Approaching two decades of ongoing development, the next version of the popular Heroes Unleashed mod for original Ghost Recon is about to release. As crowning achievement after nine previous betas, 2018 will finally see the full (as in “non-beta”) version of this humongous modding effort.
It’s been almost six years since our last interview with ApexMods, author of Heroes Unleashed, and his hardcore realism modification has grown immensely since then, so we felt that this occasion calls for another chat with the prolific Ghost Recon modder.
What can we expect from the first full release of Heroes Unleashed? Any big changes from the 2016 public beta?
Hi Rocky. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about Heroes Unleashed. Actually, most features and content in the ninth beta already came very close to what I originally envisioned for the full release, e.g. AI capabilities and behavior, physics simulation i.e. ballistics and damage model, scripting of game types and missions, user interface, weapons arsenal and other materiel, player character and NPC variety etc., so please don’t expect any groundbreaking novelties or reinventing the wheel in the upcoming version, as it is mostly going to address technical issues and fix reported bugs.
Beta 9 had a nasty error in a couple of campaign missions that prevented loading saved games, causing the Ghost Recon application to crash, and there were some other stability issues and minor glitches, like e.g. missing sound effects and incorrect texture tagging, to be addressed. Most of the changes in 1.0 took place “under the hood”, so to speak, with fixing remaining bugs, finalizing file dependencies and folder structures, and other mainly technical stuff as my main concern, so the full release should be ready to serve as a solid foundation for future work.
Still, I couldn’t resist to also add a number of new features here and there, e.g. the mod now offers 300 maps (supporting all single and multiplayer game types), and its campaign trilogy has a couple of new episodes, bringing the tally up to 34 missions. As part of an ongoing effort, there’s also some true color high-resolution map retexturing and reworking of audio environments for maps, although both are still nowhere near complete and will require much additional work in the future. Last but not least, version 1.0 of Ghost Recon: Heroes Unleashed no longer requires the game’s official Desert Siege and Island Thunder expansion packs to be installed, making it easier for newcomers to tip their toes in the water.
“I don’t know if I could ever go back to the vanilla game… It’s basically a complete overhaul of the game to make it better in every single way… there’s just so much new stuff included it’s ridiculous… It’s insane. The dedication is truly amazing” GamingPastime.com
“Hands down one of the most well put together mods of any mod from any game I’ve played. I love the level of attention to detail on everything, that amount of polish and consistency is something I’d compare to a Rockstar developed game.” shakealeg1212
300 maps, a 34-mission campaign, new texturing, new sound – that’s a lot of new stuff! And you say it’s NOT much of a change?
Expectations are running wild for the 1.0 release, so I want to underline that the update won’t fundamentally alter e.g. gameplay, or even change cosmetic stuff like menu backgrounds or music. Going from beta 8 to beta 9 brought far more obvious changes with it than moving from beta 9 to full 1.0. Still, a nearly doubled 10 GB download and about 30 GB installed size should at least hint at the work that’s been going on beneath the surface for the 1.0 update.
Those are truly colossal numbers! Aren’t you afraid that some people will shy away from such an enormous download and installation size?
For 1.0 there will be a demo version (with reduced content) that’s under 2 GB to download, about 6 GB installed, as an introduction to Ghost Recon: Heroes Unleashed, a first impression of gameplay and features in the full mod, to help people decide whether it’s worth their time and disk space to download and install the real thing. As for the full version, all of HU’s content is included for a reason, e.g. the hundreds of maps provide near infinite replayability. Naturally, the huge amount of content requires a lot of space, but then nowadays there are bestselling download-only AAA games with close to zero replay value that weigh in at hundreds of gigs.
Quite frankly, anyone who doesn’t have the patience to spend just a few minutes of their time to download and extract a free fan-made effort like Ghost Recon: Heroes Unleashed, which required decades of work hours to put together, probably would have neither the capacity to appreciate nor the attention span to enjoy this hardcore tactical realism shooter, in the first place. So, in a way, HU’s enormous size filters out impatient and unappreciative gamers who are much better served elsewhere.
