Ground Branch is an upcoming strategic FPS, in development at BlackFoot Studios. Combining military accuracy with tactical strategy, Ground Branch is aiming to be the immersive tactical shooter that brings back the contemplative approach. We recently had a chat with John Sonedecker, owner and art director at BlackFoot, about what exactly makes Ground Branch such a tactical and immersive shooter.
Ground Branch is a case of fiction meeting reality. You play as the eponymous Ground Branch, operators within the Special Activities Division of the CIA. The Special Activities division performs “deniable covert operations on foreign soil”, often going in before any of the other special forces. Sonedecker describes them as “the true tip of the spear”, often carrying out their missions before the SEALs, before Special Forces, before DevGru. While not a military organisation, members are often recruited from Army Special Forces or CAG units, and are “experts in field craft, surveillance, small arms, hostage rescue and Close Quarters Battle.” Being separate from military command also allows them operational freedoms that the CIA possesses. It also means their operations are occasionally controversial. Sonedecker told us that Ground Branch “are the gunslingers of modern day warfare and are not a direct combat unit but instead rely on stealth and hit and run tactics. This means their operational manners may be deemed questionable by some at times. Ground Branch isn’t sent in to be an ambassador of good will, they are sent in to get very specific results.”
So how will the real life Ground Branch’s mission focus, this individual operation approach, affect Ground Branch’s campaign? Sonedecker stated that the team “are not going for the typical campaign design approach with an overarching storyline”. Instead, the missions will be carried out in “smaller more localized chunks.” This unorthodox, more segmented approach was deliberately chosen to emulate “how the real CIA Ground Branch unit would work” and lets the team keep delivering fresh content to players “on a continued basis.”
Sonedecker is keeping the exact campaign details under wraps at the moment, however he did give us a brief overview of what we might encounter in the finished game. “Gameplay will not be your standard Hollywood ‘save the world’ fare.” Sonedecker told us. “The world is not in imminent danger from a maniac tyrant with a biological weapon or nuke. Missions may mirror or be influenced by some real life issues and conflicts. There may be times when you are in a no win situation and must choose to take the “best of the worst” outcomes. Mission success may not be cut and dry either. It isn’t always calculated by killing everyone in a map.” Missions will include scenarios like “stealth recon, snatch and grab specific targets, full on assault, escort detail, and everything in between.” There are also “sneak and peek” sections that allow you to locate intel that can affect the way future missions play out.
Key to Ground Branch’s campaign is the concept of replayability. This stems from the combination of player choice, non-linear campaign design, and the lack of pre-scripted set pieces. Blending these features into the approach means “players should get lots of replay in the missions.”
Choice begins with player loadout. “Players chose all the gear and weapon setups they will take into a mission so they better have a good understanding of available intel and make good choices.” Sonedecker said. “Take mainly sniper rifles into an environment that is all close quarters and you will have an unwieldy weapon that is hard to maneuver with.” But once the loadout is selected, it’s all about “mission execution.” The way a player tackles each objective is not set in stone. Freedom to approach objectives in the fashion desired by the player is being provided. “Maps are not linear and objectives do not necessarily need to be completed in a particular order.” we were told. “You may make the choice to take care of one area first and in doing so make another area of the map easier to deal with.”
“We really want what the player does and why they do it to be more important than us trying to design something ‘cool’. Having things less scripted and open ended allows for lots of organic ‘wow’ moments that otherwise would never happen.”
Gear choices, route choices, planning, and the way the player approaches the enemy dictates mission success. “We do not want play in Ground Branch to be dictated by a bunch of pre-scripted and ‘set piece’ type areas.” Sonedecker explained. “Gameplay results are determined by the player’s choices and actions.”
Locations will vary between a mixture of urban and rural maps, as well as some that include both. The transition between indoor environments and outdoors is handled “seamless[ly]” in the game, uniting the environment types and building interiors.
In any first person shooter – especially ones that are attempting a certain level of realism – guns take center stage. Ground Branch has guns. Drawing from a real world armoury, Ground Branch will include weapons used by real world units. The arsenal won’t be extensive – currently there are twelve weapons to choose from – but each weapon will accept a wide range of attachments that let the player customise their weapons. There will be no preset weapon configurations either, meaning that players choose what attachments they want, providing they fit on the realistic attachment points and rails available on each gun.
Weapons are intended to behave realistically. Performance is based on “a set of real world values” for each gun, which dictates the way weapons perform. “Things like weapon length, weight and what attachments you have determine how things perform in game.” Sonedecker told us. “A short barrel small caliber MP5 is not a good weapon to have in long range engagements. Likewise a long barrel heavy sniper rifle would be a bad choice in a close quarter’s tight environment.” BlackFoot are dedicated to this real world data, vowing to keep the real stats even if it means that certain weapons are unbalanced. “We will never artificially change values of a weapon’s performance to make it more ‘usable’.” Sonedecker said. “If a particular weapon rises above others in certain types of gameplay then so be it. The weapons themselves do the balancing by their very design.”
Another touch of realism is how the game handles reloading. Ground Branch tracks each magazine as a separate item. “In most games, ammo is just a general pool that a weapon pulls from, but in Ground Branch each magazine is tracked on its own.” This means that magazines with rounds remaining will be stored for later use. “The next time that magazine is loaded it will only have that number of rounds.”
