Smuggler's Run 2 Q&A
We find out what to expect in the sequel to Smuggler's Run.
The original Smuggler's Run went down very well with the masses when it was released at the PlayStation 2 launch in October last year. Developed by Angel Studios, SR features impressive graphics and simple but addictive gameplay. The game lets you live the glamorous life of a smuggler tearing through massive environments, smuggling goods, and avoiding the authorities. In addition to the single-player mode, SR features solid multiplayer games. But, given the fact that it was a launch title, Angel and Rockstar were both aware that there was still room for improvement. We talked with Dan Houser of Rockstar games about what to expect from the next installment of the series.
GameSpot: So what's the most notable change that you guys implemented into this sequel?
Dan Houser: I'm not sure. We've changed everything, pretty much, or updated it in some way or another. The most noticeable changes are to the graphics, which are absolutely stunning, and to the AI, which is much more sophisticated and realistic, making the experience of being chased much more engrossing. We have also added a lot of new features and elements--new locations, a compelling plot, explosions, weather, countermeasures on every vehicle, a rear-view mirror so that you can see who is chasing you, and so on. We really liked the original Smuggler's Run and wanted to keep the basics of it still in place--completely open off-road driving in huge environments, while making the game a much more involving and nerve-racking experience.
GS: How has the game evolved technologically over the last installment?
DH: Angel has made huge improvements to every aspect of the game. The game engine has been rewritten with the result that visually, the game is far better-looking with environments that are as good-looking as anything people have seen on a console, while still having a draw distance no other game can match. The vehicles handle better and with more variety, while the AI is completely different. These are the core areas of an off-road chase game--graphics, physics, and AI--and all of them have been completely overhauled. The experience of making Smuggler's Run 1, both in terms of how far the hardware could be pushed and what made the game and its huge environments fun, was obviously invaluable.
GS: Along the same lines how have the game's mission designs been reworked? Any elements that you guys are especially proud of?
DH: Smuggler's Run 2 is a driving game, but one in which we wanted to add as many different modes in a narrative-driven experience as possible. All of the original modes are still there, although the better AI makes them much more fun, but we wanted to keep surprising the player with different challenges and problems--exploding contraband, exploding vehicles, vehicle assault, contraband falling out of the sky by parachute, escaping from pursuers, driving through minefields, and so on. We wanted to create a gameworld that seems believable, up to a point, and in which all of the elements fit and in which the player cares about what is going on. A typical mission now involves collecting contraband, which you see dropped from a plane and attached to a parachute a mile ahead of you, driving to it, delivering it to a waiting helicopter that flies off, escaping the border guards using your nitro-boost, driving to a safe house, swapping vehicles, collecting a bomb and delivering it to another safe house before it blows off and before losing the nine or more vehicles pursuing you by driving through a minefield. In some ways, it is the same Smuggler's Run experience, which we really loved, but infinitely more intense and engaging. Other missions are completely new, including ones where you have to destroy other vehicles, team missions where, of five available bits of contraband, some are bombs, missions in which you have to spy on other vehicles, and so on. Wing Cho, the lead designer for both Smuggler's Run games, has a very good understanding of what is fun and what works in a video game, while keeping some semblance of realism--we wanted the game to feel like an action movie--over-the-top and really chaotic--and each mission to feel really different, and he and his team have made sure this has happened, while still making everything really fun to play. I don't think there is a driving game that has as much variety as Smuggler's Run 2.
GS: Can you go into specifics about the game's vehicles? Which are new, and what has changed about the ones that have remained?
We wanted to make the most varied off-driving experience that we could. There are eight vehicles in the game, one from each class of off-road vehicle we could think of. Some were in the original, although all of the models and physics have been completely redone from scratch. We wanted to make the vehicles drive and handle very differently from one another in order to make the player really enjoy winning new vehicles and to make the choice of vehicle crucial to how a player drives in a mission. David McGrath, the art director on the project, had a very clear vision for the vehicles--they should be slightly exaggerated versions of real-life off-road vehicles, slightly military in feeling, and really fun to drive and smash up. Every vehicle feels unique, from the buggy, which is probably the franchise's signature vehicle, to the enormous monster truck. The game includes quad bikes, buggies, rally cars, jeeps, trucks, SUVs, a weird armored Russian military truck, and a monster truck tuned for driving in the snow. Each vehicle also has a countermeasure to deter chasing vehicles, a feature that works very well in the Smuggler's Run 2 world. As far as we were concerned, this covered every major class of off-road vehicle.
