Battlefield: Hardline, A New Hope

Visceral Games’ growth has definitely been an evolution over time,” explains Milham once upon a time he was the art director on the Dead Space series, but since the studio took on the Battlefield franchise, he’s been promoted to creative director. “We cut our teeth on a lot of the licenced stuff a few years ago, culminating with From Russia With Love which had a certain number of our team on that title; development] in that ended in 2005.”

Visceral started out as a branch of EA specialising on the publisher’s licenced games The Lord Of The Rings, James Bond, The Godfather, The Simpsons the games might not have been the best of Visceral’s output, but working within the confines of the licence the team at least made good games projects that weren’t just cynical cash-ins. EA allowed Redwood Shores (Visceral’s name at the time) to go off and do its own thing within the publisher’s properties. Then, the team decided they deserved to work on their own IP all Redwood Shores’ games had been profitable, and all had reviewed well, so now it wanted to join the ranks of the EA elite: Criterion, DICE, Maxis, EA Montreal.

“We just felt like it was time we put our foot down… I mean in that time we made a bunch of different kinds of games, it wasn’t just licenced games,” says Milham. “We had ideas about the game we wanted to make, so [EA] gave us a short chance to experiment, and that experiment gradually grew into Dead Space.” Dead Space was proof that Redwood Shores could stand alone, that it could be trusted to do its own thing, that it was a studio worthy of note. A critical and commercial success, its cinematically-influenced storyline complemented the meticulously-designed world wonderfully, and the unique spin the game took on UI and combat found a place in the hearts of players that were quickly becoming disenfranchised with the other third-person shooters on offer at the time.

“[Developing Dead Space] taught us a lot, we learned a lot,” reveals Milham. “I think we took a step up in quality; we learned about what kinds of games we wanted to make and what we wanted to do. That’s when we sort of aligned around that type of game-making and that’s how the name Visceral came up.” In 2009, a year after Dead Space’s launch, EA Redwood Shores transformed the one million sales of Dead Space allowed it to break out of its EA-branded identity and choose a name for itself. It became Visceral, and by 2010, Dead Space had sold another million copies.

Dead Space proved to be a juggernaut of a franchise the gaming audience apparently hungry for the sci-fi space-Gothicism that Dead Space was built around. Interesting, innovative gunplay, claustrophobia, constraint, Lovecraftian evils and body horror apparently made for a creation that gamers couldn’t consume quick enough. Visceral continued on, with other (admittedly less successful) ventures: Dante’s Inferno, Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel and the studio’s first brushing with Battlefield in the Battlefield 3 add-on, End Game. Visceral went from strength to strength, but it was time to move on. “I think we all learned a philosophy of making games from the Dead Space days, and developed a hunger for quality that has served us all since then,” Milham reflects.

“We went through three… well, if you count Dead Space: Extraction which some of us worked on we went through four games in the Dead Space series and that led us up to a couple of years ago,” Milham describes, counting the years out. “To be honest it just felt like a lot of us had worked on that for six or seven years, and we felt like it was time to try something else. Around that same time we were trading tips and hanging out more with our sister studio DICE and [the idea of working on Battlefield] just sort of organically came up, ‘Hey, why don’t we try something fresh and different over here?’ we said. And they were also looking to maybe have some more Battlefield help and it organically grew from that some of us have been playing Battlefield since it came out in the very beginning.”

Milam told us that he and the team at Visceral appreciated Battlefield, that they thought the series was ready to be taken in a separate direction the foundations for Battlefield had been established: the 32-player death matches, the tactical modes, the vehicles, the squads… it all worked, and worked well. But Battlefield needed a change, and Visceral wanted to do something different.

“When we were first talking with the DICE guys, we wanted to establish [a new direction for the series] and DICE was totally open to it,” Milham recounts. “It kind of felt like the right move; the idea was not to annualise the franchise, in this invisible ‘Every Fall we come out with a Battlefield and they are all the same’ type of plan.I think what’s so awesome about the foundation that Battlefield has built up is that those mechanics and that amount of stuff going on, you can really adapt to a lot of different things. So yeah, from the beginning we were like ‘We don’t just want to do another numbered one’, you know Battlefield 5 or something DICE is doing a pretty fine job of that already. So we were interested in doing a fresh take on it, and I hope people enjoy it.”

