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Q&A: Avalanche Studios Talks Up Renegade Ops' 16-Bit Style

Just Cause 2 developer Avalanche Studios talks to Gamasutra about its upcoming Renegade Ops, vehicular combat, "collateral justice," and making games with loose control feel satisfying to play.
Where Swedish game studio Avalanche's previous game, Just Cause 2, was an over-the-top mishmash of open world missions and impossible physics (the tether in that game has been put to extensive use in a number of amusing YouTube videos), the company's new game Renegade Ops throws back to simpler times. Renegade Ops -- published by Sega -- is coming to Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam, and features top-down vehicular combat, with missions, destruction, bouncy physics, and lots of shooting. While the game isn't as wackiness-friendly as its predecessor, it retains the silliness of games from the 16-bit era, which played it straight while allowing or encouraging the impossible. This is a much more mechanics-based game than Just Cause, but many of the underlying principles are the same - in fact, it uses the same technology. We spoke with Avalanche game director Axel Lindberg and senior producer Andreas Thorssen to see how they're trying to revive the vehicular combat genre. You're using the Just Cause 2 engine for this, how was your experience using that for Renegade Ops? Andreas Thorssen: There's really not that much of a difference because we've basically just raised the camera up. I mean we still have the same explosions or even better explosions than what we had in Just Cause 2 so it's pretty much just the same thing but with the top-down camera. Axel Lindberg: I'd say the big difference between the two games is that while Just Cause was a lot about doing really crazy stuff and using the physics and grappling hook to just play around and be crazy with the game, this game is a bit more mechanic-centered, so it borrows more from the classic shooter genre, so there's more strategy to it. AT: And some of the things we've been forced to do because we're aiming for 60 FPS is optimize everything and throw everything out that we won't use, and even though we still have AAA physics, in Renegade Ops we've optimized it so we're only using the parts we really need for this kind of game. Yeah it certainly feels more mechanics oriented than crazy “let's tether a plane to another plane” kind of stuff. What made you decide to go more in that direction? AL: I think that a lot of the games that we are inspired by doing Renegade Ops are more from the mid-80s early-90s, we're not looking so much at games today but more from back then, and the games from back then were a lot more mechanics-oriented, so we really wanted to create a sense of nostalgia with this game and we really want people to be like “Wow this is like Jungle Strike or Jackal,” and really start reminiscing about those games. AT: And also a couple of us felt we wanted to do something shorter with a shorter development cycle, and a more intimate team, so it was a perfect fit to do something where you can't focus on anything else than the excellent core mechanics. It's a different kind of over-the-top. It's got more of the 80s-90s style over-the-top where everything is kind of silly and ridiculous, but it's more above the gameplay than part of the gameplay, like constantly flipping over and rolling into things, where you're just destroying this village you're supposed to be saving and stuff like that. AL: We call it collateral justice, because they're there to save the village but most of the time the village just gets leveled to the ground anyway. The big difference we're doing with Renegade Ops compared to what shooters usually do is we've moved away from this precision control. Usually in shooters you have very tight responsive controls over your vehicle and you're trying to avoid slow-moving bullets. In Renegade Ops we've kind of mixed the shooter parts with more of a racing game so the cars actually have real physics like from the Just Cause 2 engine, and they will drift and flip over and flip through houses and bring houses down. That's bringing a new challenge to the shooter genre because now it's not all about shooting, it's also about getting there quickly and driving well between the different objectives you have. And as you complete objects you get scores and the quicker you are at completing them the better the score you get. It almost feels like you're sometimes wrestling with the controls but not in a bad way. AT: Stumbling off a cliff can be a good way of getting out of trouble. How did you decide on all-direction control vs. RC control? AL: We tried both of them actually and we had some discussions about it early on in the project, but our conclusion was that you can't do RC control with 360 shooting at the same time, it's kind of like you're doing two things at the same time and it messes up your head, and that's like what you said – for some people it takes a while to get into how the controls are. Being a top-down shooter, people expect the vehicles to respond very quickly, but in our game it's almost more like, I'd compare it to the Warthog in Halo. There's a lot of drifting, it's not about precision, it's about finding that feel of how when you should turn to get your weight to shift through the corner in the right way. Yeah it's more like you're aiming your car than steering it. With your primary and secondary objective system, I felt like it was a little difficult to see some of the objectives, because the indicators would often blend into the background, have you considered changing that a little? AT: Yeah, we're still working on it. We've tried several different ideas, but I think when you get into the game you will be used to those sorts of missions because rescuing prisoners you will know where they are and it won't be that hard anymore. AL: It may not look like it at first glance, but there's definitely a depth to the game and that's something we really want to provide as well, so if there's four characters, and each have their own abilities, you can level-up your characters, you can unlock upgrades and players can change how their abilities work, and also learn levels. In casual you don't have to, but in hardcore if you want the high leader board rankings you really need to strategize around how you should complete a level, like which base should I start off on. And in hardcore mode we also have a damage streak mechanic which is kind of like in Tony Hawk where you try to combo stuff together and get the biggest chain you can get. We're doing that in hardcore as well, so at that point it gets really important to consider what character you're using for each level -- and what kinds of upgrades you're using, and which order you take out all the prisoners. How did you tune the racing vs. shooting destruction elements of this? You've got to get both right simultaneously – was that a challenge? AL: The game has a very high tempo and the enemy bullets also move very quickly, so basically you can't really avoid them. You can, to some degree, but you're always going to take a little bit of damage, so enemies drop health pick-ups. What you need to be doing as a player is make sure that you're using your ability your secondary weapons and driving and approaching a combat scenario in a way that you're losing as little health as possible, where you're staying on the plus-side of it. In our current demo we have tanks, which is one of the advanced elite units, we have several more of those coming. As you play through each level we introduce more elite enemies and each elite enemy has a very specific strategy which is the most effective against it. Once again it can depend on what player you are and what upgrades you have. So the tank is one of those where it has a weak spot that is covered at first, so you have to do a certain amount of damage to it before the weak spot is exposed. But if you have a rocket you can use just one rocket to kill them right in the engine so just within that enemy type you can get really skilled at just taking out tanks and there's a difference between experienced players and a new player. Part of the enjoyment of the destruction of stuff is the different ways you can blow things up, I noticed you can run over guys and your tires leave bloody marks for a bit, how many kinds of those little details did you put in? Was there much attention given to that or were you more trying to focus on the actual playing of it? AT: The guy who was the head environment artist and head [of] effects on Just Cause 1 and 2 is our art director, and ever since he was a kid he's just been blowing his toys up with fireworks and stuff, so he really likes blowing stuff up, it's one of his biggest things. So we really wanted that detailed, gritty look on everything so we wanted to feel like you're playing a AAA game with all those details but with a camera above.

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