It's with a sense of joy and anticipation that we enter the offices of Avalanche Studios. Their last game - the delightfully chaotic Just Cause 2 - was great. All we know about what we're about to see is that it's something smaller and downloadable and that it's called Renegade Ops.
As we sit down the mini theatre in the studio the game boots up on a Playstation 3 and Axel Lindberg, game director and Andreas Thorsén, senior producer, let's us know that it's a "topdown dualstick arcade vehicle shooter". Rolls off the tongue, doesn't it. Avalanche took the engine from Just Cause 2, moved the camera to a bird's eye view and put together something of an homage to classic titles such as Jungle Strike, Cannon Fodder and Jackal. It's the first downloadable title from Avalanche and this has brought about changes in the culture of development:
"When we work on triple-A titles we're between 30 and 100 people involved. We're about 8 people working on Renegade Ops. It's easy to communicate, there is no hierachy, so there is a world of difference compared to larger projects. All of us have been tempted to return to this way of developing, to be part of a small, intimate team and create a smaller title", says Andreas Thorsén.
Online you will be able to play up to four players and there is local co-op for two players, but we get to try the single player campaign as we're handed a Dual Shock controller. A transport reaches shore of what looks like a tropical island (hey, it's the Just Cause devs after all) and unloads a small jeep equipped with a giant cannon on the roof. I control the jeep with the left stick and shoot all around me with the right one. The X-button activates a turbo and the two shoulder buttons trigger special attacks in the shape of an EMP and missiles. There is an immediate sense of comfort as I drift around, the controls feel precise and we learn that all vehicles will feature unique handling and special attacks.
"It's designed to be accessible, grounded in simple mechanics that provide interesting choices as you play. You are meant to be able to jump in and enjoy it straight away, but it still awards strategic thinking", says Axel Lindberg when asked what's key to a great game in this genre.
"It's important that the core mechanics measure up", Andreas Thorsén adds. "Just driving around and shooting needs to be entertaining enough. Once you've nailed that you can start adding other elements to flesh out the experience."
I make way across the map and quickly run into my first enemy encounter, and enemy troops and vehicles get a taste of my guns. My first "primary objective" - conveniently indicated with by an arrow - is to save a hostage. He thanks me and asks me to take him to a nearby church where his family is located. I race over there and is rewarded with another mission - save more hostages - strangely enough they're kept in wooden boxes and cages that I need to shoot open - pick them up and get them to safety.
This is where the game opens up. The church is under attack by rocketlaunching vehicles, and you need to take them out quickly. But there is also another arrow that leads to more hostages that I can collect, something that will improve the defences of the lord's house. I dispense of various rocket launching trucks, mortar trucks and later on tanks.
The story and missions are presented in a comic style window in the corner of the screen. An elegant and smart solution to telling the story in a game like this. It's a far cry from the slow pace of the cutscenes in Just Cause 2 and it quickly let's the player know what's up without taking you out of the experience:
"High resolution cutscenes in 3D just didn't work so we bounced around a few ideas. We actually saw an early version of I Am Legend before it was released, and as a "pre-promotion" they released animated comics online about the world of the film. Then we ran into a fantastic artist who could draw it nicely. It's like a modern version of G.I. Joe and it also borrows from Marvel's Punisher."
We're coming to the end of the level. A new toy appears in the sky and I get to hand in my jeep for a helicopter. The switch is made within a fraction of a second and I take to the skies with a smile on my face. At sea a massive ship awaits me and it pours destruction my way. Several turrets needs to be taken out, and my chopper is under constant threat from pesky missiles from enemy crafts. I lose a few lives and restart a few seconds from the fight, but eventually I manage to sink the battleship and the super villain Inferno admits to having underestimated me.
This is what we can expect from Renegade Ops - a screen covered with health bars, points, upgrades, health kits and the constant rattle of numbers indicating the damage you do to enemy armour. There is no mistaking the old school vibe, and this is exactly what Avalanche were gunning for. A tribute to the top down shooters of years past where gameplay was all that mattered. Renegade Ops will be out later this year on PC, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.