This fresh take Battlefield focuses on revolves around three core facets an improved single-player experience,a focus on speed and the fulfillment  of everyone’s inner ‘cop fantasy’. Milham explains it further: “What I loved about the ‘cops ‘n’ robbers’ pitch is a couple of things; it’s instantly relatable, people get it. There’s not a  lot of world building or explaining to do. The fantasies are very common, it felt like the game modes and experiences just immediately suggested themselves. If you joined our team and you wrote a list ‘In a cops and robbers game, here’s what I wanna do: if I’m a robber,I want to rob banks. If I’m  a cop,I want to go ‘WOOP !’ with the lights [laughs]’ your list would probably mirror very closely what we already wrote.So it felt like we had a real target to hit with it, and I think we have. The music, the characters, the whole thing, it felt different and fresh compared to what’s out there.”

Milham’s right Hardline does feel incredibly different to what’s already out there. Using Visceral’s trademark penchant for reality and a development style that’s more grounded in reality, Hardline presents itself as a more understandable, character-centred game… well, at least the single-player mode does. “You see a certain industry trend, I think, going towards sci-fi, as people have done a lot of modern military. But we had just spent seven years making sci-fi games, and we just felt like it was time for something different. And here was a whole spot that we felt could be cool and fresh in the marketplace.”
Visceral takes its narrative experiences seriously you need only take a cursory glance at a Dead Space synopsis to see that and Hardline is no different. You hear a lot of developers making false promises when it comes to delivering film-rivalling, cinematically-inspired games, though, so we asked what makes Hardline different what makes it stand out from the military simulator-lite games that flood the FPS genre.

“Our goal is not to make a realistic police simulator,” Milham replies. “It never was and it still isn’t. We wanted to feel much more like a quality crime drama. One of the things that we love about this setting is that there’s no need for a lot of plot and world building. There’s no crazy ex-Russian general trying to use a nuclear weapon to destroy the world. We don’t have to come up with a silly excuse to create World War III.”

“The cops and criminals thing just feels like such an under-explored area,” explains Visceral’s vice president and general manager, Steve Papoutsis. “There’s a bunch of great stuff there, whether you look at books, TV, music, comics it’s been part of our culture for so long, so we had a lot of great material to draw from.” But focusing on a more domestic theme comes with its own dilemmas the publicity campaign for Hardline could arguably have hit some bad timing when it began after E3 last year, in the wake of the Ferguson unrest in Missouri. Police brutality and the excessive use of force was an uneasy topic in America at the time, and some of the Hardline publicity garnered a negative reaction from consumers.

We asked Milham if the media reaction to the incidents had in any way altered how Visceral was approaching its key theme. “We haven’t necessarily toned down anything [in Hardline] as a reaction to [Ferguson], specifically. I think the issues of police use of force and militarisation are real, and have certainly come to the forefront more than we knew or expected when we started this project.

“But, I think when people see and play what we are doing the differences will be clear. Our police are also jumping off of skyscrapers with parachutes, and yes, they are using wildly excessive force to stop bank robbers. But that’s because we are doing a cops ‘n’ robbers fantasy world, not an accurate police simulator.”

The difference between a flight of fantasy like Hardline versus, say, an actual commentary on the military and modern society’s blurred morality when  it  comes to invasion (let’s say Spec Ops: The Line, for example…)  is that Hardline takes a much more intimate approach with its characters. If keeping Isaac Clarke’s festering insanity alive for three games has taught the studio anything, it’s how to make the player genuinely care about their in-game avatar.

“The characters are the story,” states Milham. “They already know each other and they are already opposed from each other, and all you need is good characters and cracking dialogue to get somewhere cool with it. So we went  to  the people who know that stuff the best.” And Visceral really did. Bill Johnson a director on hit cop show Justified, was brought on board to help with the concept and tone of the game, alongside narrative consultant Wendy Calhoun, who was a writer on Justified, Empire and Nashville all featuring stories the game is keen to learn lessons from.