GS: What about the game's AI? Can you talk about the changes that you guys made in that department?
DH: Not really, unless you like talking in terms of algorithms. Obviously in a game based around free-form car chases, AI is completely key. It has to feel fun, varied, challenging, and human. We wanted to add a lot more variety to the cop AI so that we could scare the player by having him chased by a lot more vehicles than previously, while keeping the game enjoyable and not too hard, so different vehicles pursuing you have different behaviors, mainly dependent on their size. The other improvement has been in the team AI-- cooperative NPCs [nonplayer characters] were a big feature in Smuggler's Run 1, but every NPC vehicle had the same behavior. In Smuggler's Run 2, you can choose your support vehicles, and each vehicle has a different style with the result that team missions are a lot more fun and a lot more varied than was possible in the original game.
GS: Would you like to talk about the game's story? How much of a role does it play, and how is it told to the player?
DH: The original game was criticized for not really having any kind of story or back story. Back stories are not usual in driving games, even in a car chase game, but people seemed to expect more of a game called Smuggler's Run. With 2 we wanted to move the game to exotic and threatening locations--Afghanistan and Vietnam--and do everything possible to push and pull the player through the game. In a lot of driving games or any nonadventure game, stories can seem superimposed, and we wanted to try to make sure this wasn't the case, so the story unfolds in bothmissions--what you do is in the action part of the story and via cutscenes. The cutscenes were filmed and then colored to look like a video game. The actors in the cutscenes are the same ones you hear in game, while the locations look identical, so it should feel like part of the same world to the player.
GS: What types of environments can players expect to race through?
DH: The game has, like the original, three huge environments: Afghanistan, Vietnam, and winter. We would rather make fewer bigger environments, but in a game like Smuggler's Run, size matters. The ability to drive for several minutes in any direction is what is so unique to the series. But, there is a lot variety to the landscape than in the original. The environments look more natural but are filled with driving-game-friendly features--huge jumps, falling rocks, exploding bridges, villages, different surfaces such as paddy fields, beaches, marshes, minefields, rivers, and so on, to provide variety and fun.
Afganistan is relatively sparse and feels very desolate, while Vietnam is the exact opposite--covered in bamboo, forests, and marshes. Both are beautiful, but Vietnam is as lush and pretty as anything I have ever seen in a video game. And obviously, none of it is prerendered and none of it is backdrop--everything exists, and the player can interact with anything.
GS: What can you say about the game's graphical production? How will it look in comparison with its predecessor?
DH: The updated Angel engine means the game is simply far better-looking than the original. The cars have more detailing, there are great new visual effects--explosions, nitro-boosts, and weather effects--but the main improvement is in the environments themselves. Everything just looks incredible and very varied within the environment, and no two areas on any map look the same.
GS: What sorts of little touches, graphical or otherwise, help bring the player into the game?
DH: We wanted to make a game in which everything--the front end, the packaging, the music, the story, and the gameplay itself--felt really well integrated and very immersive in order to create a driving game that felt like an action movie. From the opening cutscene to the final mission, the player should feel pretty much immersed in his role as a gunrunner working in the former eastern block. We think the game pushes back the boundaries of what is expected in a driving game.
GS: Can you talk about the game's multiplayer modes?
DH: The multiplayer mode was probably the most popular mode in the original. We wanted to make sure nothing was taken away. Beyond the improvements to NPC AI, which have brought all of the team missions, single and multiplayer, to life, we've added one new mode--bomb tag--and a lot more multiplayer missions, including a whole separate mode of checkpoint racing. Because the AI has gotten so good, we have also added a mode in which players can play head-to-head without any support vehicles.
GS: Finally, is there anything you'd like to say to fans of the first game who may be curious about this second one?
I was a huge fan of the original, so it was a real honor to work on the sequel. We haven't lost any features from the original, because we felt it was a really good video game, but we have added a lot of new features, while improving every core aspect of the original. Any fan of the original will love the sequel, while people who liked the core concept of the original--completely open-ended racing across large environments--but weren't completely satisfied by the original should play the sequel, because everything has been improved. If you absolutely hated the original in every way, you should probably stick to driving around a track. Angel and Rockstar had a shared and very clear vision for what we wanted out of the sequel, and we have achieved everything we thought was possible, so we are very pleased with the results and hope that people, especially people who played the first game, enjoy it as much as we do.