The Return of the Patriarch is the latest content update for Early Access co-op title, Killing Floor 2. We played this grizzly shooter sequel back when it first launched on Steam's testing area, and now after several months we've returned to see what state it's currently in, as well as ask developers Tripwire Interactive a few questions about where the gore-soaked game is heading.
First up, the new content. The Return of the Patriarch brings with it an old favourite/enemy, a boss last seen in the original game (itself a title that still holds a special place in the hearts of many a co-op centric player). On top of this adversary from yesteryear, two new maps made an appearance - Farmhouse and Black Forest - bringing the total of maps included in the package up to eight. The new maps are both dark and foreboding, but like those before them they're filled with interesting detail, and areas ideal for defensive positioning.
Perhaps we should go back to the beginning. For those who don't know, Killing Floor 2 puts between one and six players in an environment that fills with ever-growing hordes of grotesque demonic creatures. Players must endure each round, earning credits to buy new gear and replenish supplies. With each new wave the number of challenging enemies increases, until before long the difficulty has risen significantly and a boss appears at the end to wrap things up one way or another.
When it works as intended, it works like a charm, and there's breathless shoot-outs with swarms of enemies and slow-motion head-shots galore. There's a lot of potential for customisation, with multiple Perks on offer that guide your approach to the action (the most recently added being the Gunslinger - an ideal option for those partial to a headshot). Each one has its own progression via XP earned over time, and can be further adjusted with different weapon loadouts. On top of that you can also pick your avatar, though with only one female character on the roster, there's work to be done to increase diversity.
For the most part we like the gameplay loop, with levels becoming increasingly blood splattered and harder to navigate, and more dangerous as hardier opponents become more numerous. There are, however, moments where last stands turn into drawn out affairs, with lone players fleeing from a long line of dim-witted demons, thinning the herd while stringing them along like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Is there a solution to this? Perhaps temporary buffs or heavy weapon drops could expedite the end of a round, if indeed Tripwire considers this an issue worth solving.
Alas we didn't ask about this particular point when we fired over our questions before the Christmas holidays, but Tripwire's Vice President, Alan Wilson, was kind enough to answer our questions on a number of other issues. Here's what he had to say:
Gamereactor: This is a sequel that has been long in-demand. It must be nice to see it taking shape?
Alan Wilson: Always is nice to see something take shape after all the hard work, nice to see players enjoying it!
GR: You've always supported your games very well post-launch, is this the plan with Killing Floor 2?
AW: There was a stupidly facetious answer in my head, but I'll shelve that :) Yes, of course we will. It is a large part of what made us the company we are today. The combination of interacting with the players, community, fans and then finding ways both to feed them more of what they know they want - as well as finding new stuff that fits into the game, like the special events. It is a win-win - we create new stuff, players support us by buying DLC/in-game items as well as getting their friends to play, we make money, so we can go on doing more free stuff. What is the expression? "Virtuous circle" or something like that :)
GR: What kind of content can we expect to see coming for the game before you finally stick a bow on it and call it done?
AW: If you mean "Early Access done", really just finishing up on core content, finalizing balance. We're looking at changing things around a little, so we can throw some other stuff on the table for the players. There's certainly more Perks and weapons, just for a start. But you already knew that! Devs who aren't needed on that content are already kicking around other/new ideas for beyond that moment, but that is for discussion in the future.
GR: Will we be getting more bosses to fight? And would you care to elaborate on the design process at the studio when you're coming up with bosses?
AW: We'd certainly like to do more bosses. And it starts from throwing around some concepts. We want differentiation from the bosses we've already got, without going off in some idiot direction. Concept the type of boss, how will they act/fight, mix that with ideas on the look. Figure out designs for all their attacks/special moves. Then parallel getting the art in-game with getting the coding done, so we can be play-testing reasonably early. Then, if we need to go back and change the look, because we've changed the attacks/moves in testing, we won't have TOO much to re-work.
GR: Do you plans to add many more perks?
AW: Right now we have plans for 10. Beyond that - who knows :)
GR: How do you go about balancing the different classes to create an optimum co-op experience? Have you noticed the community gravitate towards certain classes, and how do you plan to balance that out?
