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The big chill: Cold Winter exposed

Wrap up warm, the big freeze is coming...

Well how's this for an timely piece of scheduling? Clocks go back this weekend, the first fingers of a frosty winter can already be felt and the UK's about to enter another six month period of blackness, misery and despair as another mini ice age descends upon us...

A perfect time then to wrap up warm, cuddle up to your PS2 and prepare for a long period of games-induced hibernation as you get a chance to enjoy some of the hottest releases this winter and look forward to some of the delights of next.

With this in mind, we decided to put some feelers out and make some initial investigations into Cold Winter, Swordfish Studios' epic espionage-based first-person shooter which is set to erupt onto PS2 sometime in 2005.

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Although it's been in development at the makers of Hostile Waters for some time now, it's actually been keeping a very low profile, so with this in mind, we planted some bugs, launched some intensive surveillance and met with Julian Widdows, Swordfish Development Director and Producer on Cold Winter, at a discreet dead letter drop on a park bench in the centre of London, to learn more.

How did the idea for Cold Winter first come about?

Widdows: Really, as is the way of these things, the game that Cold Winter is now has evolved over the entire development cycle, although we physically started work on the concept about three years ago. Our aim, however, has always been to create a visually stunning, visceral, mature, fast paced, story, physics and AI-driven PS2 first-person shooter that feels and plays like a dream. For us, the gameplay is as much about the tactile feel of the experience as the feature set, and so we were always aiming to create an experience that not only offered a great combat experience, but also 'fed back' to the player in as many ways as possible.

The core idea for the game came about when we were tasked by our old parent company to come up with a concept for a PS2 fps shooter set loosely within the world of covert operations. What we didn't want to do was take this idea and come back with the obvious black tie and tux rip-off - a trap that would have been far too easy to fall into - what we did want to do was deliver a PS2 experience with features that the gamer hadn't really seen in many PC games, let alone console titles.

We wanted to immerse the player in a physical world where objects touched reacted to the player's presence, rather than stiffly remaining planted to the floor; we wanted to deliver a world that had a life and existence beyond the player's experience of it, not a collection of maps that gave the player no sense of place or purpose - fundamentally, we wanted to give the player the console shooter experience we would enjoy playing, that would excite us, as gamers; an experience that played to our artistic, technical and narrative skill sets, and enabled us to add something to this already extensive field.

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To this end our 'vision statement', (eugh), was to create a gritty, hard edged, mature, fast paced shooter that really captured a different angle of the covert world - a more immediate, visceral, and desperate experience.

And now. Three years on, it's wonderful to see our vision come together so well, and remain so close to the original ideal, even if elements of the game's design have changed over this period. I guess we're lucky in that we've always had strong support from the people with their hands on the purse strings, and thanks must go to Trev, Paul, and all the guys and gals at VUG for their unfailing commitment towards 'Cold Winter'. Without their patience we certainly wouldn't have got to where we are today.

How strongly will the storyline feature in the game?

Widdows: With Cold Winter we took all the lessons we learned about developing game narrative whilst making Hostile Waters, our last game, and then built on them to give the player a completely integrated narrative experience, something we believe few games really offer. And when I talk about an integrated narrative experience I mean that the story isn't only told in present tense cinematics that connect one mission to the next, although in fairness and out of necessity we do have sequences like this, but is also integrated into the very fabric of the experience.

For example, as you play through the levels, completing objectives, gathering intelligence, and getting involved in combat, your key characters talk to you and give you feedback and information. This is in and of itself nothing new, but where we do deviate from the norm is in the fact that Sterling, our lead, responds to these comments, giving the player a greater understanding of all the characters involved and their relationships. This gives them more depth, more texture, more believability, which we know engages you more fully in the gameplay experience. Furthermore we have completely different loading screens between each level, each them adding to the story, helping develop the world of Cold Winter, and as most of these loading screens also have spoken audio, they also give the player even more information about the mission, the game world and the characters.

