Just Cause 2 Interview: Peter Johansson and Fredrik Larsson

Developed by Avalanche Studios, Just Cause 2 finds Mr Rico Rodriguez returning to a much better, bulkier game world. Having unlimited access to a grapple hook, a parachute and a massive arsenal of death in a beautiful open-world is essentially a dream come true for most gamers.

To sweeten the pot this open-world goes out of its way to pat you on the back for all the destruction you cause. It's a lot of fun, but I came away with some questions that needed to be answered.

So I asked: What other Easter-eggs exist beyond the Lost island reference? Were fully destructible structures ever considered? Will Just Cause 2 ever end up on the Wii? How does the Heat system really work? Why on earth can't we purchase multiple items from the Black Market? I posed these and many more questions to Avalanche Studios.

Let's start with with Game Designer Peter Johansson:

What're the plans for Just Cause 2 DLC , and will any of it contain new islands?
There are plenty of DLC planned but unfortunately I cannot go into details of future DLC at the moment, sorry.

Will any of the DLC be free, if not what will it cost?
The first DLC item was released in all territories early April free of charge as a thank you to the community for their support of the game. We’ll continuously release more DLC at a very low cost and there may even be more free items available in the future.

Rockstar experienced less-than-expected sales with their DLC for Grand Theft Auto 4. Some believe this is due to the original games enormous amount of inconsumable content. Given the relative size of Just Cause 2 are there worries with the planned DLC performing similarly at Avalanche Studios?
Many of the coming DLC items for Just Cause 2 are tools that, for a very low price, immediately give you new ways to play around and experiment in the game world. So the DLC adds a new dimension to the core gameplay which makes it very accessible regardless of if you’ve already finished the story or not.

Besides the island dedicated to the TV show Lost I’m curious if there are any more hidden areas in the game you care to reveal or hint towards?
There are lots of hidden things to discover if you explore Panau and keep your eyes peeled. Hot air balloons, mechanical shark and, if you look hard enough, a bubble gun.

How is the game performing in the US in terms of sales?
I don’t have any sales numbers yet, but we’re very happy about the positive reception we’ve got from reviewers and the community so far.

In regards to the narrative, the game seems to walk the line between being serious and comedic--was this planned from the beginning or was it intended to lean more towards another direction?
Just Cause 2 allows you to do some insane over the top stunts. You have an unlimited amount of parachutes and a grappling hook that defies gravity simply because it makes the game more fun to play. At the same time, the theme of the story is quite serious in nature and some of the things that you can do in the game are really quite violent. Therefore, we felt that the overall tone of the game needed to be playful or it could all just end up being in bad taste.

Is any of the voice acting in the game meant to be humorous or ironic?
Yes, it’s meant to be lighthearted to fit in with the overall tone of the game.

Has work begun on Just Cause 3?
We have a lot of ideas for a sequel but nothing has been decided yet.

If Just Cause 3 is in the works, are there plans to include local and/or one-line coop?
There are no firm decisions yet about a sequel so naturally I can’t go into any details.

Were fully destructible buildings ever considered for the game?
Yes, we did some prototyping of it and our engine supports it but it was a bit too late to get it into the game since it also needs to fit into the logic of everything else that’s destructible. You also need to handle buildings that play an important part in missions etc. It’s something that really needs to be integrated into the design from the start.

Are there ever plans to bring Just Cause 2 to the Wii in any form?
There are no plans for that at the moment.

What's the theory--in terms of gameplay challenges for the player--behind the hybrid health system? Why combine both the regeneration and health pack mechanics instead of sticking to one?
In Just Cause 2 most enemies fire quick projectile attacks at you (i.e. bullets) and the accuracy of those attacks depends on your actions. If you stay exposed for too long, move or stand still then there’s always going to be a certain amount of randomness to it regardless of how well you play. Therefore a recharging system is suitable to ensure there’s a “shield” for those random hits and to give you time to react if your combat tactics arn’t up to scratch.

A fully recharging system usually punishes you very quickly with death since that forces you to stay on your toes at all times and constantly play tactically. Frequent deaths like that would be very frustrating in an open world game the size of Just Cause 2, so that’s why we opted for a hybrid system where instead of dying, you receive permanent damage that can only be recharged by health packs. That way combat can still be tactical and challenging, but not as hardcore or demanding as a pure shooter where each scenario can be directed in detail.

