After so many years in development hell, it's refreshing to see one of gaming's great enigmas finally come out of hiding. Due for release sometime in spring next year, Codemasters has decided that the time is now right to start taking the wraps off Operation Flashpoint 2 - arguably the most ambitious military shooter simulation to date.
The game's lead AI designer and senior designer, Clive Lindop, recently presented the game to the press behind closed doors and briefly showed it running in real time. (Read last week's preview to find out what we thought of it.) Afterwards, we had time to chat about several other elements of the game, and grilled Codemasters' military AI guru about the AI, the tech, the save system and how they're going to implement that perennial bugbear - a health system.
Eurogamer: When's Operation Flashpoint 2 actually coming out?
Clive Lindrop: Spring 2009 on PC, 360 and PS3.
Eurogamer: Has the parallel development of all three versions affected the design?
Clive Lindrop: It's always been a relatively convenient excuse for the games industry to look at consoles and go, 'Ah, they make games more stupid.' It's simply not true, if you design intelligently and develop your technology, it's the only way you could have built OFP2.
Eurogamer: How was OFP2's tech developed?
Clive Lindrop: Rather than taking a pre-existing engine and updating it to be "next-gen" we've had to build our own technology, because you need to be able to start from streaming the most basic of assets. So that when you're looking at, say, the console user's experience versus the PC user's experience, if you design the gameplay and mechanics the right way they will fundamentally have the same experience.
One of the things in OFP2 which primarily achieves that is the AI and the UI. The original OFP had a really unhelpful UI. You had 12 guys on F keys who you couldn't group properly. You can still have a complex command system and go to a map and lay out your own plan that can last the whole mission.
If you don't want to do that and just want to give out quick orders... Say you're in the middle of a firefight, you're pinned down and you want someone to flank right. You can just look at a piece of scenery, select the guy you want to talk to - because they're now grouped in proper echelons like fireteam squad - you know, "Go!" and they'll do it. The reason for that, of course, is because the AI can interpret this, such as how it's going to flank, what terrain it's going to use, what cover it's going to use.
Eurogamer: Do you have to spend time issuing commands as well as controlling it like a normal shooter?
Clive Lindrop: No, the player doesn't have to micro-manage everything the AI does, but if you want to micro-manage, you can. If you don't want to, you don't have to. It's possible for the player to never give an order, ever, in the entire campaign because the AI will just do it itself.
It'll follow you if you're in charge, but if you don't do anything, it'll find its own cover, its own target, he has his own simulated morale and expression. He could even abandon you. If he thinks you're a nutter because you keep running at machine gun posts, he'll stop following you. He'll tell you that. He'll tell you, 'I think you're losing it', and then the next thing you know you're on your own because they've left you.
You don't want a situation where you go, actually, these guys are a pain in the arse, not only are they useless, but they keep getting killed, so I'm going to leave them here and come back for them at the end of the mission. We want them to almost be better than you - good soldiers that you can rely on.
Eurogamer: What's the learning curve going to be like?
Clive Lindrop: It's a complex game, and we didn't want to simplify it. It's always tempting for a publisher to go, 'Well, the original game had a hardcore audience so we'll simplify it.' We don't have to. If you make the learning curve literally visual, so that when you start the game you start as a private. I'm in command of an AI officer, and if you watch him fight, his tactics, and how he gives orders and what kinds of things he does, the player will naturally learn how to fight. So all this visual stuff has a practical aim.
Eurogamer: Can you describe the health system?
Clive Lindrop: If a 50 cal round hits you, you vaporise, and your arms come off! So health system-wise, you're dead! There's no hiding behind something while a ticker goes up. We have something called a Catastrophic Body Damage System - but there's a purpose to it. When somebody gets hit by a bullet, it hurts, and it does catastrophic damage to the body.
Quite often you'll hear people talking about OFP2 almost as an anti-war game. The experience you come out of it with is an appreciation of what absolutely massive balls the guys in Afghanistan must have, because it's a frightening experience but also shows how horrific war is.
If you get hit by a small round, say like a 9mm or a 5.56, and you've got body armour on and you get a wound, you can be stabilised - but you might suffer. You might get a limp. But there's no healing you up to full health again. Once you're hurt, you're hurt for the rest of the mission, so there is value in not getting shot.
That's what drives that adrenaline rush. If you sprint across a street, you know if you take one round you could be a dead man. So I've got to get my guy to lay down suppressing fire to keep the enemy's head down, and then I'm going to rush across. And when you make it across and kick the door down and you're in cover again, there's much more of a sense of imminent danger at all times.
Eurogamer: Will the game support quicksave or checkpoint progress?
Clive Lindrop: One of the things the first game was quite famous for was that you could play it for two hours, and if you died, it was a case of, 'Sorry dude, start the mission again.' What? Did you save me anywhere? No! So, part of the difficulty setting allows you to be as masochistic as you want to be with yourself.
If you want that experience, which some guys do, it's one of those games where, like the first generation of MMOs where you had permadeath - some guys kind of like that brutality, and like the fact the game is very hard on you.
But in the sequel, rather than forcing the player to do one thing, if you just give them the choice and just want the experience of going through the campaign, don't do the hardcore mode. You can still have that sense of imminent danger, even if it's a bit more forgiving in terms of save slots. It's much more about giving the player that choice.
It's based on a real situation happening in the present day. There is a massive oil field underneath the island. It's something which could happen tomorrow - we really wanted to find something that's believable in the sense that if you wanted to read up about it online, you'll see it. We want that realistic documentary feel.
Eurogamer: Is there going to be a demo?
Clive Lindrop: I don't know actually. I'm pretty sure we'd like to do one. It's really about trying to design a mission that allows us to do that. I'm pretty sure we will, because it's something that the original did very well, so I see no reason why we wouldn't - it's just not something I've seen on the schedule yet.
Because people have been waiting for so long we want something that shows, no seriously, not only is it real, but it does all the things that we're saying it does. GRID had very much the same arc... After three years of my life, it's going to do it!
Check back in the coming months for our first hands-on coverage of Operation Flashpoint 2. The game will be published by Codemasters in Spring 2009 and is coming to Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.