the bar in this area. We're feeling like they're expanding the market and redefining what games can be, and they're a very inspiring presence to us. So, not competitors, but we aspire to be colleagues. Let's call it friendly competitors.
Eurogamer: If Grand Theft Auto IV does raise the bar, do you think it will affect Mercenaries 2 critically because we suddenly expect that much more from an openworld game?
Cameron Brown: I suppose it could, yeah. But we're moving the bar in other ways. Ultimately what's important about a game is the state it puts the player in. The whole reason people play games is because they want to get into a certain mental state, a certain zone. When you really focus on that, then a lot of the bullet-point features and stuff falls away. They might reach that expectation in certain ways, but Mercs 2 will reach it in others, like the destruction we're doing, or the sheer amount of physics, and also preserving that openworld in the co-op. From what I've seen of GTA IV it looks amazing as usual, but I'm hoping we'll do a little bit of that ourselves.
Eurogamer: What sort of "zone" will Mercenaries 2 get us in?
Cameron Brown: If I had to boil it down to one word it would be "freedom". Mercs 2 is certainly amongst a few games that are so focused on player freedom and so devoted to not restricting or managing the player experience in any real way. It's really just this freeform and emergent experience; emergent in the sense that Mercs 2 has game rules and they are consistently applied, so anything you can do in one place you can do in another place and it works the same way. And that puts a lot of creativity into the hands of the player about how they want to play the game. Mercs 2 is a game that lets you set yourself a goal and then almost conduct experiments with how things are going to play out. Our goal has always been to say, "yes you can do that, yes you can do that, yes you can do that". I think that's the zone the players get into, that you really get sucked into the world because it is so consistent and free.
Eurogamer: You've mentioned toys like air strikes and fuel air bombs in the past, but what other destructive trinkets have you got up your sleeve for us?
Cameron Brown: Something that we think is really cool and keeps the game unique is that you are equally at home in the civilian and military world. A mercenary would feel nothing about driving a Ferrari into a tank battle, because you're not a soldier but you are at home in military environments. In terms of the toys we've got all of the military stuff covered, but some of the most interesting "destructive trinkets" as you put it are our sports cars being fitted out with rocket launchers and various types of weaponry. These are things you can take into these giant battles, so you can turn up in a modified Lamborghini with a guided missile launcher on the roof and see how you do with that.
We also have a tank bike that players are going to have to work hard to unlock, and it is basically a motorcycle crossed with a tank and it has the ability to climb up on stuff and crush it but also preserve the speed and mobility of a bike.
Eurogamer: When you throw bombs around, how much destruction actually is there?
Cameron Brown: It's complete. You can literally take a city and reduce it to smoking rubble. It'll take several minutes of concentrated destructive effort. That was really a touchstone for us from day one; if we're going to do this, we're going to do it properly. If there was one thing we weren't going to compromise on, it was that aspect of the game. It's incredibly satisfying.
We've done some interesting things mechanically with the destruction. We have something called "crushing technology", which doesn't sound very interesting but was tough to get right. We use Havok physics to do all the pieces coming off the building - we have these huge chunks of masonry falling down - and they all have a very carefully implemented crushing damage. So if you can arrange for bridges or towers to fall on things then it will really squash things. That kind of idea has been featured in games before, but not like we're doing it. Ours is anywhere, anything.
The destruction is pretty complete and pretty amazing to take down three of four skyscrapers at once and be among the chaos that ensues.
Eurogamer: Smashing. How much vertical gameplay is there? Is it like Crackdown where you can climb all over things and jump around like a lunatic?
Cameron Brown: Yeah, absolutely. You have access to the helicopters or a grappling hook that lets you hijack them. You can definitely get up high and there are a few missions that involve that kind of gameplay, but it's also a very useful technique for sniping or dropping in behind enemy lines. The freedom of the game is not limited to the ground level.
Eurogamer: There's three characters in the game: are they all as important as each other? We've only really seen Mattias and his snazzy beard so far.
Cameron Brown: That's true, but no, they're all as important as each other. There's been no grand plan, but you've probably seen more Mattias because he has a very distinctive look to him and has sort of become the poster boy for Mercs 2. But you can play the entire game as any of the characters and all are equally powerful and cool and have their unique attitude and presentation and cinematics. It's an equal opportunities experience for the three characters. Mattias has certainly had more than his share of the limelight, but you should like that; we're featuring the European guy!
Eurogamer: Campaign co-op is another of your big features, and seems to be a bit 'zeitgeisty'. Is there still a limit on how far players can travel away from each other?
Cameron Brown: There is a limit, but it's a pretty big one. In practice you don't really notice it. For example, we've been doing focus tests where we invite fresh gamers to come and test the difficulty curve and the tuning and stuff like that, and we've had people testing out the co-op. In a one-hour session of 16 players - so eight pairs - only one person hit the tether. And that was a totally random case of wandering off to the middle of nowhere.
For pure technical reasons we can't sustain you going to opposite ends of the map, although earlier on in the project we were hoping we could. At least for us and possibly for everyone we're forging a bit of new ground having co-op in the full streaming world, and it's definitely a technical curve-ball for the programmers. There was a technical mountain to climb in terms of letting you be able to go to opposite ends of the map, and at the end of the day we decided the cost benefit was not there. Co-op is all about co-op, right? The whole idea is to work together and to co-ordinate.
Eurogamer: What other multiplayer modes have you got?
Cameron Brown: We are 100 percent focused on the co-op campaign. We're not doing any mini-games or anything like that, but are concentrating on the drop-in, drop-out, full Mercs experience with your buddy.
Eurogamer: Do you chaps have plans for a Mercenaries 2 demo any time soon?
Cameron Brown: Yes, yes we do. I'm not sure of dates or anything like that but yes, we want to do a demo.
Eurogamer: What about downloadable content for the future?
Cameron Brown: Yeah. There has been a lot of effort and energy put into downloadable content. We have it up and running on the consoles where you can trigger it and do it. We're definitely playing with it and it's definitely something we see as an enormous opportunity.
Eurogamer: Is there much difference between the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, then?
Cameron Brown: In terms of game content it is the same game on both platforms. But I sense a strong danger in being misquoted by the fans in the forums if I say anything specific about any platform [laughs]. Owners of each platform will have a great Mercenaries 2 experience.
Eurogamer: Something else that is surrounding Pandemic (and BioWare) at the moment is your new owner EA and its new focus on quality. What's this change been like on a rank and file level? Have you even noticed?
Cameron Brown: You mean apart from the compulsory uniforms we have to wear now? On the development floor we haven't noticed much difference other than we are able to do stuff like when a large game like Mercs is not fully cooked we can put it back in the oven and close the door for a bit longer, which is obviously awesome. But day to day it still feels like Pandemic. We still come to the same building and have the same business cards. Pandemic has a certain scrappy entrepreneurial spirit to it that I've always enjoyed and that definitely feels the same.
Something I really like about the way EA has restructured using the label model is that we don't deal with a lot of execs. We basically deal with Frank Gibeau who's the head of the label and John Riccitiello who's Frank's boss. We're in an interesting position because we had a relationship with John during the Elevation period when BioWare and Pandemic was the model. Frank is an incredibly smart guy, is very quality-focused, and was just down yesterday visiting us and that was exactly what he was talking about, that it all comes down to making great games. Certainly the internal rhetoric matches the external rhetoric as far as I can tell.
Mercenaries 2: World in Flames is due out on PS3, 360, PC and PS2 on 5th September.