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Spec Ops: The Line interview: Yager on creating emotive desert warfare

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'Spec Ops: The Line' screenshot

© 2K Games

Spec Ops: The Line promises to deliver a fresh take on the military shooter with a strong narrative focus and innovative sand-based mechanics. It's a squad-based affair rich in both strategic and emotional depth, with enough potential to set new standards in its genre.

We caught up with senior associate producer Michael Kempson and managing director Timo Ullmann to find out what the desert has in store for players.

> Read our hands-on preview with Spec Ops: The Line

This is the ninth entry in the Spec Ops series. Were you influenced by any elements from the previous games?
Timo:"To tell you the truth, not at all. When 2K approached us and asked us if we were interested in doing something under the Spec Ops umbrella, they said, 'You don't have to take anything from the past, basically you have carte blanche', and so that's what we did.

"Of course, some of our guys knew the old series, but we deliberately tried to stay away from it to create something new."

Michael: "Dembe Grace, our producer on the publishing side, is the only member working on the project who ever worked on Spec Ops. Back in the day he was actually a playtester, and he worked on the old Spec Ops games."

'Spec Ops: The Line' screenshot

© 2K Games



How do you think fans of the series will respond to this approach?
Michael: "I think the key difference is that the old games were budget titles, they weren't what we regard as 'Triple-A'. They didn't have the big-budget story and things like that. They were tactical games, more in the realm of your SOCOMs.

"We've retained a lot of the squad elements, but the narrative is the core of our game, and hopefully the fans will appreciate that as it's something that was lacking in the past."

Sand plays a central role in the game. Can you tell us how it impacts on the gameplay?
Timo: "There are a couple of elements that you'll find. For instance, the sand bombs, or if you throw a grenade, and you get blinded, the visuals start to change. The same goes for the sandstorms. They drastically change the way you play. The shotgun all of a sudden becomes your most accurate weapon, and you are more dependent on the sound in the absence of visibility.

"Then of course, there are the sand avalanches that you meet from time to time. They are a hidden danger for you, but can be used against enemies as well."

Michael: "We walked through a lot of sand and conducted an epic scale of environmental research. The cool things on the gameplay side about the sand avalanches, the sand bombs, and the sandstorms is the way our AI is working with that.

'Spec Ops: The Line' screenshot

© 2K Games



"The way we are approaching AI is more generic than some of the games in this genre. It's more akin to the Halo style of combat where they have more free-flow combat, but the way ours works differently to that is with the sand gameplay.

"With the sand bombs, when the grenades go off, all the soldiers will be stunned by that. It's very much the same with the sandstorm. The way the AI works is [that] they have lots of different factors that determines how they're going to fight - vision, hearing, and other set radiuses in the design, which determine what they are going to do.

"When the sand mechanics come in, those get drastically altered to give the perception to the player that these are actually doing really impactful things to the combat. You can tell in the sandstorms that they aren't firing at you from distance any more, they're waiting to get close.

"Sometimes they're just rushing at you, which is a really cool one. We have this berserk behaviour, so when an enemy is unable to get a line of sight on you in a sandstorm, they'll rush at you with their shotgun. The shotgun is as useful to you as it is to an enemy at that point, which is really cool."

'Spec Ops: The Line' screenshot

© 2K Games



Approximately how long is the single-player campaign?
Timo: "I would say eight to ten hours for the regular player."

Michael: "It's generally tuned on the harder side of things. You're not a big tank rolling through a level that can absorb bullets. You can't take too much damage, so you have to err on the side of caution. That plays into how long it's going to take the average guy to get through, but it's going to be fun seeing how people get through."

Timo: "Also, it will be interesting for players to go back to replay decisions to see what options they have."

"My favourite example of that is when you come across two guys hanging from a bridge. You've been asked to kill one of these, and because there is so much to it, you can just obey and carry out the order, but you could also choose to shoot the ropes, to do nothing, or to take on the snipers.

"So there's a lot of options, and what we want to present to the player is that this is really what Spec Ops is about - how war affects good people in a worsening situation. It can lead to totally contrasting moments."

'Spec Ops: The Line' screenshot

© 2K Games



So moments like this result in different outcomes and effectively shape the story?
Michael: "There's a recurring theme through the narrative, and the moral choices exemplify it and are going to make it different for players. Every player is going to have a unique experience defined by these moments.

"That first play-through is really critical. It's going to be great when players go back to see what could have been, but that first play-through is going to be your experience of the game. People are going to have their own ups, and their own downs."

So this is a game designed to be replayed?
Michael: "Yeah, definitely. One of the cool things as that we as developers get to watch people make these decisions. It's been really fascinating to see how people do respond. With some people you get a genuine reaction of, 'Oh my god, what have I done? Should I have done it the other way?' Personally, I'd like to watch these people play through the entire thing and see how they feel by the end."

