Joint Operations: Escalation Q&A - Final Thoughts

Senior designer Brent Houston and producer Joel Taubel talk about the new features and enhancements in this soon-to-be-released expansion pack.


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With the Joint Operations: Escalation expansion, NovaLogic is looking to add some punch to its impressive online action game Joint Operations: Typhoon Rising. Typhoon Rising was released earlier this year, and it allowed up to 150 players to battle it out online in a near-future conflict taking place in a region that resembles modern-day Indonesia, using state-of-the-art weapons and vehicles. Joint Operations: Escalation, which is being released this week, will add new maps, new weapons, and powerful new vehicles, including main battle tanks and attack helicopters. To get the latest details, we sat down with senior designer Brent Houston and producer Joel Taubel to discuss some of the new features introduced in Escalation.

Joint Operations: Escalation adds heavy armor to the Joint Operations world.
Joint Operations: Escalation adds heavy armor to the Joint Operations world.

GameSpot: Escalation has much more of an emphasis on offensive vehicles, such as tanks and attack helicopters. How are they being balanced so they don't overpower the game? In other words, in the original game, players tended to use the larger cooperative vehicles because they had to. Now, with the addition of smaller assault vehicles, what's to stop players from using only those?

Brent Houston: The intention with Escalation was to really ratchet up the action without losing the focus of the original game. We wanted to add fun vehicles while not reducing the individual's role on the ground to that of a speed bump. Part of this was accomplished though adding weapons such as the Javelin antitank missile, which allows a soldier to disable an enemy tank with one hit. We also changed the way we designed the maps to allow for more action to occur in areas with cover for ground troops.

We included some small agile vehicles, so that players who wanted to go off on their own wouldn't monopolize a large vehicle, thereby reducing the effectiveness of their team. The larger vehicles, when crewed properly, are still the most effective way to take and hold territory.

Joel Taubel: We have the ability to place the vehicles in any mission that we choose. So if we feel that an Apache would dominate a certain level, we will not place it in the map. We have also made the vehicles rely on passengers. The pilot will fly the Apache and the passenger will play the part of the weapons officer. The weapons officer is the only one who has access to the weapons.

GS: The M1A1 Abrams is one of the examples of new vehicles that require teamwork to operate effectively. Could you explain how tank crews work, considering that typical real-world tank crews include three to four guys--a driver, gunner, loader, and commander?

BH: The tank is one of the best examples of effective teamwork. There are crew positions for a driver, gunner, and tank commander. The driver is in control of the vehicle and can drive from either first- or third-person. The gunner operates the 120mm cannon on the M1A1 Abrams and works in concert with the commander to find and destroy vehicles. The commander's position is in the top hatch, operating the mounted .50-calibur machine gun. He has the highest risk, but also the best visibility and can designate targets for the gunner to engage.

JT: The tank crew consists of three players. The real tanks use a crew of four, but we did not feel that anyone would have fun playing the role of the loader. The commander sits on top and has the best field of view. When the commander presses the space bar, he sends a message to the gunner to fire on whatever he is looking at. The gunner has the ability to see what he is looking at by the use of a "commander's" reticle that is overlayed onto his view. The gunner just has to turn the main barrel to match up with the commander and fire.

GS: Could you describe the new attack helicopters for us? Are they tankbusters that carry guided antitank missiles? Can they withstand more damage from the shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles that half the players seem to carry?

BH: In Escalation, we added the AH-64A Apache and the KA-52 Alligator. Both are two-seat attack helicopters with pilot and copilot/gunner positions. It was a conscious decision to not include fire-and-forget antitank missiles, since that would give the airborne platforms a little too much advantage right now. Both aircraft do carry folding-fin aerial rockets and powerful 30mm chain guns.

JT: They are all-around weapon platforms. They work well against infantry and vehicles of all sizes. They are still very sturdy and can take a fair amount of abuse before they blow up.

Attack helicopters are fast and rugged, and capable of ruining your day.
Attack helicopters are fast and rugged, and capable of ruining your day.

GS: Typhoon Rising featured a wide variety of land-based and water-based levels. Is the team looking to keep the same kind of mix, or has the appearance of heavy armor steered Escalation toward more land-based levels?

BH: There's probably a little less in the way of island maps in Escalation, but I think we had that pretty well covered in Typhoon Rising. We wanted to focus more on land mobility and faster pacing. The island maps look really cool, but tend to be a little slower paced overall, due to the need to transport large groups of players and vehicles over distance. We have a good balance of jungle, open terrain, and industrial locales in the expansion.

JT: We still have water vehicles and they still are a main focus of ours. The addition of armor does lend itself to more land maps, but we still have water maps, and maps that need the larger water transports to get the new armor across water.