What was the biggest challenge for the team in terms of gameplay design?
I’d say that the biggest game design challenges when creating a non-linear open-world game the size of Just Cause 2 is to create a structure for the progression of the story, missions and rewards for the player.

Just Cause 2 already appears to have a fairly large fanbase due to its wacky departure from reality in terms of gameplay. For example falling 3000 feet without a parachute and suddenly using the grappling hook 50 feet above ground to pull yourself to safety. It's incredibly wacky, fun and rewarding trick to pull off! The first time I fully upgraded the Assault Rifle I expected it to shoot mini-missiles but nothing of the sort happened. It left me wondering why the weapons and vehicles don’t seem to follow suit.
We wanted the weapons to retain their basic properties even after upgrading, to keep the game balanced. But there’s a possibility for something like this for DLC.

Why doesn't Rico have the ability to grab on to ledges? In some cases it seems it would make it easier to navigate close quarter combat and environments.
It’s always a balancing act to decide where to spend development resources. A ledge grab system in such a large and varied game world as in Just Cause 2 is not a small undertaking, just consider the amount of QA required. And since Rico has the ability to traverse any object anyway with the grappling hook it was decided that those resources were better spent elsewhere.

Why is this process of purchasing items from the Black Market sandwiched in between two cut scenes? Why can’t we purchase multiple items at once?
I agree it would be nice to be able to purchase multiple items but unfortunately we couldn't implement it in time. It’s not simply a GUI issue, you must also consider where the items end up in the game world.

Was there ever an upgrade path considered for the grappling hook and parachute?
Yes, upgrading the grappling hook was considered but, again, it comes down to resources and time and how this would affect the overall balance of the game.

Have you had a chance to check out any of the community made mods like the Bolo patch? What are your thoughts on what they’ve added to the game?
Just Cause 2 has been a labor of love for us and all we want is for gamers everywhere to have fun with it so we really like the mods.

Can you explain in detail how the Heat system works? What conditions must be met to trip an alert? How does the meter cool?
Heat is triggered when you do certain actions that are considered hostile by the military, for example sabotaging their property or if you’re discovered in a restricted area. Heat starts to cool down if the military hasn’t seen you for a while.

The ability to run seems to be fairly ineffective. Was this designed specifically to not compete with the grapple system in any way?
The sprint is a bit quicker than the normal run but it’s mostly useful for very short distances. The grappling hook is always more effective if you want to get to anything that’s further away than about 20 meters.

How come some cutscenes can be skipped and some can't?
The Avalanche Engine constantly streams resources in and out of memory to enable the player to seamlessly navigate through the huge and detailed game world without interruption for loading. So when a cutscene is running, the engine streams resources for the next location and that’s why it can’t be skipped before loading is finished.

The other night I spent almost 2 hours trying to track down the final item in one of the larger cities to completely liberate it--it was exhaustive. I'm curious if it was ever considered by the team to assist the player in tracking down some of the more difficult items?
Resource items can be tracked by using the signal strength indicator in the upper left corner of the screen but there isn’t a similar system for other activities that count towards completion. There’s the military logo on items that can be sabotaged, but I agree they can sometimes be easy to miss in the larger locations.

A few systems to assist the player with this was considered, for example marking them out on the map or listing them in the database for each location so you know what to look for but that unfortunately couldn’t be implemented in time for release.

Moving on to Lead Programmer Fredrick Larsson:

What was the biggest technical challenge Avalanche Studios faced in developing Just Cause 2?
The biggest technical challenge would be the capitol city of Panau. We have always been good at drawing lots of trees and landscapes but we didn't have the necessary building blocks in our engine to be able to create the city when we started development.

The challenge was much harder than we thought it would be, mainly due to the fact that we couldn't cheat at all since the player is able to reach every surface of the city with the grappling hook.

Many hours of programming and optimization has been put into the city to make it acceptable as far as memory consumption and performance goes, but in the end it feels like it was worth it.

