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While Half-Life 2 mods are a dime a dozen, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to separate yourself from the pack. And what better way than to create a hybrid shooter that harnesses the best aspects of both the RTS and first person shooter?
Under the heavy influence of nachos, Nerds and other N-letter junk foods I can't even begin to describe, I sat down with Dave "DaveL" Lyon and Stephen "Crispy" Etheridge of the Nuclear Dawn team. The agenda: to set this mod apart from the myriad of other Half-Life 2 mods that are already congesting poor ModDB's arteries.
What is Nuclear Dawn all about?
Nuclear Dawn is a multiplayer mod for Half-Life 2 that mixes objective-based Real-Time Strategy with First-Person Shooter action. Set after the apocalyptic world war known simply as ‘the Third’, players fight for one of two opposing forces: the Euro-American coalition of the Consortium of Free States or the Chinese-Russian alliance, the People's Empire. One player per team takes on the role of the commander and plays the game much like an RTS while the rest of the players choose one of three soldier classes to play as: the ever-prepared assault trooper, the sneaky stealth or the chaingun-wielding exo. We’ve tried to make the mod easy to pick up but difficult to master, so we’re hoping it will appeal to both the casual and the hardcore gamer.
Explain how the Commander and Field troops work. Are Commanders just issuing orders for people to follow like in Battlefield 2, or will they build and spawn different things, like in C&C: Renegade?
Stuffie! Head into the restroom! Ippo, get thee to a nunnery! And for the love of cake, someone bring me some Koolaid! That's an order!
One player on each team has the opportunity to play the game from a top-down view, using a traditional RTS-style interface to gather important tactical information about his enemy and execute strategic plays with the help of his teammates on the ground. As well as giving simple movement orders, he can select members of his team and ask them to perform specific actions at key locations such as attacking an enemy unit, defending a friendly unit or building a structure the commander has just deployed.
As these ground troops advance towards the enemy base, they will encounter capture points along the way that they can secure to unlock valuable resources for their commander and team. The commander can use his income to build key structures back at base that grant his team access to new technologies. Meanwhile the troops who capture the resource points get their own cash bonuses to spend on new equipment and increasing their firepower.
The commander dictates the pace and direction of the game rather than being the determining factor in a player’s enjoyment of it. Unable to deal direct damage to the enemy he must support his soldiers by using his skill and cunning to successfully coordinate his team’s attacks. For example, one of the super weapons available to him, the EMP strike, disables the buildings of the opposition but does not destroy or damage them; this is left for his troops to take care of. Similarly, all turrets work on line of sight, they can only shoot at what they can see. But there’s a twist – they are limited to a 120۫ firing arc and must therefore be positioned carefully if they are to provide any real means of defence.
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If following the orders of the Commander is not a requirement to playing the game, what is to prevent him from just being ignored entirely in a given match? Is he more of an organisational feature?
The second a game becomes a question of following a fixed path it becomes a less enjoyable experience. With the exception of your basic victory conditions (e.g. eliminate the other team), we have tried to avoid hardwiring in any set style of play, and instead have focused on giving players the option to shape the game they play. There is nothing in Nuclear Dawn to prevent anyone from ignoring the commander, but at the same time listening to the orders of a (good) commander will no doubt benefit the player and their team. The object of this is not to make the commander a redundant force in the game, but to give each player control over how they personally derive enjoyment from the game without this having an adverse effect on the enjoyment of others playing the game.
The commander is in charge of coordinating the players on his team, so ultimately he can choose to support players who are a benefit to his team and ignore those who want to play their own game. One other side effect we have anticipated is that with the commander in a less pressurised support role, first-timers will have much more room to breath so they can develop their skills at their own pace.
What separates your mod from, say, Empires and Natural Selection?
There are many ways Nuclear Dawn differs from both mods, one of the main points being the influence of the commander on the game. In an RTS/FPS the main goal is to get the two genres coexisting happily on the same level, however in both Empires and Natural Selection the enjoyment factor for the FPS side of the game is determined by the RTS side, which is down to how just one player on the team plays – the commander. It’s a frustrating scenario when one person’s actions can spoil the fun for an entire team, even more frustrating, though, is if that person’s only crime was being new to the game.
