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Interstellar Marines: The future of tactical space FPS

2:00 PM on 03.16.2011 // Maurice Tan

The ongoing saga of Interstellar Marines' development is a story that already spans more than 6 years, and a fascinating one at that. Over the next few days, we'll delve into what inspired Zero Point Software to create a game about 'space marines,' their 'Indie AAA' approach to funding a project through community involvement, and what the future holds for the project.

But first, let's take a look at what the game is actually about. Some people like myself first heard about the Unity-powered project back in 2005, back when it was still running on Unreal Engine 3. Others only became aware of it after the official site launched in 2009.

Most people know the game has some crazy shark creatures and that it looked ridiculously good for a 3D indie shooter in the early trailers. Yet few people really grasp what exactly the Interstellar Marines trilogy is supposed to play like.

The most simplistic way to explain Interstellar Marines is to say it's a non-linear story-driven cooperative sci-fi FPS with RPG elements and a focus on realism and player choice. Try saying that ten times in one breath. If you absolutely had to pick games to compare it to, you could say it is like Deus Ex meets Rainbow Six in space, although that doesn't quite do justice to the ambitious project.

The game's universe features a human race, 13 years after it has taken its first steps in colonizing another solar system. In this future, the Interstellar Treaty Organization (ITO) is humanity's interplanetary umbrella organization -- the future's space-NATO.

But rather than the ITO being a type of utopian Federation, Spartan-fielding UNSC, or space-beefcaked Coalition of Ordered Governments, humanity's ventures into space are organized in a more realistic sci-fi manner. In a way, the ITO is more like the Alien franchise's Weyland-Yutani corporation.

The Interstellar Marines themselves have to go through a training process, which the game's pre-release preview games like Bullseye, Running Man and the upcoming Deadlock are meant to reflect in a camouflaged manner. After being recommended for reassignment to the Interstellar Marines program following a routine mission turned disaster, you and your AI or co-op buddies land on research station Xeno-13 for your first official mission near the start of the game.

On this station in one of the ITO's unregistered quadrants of our solar system, the ITO runs viral and biological weapon development programs. Each section of the station is compartmentalized and watched over by an AI called 'SARA' to reduce risks in case something goes wrong. Some of it might be for the good of mankind, but as you would expect from a giant space-age organization, not all of it the research the ITO can do in the hidden stretches of space is meant for public eyes. And of course, something always goes wrong.

After a scientist is infected by a virus in the viral labs, SARA locks down the entire station. It's the job of your merry squad of handpicked former Special Forces members to jump into action and resolve the situation. But how you do this, and who you do it with, is entirely up to you.

One section the game director Kim Haar Jørgensen described will see you armed with only a flashlight, traveling underwater in a submerged section of the bio-research labs in something that evokes Alien: Resurrection. It's in these labs where you'll encounter the iconic land shark creatures, the result of one of ITO's genetic research in cross-pollinating predator DNA to create the perfect killing machine.

Because we love sharks here at Destructoid, I had to ask about them and Jørgensen was happy enough to oblige. "Obviously we love sharks and have always loved the idea of introducing something that would scare the living shit out of us. But it's something small. Everyone is talking about [the land sharks], and it's cool as kind of an icon, but it's really a small part of establishing the things ITO is doing."

"[The first mission] is kind of a 'to hell and back' mission. It's fairly short, but it's going to be the point in the game -- if you start the game up alone -- and you get to that level, once the power is cut and you have to swim and get into the space station, you're going to wish you played it in co-op mode. It's going to be an incentive to find a friend to play with you."

When asked if the shark creatures would be like the Greasels in Deus Ex, Jørgensen thankfully replied: "Nonono, [Greasels] were everywhere,  I have no idea why they were in there." And neither do most of us, but damn those things were annoying.  So rest assured, there will be no Greasels in space.

Any co-op oriented game these days is inevitably compared to Left 4 Dead, but even fans of that game will agree that playing the campaign by yourself left you at the mercy of your AI fellow survivors. This is also one of ZPS's challenges for the game. They are not quite ready yet to devote themselves to either a singleplayer campaign where you have AI companions, or one where you play it by yourself without any AI to potentially get in your way.

Jørgensen elaborates: "We've always said internally: if we can create [AI] co-op buddies that work at least as well as the ones in SWAT 4, kind of mixed with how Alyx worked in Half-Life 2, then maybe we can do singleplayer co-op. But we don't want to do it like in Raven Shield or Vietcong where your AI co-op buddies will just stand at a door and don't know what to do."

"We'd much rather say: if there's two player, three player, or four player co-op, you're gonna sit at the same briefing table and in the same dropship. And if you're playing it as a lone wolf Rambo, we have to make the game compatible with that as well. It's obviously a challenge, absolutely, but it ties into other areas of the design like dynamic difficulty and [other elements]."

ZPS is very serious about the player being able to play the game any way he or she wants to. Two of the ways this concept is integrated into the in the core gameplay is through player choice with regard to what you do, or don't do, and three categories of skills to upgrade through XP.