Why is the YouTube system that's present on the PS3 not integrated in the PC and X360 experiences?
The YouTube feature was actually included because Sony included it into their SDK and if it would have been a part of Microsoft’s XDK then we would have included it on the Xbox as well. I really hope that Microsoft includes it in the future because as an avid Xbox gamer I would really like to see that feature on the 360.

Did Avalanche Studios incorporate some kind of procedural shading and/or texture system to create the landscape or was it completely crafted by hand?
The landscape is partially handcrafted and partially procedurally generated. Artists 'paint' the landscape in an editor that we have created for them but instead of painting with colors they paint with heights and types. The type could for example be beach, arctic, desert or jungle and is the basis for how the landscape is generated.

It is not just the textures and shaders that are influenced by the type but also what kind of trees there are going to be and how sparse they are going to be placed, if there are going to be rocks on the ground and much more.

Was there strong debate amongst the team to exclude DX9/Windows XP support?
Actually there was very little debate regarding this decision. We all felt that it would steal too much focus from other features if we were to implement and support both DirectX9 and DirectX10. I am guessing that the reason we for choose DirectX10 is obvious for everybody that has played the game! We would never have been able to make it as beautiful on DirectX9.

The PC version of the game handles many things correctly like offering adjustable sliders for many graphical settings along with proper Xbox 360 controller support, but there is an issue that has cropped up with rebinding the ‘E’ key. Why can’t this be rebounded like other keys? Will that be changed in a future patch?
This is an annoying little bug that unfortunately got through our Q/A processes. If, or maybe rather when, we get to do another patch it will include a fix for this bug.


Rage Reviewed

One of my favorite things about id Software is how self-aware they are about their place in the industry. They fully realize their ability to craft graphically stunning worlds is unmatched, and they're even hip to how critics feel about their ability to tell stories--or the lack thereof--and it seemingly doesn’t concern them. This has been id Softwares modus operandi since Wolfenstein, all the way up to Doom 3. And hey, I thought Doom 3 was a lot of fun. It definitely provided enough entertainment for my $50, but that game was also released 7 years ago. The video game landscape--along with my personal preferences--has changed quite a bit. Though I love love LOVE me a gorgeous looking game, these days I need a little more than that. My praise for the creative spirit in a video game has risen over that of technical execution, and this is just one of the many reasons why I didn't fall in love with Rage.

But before we get into it, let's get some specifics out of the way. I played Rage on the Playstation 3 (this also means I have no idea how well the game performs on the PC or Xbox 360). There was an 8GB mandatory installation that took 18 minutes and 43 seconds to complete. My total game time came out to be 13 hours and 15 minutes, and that’s with completing most side-missions. According to my TV the game was running at 720P and--unfortunately, due to some tearing--it appears V-Sync has been disabled.

First and foremost, Rage--running at its much touted 60 frames per second--is simply glorious to watch in action. It is one of, if not, the most impressive graphical achievement in console gaming today. Mind you I do say that with slight hesitation because it’s not flawless. There were some rare moments of screen tearing, and this normally happened to me during highly intense combat sequences. But the single biggest issue is that some fairly egregious texture pop-in takes place throughout the entire game, and it can be really distracting too! Despite these issues, Rage still had many moments were it smacked me across the face with something stunning and, for at least a few moments, I had to stop to take it all in.

Technically speaking Rage is an open-world game, and indeed it allowed me to explore at my leisure, there just seemed to be little point to it. The world is surprisingly small, and...barren (hoho). The few, narrow roads that line the landscape come across as nothing more than hallways that led me to my next destination. Only having a few smallish open areas for arena-type battles weren't enough to make up for that fact either. There was no sense of discovery for me, and in a world that looks this good that's criminal. It's SO disappointing!

The encounters with patrolling bandits did kept things interesting for a few hours but after a while the whole process ran a little long in the tooth. Eventually I found myself driving around these encounters to avoid all vehicle combat because it just wasn't rewarding enough. There are no experience points to be earn by killing them, the bandit bounties are marginally worthwhile, and frankly these encounters are just not as fun as the first-person segments--why not move on, right?

One things that was immediately apparent early on was the wonderful design of the landscape. Unfortunately the rocky structures and hills are littered with invisible walls. Perhaps I’ve played too much Fallout New Vegas, but I really wanted to explore those magnificent looking mountains to see if I could find a random cave--not happening.