On the other hand, I’m well aware that some people still have limited internet access with a slow connection and severe data caps. Luckily, GhostRecon.net offers a handy solution with its Ghost Recon Mod Collection on a fast USB 3.0 flash drive, which is an absolute must-have for any genuine Ghost Recon fan and tactical realism enthusiasts in general. The collection contains pretty much all of the Ghost Recon mods ever created, and always includes the latest release of Heroes Unleashed. For those who don’t yet own the Ghost Recon Mod Collection, I wholeheartedly recommend this unique comprehensive archive of GR modding history, and I urge you to get your copy ASAP.
With 30 GB of content, hundreds of maps, missions, weapons… the mod surely is one of the largest ever. How do you come up with all this stuff?
Glad you ask. The Ghost Recon modding community has spawned an enormous quantity of user created content for our beloved game, and the many hundreds of classic mods you can find in GhostRecon.net’s mod collection provide an enormous hoard of game content treasure. Heroes Unleashed benefits greatly from the overwhelming generosity of the many other mod authors who allowed their work to be utilized, and GR:HU has become a kind of a modding community showcase, a meticulous compilation of quality assets, drawn from a rich history of user made game content.
For Heroes Unleashed, I first rework those assets to be fully compatible with all of the other features of the mod on a technical level, and then they usually also receive an extensive audio-visual makeover, meaning high-resolution true color retexturing and new sound design, to fit in nicely with the unifying polish and professional finish I try to maintain throughout. It’s a work intensive and time consuming process, and by now I’ve probably poured several years worth of work hours into content “refurbishing”, but there is just so much great stuff out there worthy to be revived, updated, and conserved.
“Some of the most tense firefights I’ve ever experienced.” nyleken
“Heroes Unleashed just keeps getting better and better.” Gache
What exactly does that refurbishing process entail? What are the most work intensive and time consuming steps, and why are they necessary?
For example, most older textures, even the original ones Red Storm Entertainment included with the game and expansion packs, come with 16-bit color depth, or what was called “High Color” at the time. This only allows between 32,768 and 65,536 possible colors per pixel, and while it sounds like a lot is nowhere near visually realistic, as the human eye can discriminate up to ten million colors. So, the first step to improve visuals is to replace the 16-bit images with textures featuring 32-bit color depth (using 24 bits or “True Color” for RGB color space and another 8 bits for alpha channel / transparency). By now, Heroes Unleashed contains about 50,000 individual textures, and every one of them was converted to 32-bit color depth, so you can imagine how much work this alone involved.
Additionally, the game’s RSB texture file format allows special embedded tagging for properties that determine sound and visual effects of bullet or grenade impact, character steps, rain drops, vehicles driving, etc. on different surfaces like wood, stone, metal, grass, mud, gravel, water, snow, ice and so on, as well as if and how bullets or grenades can penetrate the object, or whether AI can see through it. Again, ever single one of the many thousands of textures in HU 1.0 has been manually adjusted for correct property tagging, which was often originally either absent or incorrect. Huge thanks to Wombat50 in the GhostRecon.net forums, who did a tremendous job helping out with this!
Sadly, many third-party map models override texture surface properties with their own predetermined and thereby unalterable settings, which are frequently incorrect or at least severely limiting to any retexturing efforts. But I’m happy to report that people in the GhostRecon.net forums are currently working on a brand new Ghost Recon SDK that allows fixing even those errors. A big shout out to AlexKimov et al for their invaluable work in this regard! With a full SDK on the horizon, the future looks brighter than ever for Ghost Recon mods.
Sound design, especially for maps, is another big workload. Every map benefits greatly from appropriate audio environments, as the sounds of e.g. birds singing, flies buzzing, crickets chirping, and leaves blowing in the wind, make up a big part of immersion. Of course, the same is true for the quality and dynamics of each individual sound effect, whether it is e.g. the report of a specific rifle or pistol, rain hitting the grassy ground or inner city pavement, or the faint humming of a computer fan, so there is plenty of room for never ending improvements in this field, too. By the way, every single one of the over 5,000 new sound files in HU requires an appropriate entry in the mod’s sound effect XML database, defining its exact length to a thousands of a second, as well as its volume and 3D ambience roll-off properties.
Also, every map that is implemented in HU requires a new game zone setup to make it compatible with all of the mod’s over 100 game types and its random mission generator, all maps receive new command maps with unified design and coordinate grids, true color menu and briefing pictures from new in-game screenshots, accurate briefing data like real-world location and coordinates, local time, date, and weather conditions, and since HU 1.0, every map model gets completely modular file dependencies, meaning that e.g. not a single texture for an individual map model is used by any other map, and vice versa, to ensure that there won’t be any conflicts, especially in future retexturing efforts.
