Joint Operations: Typhoon Rising
This is pure opinion here on my part, but I think Joint Operations: Typhoon Rising is the first game from Novalogic that's really got it together. They've delivered quite a few Delta Force titles over the years, and have managed to capture enough FPS gamers each time to fund the next game, but they've never really scored it big. I doubt that Joint Ops is going to change that trend for Novalogic, but at least this time there's a great game under the hood.
Novalogic is quick to boast about their 150 player servers, and from a first person shooter perspective, they're only beaten in this respect by Planetside's battles which can easily involve more than double that in certain areas at times. So Novalogic has had to refine their statement by saying it's the only non-subscription FPS to have battles this large, and that's pretty much on the money. Let's dig into just how a game can support this many players and still make it fun for one person - specifically, you.
Joint Ops uses some of Novalogic's best technology yet, with an outdoor engine that rivals Far Cry in terms of eye candy. While the graphics aren't here quite as smooth or stylish as Crytek's recent FPS hit, Novalogic has easily made up for that with huge-scale battles that can go on across multiple islands at once. Multiplayer is the focus, here, so many things have been tuned in that respect.
Joint Ops does include a few things rarely seen in an online action game. There's a slow day-night cycle that's particularly effective for changing how a map plays out; because it's that much more difficult to see enemies at night, your tactics will have to change according to the time of day. The effect looks excellent as well, and will completely change the atmosphere of a map as well as help add a bit of variety at the same time.
All this action across huge landscapes winds up taking its toll, though, and that toll is in the frame rate. 150-player games will tax your system more than Far Cry (or even DOOM 3 on high detail), but the frame rate winds up generally being pretty consistent. So far, I've found that about 30fps is the sweet spot for detail versus playability in this game, and I was able to get this with just about every bit of detail cranked up at 1280x1024 resolution (including 4x FSAA and 8x Anisotropic filtering) on my Athlon 64 with a Radeon X800 Pro video card.
If you look at the minimum requirements listed at the top of this article, you might be wondering just how this game is supposed to play on the minimum system. Surprisingly, the game ran fine on my second computer, a decidedly low-end Athlon 1GHz computer with a GF4 Ti4200 video card and only 384MB of memory. At minimum detail and 800x600 resolution I could squeak by with 20fps on the servers with a low player limit (which means around 50 in Joint Ops), although the 150-player servers caused the game to really chop whenever more than a few players were on screen at once.
Joint Ops has been out for a few months now, and Novalogic has spent this time busily working on improving the player's experience. Three patches have been released so far, and while I had no experience with the first patch, the second and third patches have tightened up quite a few holes and added plenty of little bits and pieces to improve the game overall. There are still some areas I'd like to see fixed, like the ability to see more comprehensive player stats in-game.
For those few bugs that are still left, Novalogic seems to have come to a bit of an impasse in fixing them. "High" frame effects still cannot be combined with FSAA on high-end ATI Radeon cards, which are the only ATI cards that can do this stuff at an acceptable frame rate anyway. Still, the game looks excellent, so I can't really complain that much here. The other issue is with cheats, and while Punkbuster is integrated into Joint Ops, the cheaters still relentlessly make headway here and there. At the very least, Even Balance does an excellent job stopping mass amounts of cheating, so it winds up being no worse than any other high-profile online shooter.
All this functionality and all these vehicles and weapons pretty much demand a complicated control scheme, but Novalogic has done their best to keep it as simple as they can. Joysticks are not necessary for flying the helicopters, and the flight model is much more similar to Battlefield Vietnam's simplified style than Desert Combat's.
Unlike Desert Combat, though, infantry is essential in almost all areas of the game, and the FPS controls here are very well done. I was able to bind all the keys I wanted (save for one: the "auto-run" command, which is stuck on the highly inaccessible Scroll Lock key), and the mouse controls were smooth and intuitive. Driving vehicles and piloting boats worked pretty much as I expected, although the game's collision system for hitting trees and other object is incredibly lenient. You can pretty much bumble your way through a whole forest in a jeep, hitting every tree on your way, and still come out unscathed. It's highly unrealistic, but it does at least add to the element of fun and allows you to use the ground vehicles in highly wooded areas to some extent.