AW: This is what Early Access is really all about for us. We're picking up on a lot of other stuff in Early Access, but it is the whole balance thing... think about the numbers: 10 Perks, each with 25 levels, plus 5 Skill choices. From 1 to 6 players in a game. 4 difficulty levels. Quick and bad maths tells me there is something like 3.2 billion permutations available in a 6-player game. In reality, there's about 1 million of those we'd like to test (don't test L0 players on Hell On Earth...). We can't even get close to testing that many combinations - but a million players in Early Access might. So... we test for some of the most obvious combinations (6 players, mix of Perks, all pegged to L5, testing on Normal... etc). As released into the wild, balance is set from playing like that and getting to the right "feel". Then the players can really get to grips with it - and they can put in a lot more hours playing than we can. We actually have to spend most of the day actually developing the game, too. That's where the feedback comes in. Good example: after the first round, we ended up tearing the Berserker apart and putting him back together, from the ground up. Other Perks haven't been as dramatic - more just tweaking the numbers.
GR: Tell us about the tech that's powering the game. In particular, can you go into detail regarding the persistent gore and lighting engine, and how that can have drastic effects on late round gameplay.
AW: You're talking about persistent gore, plus the dynamic lighting. The first part being the gore. KF is a survival-horror game, with a streak of dark humour. It has been described as a game of "blowing shit up and looking cool doing it". So, we wanted the "blowing shit up" part to be really cool. We figured out a way to build the blood into the levels permanently and what we're actually doing throughout the game is to reveal hidden blood. And it doesn't go away. Messy, silly, fun. We built our own dynamic lighting solution, so we could start really experimenting with light and dark in the game. Dark (done right) can be very creepy and scary. Having it just "black" gets boring fast - but the ability to make the map slowly darker, creating more shadows for the Zeds to lurk in, was an interesting idea to us. As you can see from the maps we're creating, we're still experimenting with all of that. Outpost is very well lit, Biotics can get a bit darker - Catacombs can get really very dark. Looking at the stats about which maps get played (which we're really just starting to gather), will tell us what players actually LIKE to play - which might be slightly different to what we hear on the forums. We'll see :)
GR: The environments have a lot of character, can you talk us through how you decide on a new level, and what goes into their creation.
AW: Two parts to this one... for new levels, we mix throwing a number of concepts around, with thoughts on "what type of map do we want to try next?" For instance, Catacombs came from a cave-based concept that one of the LDs had been prototyping, mixed with a desire for a much darker space to fight in. So we ended up with a naturally dark map, lit initially with a lot of destructible lights. But it comes down to a combination - level design working on concepts that they think will be interesting, matched to what the rest of the team want to try out. Some concepts will get shelved and we'll come back to them in another pass, perhaps looking at them differently, to serve different purposes. Maps will sometimes go through quite a few attempts before we hit the theme we want. And quite a few get shelved permanently, never to see the light of day.
On the "character" part: this time we wanted to flesh out the levels much more, have them fit a backstory, fit into a consistent KF universe. We also really wanted to hit the feel of the actual places - and do it well. So, for instance, Paris doesn't just have a burning Eiffel Tower, it has pretty much everything in French. Including quite a few little jokes. The right art assets to support "Paris". Just as the boat in Evacuation Point has dual-language signs in English and Danish. Some suitable in-jokes provided by Danish friends. But there is also an element of static story-telling going on through all the levels. What happened in this place? What went wrong? How? It is all there to see - and to fit into the overall story - the overall KF "universe".
GR: So there's been a bit of controversy surrounding the addition of microtransactions to the game while it's still in Early Access. It's not the first time that this has happened, and no doubt it won't be the last, but we'd be interested to hear your opinion on the matter.
AW: Well, we've pretty much said all that needs saying on this topic - but the very quick recap: this is a simple step on from the DLC we did to support KF1. Now you are buying items in-game, instead of as separate DLC. Most, if not all, of that content will be sourced from the Steam Workshop, so it serves the dual purpose of financially supporting us (for more free stuff) and financially supporting members of the community making this content. The community gets to vote on what gets in to the game. It is cosmetic, so if you don't like it, don't buy it. It is the "looking cool" part of "blowing shit up and looking cool". Item drops - if you don't want them, sell them on the market and put money in your Steam wallet. We've done one weapon (the Chivalry Zweihander) - and experimented with the sharing system. If you don't know how this works - if one person on a server has the Zweihander, it is automatically made available to (be shared with) every other player on the server to use. No "advantage" to anyone.
GR: How far along in the development process do you think you are?
AW: A good part of the way. And no, I'm not even going to hint at dates of any sort. Every time I do, something changes and the pitchforks come out!
GR: You're obviously full steam ahead on PC, and PS4 is planned, but is there any hope that the game might one day take a bow on Xbox One?
AW: Well, we had people playing the PS4 version at Sony PSX recently, which was great to see. As for the Xbone - seems very likely to me. Just that it will have to wait until we've got the PC and PS4 versions finished first!