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But the really original thing about our narrative, and this is something few people ever really tackle, is the development of the back-story. As the player completes the final level of an environment, of which there are six, we give away some of the back story - information that isn't available in any other way - taking the player back decades to explain how the story they're playing a part in came into being. All these sequences take place in environments not seen during gameplay, are a total break from the main game narrative, and hence reward the player for progress made, as only after viewing all of these sequences, of which there are eleven (we include more as we head towards the climax of the game), will the player fully understand Cold Winter.

Were there any influences from the real-life espionage world, or movies, books or actual spy advisers?

Widdows: At the outset we knew that to give the game the feel we wanted we'd have to turn to industry professionals, and so over the development period we've used a number of military consultants, including ex-SAS soldier Bob Spour, who is now a Muay Thai instructor, and survival and security expert. Using people who actually know what it's like to be in these situations has really helped us get the feel of the game as believable and engaging as possible.

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In terms of reference, we subscribe to Eye Spy, read every book related to the Special Forces and covert ops under the sun (and hell knows there are a lot of them), and have immersed ourselves in mountains of back copies of Guns and Ammo. Some of the things people here now know are unreal - did you know, for example, that if someone fired a LAW rocket at you and it hit you within the first 0.3seconds or 10 metres it wouldn't explode? It might slice you in two, but it wouldn't explode.......

Can you tell us a little about Cold Winter's game engine and the many diverse environments?

Widdows: Cold Winter is built on a version of the Renderware graphics engine that, with the help of the folk at Criterion, we've adapted and expanded in order to give us the incredible visuals and rendering performance we've always known would be necessary to deliver our vision for the game.

The decision to use Middleware for Cold Winter was actually a pretty easy one, as we'd just experienced first hand the challenges of developing a cutting edge game engine from the ground up and building a game simultaneously. This time around, as we were firstly working in a new game genre and on a new platform, we wanted a head start to help us to get our heads around process and pipeline as quickly as possible, and to allow the art team to start playing with content and style. In part, it's because we were able to get up-and-running so quickly that we've been able to supply such a diverse range of detailed environments, from Chang political prison in China, to the dusty streets of a North African garrison town, to the cold windswept heights of the Andes.

Ultimately we're incredibly proud of how 'Cold Winter' looks - it's testament to the hard work of the Art team and Technical team that we have these huge, seamless levels (no loading between level segments in 'Cold Winter'), stunning full-colour lightmaps, real time dynamic lights that swing using real physics casting procedural shadows off objects that swing underneath them, and full physics on all game world objects. We're offering a level of immersion that the platform really hasn't seen before.

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You're promising big things for the enemy AI. What will make Cold Winter's AI stand out and could you give some examples in game?

Widdows: AI is, by it's very nature, a complete pig to get right. A single bad AI bug can cause the player to disconnect more quickly than pretty much anything else you put into the title. AI, really, is as much about stopping the NPCs doing stupid things as it is about getting them to do clever things, but, and here's a big but, we're going for the double.

At the outset we took a long look at other games in the genre and on the platform, and felt that much more could be done with AI than was being done at the time. We wanted to craft a game in which the AI could interact with physical objects, use different types of cover, move between cover, fire from cover, be aware of thrown grenades and act accordingly, offer covering fire to team mates, hunt the player out if they went to ground, switch weapons dynamically if ammo was scarce or if they possessed a more effective weapon for the current range of combat, and basically displayed the kind of tactical decision making prowess of a professional fighting soldier.

Fundamentally, this is a list of the features we've included in 'Cold Winter'. Of course there is more to it than this, most notably the fact that not all bots have the full range of behaviours available to them - this is down to their individual skill and training, thus leading to a varied and balanced play experience - but, fundamentally, this intelligent decision making is what we hope will set our AI system apart from the competition. Ultimately, what we really want, is to make the player work for their kills, feel rewarded for outsmarting the AI, and not feel cheated by obvious AI fudgery or even worse boring static AI bot behaviours.