As a final example, next to an extensive audio-visual makeover, all weapons included with Heroes Unleashed go through a sheer endless maze of complex meticulous mathematic formulas to give them the most realistic characteristics the game engine’s physics simulation can provide. For this, I first have to collect a mountain of real-world data on each weapon, e.g. empirical external ballistics with its specific type of ammunition, exact design as well as weight and dimensions of all weapon components etc. While Ghost Recon offers only rudimentary bullet drop and basic drag resistance, there’s still a fair amount of realism to be achieved, especially for its damage model and overall weapons accuracy and handling, i.e. recoil, stabilization etc.
Once a weapon’s model, textures, sounds, and basic properties are in place, there’s still the complex task of integrating new equipment into the mod’s extensive kit selection. This requires creating new menu kit art textures for the weapon and all its equipment combinations, individual new kit files with appropriate ammunition amounts for any applicable actors and soldier classes, as well as adding corresponding kit entries into the various kit restriction XML databases. Another tidbit of information – so far, there are almost 85,000 equipment kit files in a base install of Heroes Unleashed (not counting the ones in its over 60 add-on mods).
Of course, these are just a few examples of the work involved in developing, maintaining, and taming this monster, so if any fellow or aspiring modder feels like lending a helping hand, please don’t hesitate to contact me. 🙂
“The best mod to revive a classic game, an absolute must play! It’s so refreshing and amazing, you won’t be disappointed.” D. Bell
“Ghost Recon: Heroes Unleashed breathes life into this old classic in a way I didn’t think was possible… the gameplay is unbelievable!” Senescent
Do you have further plans for the mod, or will full 1.0 be the final release of Ghost Recon: Heroes Unleashed?
Ha, the aim is for Heroes Unleashed to become a timeless collection of Ghost Recon’s rich modding history, while at the same time taking the game’s realism and tactical gameplay to unparalleled new heights. there’s a never-ending to-do list in my development folder, and full 1.0 will certainly not be the last version of Heroes Unleashed. On the contrary, I see the 1.0 release as the starting point for extensive future work. GR:HU is a true labor of love, a dear hobby that I gladly return to whenever I can find some spare time for it.
There’s still a mountain of work to be done, e.g. for retexturing and sound design, to bring Ghost Recon’s audio-visuals much closer to contemporary game environments. While its 2001 game engine obviously cannot provide the latest and greatest in graphics effects, Ghost Recon allows high-definition screen resolutions like 4k HD and can handle individual textures of up to 2k (2048x2048 pixels) in size. A full-scale 2k retexturing would go a long way to give that beloved classic a fresh more modern look.
Until now (and including 1.0), I tried to maintain relatively low system requirements for Heroes Unleashed, to keep the mod accessible for people with older computers, but as time goes by, and nowadays even very basic entry level hardware provides sufficient graphics performance, I think it’s about time to raise the bar a bit in future updates. To give you an example, while so far most GR:HU maps stay below 128 MB total texture memory, in future versions a fully 2k retextured map could easily consume 1 GB of video memory, which would still be within the scope of average contemporary graphics hardware.
A single character including attachments and equipment in Heroes Unleashed 1.0 requires just a couple of megabytes of VRAM. Retextured in full 2k, this would go up to well over 100 MB, so with a few dozen actors on a 2k retextured map, total video memory consumption can rapidly increase to several gigabytes. That’s why I opted for relatively low character texture resolution in HU, as every single actor in the mod has its own character model, including individual face and body textures, to avoid encountering people that look exactly the same, which I’d consider to be an immersion breaker, a big nono in my book.
So, as you may have guessed by now, further high-definition map retexturing is one of the next things on my work schedule for future point release updates of Heroes Unleashed. If you look at the file and folder structure already in place for 1.0, you’ll notice that map file dependencies are now re-organized to be completely modular, in order to prepare the mod for future retexturing work without the risk of file conflicts.
Can you expand on the hi-res textures?
Naturally, the almost two decades old Ghost Recon engine is a far cry from what modern game engines can provide in the graphics department, but there is still plenty of room to further improve visuals going forward, and although 2k texturing may be quite a stretch for the game’s relatively narrow video pipeline, today’s hardware with much faster CPUs, much more powerful GPUs, and broader data buses should be able to adequately compensate this.