Player choice and non-linearity come into play in how you approach any given situation. Interstellar Marines draws inspiration from Deus Ex's three pillars of choice: stealth, aggressive action and dialogue -- although the latter is not so much a core aspect as it is integrated for replayability. More specifically, the game's core aspects are centered on direct action (boom), sneaking (alternate routes) and tactical (hack/disable). This leads to a design which promotes playing around with numerous available options to deal with any obstacles you encounter.

For instance, if your task is to clear hostiles out of an area, you can decide what paths to take to resolve the problem. While this doesn't go into Mass Effect levels of dialogue and reactivity with branching paths, your decisions will shape the role you play as a marine. Or they will shape how your actions define you as a member of the military.

This ties into ZPS's philosophy of focusing on a very replayable 6-8 hour game, lengthened by the amount of exploring and role-playing you choose to do, as opposed to creating one big 20+ hour shooter. Which is probably for the best as 20 hour FPS games can grow old fast.

"We want to have non-linear storytelling that's really inspired by just simple things, like in Doom, which is a bad example because there's no role-playing elements in there. But imagine you are running around in that [game's] complex and you got a scientist on an emergency frequency calling you down to his basement office and you talk to him. And because you talk to him you unlock an event later in the game that actually ties into that. Just having that kind of non-linearity to create replay value. It's something we want to, and are, playing around with," Jørgensen said.

"It even goes into how well you perform at a certain point in the game, where then we take [results data] based on your performance, and branch out to three different things like what people will say and how they will salute you, just small things that change based on how you play your character. I don't want it to sound overly ambitious because it's really small things that we're trying to throw into the experience."

While this type of non-linearity is mostly an aspect of level design and progression, the game's core gameplay still involves a lot of shooting things in the face and upgrading your skills to deal with a situation in a unique way.

In a Deus Ex or Shock-series fashion, you can expect a high level security door in the first level. Maybe you put all your points into hacking in that playthrough, so you can unlock the door and get a robot to fight alongside you. Or maybe you didn't, and you'll have to find alternative ways to deal with the situation that perhaps require a more stealthy or 'guns blazing' approach.

Interstellar Marines have access to three 'shops' which can be upgraded liberally without prior restrictions from other skill trees. The Character Shop will let you upgrade your marine's agility to modify movement speed and fall damage. This shop is also where you can upgrade your stealth skills, like making your footsteps generate less sound.

The Weapon Shop will host an entire arsenal of weapons, which you can purchase and upgrade. If you've played the preview game Bullseye before, you'll recognize the upgrade system in the way it lets you spend XP to unlock new extensions and handling abilities for any specific weapon.

Finally, an Equipment Shop gives you a plethora of items to buy and upgrade. Here you'll find things like turrets, different armor, camouflage, sentry units, traps and upgrades. Helmet upgrades give you access to new vision modes, while PDA upgrades can affect your map, provide a motion sensor, allow you to perform remote hacks, etc.

Combining the multitude of upgrades from the three shops enables you to deal with a situation in the way you want. Do you hack open that locked door and activate a turret somewhere? Do you hack a camera or computer to find an alternate path to sneak through? Do you just trust your twitch shooter instincts and shoot everyone while shouting Schwarzenegger oneliners?

Or do you coordinate with three of your friends, hack a camera to gauge the situation in a room, and then simultaneously breach a room from four sides to eliminate a group of hostage takers with silencers so you don't set off the alarm? You'll be rewarded with roughly the same amount of XP regardless of which option you take.

"It's about creating tactical situations, that are not super tactical like in Raven Shield or Ghost Recon which really punishes arcade-type play, but it's about making the ingredients work well [and combining them] into something we really love," Jørgensen explains. In the end, it's up to you to choose how slow, tactical, or arcade-like you want to play. Or what mix of those styles best suit your way of playing the game.

The focus of the Interstellar Marines trilogy, starting with its first installment First Contact, will primarily be on creating an immersive story to explore, and to let you play it in a way that matches your playstyle: play it with your friends if you want to, or go solo. Player freedom is key to ZPS, even to the point of in which manner and on which digital platform the game will be released on.

That also means that thankfully competitive multiplayer is not the focus of the project, or something that is likely to distract ZPS from focusing on the campaign aspects. Then again, they are creating a sort of parallel track for multiplayer through their upcoming preview game 'Deadlock' and letting the community decide on what they want. Depending on how the community responds to that, ZPS will consider where to go from there.

For more about the inspirations behind the game, the overarching storyline and how Zero Point Software is trying to realize their vision for the game with only four guys, a few small investors, and a community-centered crowdfunding business model, check back this time tomorrow and Friday.

In the meantime, why not give the browser-based preview game Running Man a shot on the Interstellar Marines website? Although it's meant as a sample, it provides a better feel for the gameplay and weapons handling than mere words can describe.

Maurice Tan,
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