The SWAT series is one of the great PC franchises and Sierra raised more than a few eyebrows when they announecd they were bringing the series to the PSP. We recently got a chance to talk to Sierra about the move and here's what they said.
Could you introduce yourself and describe your role on the project? How long have you been in the gaming industry and how did you get into the industry?
My name is Paul Pawlicki and I'm a producer for Sierra. I got my start in games back in 94 as a tester for Sony. For the past few years I've been working on the SWAT franchise, most recently on SWAT: Target Liberty for the PSP.
SWAT is being written by The Shield writer and producer, Scott Rosenbaum, can we expect the same kind of gritty storyline as what we've seen in the television show? The vague and disorienting enemy known as "terrorism" is certainly a wide-ranging target. Has he shifted the expectations of what a "typical day at the office" is like for SWAT? Or will it be business as usual with bomb threats, Anthrax scares, and poisoned pet food?
Scott was amazing to work with. When we contacted him he was busy shooting the season finale of the Shield, which he also wrote. Once he was done with that we got him started on SWAT: Target Liberty. He worked directly with the team at the development studio, 3G Studios, to ensure that we were all on the same page and pursuing the same goals, a good story that leads to good action.
Scott did a great job creating a story that begins with a few standard SWAT calls but then quickly escalates it into something on a much grander scale. The story follows our hero, SWAT officer Kurt Wolfe, through a few days of intense activity in NY City, and eventually has him working to protect the city from international terrorists. Who these terrorists are and what they want becomes clear as you play through the missions.
We know that story-specific details are under wraps, but for any of our readers that may be unfamiliar with the television show The Shield, give us a feel for what kind of story Scott Rosenbaum is writing into the game fabric. Does a conflicted, lone wolf protagonist emerge? Or is it less about dramatic character studies and more about unique, squad-based scenarios? Does it connect with the two decades of PC SWAT mythology at all?
We brought back the cast of SWAT 4 to reprise their roles of the officers. We liked their previous performance and they have their characters down. In the PC games you never saw the lead character though and he never had a name. That’s because we wanted the player to feel they were the leader.
In Target Liberty we gave our SWAT leader a name an identity. As I stated earlier, our hero is Kurt Wolfe. So while voiced by the same actor as before our leader now has a name and a face. All of the officers take part in the game but the story focuses mainly on Kurt and his interactions with his commander and eventually with federal officers as they try to stop a devastating attack on the city.
The game looks like a perfect fit for a multi-player co-op mode, outside of offering local ad-hoc support will you also be offering online WiFi gaming?
We are sticking with Adhoc Multipayer for SWAT: TL. There are 3 different modes and you can play with up to 4 people. They are all competitive in nature so you are always going head to head with your friends. One is based on escorting civilians to safety but other players can come by and kill you and take your civilian for themselves. I know it’s not very SWAT like but it’s a lot of fun. There is another mode where you kill as many terrorists as you can in the given time, and another that is a variation on a VIP where the other players are terrorist and they are after the person you are protecting.
To make things more interesting we have a random killhouse generator which works in all the modes. It’s really cool. You simply select the killhouse option, choose small, med, or large, and then launch a game. The level geometry will be created on the fly so you get a different experience every time.
We hear that all of the characters have their own skill sets. Can you explain how different each of the characters is and why one character might be better than another?
There are four officers on your team to choose form and each has a skill. You can only bring two with you so it’s a good idea to listen to the briefing to see who might be a good fit.
Zack “Hollywood” Fields, for example, is the accuracy officer. He has a higher percentage of hitting his targets. This can eventually improve and allow for mostly head shots when using lethal weapons. The other skills are, observation (how well you can see into rooms using the door mirror), interrogation (how well you extract info from people), and intimidation (affects how quickly people surrender). Kurt has a leadership skill. As this increases you can command the team further as well as assist in providing medical attention to your wounded officers.
The skill system in Target Liberty is determined by a scoring system that’s based on proper procedure. Killing people in handcuffs for example is not looked upon favorably. The better you do in a mission the quicker you and your officers will advance.
Did you stumble on any challenges taking this long-running PC franchise to a handheld game system?
The biggest challenge was to make sure that we designed the game for the PSP audience. The pace of the PC games are slow and deliberate. Handheld games need to deliver a somewhat more arcade-like experience and also need to be playable in short spurts.
