Sophisticated open worlds and 170-hour RPGs are one thing, but there's still room on the video game genre table for experiences that are focused and arcade-like. That's the philosophy behind RICO, the latest game from the UK studio Ground Shatter; it's a first person shooter that takes place in compact, procedurally-generated rooms full of gun-toting villains. You play one of a pair of cops who, with just 24 hours to crack a criminal investigation, opts to do so with all guns blazing.
Enemy encounters are divided up into discrete locations sealed behind doors; kick open a door with a clod-hopping boot, and you'll trigger a brief bullet-time period where you have the tactical advantage over the enemies within. You can use this to thin down the goons' ranks, or slide into the room so your partner can enter the fray.
The confined locations, simple AI and cel-shaded graphics give RICO the feel of an 90s FPS, but the game also reaches further back to arcade rail shooters as Time Crisis and Virtua Cop. This, covered with split-screen local co-op, promises to create the equivalent of a big, loud, fun action movie we can enjoy on a Friday evening.
With RICO out this week - it hits the PS4 on the 12th March, Xbox One on the 13th, and Switch and Steam on the 14th - we caught up with director James Parker to find out more.
Where did RICO start? Was it the cop theme, the desire to make a fast-paced arcade shooter, or something else?
I think it was both those things at once. Once you have the idea into your head that you’re going to make a game about kicking down doors and shooting bad guys, it’s hard to get it out. The theme and the content mesh fairly closely together especially when you add in a buddy-cop dynamic.
How much variation is there in cases, with it being randomly generated?
With the level generation I was adamant that I wanted to create spaces that – although not 'realistic' - made sense to anyone who’d been in a building before. Most generation algorithms either give you standalone rooms connected with corridors, which gives a very dungeon-y feel; or they are very reliant on pre-generated sections, neither of which was going to work for RICO. So we ended up with a system where it would create a floorplan and then subdivide the space into rooms, and then those rooms are populated with relevant furniture; which is all much more easily said than done. The consequence though is that everything is genuinely new each time you play, which means you’re always having to adapt to the situation as it unfurls.
_Is the aim to create a game that forces players to improvise rather than learn the positions of enemies? _
In a sense, yes. The aim of the game really was to make the player feel like they were in an action movie - so we try to put the player in a situation where they are facing inalienable odds and we give them the tools to overcome those odds.
Although it’s not a rail shooter, the pace of the action reminds me a bit of Time Crisis. Was that an influence?
Absolutely. Time Crisis is definitely an inspiration, and Virtua Cop even more so, not least because of the theme. But then (sadly) there’s no real place for an on-rails shooter these days, so I wanted to see if we could bring that feel to a first-person shooter.
The other games that really influenced my thinking were the Rainbow Six: Vegas games, which had that arcade pacing and were really fantastic co-op experiences themselves. Some of my fondest memories are playing those games on the sofa with a friend of mine and absolutely screwing up a series of breaches, but it didn’t matter because we were screwing it up together and having loads of fun.
I also saw that armoured enemies will start to attack if you stay in one place too long, which feels like another arcade influence. Were arcade games an important part of the conversation in RICO’s early stages?
Ground Shatter was founded on the principal that there was still an appeal to short-session, arcade-like experiences, so RICO is an extension of that. In the arcade era you could watch the attract mode of a game or watch someone else playing and known pretty quickly how to play the game. What comes later is experience and nuance and developing the necessary additional skills over time.
With SkyScrappers and now RICO, we wanted to concentrate on core central mechanics that we could then build upon and players could develop their skills in. For RICO, it was seeing if we could blend satisfying first-person gunplay with randomly generated breach-and-clear environments.
We also want people to be able to invite a friend along who hasn’t played the game before and within a couple of minutes they’ll know all they need to know to play the game. And that’s great for new players and experience players alike.
How much testing and balancing goes into something like the bullet time element? I should think that making it even a second longer or shorter would have a noticeable impact on how easy or hard rooms are to clear.
Yeah, we had a playable version of the game up and running very early on, so we had the longest possible time to tweak things. Also interesting was balancing how we treated the single player experience against co-op play. In the end we give a lone-wolf player bullet time every time they enter a room, and for co-op players, they must either be in close-proximity or are both kicking doors at the same time. In doing so we help give the co-op game a certain cadence and ensure that co-op players aren’t given an easy ride.
Similarly, was it challenging to get a feel for how large the play areas should be, so that the action feels fast but not too claustrophobic?
For a while we had much bigger, open areas. These live on in our Lockdown (basically horde-mode) levels, but we found for the main game, everything worked much better when we kept things tight, so the level generation was tweaked accordingly.
Why go for cops specifically as a theme? Will there be much time for detective work as well as shooting?
These are 'Hollywood Cops', so they don’t really do any paperwork! At least part of it was because of my aforementioned love of Virtua Cop and Rainbow Six: Vegas, and partly because once you’ve headed down a route of kicking doors, it doesn’t really make sense for it to be anything else.
What are the technical challenges of creating a split-screen mode, and why don’t more developers include it as an option, do you think?
There’s always compromises to be made technically - when you’re essentially rendering twice as much you do in a single screen game, you need to be wary of it all the time. But when it was such an important pillar of the game, there was never any doubt about putting it in. I think the reason it’s less common now is probably that we’re in a connected world and the assumption is that people are happy to play online to get their multiplayer kicks. Which I suspect is broadly true, but ultimately I only make games that I’d want to buy and play myself, and I wanted a split-screen mode, so I hope other people will too.
What are your future plans for the game? Are you thinking about updates that add new kinds of environments, cases or enemy types?
One of the benefits of the way we’ve created the game is the opportunity to expand upon it in various ways. New weapons, levels, characters, enemies, are all possible to be slotted in, or be introduced in more expansive add-ons with a range of content. We’re really waiting to see how players respond and the things that they would want to see. And we have a huge shopping list of things that didn’t make the cut for the first release that we’d love to add.
How have you found the reaction from players at game festivals? Has their feedback had an impact on RICO’s design?
I think with any game player reaction is important to help drive the game, but sometimes in not the most obvious ways. We spent a long time thinking about ways that we could artificially ensure that players would stay together when they were playing through a level, but watching people play co-op and it’s just what they did naturally – which is obvious in retrospect.
Who is Officer Duck?
We were waiting to find out if we had publisher funding, so we were in a bit of downtime, and there was a lot of buzz around Untitled Goose Game, so contemplating a pivot to wildfowl-based antics seemed like a sensible thing to do. So there was a weird day where the team made, animated and implemented a police hat wearing puddle duck, Officer Duck, who would just follow the player around. Luckily we got funding so everyone had to go back to their proper work, and Officer Duck now just appears as a slightly odd mascot on our Discord!
Finally, why do you hate doors?
Who really likes doors? Really? Ever met a door that you would go for a pint with? Of course not. (Forget) those guys and their stupid hinges!
RICO releases from the 13th March on PS4, Xbox One, Steam and Nintendo Switch.