Renegade Ops: Is this pulp shooter bringing old-school action back?

A look at the game built on Just Cause's cutting edge tech...

According to Sony, there are 70 million PSN accounts out there. 70 million. So it's no surprise developers are turning towards digital distribution and selling their games over PSN rather than stamped onto Blu-rays.

For the most part, this allows smaller devs the chance to compete with the big boys without spending millions, but it also means that larger studios can take a punt on the odd small-scale passion project.

And 'small scale' needn't imply hasty production values and scrappy quality. When done well, PSN can put full-price games to shame, as we've seen with the likes of Double Fine's Stacking, Lightbox's (Incognito) Warhawk and DICE's Battlefield 1943.

Now Avalanche, the team responsible for the Just Cause series, are caught up in the download-only, uh, avalanche with Renegade Ops. It's a gorgeous take on the old isometric twin-stick shooter that pulls hard on the engine behind the islands, deserts and twinkling seas of Panau.

"Towards the end of development in Just Cause 2 we did a test," says Andreas Thorsen, senior producer on Renegade Ops. "We moved the camera up to create the illusion of it being a top-down game. Everyone saw it and thought 'Wow, this looks cool - it's a game I want to play!' That's where Renegade Ops really started."

The project began in earnest when several members of the Just Cause 2 squad, still in love with the top-down shooters of the late '80s and early '90s, asked to start their own small-scale project.

Axel Lindberg, now game director, cites the likes of 1993's Cannon Fodder and Jungle Strike as inspiration for this concept. "It's very similar to what [2009 Xbox Live Arcade shooter] Shadow Complex did," he says.

"When that came out we all looked at it and thought, yeah, Super Metroid was an awesome game... where has it been all these years?" The answer was 'Mouldering on the remains of Nintendo's SNES since 1994', of course.

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"So, instead of looking at twin-shooters from today, we've been looking back at these classics and thinking about how to update them in our own way," says Lindberg. This is not just another Super Stardust (1994) clone, in other words.

"We've got this awesome engine, so that gives us a great opportunity to create something that makes people feel like they're playing one of these classic games - the way they remember it. Because back in the '90s they really were awesome, but if you play them today they can feel really outdated."

Hands-on, Renegade Ops does feel very familiar. It isn't breaking new ground, but it is aiming for best in class. Everything feels big-budget, from the roaring orchestral score to the colourful explosions lighting up the tropical jungle every time our jeep shoots up an enemy tank.

Those controls are slick too. The left thumbstick controls our direction while the right stick aims the gun, and although it feels odd to start with, it's only a few minutes before we've settled in. Bullets snake pleasingly from our vehicle as we tear through roadblocks, toppling wooden huts with a flick of the thumb.

"We wanted something simple to play, but something you could pick up and play for hours," says senior producer Thorsen. It looks like they've nailed it. Although the mechanics are simple, Avalanche are using the world to keep the player constantly entertained. Secondary objectives flash up regularly asking us to, for instance, pick up prisoners held deep in the trees and deliver them to a church.

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