Novalogic has really put some effort into Joint Ops' visuals, and while the style is pretty narrow here - it focuses exclusively on east Asian tropical islands - they have managed to make each map unique. Some will have you marching through a town to take the center square, while others have you hopping islands in choppers or over rickety bridges to achieve goals.
The vehicles look excellent, and the animations are near-perfect with the exception of the occasional netcode issue making vehicles jump around or stick to stuff strangely. The textures, while not as bright as Far Cry's, are a bit more realistic and are still impressive enough for me to consider this to be one of the best-looking games out right now.
The game has only two sides you can join, no matter the map - Rebels and Joint Ops forces - but there are many skins and models to choose from for each side (including females for both sites, something rare in a military-oriented FPS). The weapon graphics impressed me for the most part, and using the iron sights mode will blur the gun model. It shows that you're focusing your vision downrange, not on the gun itself.
Joint Ops' special effects are impressive without really going over the top on visuals. Most explosions look great, although some of them aren't quite as satisfying as I'd have liked. I do like the fact that any blown-up vehicle leaves a carcass, which in the case of helicopters can come crashing down in pieces (although these pieces don't seem to harm the hapless people they land on).
When you put it all together, the visuals in Joint Ops really do a great job of suspending your disbelief. Dozens of players can be engaged in fighting on-screen at once, with choppers in the air and jeeps buzzing around below; it does a great job of focusing you on the gameplay without raising suspicion as to whether it's realistic or not.
The ability to have more players in a game at once is always good, right? Well, the answer is a pretty hazy "maybe". If you put too many players into a game without giving them a way to team up to do things right, you wind up with a large-scale deathmatch that just isn't any fun after a few hours. Novalogic has clearly spent some time thinking about this while developing Joint Ops, and they seem to understand that you have to give the players some sort of focus. This is reflected in some of the game modes included in the box, as well as in the multiple communication methods you have to chat with your teammates.
Players can start up as one of five classes: Rifleman, Gunner, Sniper, Medic, and Engineer. The Rifleman gets his pick of a nice rifle (with optional add-on grenade launcher) as well as a dumbfire rocket launcher that's perfect for taking down land vehicles. The Gunner gets to choose from a set of heavier machine guns, while the Sniper goes light and only has his sniper rifle and a sidearm. The Medic foregoes any special weapons for his ability to heal or revive his buddies, and the Engineer's special weapon is a shoulder-fired rocket launcher that can heat-seek onto enemy aircraft. All classes get a selection of smoke, flashbang, and frag grenades to use as well. All of this together makes for an important bit of balance where every class is needed in a fight, and the lack of any one will be noticed by your team before long. Each side also has a completely different set of weapons, which makes the fighting that much more interesting; these weapons have their own quirks and have to be learned separately.
While vehicles are an integral part to Joint Ops, they aren't so overpowering as to be absolutely vital like they are in many Desert Combat maps. Many of the vehicles serve first to ferry troops from spawn points to the front line, and are only used offensively as a secondary function. They're highly vulnerable to the right kind of anti-vehicle fire as well, and while pilots do get some limited defense with flares, those driving land vehicles only have the option to swerve and dodge if they can.
The most frustrating thing I can find about Joint Ops is that it's just a bit too realistic from a gunplay perspective. Ok, it's not incredibly realistic; while bullet drop actually happens and is measurable in this game, wind shear is not accounted for and certain surfaces that should be able to be shot through can't be. No, what I'm talking about is the fact that a sniper can be laying in the brush a half a mile away, put a bullet in your skull, and you won't have the slightest clue where it came from. The only way you'll know where it comes from is a general indicator on your radar - and that's only if he missed you in the first place.
Because of the way this system works, sniping becomes a major part of this game, as a good sniper who carefully moves around can be incredibly effective and it might take two or three guys fifteen minutes to hunt him down. The first time I played Joint Ops I died a dozen times without having ever seen an enemy. Once you learn to always keep moving when a sniper is around, as well as figure out the cues to show you where your enemies are, you'll do much better than I did my first time around.