We tried to keep the core SWAT values intact, like Less-than-Lethal weapons and restraining suspects, while providing a storyline and settings that allow for a few more gunfights and always keeps the game moving forward.
To maintain a level of realism that SWAT games are known for we brought back our SWAT consultant, Ken Thatcher. He trained the development team and showed them proper procedure. Everyone learned things like how to open and clear a room and approach stairs and what constitutes an imminent threat. If you want to see what training with Ken looks like be sure to check out the bonus videos. We have included over a half hour of Ken Thatcher training actual officers at the Blackwater training facility.
The game is being set in real world New York City. Can you talk a bit about where we'll go with the confines of the city?
The development team from 3G went to Manhattan at the start of the project and scouted for locations. They came back with a lot of ideas and a ton of pictures. The result is that some levels are based on real world locations that the team visited like Central Park, Ellis Island visitors center, and Grand Central Station. We took a few liberties to ensure the best possible gameplay but they are definitely based on the actual locations.
Others levels are not as famous, we didn’t want the game to feel like a sight-seeing tour, but they still maintain some of the same gritty urban feel that you experience when you walk around the streets of NY. Even things like the subway cars are modeled and textured to look the same as they do in the city right down to the orange seats. So whether your missions take you to Central Park, or a warehouse, or a subway you should never doubt that you are in Manhattan.
A lot of people really enjoy customizing their characters; will there be a lot of different weapons to keep the action varied? Are there any kinds of pre-defined classes?
When you choose your teammates at the beginning of a mission you have the option of going in setting their load out. Like our earlier SWAT games for the PC we have a full range of licensed weapons which include, Benellil, FNH, and Sig. At the start your options are a bit limited but you still get a choice of a few lethal and less-than-lethal weapons and a couple tactical grenades. My favorite is the pepperball gun. It’s fast and delivers a round of pepper gas from a paintball type round that drops suspects quick.
As you progress through the game will you obtain new and stronger weapons. You can also earn many other unlockables that include weapon upgrades as well as additional magazines and more slots for your grenades.
What prompted you to take the series from first-person to an overhead perspective? Do you feel that the change in look offers the same sort of urgency people are used to from the PC games?
Even though the game was inspired by the PC games it is in no way a port. It was built from the ground up for the PSP. We tried to keep the same easy to use interface that made the most recent PC games so accessible but we knew we needed to modify the game in some ways to make the transition to the PSP.
One of the things we had to work around was the control scheme. With only one analog stick and two other teammates to command it was obvious that an FPS was going to be challenging. Almost immediately we decided to shift to the overhead view. This is nothing new for us. SWAT 2 used a similar angle back in the day and it was a really fun game. This shift to a more classic, isometric angle allows for greater visibility of the area around you and makes commanding your officers a whole lot easier.
How are you dealing with controlling several characters at the same time given the PSP's limited number of buttons?
Ah, yes. There are only a few buttons on a PSP compared to an entire keyboard and mouse on the PC so we had to be smart.
We started with a context sensitive controls scheme. This allows for a lot of commands with the press of a single button. The game usually knows what you what you want to do based on the situation. For example, if you point to the floor the default action is fall in, if you are on a door that changes to open and clear. If you want to do something other than the default action you just have to press the triangle button to bring up all of your other available options.
Moving your team is also very easy to do. By holding down the left should you activate the command cursor. Simply move it to any spot in the world or place it on a door. Again, you can issue a default command or select from the available options. You can also move the team individually or as a group.
What do you say to the people who look at the game and suggest that it's nothing more than a present day Killzone Liberation? What sets your game apart from other similar looking games?
I thought Killzone was a really fun game so it’s not the worst thing to be compared to but we aren’t the same. We do share a similar camera angle but their are only a few camera angles to choose from. If we would have remained an FPS people would probably be comparing us to Rainbow Six. No matter what the hook it’s what we do with the action that separates us.
And the action is quite different. As I mentioned there are always two teammates to bring with you on a mission and their goal is not always to kill everyone. There are usually a number of civilians in the way that you must protect, hostage situations that need to be resolved, and sometimes you need to subdue hostiles and bring them in alive. After all, SWAT is a life saving organization. Sometimes that means you have to kill the bad guys to protect the innocent and to save a city but that’s just another day on the job for SWAT.
We'd like to thank Paul for taking the time to answer our questions and to Michael for coordinating the interview.