In Nuclear Dawn there is no such burdening requirement for the RTS commander. While he can be of great use to your team, for the most part you actually play the game as an FPS grunt the same with or without a commander in the game. When players enter the game both teams have a ready-made base with all the basics to get them started, you do not need a commander to buy guns, respawn, or potentially win the game.
One of the other main differences is our approach to incorporating teamwork into Nuclear Dawn’s gameplay. You can never force players to work together as a team, but you can create the right situation where teamwork occurs more naturally. When construction is completed on any given structure, a percentage of its original cost is refunded to the team and divvied up between the players who helped build it. This way it’s in a player’s interests to stop and help their teammates build something because it gets them money they can spend on customising their own equipment and weapons loadout.
Capturing resource points also rewards the individual as well as the team, the cash reward being split between the soldiers and their commander. Players are free to generate their own personal income and equip themselves however they want, whenever they want, so there’s much less waiting about and more time can be spent enjoying the FPS side of the game. This also frees up the commander so that he can concentrate his attentions on the strategic element of the game.
By providing personal incentives for completing common team objectives such as building important structures back at base or capturing resource points at the front lines, selfish players become team players because they know this ‘teamwork’ will pay for their next upgrade.
It seems like a lot of time is spent upgrading your characters in-game by purchasing better equipment. How is spawning handled in the game? Are these upgrades things that can be applied each time you spawn, or must you earn them each time you regenerate?
Upgrades are basically divided into two groups: personal upgrades and team upgrades. Personal upgrades are chosen and purchased by the player and are lost when you die. Team upgrades are paid for and researched by the commander and stay with the player indefinitely unless a key structure is destroyed.
Purchasing weapons in Nuclear Dawn will be much like buying your weapons at the beginning of a round in Counter-Strike, the difference being that additional ‘buy zones’ can be built further up the battlefield to support the troops fighting at the frontlines. The ‘buy zone’ is situated around the armory structure, and it is here that you purchase weapons and other equipment via a simple mouse or hotkey menu. To reduce the time spent repurchasing weapons, players will be able to save their favourite weapon configurations in order to access them quickly when they respawn.
A few months back we decided to switch from the ‘drip’ respawn system seen in Natural Selection to the ‘wavespawn’ style found in Day of Defeat. Even though this was quite late in development for us and it meant a reassessment of the game mechanics, we’re confident in the benefits it will bring to our teamplay model.
It seems as though Natural Selection is primarily fought out in close corridors locations, while Empires is set in wide open spaces. Will Nuclear Dawn favor one side, the other, or strike a balance between the two?
With Nuclear Dawn we’re looking to create a mod with gameplay that provides the ideal testing ground for players who really want to push themselves and their teams to the limit if that is what appeals to them. In general terms, there’s scope for maps with very varied settings and layouts. Maps for Nuclear Dawn can be just about as open as the Source engine will allow, although level-over-level play is discouraged in because of how the commander interacts via a top-down perspective.
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Tell us a little about the different game modes.
The core game mode plays like an objective-based team shooter with a resource system and technology tree like in a real-time strategy game. The main objective is to wipe out the other team by destroying their base so they can no longer bring reinforcements onto the battlefield.
This will be the main game mode that players can expect with our first public release, but we’re definitely looking at other possibilities to bring more scope to the game. For example, we’re a big fan of the ‘dustbowl’ and ‘hunted’ maps in Team Fortress Classic that bring in a different style of play without changing the core gameplay. Any additional game ‘modes’ we try in the future will follow this design philosophy so that they do not detract from the RTS/FPS gameplay at the heart of Nuclear Dawn.
What is the background of the Nuclear Dawn team? Is this their first mod, or have they worked on others before?
Our team ranges from industry professionals working on multi-million dollar games to members working on their very first mod, and includes members from right across the globe. Because we have such a large team, solid organisation and management is absolutely essential to bringing this talent together to make Nuclear Dawn a reality.
Many mods lately, especially ones powered by the Source engine, seem to be switching over to the retail market. Would your team ever consider following suit? And why?