The game includes quite a few modes; some of these require you to hang around specific points to "build" a base, although there isn't any actual building being done. If the enemy wants to capture this point, then they must destroy your base (your base is actually just a number) and build their own. Another mode, much like King of the Hill, will have players staying "in the zone" to gain points for the team. Still others require you to capture points by touching a flag, and doing it in a linear succession - this way there's always one point where the fighting is heaviest. Players will have to stay and defend their points, or they'll move closer to losing the map as well as valuable front-line spawn points for their teammates as well. All of these modes are balanced well, and the maps are diverse enough to keep you playing for a few hours at a time or more.
Joint Ops includes support for 64 players over a LAN, and they also threw in some surprisingly well-made training missions and even a cooperative mode. These are the only places you'll see computer AI in action, and you can probably guess that Novalogic didn't spend a whole lot of time with it. Basically, the AI stinks, but at least they threw it in anyway. The training does a great job teaching you about pretty much all of the game's basics, and the co-op missions will be fun for a couple of hours with your buddies, but it's the ability to jump onto a public server as a group that makes this game fun in small LAN groups. The issue, though, is that many Joint Ops servers won't actually allow players to change teams, so getting everyone on the same team can be difficult to do. Those who want to play together will have to search out the servers that allow them to switch teams at will - I think Novalogic made a bad move setting this limitation as a default, and a good chunk of server administrators don't seem to want to bother to change it.
So, how do these huge battles actually play out? It depends largely on your team. It's going to be difficult to get two 75-player clans together, which means that the largest battles likely will be taking place on public servers. You can expect that teamplay isn't exactly stellar on servers like these, but setting up a fireteam and doing smaller squads of guys actually works rather well - if you can get the right balance of classes and a decent vehicle to transport yourselves around in. And don't forget a decent pilot or driver that can dodge and weave without getting everyone killed in the process. That's a lot of ifs, though, so you might be a bit disappointed or frustrated with the level of play on public servers. There's always the option for clans, but not everyone has the time or schedule to play as seriously as that.
That said, these maps actually work pretty well even when only 40 or 50 people are on a server at once, and I generally found that teamplay and overall quality of people's play actually improved on these servers. Sniper battles start to become much more involved, as the snipers will start targeting each other rather than some guy running down the road in between them. The importance of using vehicles commonly dwindles as players become a bit more cautious and seem to want to take it on foot more often. Overall, the game slows down with fewer players, but it's still intense and satisfying enough for me to enjoy.
While Novalogic has pledged continued support to the game in the way of patches and even their own servers that you can rent (at $3 to $3.50 per player per month), they haven't seemed to do much in the way of mod support. Novalogic has released a map editor for the game, and I think it's reasonable to assume that that's all we'll see from them in that category. I doubt we'll see more than a handful of maps and other bits & pieces from the mod community for Joint Ops.
Joint Ops has some great sound effects, many of which will actually sound different - not just quieter - the further away you are. This is somewhat unique for first person shooters in general, and it actually adds to the gameplay in a subtle way. You'll have to listen carefully when tracking down someone that's shooting from far off, and the sound effect itself will give you a clue as to how far away your enemy is.
Joint Ops supports a 5.1 speaker system perfectly, and it also helps to immerse the player in a way that a two-speaker setup simply can't. I myself got my first set of surround speakers only a month or two ago, and it has made every game that supports it that much better. But I also spent some time in the game with my trusty Sennheiser HD-280 Pro headphones on, and I was still able to track sounds and figure out enemy positions almost as well. It's hard to go wrong here, but at comparable prices I'd probably suggest a 5.1 system over a decent pair of headphones for Joint Ops.
It's my opinion that with Joint Operations: Typhoon Rising, Novalogic has delivered their first "A"-quality game. The 150-player battles mostly live up to the hype, and the atmosphere and visuals rival the best stuff seen in first person shooters this year. The few bugs and other issues I found certainly didn't keep this game from being fun as hell, and you can bet I'll be playing this one for weeks still. Joint Ops is easily Novalogic's best game yet.