“One of the things we found most interesting when developing this game was the analogue we discovered when observing the similarities between TV and game development,” explains Papoutsis. “For many years, people talked about games like movies. Thing is, films are like two and a half hours long…TV is actually more similar to games: an episode is more like a level, and a game takes place  across multiple episodes, so when we discovered that angle,  we started trying to figure out how TV starting and pacing  really worked that’s where we brought in Calhoun. She  really helped us understand that narrative structure, about  how TV is paced out over multi-episode seasons.

“What we loved about working the TV angle was the ‘Previously on…’ and ‘Next time…’ parts. So, in our  game,  let’s say you have to take a break, and you’re not going to play it through in one sitting. When you’re getting to exit,  it  prompts you with ‘Next Time…’ so you get that little teaser about what the next episode might be, if you want. You can bypass it for spoilers’ sake if you’d rather not see it, though. That’s something on TV that really works for me it keeps  me excited and makes me want to come back. One of the  things in games that’s always been challenging, too, is that  if  you take a break for a few days and come back later in the  week, you can find it hard to remember what was going on. So, in Hardline, we’ve included a “Previously On…”, which will include a recap on what you’ve done previously in the  game.”

The cast and crew of the game (both core and extended) come from a healthy cop show heritage, with a bonus casting of a True Detective actress in-game, too. Visceral means  it when it says it’s taking the ‘cop fantasy’ seriously, but that means more than just being a game where you can hop in a cop car, start the sirens blaring and tune into KRS One’s Sound Of Da Police(well, you can do all that, and it feels great, but every shooter needs a little bit more depth than that…) In that respect, it’s interesting to rewind a little bit and revisit Visceral’s history: where you notice that two of the studio’s key staff ex-general manager Glen Schofield and senior development director Michael Condrey departed the studio in 2009 to set up Sledgehammer Games. You know, the team that made Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare. We asked Milham whether there was still any contact with the old Visceral employees, and whether he traded notes with Sledgehammer during the creative process on Hardline.

“So the answer is: yes and no,” he laughs. “Game teams are big, and a lot of talented people have joined both studios since Glen [Schofield] and Mike [Condrey] formed Sledgehammer, and they have been doing an awesome job with what they’re doing, and I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job with what we’re doing. We’re all still in touch, and there’s really no…” Milham pauses and smiles briefly. “If there is any rivalry there, it’s very friendly. It’s good for games, it’s good for the industry, and it’s good for each other if we are both successful.” Milham pauses again and seems to reflect, folding his hands in his lap and staring out the office window in the room we’re chatting with him in.

“Actually, it’s been really fun to have that Dead Space team grow and flourish into these two big, big projects. I think anybody that plays them will see how different the games are, and how complementary they are to each other, and how we’ve both grown separately and all that kind stuff. We’re cheering for them and I’d hope they are cheering for us.”

So where next for Visceral? Once Battlefield releases on 19 March, the studio will be providing the community with the help and tools it needs to cement the game as a solid fixture in the online multiplayer community. But a studio like Visceral always has more than one project in the works, and we’ve heard rumours floating around that Visceral took a keen interest in the Star Wars IP when EA came into the rights to the franchise last year…

“We love action games,” Milham tells us, “always have, always will. You know, the third-person Dead Space-y type ones. The lessons that we’ve learned about uncompromising quality, [in game and] story, and the things we’ve learnt about Frostbite… all of those things will be in [our next] game.”

Papoutsis continues, “Getting the opportunity to work on an IP as cool as Star Wars is really exciting to all of us here, but what’s more exciting working that closely with the licensor is that they’re really interested in leaning into our expertise from a game development perspective and even a story perspective, actually. We’ve brought in Amy Hennig, who’s an amazing creative director and absolutely amazing from a narrative view, too, so we’re really excited about what we can do in [Lucas’] universe. Lucas is really encouraging us to use our own story threads and not make a game based on the movies, but rather create something else within the Star Wars universe. That’s really exciting for us.”

So it seems Visceral has taken the time to come back down to earth, experiment with the FPS (to rapturous applause, if the six million players that took part in the open beta are anything to go by), talk to DICE about the intricacies of the phenomenal Frostbite engine, and is readying itself to go back into space for an adventure that could crown Visceral as the new master of the narrative-action game. Watch out, Naughty Dog, you’ve got a contender to your throne.

Post a Comment