We’ve got no such plans for the moment. Our only interest at present and for the foreseeable future is to make a fun, free mod for Half-Life 2.
Will combat be tailored more towards realism or frenzied action?
We have semi-realistic looking guns that recoil if you hold down the fire button and players move and behave as you expect them to, but that’s about as realistic as Nuclear Dawn gets. Many decisions have been made where we forego realism for gameplay. The commander can build T-gates that teleport players to another location on the map. Obviously these aren’t realistic but they are an integral part of creating a fun and dynamic playing experience.
What are some of the weapons players can expect to find?
We set Nuclear Dawn in the near future to break free from some of the restrictions of modern day weaponry. On the other hand we decided to stick with bullet-based firearms because we felt a lot of the gritty battle atmosphere is lost if you suddenly have lasers whizzing through the air. One major focus has been to have weapons that sound and feel powerful, from a chaingun that can tear through an entire room of enemies to a sniper rifle that can blow somebody’s head clean off!
Why multiplayer only?
One of the things that makes the RTS/FPS genre so exciting is the ability to remove the limitations that AI places on real-time strategy and replace it with a far less predictable human element. In any typical RTS game one thing you can depend on is the behaviour of an enemy commander’s units. In an RTS/FPS such as Nuclear Dawn every unit is a human player with completely unique movement and attack patterns and the superior ability to perform intricate tactical operations with fellow members of a team. A single-player version of an RTS/FPS simply wouldn’t be doing justice to the genre because it fails to take full advantage of the very thing that distances it from a normal RTS.
Because the RTS/FPS concept is fairly new there’s a lot that hasn’t yet been done with it and the replayability factor of multiplayer games over single-player titles will ensure that we can really explore the possibilities of the genre. We fully expect some great ideas and custom content to come out of the community, from suggestions for brand new game modes to custom maps for all occasions. We can only cover all angles if we’re in touch with the people who play the game.
Nuclear Dawn seems to have a post-apocalyptic theme to it, yet all of the cities seem to be intact and preserved in the screenshots. Why is this?
One of the big differences in how warfare has changed in Nuclear Dawn is the development of nanotechnology. While in some landlocked areas such as Eastern Europe the battle was fought with ground forces and armour support, much of the Third was decided with nuclear strikes and nanobot viruses that targeted the enemy’s immune system. So, although the Japanese city shown in our screenshots wasn’t directly hit by any nukes, in the nuclear fallout that followed it was caught in a radiation zone and those that could were forced to flee to safety in other parts of the country. Now the radiation levels have subsided and the militaries of the Consortium and the Empire have moved in to vie for control of this ghost town.
Will all characters on the field be player-controlled, or will there be bots battling alongside you?
We do currently have some bots in-game but they’re merely to test out commander features and only respond to simple move and build orders they are given. A version of these bots will be included in a commander tutorial we aim to have ready for the first public release but there won’t be multiplayer support for them. We are conscious that a lot of players do enjoy practising with bots offline so we’re not ruling out the possibility of developing a set of official bots for Nuclear Dawn just yet.
Do you plan to create any fiction to go along with your interesting game universe, or will it merely be the backdrop on which the gameplay is situated?
Granted, you could argue that there is no place for a story in a multiplayer game –players don’t really need to know why they’re fighting, just where the opposition is and how to overcome it. Our opinion on this is that a well-crafted story can really bring a mod to life, artistically speaking. The extensive timeline we have on the website is not only a point of interest for avid readers, it has provided a wealth of information and inspiration for members of the dev team. We hope it will do the same for members of our community who wish to make custom content for the mod, and to keep the content fresh we have plans to incorporate the best fiction from our community into what we already have, allowing the Nuclear Dawn universe to evolve organically over time.
We ran a creative writing competition recently to give away spots on our closed beta test and some of the entries we had in just blew us away. This just goes to show that there’s a lot of creative potential out there going unnoticed because people aren’t getting enough encouragement to develop their abilities when their minds are at their most active. It’s precisely this sort of talent that we want to tap into with Nuclear Dawn to expand the mod with new environments, new game modes, and so on.