Talking Headhunters

We chat to Amuze creative director John Kroknes about Headhunter: Redemption - what it's about, how it compares to the original, and what happened to Jack Wade's motorbike...

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Summer blockbusters are something that moviegoers are more than used to by now, but it's not often that the games industry throws up a bona fide summer blockbuster. With Headhunter: Redemption though, Sega and Amuze is fostering a cinematic blend of action and adventure the likes of which so many big-screen prospects are fumbling at the moment. The original, starring motorcycle-riding 'headhunter' Jack Wade, was an interesting mixture of stealth and action that we rather liked. With the sequel due out next month, we flagged down creative director John Kroknes as he sped past on Jack's bike and found out what makes Redemption tick. And, to begin with, who's redeeming what...

Eurogamer: The game's called Headhunter: Redemption, then. Why call it that?

John Kroknes: With this second instalment in the franchise, we tried to give real depth to our characters and storyline. Jack Wade and his new sidekick, Leeza X, both face personal demons and grow as characters during their adventure, while saving the world from catastrophe at the same time. They redeem themselves from past mistakes and give society a chance to start over - hence 'Redemption' in the title. Plus it sounds cool!

Eurogamer: Was there anything in the original that you couldn't redeem? Rather, is there anything we saw in Headhunter 1, in gameplay terms, that you've decided not to include?

John Kroknes: Like Jack and Leeza, we try to learn from our mistakes. All the core elements of the Headhunter world are still in place, though we tilted the balance slightly away from stealth in favour of more intense combat action. The only significant omission is the bike riding, which a lot of players found frustrating in the first game. The further we got into development on HHR, the more we felt that the biking sequences distracted from the flow of the story and the gameplay. We didn't want to go the mini-game route of other franchises, or attempt the kind of limitless roaming many players expect with vehicles today. Headhunter is about thrilling, fast-paced gameplay within a strong movie-style storyline, and HHR delivers that.

Eurogamer: We understand that Jack and Leeza are out to stop a ring of smuggler's unleashing a terrible catastrophe - can you tell us anything more about the plot?

John Kroknes: The smuggling plot that emerges during Leeza's first mission as a Headhunter is just the tip of a very large and nasty iceberg! The mysterious Opposition Network is challenging the new world order that emerged from the chaos at the end of the first game, but it seems others are manipulating events for their own ends too. The story takes Jack into deeper, darker territory than before, with a genuinely surprising finale that we're not about to reveal. But needless to say, the story has all the twists and turns, larger-than-life characters and satirical humour that are the hallmarks of a Headhunter game.

Eurogamer: Sega describes the game as having been inspired by "the best action movie blockbusters of today" - is that a fair assessment? If so, which of these movies would you say most directly inspired you?

John Kroknes: The first game was directly influenced by 80's action movies and the cheesy sci-fi blockbusters of Paul Verhoeven. The influences on HHR are less obvious, as the franchise has evolved its own identity, with a style and a sense of humour of its own. Players will probably find echoes of many movies from the 90s onwards, particularly key sci-fi titles, reflecting the way our story has moved twenty years further into the future. But the real similarity is in the scale and production values, not the story content - HHR looks, feels and plays like a big, epic movie.

Eurogamer: Leeza X. We've seen her described as "a reluctant sidekick" - why's that?

John Kroknes: Well, Leeza has a lot of issues in her past, which make her naturally rebel against an older authority figure like Jack. Jack basically blackmails her into becoming a Headhunter, which sets up a dramatic tension between the characters at the outset, avoiding the off-the-peg buddy stuff you typically find in games. We wanted to give both main characters an arc that is played out - literally - through the course of the game. So Leeza starts off as a reluctant novice, allowing the player to grow into the role of a Headhunter before playing as the veteran Jack once again. By the end of the story, the player has played both characters and seen their relationship really develop. Their attitudes to each other and to the job are quite different by then.

Eurogamer: How are you handling the two characters? Will there be a pair of campaigns, interlinking stories? How will it work?

John Kroknes: The game is story-driven rather than campaign or mission-based. Just like in a movie, the two characters weave in and out of the story, with the action crosscutting between them. Although the characters appear together in cut-scenes, the plot takes them off in different directions for the action. We used this approach in the first game and developed it further in HHR, so you get to play several times as each character. Gameplay is split pretty much equally between Jack and Leeza, so the player gets a strong sense of both characters by the end.

Eurogamer: How will the two characters differ in gameplay terms?

John Kroknes: One of the big advances over the first game is that the two characters in HHR offer genuinely different gameplay experiences, rather than just looking different. Leeza is more youthful and acrobatic, and this is reflected in her movements and the challenges thrown at her by the environment. Jack is older and more heavyweight, more brute force in his approach. When he finally shoulders the burden of the story and goes after the bad guys, the player feels 'Wow, Jack is back - now I'm really gonna kick some ass!'

Eurogamer: How do the scanners work? What sort of things can you do with them?

John Kroknes: You switch to first-person view to scan your surroundings and zoom in on details with the IRIS. The IRIS highlights objects in the environment that you can interact with - you can then scan them to learn more about their function and, typically, find clues about how to advance further with your mission. It's not about scanning the scenery for the sake of it, or just collecting information about the world around you - the IRIS is a practical tool that can give you a real advantage in some scenarios and reveal the only way forward in others.

Eurogamer: Does Jack still have his bike?

John Kroknes: Jack still rides his bike, but this only appears in a handful of cut-scenes, pretty much for the nostalgia factor. The bike does not feature in gameplay.

Eurogamer: You're using lots of different gameplay elements again. Why do this, and how much of each thing can we expect?

John Kroknes: Actually, the gameplay of Headhunter never really featured that many elements, and HHR is even more focused. Intense shooting action is the core, with a range of evasive manoeuvres proving vital to your success. Stealth is less prominent this time, but it's often a wise tactical approach - a way of evening the odds before plunging into a firefight. The other trademark of the franchise is the puzzles, which are still in evidence but are better integrated in the story and the environments this time around. Again, we feel Headhunter has established its own personality now, and this is reflected in the puzzles as much as the rest of the gameplay.

Headhunter: Redemption is due out in Europe next month on PS2 and Xbox.

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About the author

Tom Bramwell

Tom Bramwell

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Tom worked at Eurogamer from early 2000 to late 2014, including seven years as Editor-in-Chief.

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