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You make a big feature of the body hits and damage mapping - how important is this to the game?

Widdows: This is one of those features that is very much a core part of the way the game works, but has a subtle impact on the overall experience. Basically we have four main damage zones; head, arms, trunk, and legs. Rounds hitting each of these damage zones cause damage, the amount differing depending on the zone hit.

For example, headshots cause much more damage than trunk shots, which in turn cause more damage than arm or legs shots. Thus to best conserve ammunition it's well worth aiming for the head, something that is hard to do without using the iron sight zoom function or a sniper rifle scope. If a guard is wearing body armour headshots also have the double advantage of not damaging the armour, enabling the player to loot it intact once the encounter is over, something that, on the later levels, can give you a real advantage.

Built on top of this system we also have limb removal and accurate physics limb modelling. Hence a guard who takes a shotgun round in the shoulder will have his limb cut clean off, the bloody chunk rolling around the environment using real physics.

Weapons are always one of the hardest things to balance and implement in an FPS can you tell us about Cold Winter's arsenal?

Widdows: Aren't they just! Our selection of weapons is very varied and very much real world, with over 30 available ranging from pistols, bullet guzzling sub-machine guns, and versatile assault rifles, to close range pump action shotguns, automatic shotguns, RPGs, sniper rifles, and a complete range of frag grenades, fire bombs, motion sensitive bombs, and gas grenades. Honestly, if you want it, we've got it.....

With this many weapons designed into the game we were always aware that balancing them was going to be a challenge, and so we've worked hard on playing all the weapons against each other during multiplayer gaming, enabling us to ensure that each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and that every weapon is satisfying and rewarding to use. After all, as the fundamental experience we're offering revolves around shooting the living crap out of things we've got to get this is absolutely spot-on, haven't we? J

Can you enlighten us on this interesting sounding item-combination feature? How will that work and what new features will it offer?

Widdows: The combined items feature was something we designed into the game at the outset, and although it takes on a slightly different guise now it's still a really cool addition to the game. Basically as you play through the levels you can pick up all sorts of seemingly random items left lying around the environments. By using the menu interface you can combine these items to create new and useful items.

For example find plastique and a motion sensor and you can make a motion sensitive bomb; find plastique and combine it with a petrol can and a timer, however, and you can make a timed incendiary bomb. None of these items are essential for progress, but they do add weapons to the player's arsenal that really aren't available in any other way, and offer real rewards for the player willing to hunt them out.

We do have less, ahem, explosive combinations as well - take some metal sprue and a pair of pliers, for example, and you have lock-picks - these lock-picks can be used to access otherwise impenetrable armouries, often containing weapons available nowhere else in the game, but by an large the combined item mechanic is designed to reward the players time investment with a wider variety of tactical options.

Many games attempt to include realistic physics, how does Cold Winter apply the science?

Widdows: It's true that many games attempt to simulate real physics, and certainly we're seeing some cutting edge titles hitting the shelves at present with amazing physics integrations. You only have look at Half-Life 2 to see what's truly possible. But this really isn't that prevalent on the consoles, and especially not on the PS2. We're lucky in that Dave, the technical project lead, wrote a real physics system for 'Hostile Waters', and so as a team we have extensive experience and knowledge of what it takes to integrate real physics into a game.

Deciding to do this in Cold Winter wasn't a decision that was taken lightly, as we were acutely aware that physics is often difficult and unpredictable to implement well in games, yet if you get it right, if you get it just so, it can make a phenomenal difference to the sense of immersion and solidity your game world gives the player. And so, in Cold Winter, you're free to pick up all the physical objects in the game world; you can manipulate them, move them; objects fall over when you bump into them, are dispersed by explosions; the blown off meat chunks of a dead enemy and sent flying into the air when a grenade goes off amongst them, and it's truly amazing the difference this makes. The world not only looks amazing, but it feels amazing, and this makes the difference. It really does.

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