All game developers share a problem: how do you dream up a setting that’s still going to resonate with players when your game comes out, some three or four years later?
Related: try a really good first-person shooter on our recommendation.
That hasn’t been a problem for Item 42, who set their tactical FPS in a United Kingdom that had turned inward and got carried away about the idea of sovereignty. If anything, their setting has become suddenly, worryingly topical.
Tell me about it,” says Blister lead designer Bret Ware. “About a year ago when I first came up with the idea of a shooter set in a fractured UK, it was almost pure fantasy. We have a long history of factionalism in this country but I had no idea it would resonate with the crises of our immediate history.”
In Blister’s UK, Parliament has collapsed, a once-passive monarchy has commandeered the military, and the country is close to civil war. You’re with the Royalists, promoted to squad leader of a crisis response team tasked with ending hostage situations and national security incidents. You must maintain order in the name of the crown. And in the name of Rainbow Six.
Item 42 set out to capture the supreme control players enjoyed in the single-player Rainbow Six games of old. In Blister, you’ll steer a reconnaissance drone to scout rooms and identify targets, planning the precise movements of your NPC officers before hopping into first-person to see your commands executed up close.
“It’s like planning all your moves on a chessboard at once, then becoming the knight on that board and smashing the opponent’s pieces to bits,” explains Ware. “That means gameplay in BLISTER has a simple pattern: plan, execute, plan, execute.”
That drone isn’t just a nod to Clancy technofiction: it allows players to micromanage their squad in a way we don’t often associate with shooters. You can explore a section of a level, tagging insurgents, hostages and objects of interest as you go. And you can also set waypoints that provide the cops under your command with specific objectives: arrest an enemy; press a button to lower a platform; throw tear gas through a vent.
By linking waypoints together, you can give an individual squaddie a complex plan of action before breaching a door. And if it’s the wrong plan? You’ll have to do without that officer for the rest of the level.
Each map in Blister’s campaign will be split into multiple wings. You’ll be clearing section by section of a besieged nuclear power plant, or a hijacked freighter ship, or a royal estate. Or Hadrian’s Wall. That’s Ware’s favourite.
“This time, it’s built to keep the English out,” he notes.
Oh yes: an eerie connection to current affairs isn’t going to keep Item 42 from pushing their plot into absurdity. They promise excessive tea consumption, bad teeth and stuffy manners.
“I’m bored of playing the same old story in tactical sims,” says Ware. “It’s usually SWAT vs generic terrorist or NATO vs Middle East. I think of games as an escape from reality so I want to immerse players in a more outlandish story that takes its cues from an historical setting.”
The developers have taken three groups from real civil conflict in England - the Ironsides, the Roundheads and the Barons - and turned them into enemy types of increasing difficulty. Like so many fights throughout UK history, this one is between the crown and the landowners.
“You are defenders of the monarchy, protectors of the privileged,” Ware expands. “But on the other side of the coin, the rebel insurgents are ruthless, just like Oliver Cromwell was. As with the real English Civil Wars, civilians suffer the most.”
During play, you’ll decide what to do with the civvies caught in the crossfire - and suffer endgame consequences dependent on your actions.
The Rainbow Six series may have turned its back on single-player with Siege, but Item 42 reckon there’s plenty of unexplored potential in campaigns played with NPC squads.
“The shooter market is saturated with multiplayer games and we saw that as an opportunity,” says Ware. “There is more room these days for a single-player shooter with some unusual mechanics to stand out.
“I think developers ignore single-player at their peril; Titanfall and Siege both suffered because there was no campaign.”
Iterating fast using Unreal Engine 4’s Blueprint system, Item 42 have conceived ideas Rainbow Six and SWAT never touched on: “less-lethal” firearms like the beanbag shotgun; Holy Hand Grenade inspired explosives; psychological warfare that can see an enemy decide to stand down depending on, among other things, how beefy your body armour is. All with a team of just two.
“By far what I’m most proud of is how much we have achieved in this short time,” reflects artist and designer Regan Ware. “We’re an extremely small team and I still can’t quite believe how much progress we’ve made.”
“Guns, so many guns,” finishes Bret. “Tea drinking, and more guns.”
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 Item 42.