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Blacksite: Area 51

Producer Zack Wood on the destructive FPS

Blacksite took us somewhat by surprise at Midway's Las Vegas Gamers' Day last week; its intuitive squad controls and truly squelching atmosphere gave off a promising vibe we didn't expect, and it could turn out to be a very notable FPS release when it hits Xbox 360, PS3 and PC later this year.

At the same event we got a chance to sit down with the game's producer Zack Wood (who's Frodo's brother, don't you know), who answered all of the burning questions we had after our short play-through. Here's what he had to say...

Could you give us a brief pitch for people unfamiliar with Blacksite?

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Zack Wood: Blacksite: Area 51 is a first-person shooter coming for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. It's loosely based on the previous-gen Area 51 game in that the secret military base brings with it a lot of mystery and conspiracy theories.

This time around it's not a sequel per say, it's more a game inspired by the previous game; we have a new set of characters and a brand new story that's much more rooted into the fiction of what's going on in today's world - what are we afraid of today? So terrorism, world wars, powerful governments that a secretive to the population - things like that are rooted into our fiction.

We definitely want to bring the sci-fi element to something that's more familiar to people, like down the street from your neighbour's house - that's kind of what the premise is for the game.

What, if at all, have you learnt or taken from the first game then?

Wood: Really just the lore and the location itself. The player will go back to Area 51 to the wrecked environment and face-off against the ultimate menace in our game, without giving too much of the story away. But that's really the only thing that binds the two, this is a different game with a totally different story.

It's also got a totally different play-style in that you have a squad now, so you've always got at least two squad mates with you and end up being the leader. It's very accessible as well; one-button squad controls allow you to send someone to a location or interact with a target very easily.

What other titles in the genre would you say you've taken elements from?

Wood: We're all big fans of the genre in general - we play Half-Life, Halo and those games. I think there are certain things in terms of targeting, and the way that the analogue controls feel, that are going to be very familiar to anyone who's played an FPS. Where we're spending our extra time is in the story, the fiction and the squad controls.

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We've also introduced moral where your squad actually gets affected by how you do as a player. So if you're in the middle of a fire fight and you're doing really well and you're accurate with your targeting then you team's going to feel really good, really supportive and they're going to do better.

But if you start missing your target and playing badly the squad is going to pin back, find more cover and maybe miss their targets.

How much effort have you put into making the environments relatable and believable?

Wood: Oh very much - that's the key to our design, the key to the fiction. You start off in Iraq, you're actually on the battlefield in a war that's happening today. You and your squad mates are there fighting the war and you see some things that are kind of strange, which then ties you into the fiction that brings you back to the United States to investigate a strange town where some being has been found.

There are some parallel elements to what you saw in Iraq and what you see in America and that ties those elements together. We're toying with that idea of what it'd be like if there were alien elements involved in what we face today as a society. It's kind of fun to play with those ideas a bit.

We noticed plenty of interesting aliens in the demo. What were your inspirations behind the designs?

Wood: I can't speak for the artists but I like H. R. Giger to what we see in Japanese anime and stuff like that. It's a pretty broad spectrum of influence but it also comes down to what's fun to fight, what's scary and what's fun and tactical from a gameplay perspective.

Balancing visual style and gameplay elements of enemy is a real challenge and the designers have had a lot of fun with it. These kind of games are kind of fun for an open pallet of what you can do.

Can we expect more crazy stuff like the walker enemies that get off and chase you?

Wood: Oh yeah, that was just the tip of the iceburg. There's a lot more where that came from, absolutely.

What are your plans for the multiplayer side of things?

Wood: We'll be doing the ones that you're familiar with online like standard deathmatch, team deathmatch and capture the flag but we're also going to offer 2 player co-op through the entire campaign - so you can play online with a friend.

We also heard that the storyline is being penned by the same women who did Gears of War. How much work has been put into the plot?

Wood: Absolutely, Susan O'Conner. We started working on the story way back in pre-production because it's vital - a lot of times, especially in my career, the story comes late in the project; once the game's been designed you bring in a writer or you punch-up the dialogue and sort of retro-fit it into the product, and that's not really the way to create a fully-interactive experience.

We got Susan involved really early and been integral to the game design; she interacts with the game designers on a regular bases and it just makes it more cohesive, so as you're playing through the game it doesn't feel like it's a tact on element - you're actually playing through a narrative that feels seemless.

Do you have a particular favourite piece of badass marine dialogue?

Wood: (laughs) There are quite a few - I don't really have a favourite that jumps out at me though. There's some really good dialogue; especially the further you get through the game and things kind of ramp up in terms of intensity - there's a lot of cool stuff.

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