Included in the game is a mini-map to help you get around the wasteland, and it’s a big help too. Whenever a new mission is acquired a marker will pointing you in the right direction, but what would have been even more helpful is if there was an overworld map too. If you’re like me and want something like that then you’ll have to go to the manual because it’s located there--what?

The first time I used ironsight with one of the Rage weapons it became immediately clear that the shooting would feel solid. Guns in this game, like no other, appear to have a real weight to them with just the right amount of kick. There are not a ton of weapons (a la Borderlands), but I found the arsenal to be interesting and large enough to kill whatever crossed me path. The Wingstick was, without a doubt, the most fun to use in combat. I was always sure to carry a ton of them with me, because it was such a blast to play with. Later on in the game you unlock the ability to make an Advanced Wingstick, with the ability to hit multiple enemies. Yes, loved this, more of it please!

Each weapon has 4 possible ammo types, all fairly unique and cool looking when fired. There are minor upgrades (think laser sights, additional damage, etc) to purchase for weapons from a local vendors, but they're typical. Unfortunately Engineering only allows you to craft ammo and not parts for the weapons themselves, so you're essentially stuck with the same weapons throughout the entire game (save one, and that's found near the end).

A few hours into the game I was offered the option to choose a specific type of wardrobe (or class). The first options was a Wastelander, where I could look like a local and receive discounts on cash purchases. The second was a Roughneck, who has increased armor. The last was the Fabricator who has enhanced Engineering capabilities. I choose the Fabricator, but it was never really clear just how beneficial it was to my Engineering ability, and no one ever alluded to the fact that I was now someone who was crafty. Without that or perhaps class specific missions it felt like a missed opportunity to pull me into the world.

Side-missions were fine overall, but some would lead to the exact same spot more then once. In one instance I was told to clear out some mutants in the sewers--and so I did--and an hour later someone else wanted me to track down some bandit...in the same sewers. Thankfully this wasn't a very common theme throughout the game, but it’s worth mentioning. These side-missions varied from finding a relative to helping someone kill some other guys uncle to assisting someone named Stanley deliver mail. The later consist of delivering packages within a given time frame to various mailboxes that are sprinkled throughout the wasteland. Fun for a few hours, but ultimately forgettable.

One of my favorite mechanics in the game is the defibrillator mini-game. If you go down, you’re offered the chance to revive yourself by playing a little rhythm mini-game. If you’re successful you’ll not only revive yourself but you’ll send out a shock-wave that stuns the enemies surrounding you. The defibrillator recharges about every 20 minutes, so it’s not something you can abuse. It’s an original concept that’s useful, fun and engaging.

One of the more enjoyable things in Rage is Engineering. You will be able to construct a bunch of items with all the junk you collect throughout the wasteland. Things like Sentry bots, additional ammo and Wingsticks, health packs and more. It’s a fun, rewarding system to use. Throughout the game you’ll come across a few locked doors here and there. These doors are only accessible with a Lockgrinder, which can only be obtained through Engineering.

The introduction of vehicles of Rage wasn’t a bad idea, but it’s unfortunate id decided to focus so much attention on them. Sure driving around the wasteland completing the Stunt jump challenges is fun for a bit, but again, it feels a little pointless after a while.

The racing action held within the cities consists of speed runs, missile challenges, mini-gun challenges and arenas battles. Competing and winning in these challenges award race flags, and this currency is the only way you can purchase upgrades for your vehicle. It was an ok time, but again after a few races I was ready to move on to ids far superior first-person segments. I’m still sitting here, tripping out that id Software made a racing game.

I wouldn’t call it completely fair to say id hasn’t provide an emotional experience with Rage. Sure the story is a bit boring and the characters are shallow, but the other parts--the running and gunning--evoked a raw intensity from me. Make no mistake with this review--Rage is a pretty fun video game--but it's hard not to step back and be disappointed. This was id Software's time to really shine with something special. Rage should have been a game that completely blew me away, and it didn't.

I’ll never forget the moment the game ended, because it was one of the few transitional moments in gaming where I honestly felt blinded sided. I sat there, stunned with controller in hand, under the impression I was entering the final act, but it all suddenly just ended. It was utterly anticlimactic, uneventful and ultimately a bitter pill to swallow. It could be one of the worst endings I’ve ever seen in a video game, yes it’s that bad.