'Spec Ops: The Line' screenshot

© 2K Games



What kind of multiplayer modes will be on offer?
Michael: "We don't want to go into details about the modes because it's being developed by another studio called Darkside, based in Miami, Florida. It's been a collaborative effort, so all those things like sand mechanics will come into play.

"We're not going to talk too in-depth about it because it's very much their baby as well, and we don't want to steal their thunder.

"There's some really interesting game modes out there, a lot of it playing into the sand mechanics. So all the sand mechanics from the single player game tie into the multiplayer as well. There's different spins on them, because when you enter a death match scenario with sand gameplay it mixes it up.

"It's a more of a personal multiplayer experience, it's not Battlefield. We'll let Darkside speak for themselves on that."

Given that this is a squad-based game, did you ever consider the possibility of adding co-op play?
Michael: "The honest answer is yes, there was. If you do a game with a guy and his two colleagues, of course there is. The discovery during development is that when you want to have these narrative moments and make something poignant, you can't really do that in a co-op scenario.

"What you actually need to happen there is [for] three guys to get together and come to a very close agreement about how they feel about each other, this game and what actions they will take. We discovered through the narrative process that you can't do that.

"It was thought about, but narrative is our focus. Maybe down the line there's ways to pull that off, but for this iteration we decided otherwise."


There has been talk of the game being banned in the United Arab Emirates. Do you think this is possible?
Timo: "We don't think so. There was some mentioning of that when Spec Ops got announced, but I think that if they have a look at the game they are going to appreciate what we have done. I think it's more of an advertisement for Dubai than anything else, and I don't think they are going to ban it for any reason.

"We get a lot of emails from guys from the Emirates, not only ex-pats but also locals, who say how cool they think it is that the city they live in is a backdrop for their game."

Michael: "And it's very much a backdrop. We're not sending any message about Dubai or getting into politics. It's an awesome city, a great city to set a game in. That's how we've approached it and it's been very inspiring. We think they should take it for what it is and what we think it is."

Is there a risk of it causing controversy in a similar way to Call of Duty?
Michael: "I would hope not in the way that Call of Duty has, to be honest. They have their reasons for doing things that way, and I won't attempt to second guess what their motivations are, that's for them.

"Hopefully with our game, we do want people to talk about it and look at the issues it presents. It's a mature title that, as you said, doesn't pull any punches with a lot of the presentation, and there are elements of the game that deserve to be discussed.

"I think they deserve to be discussed in a controlled manner. The discussions that would upset us are if it became anything negative reflecting on the game, but the core issues of war and horror, and all these things we hope to God never happen, should be discussed."

'Spec Ops: The Line' screenshot

© 2K Games



Timo: "We were trying to do something new here to the military shooter genre. In movies, you had the John Wayne films, then in the '70s and '80s those other movies surfaced like Platoon and Apocalypse Now, and we're trying to do something similar in games.

"We are not afraid to tackle controversy and spark discussion, but we are not out for cheap effects for the sake of controversy. So it's all in the context of what we are trying to achieve with Spec Ops."

We noticed some powerful imagery in the game such as tattered American flags. Was this an attempt at symbolism?
Timo: "Absolutely, and there are several layers to it. If you fly the flag upside down, it's a distress signal. Aware players will see all these layers that we have played around with."

Michael: "We spoke earlier about environmental storytelling, and the upside down flag is an example of that. We don't have a long discussion in the game about what that means or what it is. We put it out there for the players to see and form an opinion about. It's fine to interpret these things in different ways."


We understand you brought in a military advisor to help on the project. What did you learn from him?
Michael: "For the design team it was a real eye-opener. There are a lot of guys in the industry developing military games, but when any of them go hands-on with a military expert like Will, it's a real eye-opener.

"You don't realise just how much thought goes into a moment, and how quick those moments are. For the purpose of the player, things are relatively slowed down. You want them to be able to think, consider and act, but you realise when you talk to somebody like Will that all of that thought process would have to be done in a split second in real-life. You really don't appreciate that until you talk to a guy who has been there.

"A lot of the animation work was based on Will, the way he moves, the way he operates, the way he handles a gun and reloads. Seeing him handling a shotgun with such proficiency was just scary. As I said, it was an eye-opener for everyone involved."

Timo: "It was also a good starting point for identifying who the squad members are, what kind of positions they have. For instance, we have the interpreter Lugo, we have Adams there, the guys with the heavy guns.

"It was interesting to get some education, some background on how the roles are distributed in a squad like that, and how they are able to choose their own gear on a mission. That was valuable information."

> Digital Spy's hands-on preview of 'Spec Ops: The Line': 'Desert warfare with a twist'

Spec Ops: The Line will be released for Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3 on June 26 in the US and June 29 in Europe.

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