Fighting Soldiers From the Sky

GS: What were some of the lessons that the team took from Typhoon Rising's maps? Every map has its fans and detractors, but were there any that were generally agreed to be too big? What other lessons has the team brought to the expansion pack's new maps?

In addition to new vehicles, there are powerful new weapons, including antitank missiles.
In addition to new vehicles, there are powerful new weapons, including antitank missiles.

BH: One of the major things we looked at based on our own playing and user feedback is the pacing of the maps. We experimented with a technique called clustering to focus the action in central areas that didn't require long distances or transporting once you had a foothold in the key location. An example would be placing four objectives within a small city or complex. The players would have to coordinate and move the team into a position where they could capture one of the four objectives. Once they get a foothold in the city, they can branch out on foot to assault the other points.

GS: Can we expect any improvements to the interface? Is it easier to coordinate or communicate with your fellow teammates?

BH: We've changed a little of the respawn-screen functionality to make it easier to get into the action. Previously, when you would get killed, you would hit the space bar and respawn at your team's rear base, which is the safest place, but farthest from the action. We intended people to use that only as a last resort or to get a particular vehicle, but not as the desired place to get back into the game. Now, if you hit the space bar, you'll be put into the queue at the spawn point closest to the fighting. There are also more voice macros to encompass the new vehicles.

JT: We have looked heavily into our chat system and have made steps to improve it. We offer more modes and greater ability to change the chat channel on the fly with the use of the "chat cycle" key. Local-chat messages show up on the spin map, as do "need a ride" messages. Local chat allows the users to communicate with a smaller group of players or with anyone within a radius of the player. Even enemy chat messages display, so be careful when you use it.

GS: Tell us about the way parachutes and parachute deployment work, and how they'll affect gameplay.

BH: We're loosely simulating the MC-5 parachute in Escalation. The MC-5 is a ram-air (rectangle) steerable chute that is capable of either static-line or freefall deployment. We chose to keep it simple for the player and the chute will automatically deploy when the player is in freefall (either from jumping out of a helicopter or off a cliff). As a tactic, this can really impact some of the "advance and secure" maps. With good coordination, you can quickly and quietly move a huge number of troops behind enemy lines and attack from where your opponent least expects it.

JT: The parachutes are automatically deployed, so as soon as you reach terminal velocity, the chute will deploy. This means that you cannot do HALO (high altitude low opening) jumps. It does allow you to jump off any tall object, such as buildings, cliffs, and towers. It also means that you will be vulnerable while falling. Use it wisely, as it could mean the difference between you reaching the ground safely or having to respawn and try again.

GS: What are some of the tricks and exploits that you've seen in Typhoon Rising? Are you going to address them in Escalation? Or do you view them as part of the fun? One example we've seen is players floating an armored personnel carrier in the ocean and delivering unlimited amounts of harassing fire from a relatively safe position.

BH: We've got a few tricks to discourage people who like to camp near the rear bases, and the Javelin missiles can ruthlessly dispatch anyone hanging out offshore.

JT: We have added overheating to the weapons that have no ammo limits. The grenade-launcher spamming is a thing of the past with Escalation. The weapons overheat, which means the person doing the grenade spamming has to play smarter. If you overheat the weapon, you can get picked off while waiting for it to cool down. We have also added base-defense weapons. These weapons sit at the rear bases and can be used by players to keep snipers from picking them off. The weapons have imaging systems that will allow you to pick people off more easily.

GS: What's been the feedback on Typhoon Rising's difficulty? If there's one complaint that new players seem to have, it's that it seems a bit too easy to get killed--all it takes is a hit or two to put you on the ground. Have you adjusted for that, perhaps by making regular weapons a little less accurate at long range?

BH: To help out new players, we've added an option to wear body armor, which will buy you a little more time on the battlefield at the cost of added weight and therefore less mobility. The new vehicles are team-oriented, so it's easier to get on board with a veteran player and learn the ropes. We've also taken some balancing passes on various weapons and classes to even the playing field and not give one class a major advantage over any other.

GS: Do you have any cool war stories to tell from playing and testing Escalation?

BH: The tanks can add an unmatched intensity to a game--I've been in several situations where my team has been pushing hard on an enemy position, only to have an enemy T-80 roll on to the scene. When you're in an infantry fight, 50 tons of steel appearing smack in the middle of everything tends to put your adrenaline through the roof, especially when the turret starts to turn in your direction and you're 20 meters from the nearest cover.

Despite all the new toys, teamwork remains important if you want to win the day.
Despite all the new toys, teamwork remains important if you want to win the day.

GS: Is there anything else you'd like to add about Joint Operations: Escalation?

BH: Escalation is much more than just an expansion--we've made a lot of tweaks to gameplay, added some serious vehicles and weapons, and designed a set of incredibly unique maps that accelerate the gameplay.

GS: Thanks, guys.

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