Over a decade ago, a pack of game developers led by Infinity Ward - listening intently to their veteran consultants and cribbing shamelessly from Spielberg - respectfully reimagined the first-person shooter as historical spectacle. The spawn points were basic and player freedom illusory, but linearity suited the anonymous stories of near-helpless conscripts. Studios made new attempts to simulate psychological effects like shell shock, and committed themselves to a tonal reverence untried in a medium that had thrived on its establishment-baiting status.
Enjoy the whistle of a near-miss in your ears? Pick one of the best FPS games on PC.
Then the new became old. Developers recast Medal of Honor in different settings and, perhaps in their haste to pull it out the mould, lost some of its definition. The pin was finally pulled when Infinity Ward repurposed the spectacle and the spawn points for a more ambiguous, contemporary take on Call of Duty - Modern Warfare - which swallowed the genre whole.
“There's a good reason that [it went away],” believes Battalion 1944 producer Joe Brammer. “Games mirror film a little too much at times. If you look right now, we had Jurassic World announced and ARK coming out. There’s a bunch of people jumping on the dinosaur train and that’ll die out. It was zombies and World War II before that. They’ll all come back - all wrap around and follow films.”
With Spielberg and Hanks working on another miniseries to follow Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Brammer’s Bulkhead Interactive are revisiting the authenticity and terror of Call of Duty and Enemy Territory in a new multiplayer FPS.
“I think tangible is the word,” says Brammer. “For us there’s the balance of making it a competitive videogame and making it an immersive, film-like experience for players that want that. The things we can do with post-processing now that we couldn’t do - it’s crazy the amount that technology has moved on in a decade. When an explosion goes off next to you, it’s [now about] what’s around it, how it’s ricocheting, and that shudder when it lands is a very real thing. It’ll be different for World War II games.”
Bulkhead want to fold the advances of CS:GO back into their beloved genre - modernising with a battle rank system and awards that recognise competition without indulging in “ridiculous unlock systems”.
Battalion is an infantry-only take on the genre, and Brammer talks passionately about the “automatic balance” provided by 1944’s armoury: all American semi-automatics and German bolt-action rifles. Bulkhead seem to enjoy the stricture of history.
“You get this awesome palette to make a videogame out of, whereas in the futuristic and sci-fi shooters you can do anything and break the rules with heartbeat sensors,” explains Brammer. “We worked through all these World War II games and one thing they all had in common was the lack of the ridiculous. It’s something that makes games feel fresh and fair and balanced.”
Naturally, history doesn’t always gel with game design. Bulkhead have used real-world locations for reference, but found that dug-in armies tend not to favour balanced battlefields.
“The problem with places like Carentan is that the Germans set up there so the Americans couldn’t get past them,” Brammer expands. “It was a good point to defend, so obviously we can’t just copy them.”
The studio, who just about total double figures, visited Normandy in November and are entertaining the idea of returning to experiment with photogrammetry - the object-scanning tech used to such stunning effect in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The goal is to pull the damaged buildings, ditches and open fields of northern France wholesale into Unreal 4.
“Our understanding of Unreal goes so deep because we’ve been a part of it when it was just a falling-to-bits engine that had just come out,” says Brammer. “We’ve genuinely helped fix problems with the engine and found issues and reported. We've really been the guinea pigs.”
Battalion 1944 is currently going gangbusters on Kickstarter. Its team of experienced professionals, Battlefield modders and former e-sports pros - who once worked nine to five in the office and then seven til four in bars and clubs to finish Pneuma: Breath of Life - has come a long way.
“We really have come from all different walks, but ultimately I think we had in common we all liked this game,” finishes Brammer. “The window is now, so let’s do it before someone does it badly. Games like Call of Duty were pioneers and they’ve adapted and evolved and forgotten their roots, but we’re able to go, ‘That’s fine, you move on, we’ll go back to that.’”
In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games and Bulkhead Interactive.