Ground Branch also includes one of my favourite shooter features – you can top-off your gun. Reload when there’s one in the chamber and you’ll keep that round plus the full mag. 30+1, here we come.
Whether Ground Branch will feature permadeath or not is still up in the air. The decision will revolve around the way the game handles the player roster; if the game will use a pool of specific named characters or not.
As an added bonus, Ground Branch is including a multiplayer component. Multiplayer rounds will be “methodical with pockets of quick but intense firefights all the way to long drawn out engagements against an equally matched team.” Multiplayer balancing will adhere to the philosophy of realism – there is no artificial balancing involved, instead, balance comes from the skills of the individuals and “decision making will be what allows them to succeed.”
Ground Branch’s strategic shooter concept did not develop in a vacuum. The game’s driving vision is a result of love for the genre. “All of us on the project enjoy playing realistic military shooters.” Sonedecker revealed. “We all love classics like Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, SWAT 3/4, Red Orchestra as well as mods like Infiltration. That type of gameplay just isn’t found in modern games and we want to bring that back.”
It goes back to the full-time team of three’s development pedigree. Studio head John Sonedecker has been working in the game industry for sixteen years, working on some of the great tactical shooter titles of times gone by. A veteran of Red Storm Entertainment, Sonedecker has been a key member on the original Rainbow Six, Rogue Spear, and Ghost Recon, and has advised Ubisoft Montreal with Raven Shield. After leaving Red Storm, he has consulted and contracted with game developers, as well as the military simulation arena. A lot of his contract work has been with Tripwire on games like Red Orchestra 2 and Rising Storm.
Kris comes from the modding community, having worked on realism based mods in the past. His work has pioneered the True First Person system that Ground Branch will be using. Jeremy, the third member, is an animator who has had his work contracted for games and film projects in the past, but Ground Branch is his first opportunity to work on a full game.
BlackFoot have decided to move to Unreal Engine 4 for the development of Ground Branch, after initially beginning on Unreal Engine 3. This has brought a lot of benefits and ease to development, but it hasn’t all been easy. “The jump to Unreal Engine 4 has been great.” Sonedecker told us. “Unreal Engine has a long and well respected history, though UE3 still maintained a lot of that history under the hood. UE4 breaks free from that legacy code/design and really is a modern game engine in every sense. It’s a joy to work with.” According to Sonedecker, UE4 is also much easier for beginners to work with. “UE4 is more “open” and accessible than previous versions. Modders are going to love it!”
With the transition from UE3 to UE4, the team have been able to preserve a lot of the work already done on the game. “There have obviously been some things that were easy to bring over, but also some that have taken longer than expected.” Sonedecker admitted. But the transition to the new engine has enabled a new level of graphical fidelity. “Overall UE4 allows us to push graphics more than UE3 did.” Sonedecker told us. “The lighting system is a big step above what we were previously using and things like GPU particles will allow us to do more effects like lingering smoke in enclosed spaces.”
“The new Physical Based Rendering material system allows for much more realistic materials as well. This along with the new lighting system provides environments with a lot more depth and realism that we could have achieved before.”
But the team do have resource constraints. Being a team of three has impacted graphical fidelity. “[W]e are a very small team so we do not plan to push things graphically. We simply do not have the resources.” Sonedecker told us. “That being said though, Unreal Engine 4 gives us the ability to have great looking graphics that look and feel like a modern game. Ground Branch will not feel ‘dated’ anytime soon.” A result of this is that you shouldn’t need a beast of a rig to run Ground Branch well. The aim is that “[t]he minimum spec will be inline with recently released games that are out now.”
Unreal Engine 4’s prototypical nature has also thrown up another minor hurdle – AI. “At the moment we are waiting to get a little more information about what the AI systems in UE4 are going to be like. Unreal Engine 4 is still a work in progress with features being added and refined all the time.” Sonedecker revealed. The team do recognise the importance of good AI, especially for a tactical shooter like Ground Branch, as well as how difficult getting shooter AI right is.
The heart of Ground Branch’s realistic features is the custom True First Person system developed by Kris. True First Person is a way of creating and maintaining a virtual full body awareness that transfers over to the way your character behaves in the world, and in the eyes of others. “That means,” Sonedecker said, “that what you see as yourself and your weapon in first person is EXACTLY how others see you. There are no separate 1st and 3rd person animations… there is only one set so there are no out of sync issues.” This extends to weapons, which are all complete 3d meshes in game that will collide with world geometry. Placing the character into the world is the goal of this system, ensuring the player is immersed in the world, “and not just floating arms with a gun.”
In addition to the True First Person system, Ground Branch is including support for devices such as TrackIR and the Oculus Rift.
While currently only in development for the PC, Sonedecker is hopeful to bring Ground Branch to other platforms. He did mention, however, that BlackFoot Studios is a registered Sony Playstation 4 developer/publisher, so a PS4 version of the game “is a good bet at some point.”
Ground Branch currently has no release date, but the developers are thoroughly in the grips of development. The team plan to move to an alpha funding early access model soon, and will have all the details up on their website in time.
Thanks to John Sonedecker for taking the time to chat with us. We’ll keep you updated on Ground Branch, so stay tuned.