With Rage it’s become apparent to me that not only has id Software's position in the industry changed, but I now realize they refuse to grow with the rest of us.


44 Reasons My Only Friend Is A Man-Chicken

 Welcome back everyone! I hope your holidays were filled with hearty feasts and tons of back-slapping. Me? Oh my back is very sore. Hey who wants do a list?!

So there I sat on New Years Day toying around with the idea of throwing together a "ZOMG I'M AWESOME!" post, but I decided on something a little more constructive--a complete list of all the video games I completed in 2010. I mean, it should have the same affect right?

Now to be clear, this list is comprised of games I completed to their fullest extent. I'm talking rolling credits here folks. As an added bonus I've also included a brief one-sentence review for each title. Before we begin I must let you know that I'm an avid Left 4 Dead 2 player (as in I've put in over 350 hours in 2010). I also returned to World of Warcraft in December thanks to the release of Cataclysm, so now my life is especially pathetic.

Oh well, let's get the show on the road yo...

Alan Wake - A unique thriller with some pretty unnerving moments, excellently paced, and combat that can run a bit long in the tooth towards the end.

Alan Wake: The Signal - A short but interesting experience for the fans of the series.

Alan Wake: The Writer - More interesting and revealing than The Signal, built for fans of the narrative.

Assassin's Creed 2 (x1 PC, x1 Xbox 360) - Though the economy is essentially broken I found this game to be a total blast, but at times for me the challenge lied in the controls and not the enemies.

Assassin's Creed Brotherhood - I really enjoyed this game quite a bit. It's even more refined and has more goodies to chase than it's predecessor. It also allows you to control a brotherhood of assassin's--what's not to love? (Oops! Just broke my one-sentence rule. Oh heck let's do one more for fun!) Blah blah blah.

Bioshock 2 (x1 PC, x1 Xbox 360)- It was impossible for this game to live up to expectations, but if you just sit back and accept the game for what it's trying to do then you'll find a solid game here with combat mechanics that rivals the original.

Blur - Good fun for roughly 75% of the game. It's suppose to be some kind of modern or adult version of Mario Kart  but it ran out of steam towards the end.

Civilization 5 - Binary crack. Next?

Crackdown 2 - Uuuugh! The first Crackdown is one of my favorite games of this generation, so I really wanted to love this game. Surprisingly it's less entertaining (how is this even possible Microsoft?) and almost became a chore to complete.

Dante's Inferno - Pulsating vagina's and babies oozing out of breasts, and that's just the third level. It didn't do enough gameplay-wise to make me even enjoy it.

Darksiders - Once I got past the banality of the first hour, I actually learned to appreciate Darksiders quite a bit.

Dead Nation - A fun, isometric coop zombie shooter where shit blows up real good!

Dead Rising 2 - I enjoyed this sequel much more than the first but it's wonky controls still annoyed me.

Deathspank - A strange and amusingly written game that's inspired by MMO mechanics. Unfortunately the whole thing got a little stale despite it all.

Dragon Age: Origins (x1 PC/x1 Console) - It seems to borrow a bit too much from the Lord of the Rings in both the narrative and aesthetic sense, but I loved the gameplay--video games!

Dragon Age: Awakenings - Weird, fun and with lots of foggy scenes and slimy, spiked things to fight.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West - A peculiar game with stunningly well made cutscenes, outstanding voiceover work and visuals that seem to remind us that browns aren't the only colors fit for video games. However the gameplay mechanics need a bit more variety.

Fable 3 (x2) - Though I've played through this game twice and found it to be fairly fun I was still highly annoyed by some of the obtuse design decisions. Plus this game has possibly the worst map system ever created in a video game ever.

Fallout: New Vegas - With some big shoes to fill, I found FNV to be surprisingly rad--buggy--but rad!

God of War 3 - Too bloody, too gorgeous, too impressively jaunty, too many plot holes and ultimately too awesome to pass up for PS3 owners.

God of War Ghost of Sparta - Simply one of the best PSP games around, but a stark reminder of why I'm not a fan of the PSP.

