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Interview: Frank Simon

Posted by Erin Marcon On Thursday 17 May 2012Comments Off

The PlayStation Vita has arrived, and with it, the full potential of dual analogue sticks. As the first game to take advantage of the new control scheme, Resistance: Burning Skies is something of a trailblazer. We’re fortunate enough to have the chance to speak with Frank Simon, Senior Managing Producer with Sony America and all round alien enthusiast. We discuss not only the game’s “uncompromised” controls but also the human drama at the centre of Sony’s ongoing invasion saga.

The first four games in the series portrayed the conflict between humanity and the Chimera from a predominantly military perspective. Burning Skies will be the first Resistance title to feature a protagonist from a non-military background. We ask Simon to tell us about the thinking behind this decision. “We wanted to make sure that we told a fresh story,” he says. “We’ve always wanted to come back and say something from the civilian side of things and see how that would be different.”

Instead of slipping on the boots of a career solider like Nathan Hale or James Grayson, players will be taking control of emergency services worker Tom Reilly. “Firemen are natural heroes,” Simon says. “These are the guys who are nutty enough to run into burning buildings, not out of them.” When Staten Island is evacuated by the government, Reilly elects to stay behind in order to rescue his family. “He’s not just out to kill Chimera, he’s actually trying to save people.”

Burning Skies is set several years prior to the events of Resistance 3, a game that seemingly brought a measure of closure to the story. Is there a danger that the Vita game will be seen as less than essential? “You’re asking someone who has been involved in every Resistance about what’s essential and what’s not,” Simon laughs. “Every single one of them is essential!” Though our interview is being conducted by telephone, we imagine him at this point shaking his fists at the sky.

In fact, far from defending the game’s status as a critical component of a larger whole, Simon surprises us by talking up its standalone qualities. “We don’t necessarily want to tell a story that you have to have played all four of the other Resistance games to understand,” he says. “We want you to experience Resistance from a different perspective, but if you haven’t seen Resistance before, I really believe that Burning Skies is a compelling story in and of itself.”

This will be the fifth time that series veterans have encountered the initially mysterious Chimera. We ask about the measures Nihilistic is taking to ensure the enemy doesn’t grow stale. First of all, Simon makes no apologies for mining the franchise’s back catalogue for enemies such as Steelheads and Patrol Drones, emphasising that they were “created by some of the best minds in the business”.

While players can expect to blast their way through plenty of recycled units, Simon also hints at the arrival of some sinister new variats. “We’ve got a lot of good tricks up our sleeve,” he says, cackling somewhat maniacally.  “What’s really cool about it is that if you’ve watched the Chimeran infection, you’ve actually seen it evolve over the years, which is statement in and of itself about what the Chimera are. As aggressive alien beings, they’ve learned to adapt over time.” Slightly disturbed by Simon’s barely concealed affection for these extraterrestrial horrors, we press on as quickly as we can.

While the presence of dual analogue controls is arguably the game’s biggest selling point, Burning Skies also makes extensive use of the PlayStation Vita’s touch screen. This enables players to throw grenades, paint missile targets, guide futuristic drones and pummel enemies with an axe. “The reason we put a fireman in the game is because firemen carry axes,” Simon laughs, adding that particularly stealthy players will be rewarded with a special “kill animation” when they chop down their hapless foes.

Most of the guns in the game boast secondary fire modes. Simon sees this as among the defining characteristics of the series (“it’s what separates the game from every other first person shooter out there”) and this is one area in which the touch pad may be a distinct advantage.  “One of the biggest things for us with Resistance is always trying to get you to use the secondary fire.”

Some of the early Vita titles have been criticised for employing touch and tilt when traditional inputs may have been more appropriate. Is there a danger that Burning Skies could fall into the same trap? Simon begins to tout the benefits of usability testing before suddenly launching into a much more passionate defence of a control scheme he regards as simple, intuitive and accurate. “There’s something to be said for having that pixel level of pinpoint precision. I want a grenade to go right there.”

He doesn’t want to see players unaccustomed to the tech dismiss it merely because it is new or different. “If that were the logic for humanity, we’d still be back in the cave days,” he says with a chuckle.

Another inclusion likely to raise eyebrows is the cover system. None of the PlayStation 3 instalments of the game have offered a cover mechanic, but oddly enough, both of the portable versions have. Is there something about the handheld format that makes it more suited to cover based combat? Simon begins to tell us about the “great forethought” that went into the decision before dissolving into laughter. “To be honest with you, it’s just kind of random that it’s ended up like that.”

While the addition of a second analogue stick allows the game to become a more complete first person shooter, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Nihilistic is aiming to precisely replicate the home console experience. “Burning Skies was developed from the ground up for the PlayStation Vita. What we want to do is tell a compelling story and this is the toolbox we have.” Have compromises been made in order to accommodate the sometimes intermittent nature of handheld gaming? “You’ll see more frequent checkpoints,” he says, “but that doesn’t change what the game is about.”

The original developer of Resistance, Insomniac Games, has been quoted as saying it has no further plans for the series. If the human race is to endure, new developers must be drafted into war effort. Why did Sony assign the project to Nihilistic rather than a studio better known for its work in the FPS genre? Perhaps surprisingly, he cites the team’s work on decade old RPG Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption as a good indicator of what they are capable of today. The story telling nous demonstrated in that game, combined with an “off the charts” tech demo secured the project for the Californian studio.

We finish by asking Simon to tell us what he considers to be the core elements of Resistance, the aspects that define the experience. “It always has to be about humanity’s struggle to survive.” The Chimera are also important. “They’re not supposed to be an enemy you understand. They’re not quite human and they don’t do things for the reasons you expect and this has to come across in the story.” Finally, he appreciates the juxtaposition between the idealised, almost “Rockwellian” vision of the 1950s and the “overwhelming alien force” that arrives to decimate it. “I think that’s what makes Resistance, Resistance,” he says.

Resistance: Burning Skies is due for release on PlayStation Vita on Thursday 31 May 2012.

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