In preliminary testing of 2k texturing samples on my humble base model MacBook (1.3 GHz Intel Core i5, Intel HD 615 integrated graphics), with Ghost Recon running inside a Wineskin wrapper virtual machine, frame rates mostly stay around 60 FPS, so I figure it should be alright to go and squeeze every last bit of potential eye candy out of our beloved old game in post-1.0 versions of GR:HU. By that time, most hardware out there should be able to easily cope with the extra workload.
To avoid any confusion, I want to point out that Heroes Unleashed 1.0 contains only some 2k textures here and there. While currently there is already lots of retexturing in place, the lion share of texture work lies yet far ahead, and we’ll probably be at HU 2.0 before it’s done. Until now, I’ve concentrated my efforts mainly on gameplay realism enhancements rather than visuals, so HU 1.0 still adheres to moderate system requirements and should run just fine on older and less powerful computers.
As for which maps, weapons, characters etc. from other mods benefited the most from any makeover so far, I’d rather not say or provide comparison screenshots, mainly out of respect for the original authors. You’ll have to keep in mind that many of those assets were originally created over a decade ago, when e.g. performance restrictions and more limited tools dictated much simpler work, so I think it would be unfair to point out any inadequacies here. Those familiar with the original mods should be able to easily spot the difference, and the updated quality should provide newcomers with the same enjoyment we oldtimers experienced when we first encountered the content, originally.
“Better than the original game by 500%” mohammedmeshal
“You will literally never need another shooter. Ever.” Killdozer
It seems with all the time you put into Heroes Unleashed that you must have no time left for actual gaming. Do you get time to play any other games?
Much less than I would like. If I manage to find time for gaming, I usually play indy games and classic titles on my MacBook, while my PlayStation and gaming PC are mostly collecting dust. Although I occasionally also buy the latest so-called blockbuster AAA games, sadly the latest is rarely the greatest, at least for my taste. Today’s AAA titles more often than not lack gameplay depth and originality. Modern mainstream development mostly aims for mass market appeal by catering to the lowest common denominator in its target audience, effectively sacrificing creative quality in favor of shallow action laden eye candy.
Instead of a truly involving gaming experience, most new titles only provide a fleeting dosage of instant gratification to satisfy the extremely limited attention span and lower instincts of casual gamers looking for a quick endorphins fix. Almost everything the big game publishers churn out today is just short lived derivative console centric shovelware for easily impressed kids, further spoiled by greedy day-one DLC and money grabbing microtransactions. I often think that, if it weren’t for independent developers (and new mods for old titles), today’s gaming landscape would largely be a barren wasteland, devoid of original creativity, meticulous quality, and artistic integrity.
In our last interview I asked you why, even after so many newer games in the Ghost Recon series, there remains such an interest in the original from 2001. Do you remember your answer?
Although you are referring to 1.0 as a solid foundation moving forward, you surely must have a sense of relief and accomplishment at this stage?
“It’s not even funny how much better this is than every other Ghost Recon game.” ac11b
“If only more game developers put this much time and love into their work.” kothen
Have you ever considered making the mod standalone, without the need for Ghost Recon to be installed?
Yes, I’m seriously considering going the standalone route with Ghost Recon: Heroes Unleashed one day. Any potential legal obstructions aside, I believe that the game deserves to be free in every sense of the word, especially after such a long time. Going standalone would also allow much more extensive modifications, with the potential of opening the doors for countless remarkable new built-in features, e.g. visible weapons in first-person perspective, more realistic flashbang and smoke grenades, more complex mission scripting, a new multiplayer server browser, voice chat, automated updates and mod downloads, to name but a few of the many possibilities. A new standalone game would also further reinvigorate the Ghost Recon fan community, especially when it comes to online multiplayer and modding, so I’m all for it.
Did you ever think for a moment when you started out developing the mod, that you would end up dedicating so much of your life to Heroes Unleashed?
Not at all. What started out as a humble endeavor to slightly improve the game’s unparalleled gameplay and expand its content variety here and there, has turned into a lifelong quest to create the ultimate hardcore tactical realism experience and pair it with infinite replayability, all in tribute to honor the original Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, the greatest tactical first-person shooter the world has ever seen.