Halo: Reach - Easily the best single player Halo campaign to date. Though it's coupled with a robust mulitplayer model I still lost interest after a week (I realize 75% of  you are now leaving this blog).

Heavy Rain - A step forward in long video game drama, a step backwards in voice acting, a step forward in quick time interaction, a step backwards in reducing that whole uncanny valley effect but a step forward in graphical fidelity. Plus it was fun.

Just Cause 2 - A (real!) open world game where the protagonist has a grappling hook, a parachute and must destroy a bunch of things for money--I mean come ON! This is easily one of my most favorite games of 2010.

Kayne and Lynch 2: Dog Days - Dirty, slimy, bloody and stripped clean--not only does this describe the protagonist of the game but it this pretty much describes how I felt after playing the game.

King's Bounty Armored Princess - I just adore this whole series, and Armored Princess does a nice job of building on the King's Bounty experience.

Kirby's Epic Yarn - If you told me a year ago that I would enjoy a Kirby game more than a Metroid game I would have slapped you (probably with my shoe too), but that's actually the case now. It's a really fun game, don't let the looks of it fool you.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light - A decidedly good game with some excellent coop puzzle elements.

Limbo - I really love that Limbo tries to tell a story that's completely left up for interpretation without arrogance, but most importantly at the end of the day it never loses sight of what it is--a well made video game.

Mafia 2 - I had a love first game, so I was anticipating the sequel immensely. Unfortunately the "window shopping only" design within the city only teased me until frustration set in. A gorgeously designed metropolis that lacks any significant amount of interesting interactivity is incoherent in today's market.

Mass Effect 2 (x2 Xbox 360, x1 PC) - A better looking game than the first, much more to do than the first, a larger cast than the first, but the narrative is far less interesting and goes essentially nowhere--loved it enough to play it three times but in the end it's just not as epic as the first.

Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond - An interesting idea that falls very very flat.

Plants vs Zombies - I've played this ridiculously addictive game on just about every platform--so, yea, great times.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands - There's a reason the word forgotten is in the title.

Puzzle Quest 2 - An improvement over the first and I couldn't put it down.

Red Dead Redemption - A spaghetti western with something to say, if you pay close attention and listen then you'll realize it's the best game of 2010.

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare - Leave it up to Rockstar to prove me wrong! After this DLC was announced I scoffed at the zomibfication of yet another game, but it turned out to be a fun and wacky add-on.

Resident Evil 5 - Tank controls that didn't annoy, and ultimately lead to a lot of fun. I think we've reached a point with the series where it's in need to take a serious look at itself.

Singularity - Enjoyable enough to play all the way through, but in the end was forgettable enough that I had to check to be sure it came out this year. :(

Spider-man: Shattered Dimensions - Surprisingly fun with a ton of variety, but a little to modulated with all the different Spider-mans you control.

Splinter Cell Conviction - I really appreciate what they were going for with it's minimalistic approach but I was hoping for something as powerful as Chaos Theory, heck I would've taken something half as interesting.

Split Second Velocity - I love arcade racers and this beautiful game had enough going for it that I deemed it my favorite racer of 2010.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 - An incredible amount of variety in gameplay mechanics and a ton of fun to play--and I know this is going to sound crazy--but I found it to be a tad too long.

Supreme Commander 2 - I'm a sucker for an RTS games that resembles Total Annihilation, but even then the boredom began to set in at the 15 minute mark.

The Partials! Here is a list of the games I spent a considerable amount of time with (usually 5+ hours or so) but didn't completed in time to make this list.

Metro 2033
Monster Hunter Tri
Final Fantasy 13
Army of Two: The 40th Day
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
Gothic 4
Costume Quest
Joe Danger
Metal of Honor
The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom
Need For Speed: Hot Persuit
Dead to Rights: Retribution
3D Dot Game Heroes
Skate 3
Lost Planet 2
Dragon Quest 9
ModNation Racers
Alpha Protocol
Naughty Bear
Starcraft 2
Metroid Other M
Amnesia: The Dark Decent
Castlenavia Lord of Shadows
DJ Hero 2
Pac-man Championship Edition DX
Gran Turismo 5
Epic Mickey
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Bejewled 2 Blitz