Renegade Ops made a strong splash on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network last month with a speedy vehicle-based action game that reminded many of EA's classic Strike series (Desert Strike, Jungle Strike, etc.) – albeit with online and split-screen co-op, as well as slick visuals provided by the Just Cause 2 engine. With Avalanche Studios gearing up for the impending Steam release, which surprisingly features Half-Life hero Gordon Freeman as a playable driver, we spoke with game director Axel Lindberg about the genesis of the downloadable release, as well securing Freeman's cameo and what's next for the series.
GamesRadar: How did the original idea for Renegade Ops come about?
Axel Lindberg: We were at the end of developing Just Cause 2, and we were playing around with the game and the mechanics. We actually made a top-down version of it with the same controls, but we put the camera from a top-down perspective and tried playing the game like that. A bunch of people started gathering around the computer, and we were all getting excited about the notion of using the Avalanche Engine to do a game that was inspired by old-school games. We were all standing there talking about some of our favorite old games for the Amiga, NES, and Super NES, and that whole 80s, early 90s era of gaming. A bunch of us sat down and talked about it, and we put together a concept pitch and approached Sega about it – and they were interested. That's kind of how it got started.
Coming off Just Cause 2, how did you adjust to making a much smaller and more sharply focused downloadable game?
We knew from the start that we would have to have a very different approach, in terms of design, planning, and production, and because we had a much smaller team. The core team consisted of eight people when we started out, so we also had the limitations of those eight people. We were really lucky because all of the people on the core team were senior colleagues that were excited about doing this type of project and had a big passion for it – like old arcade game lovers. They were all pushing to be on this project, and also having senior people like that really helped a lot because we needed to have multitalented people. That was a good thing for us, because we needed to cover a lot of areas together between us eight.
It was a completely different scope. Just Cause 2 was huge – it was a game that was all centered around the notion of endless possibilities and allowing players to do whatever they want within the game. And in this game, we realized, "Wow, we can't do that. We really need to find a good, core mechanics loop and really lean on that." That's one really big difference from a design standpoint. From the start, we went right to the core mechanics and were iterating and polishing them quite a lot, putting a lot of energy into just driving around and shooting.
Can you tell us about some of the influences you were drawing from when you started designing the game?
Sure. As I said we were all reminiscing about our golden oldies favorites, and there were lots of games just being thrown around, like Jackal, Cannon Fodder, and Desert and Jungle Strike. Those three games were the ones that we landed on for the concept pitch – we were trying to find the combination of which of these old-school games are we going to draw most of our inspiration from. But there were tons of other games that we were talking about.
One thing that really stands out is how amazingly fluid the visuals and animations are, especially from such a zoomed-out perspective. How important was it for you guys to deliver a really impressive visual experience on a downloadable game?
I'd say it was very important. We have a design process called a "bull's eye," so we have three areas of the game with the closest to the target's center being most important, and requiring more focus and resources. At the center, we had over-the-top vehicular action, while the next one out was multiplayer, probably also because that was a big risk – we hadn't done that before. And the third one was AAA production values. We really wanted to create a game that felt expensive. [Laughs] We were thinking that it'd be really neat if it was like a really cheap watch that still feels like a Rolex.
What do you think is the strongest part of the experience?
I think we really did a great job on delivering a top-down, Hollywood blockbuster, over-the-top, and cheesy – but hopefully in a good way – action experience. Once again, we were talking about that really early, and we wanted burning, flipping cars rolling through buildings, and we really wanted it to feel like a Michael Bay movie, but cute, top-down, and bite-sized.
Equally as strong are the core mechanics. I'm really happy with how they turned out. I still get caught up in the game myself, personally. I've played the first level like a million times, and when I start up the first level now, I'm like, "Oh my god, not again." But when I get about halfway through, I really kind of lose myself and realize that I'm just driving around for fun. It's a cheap trick but I still really enjoy it – and it's fun just watching stuff blow up.
Given the chance for a do-over, is there anything you'd tweak or change?
Definitely. Good question, I like that one. [Laughs]
I think we could have worked more with pacing and boss fights. It's very intense and high-action, and that's definitely the goal we had, but I feel like we could have savored it a bit more sometimes. And from the beginning we really wanted to go nuts with the boss fights. The first boss is really hinting at that, because it's a pretty epic experience to fly out there in a helicopter and fight against a carrier. But I feel that if we had focused more on that, we could have brought that a lot further. We had ideas that we had to drop regarding boss fights, but I think we could have really nailed that.
Are you planning any downloadable content for the game?
That's a "no comment." Some statement will be coming soon.
OK. Beyond that potential thing, do you see this as a franchise? Do you expect to come back to Renegade Ops at some point?
From a creative standpoint, definitely. I'm really happy with the intellectual property – it's a fun IP, between the characters, the world, and the tone. It's very Avalanche-y, and it definitely has the same kind of humorous, over-the-top action vibe as Just Cause, but it's very much standing on its own legs. We built strong characters, and I think that there's lots of ways you could evolve the IP and do different types of things with that. There's definitely potential for it further down the line.
How were you able to secure Gordon Freeman from Half-Life for the PC version?
Actually, we were very surprised by that as well. We just asked Valve and the guys at Steam, "Hey, we'd like to do this." [Laughs] We weren't really expecting them to go along with it, but they were like, "Yeah, this is awesome. We love Just Cause 2, and this is great." We were really surprised and it's a blast. It's one of my favorite characters from the gaming industry, and it's awesome to be able to put that into a game that we're working on.
Now that you're all buddy-buddy with Valve, is there any chance you'll be developing Half-Life 2: Episode 3?
[Laughs] No comment.
Do you feel like there's a need to placate PC gamers with bonus content when they feel slighted by a late release or what they see as a compromised port?
Yes, when that is the case. But in this case, in regards to Gordon, it wasn't intended to smooth the feeling of being slighted. That wasn't the intention at all. Putting Gordon in was purely something that we thought would be a good idea, and it happened. I hope that people feel that they're getting something more from the PC version. I wish it was out at the same time; we couldn't make it happen, but Gordon is definitely in there because we wanted him in there, and it's not purely a business decision or a "sweetening the deal" kind of thing. It's definitely something that we're standing behind, and we love it.
Do you think we can expect more downloadable games in Avalanche's future?
Yeah, I think so. Definitely. We've had awesome fun doing this game and it's been very refreshing coming out of a huge project like Just Cause 2. It's a really different challenge working on a small project with a much shorter timeframe, but it's also fun because it's very different, and we're like a little family on this team. We've gotten so much tighter just sitting in the same room. It's like we're kids sitting in a cellar somewhere making games together – a lot more than when we're in a big production. I love big productions as well; it's just very different styles of development with different strengths and weaknesses. But I think there's a high possibility of more.