Enemy Territory: Quake Wars Preview
It's getting close, folks. id Software and Splash Damage have opened up a semi-public beta test for their new first person shooter, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. While the game has been seen at shows like E3 and was playable to the public at last year's Quakecon, this is the first time regular gamers are getting the chance to play in their own homes. And after a few hours playing the beta, I can say with certainty that this game will be very popular with online FPS fans.
Quake Wars takes the Earth vs Strogg conflict seen in the second and fourth Quake games and fills out the backstory. While those previous games had you taking on the Strogg on their own planet, this one goes back to when the Strogg first invaded Earth. Now, for the first time, you'll play as a full-on Strogg soldier or as a GDF defender and will battle it out for control of the planet.
The game is being created by UK developer Splash Damage under the watchful eye of id Software; previously, Splash Damage was simply a mod team, but later on they got the chance put together the multiplayer mode for Return to Castle Wolfenstein and then created the very popular free online shooter Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. If you've played the latter game, then you know what you're in store for with Quake Wars. You see, unlike most multiplayer FPS games, Splash Damage hates the idea of having the exact same gameplay on every single map. Instead, every map has a different story and a completely unique set of objectives where one side is on offense and another is on defense.
And this is a fundamental difference here between Quake Wars and what will surely be its closest competitor, Battlefield 2142. Every map is like a new gameplay mode, and the development team has seem to have spent most of the last year creating new maps and then carefully tuning them so that each side is balanced, but is nowhere near a mirror image of each other. Not only are each side's objectives unique, but their vehicles, classes, gadgets, and weapon loadouts are wholly different as well. Getting used to one side and then switching to the other is almost like playing a totally new game.
And speaking of a different game, I want to mention here that while Quake Wars is still technically an id Software game, this is not like the old days of one-on-one deathmatches or controlling the power-ups on a tight indoor map. This game is open and large with vehicles, where teamplay is going to be necessary in order to win. Each side chooses from five classes, each vaguely similar to the other side's but with usually one or two key differences. For example, the GDF Medic can toss down health packs for his buddies to come and pick up when they need them, but the Strogg Technician instead heals his buddies by actually going over and literally stabbing them to fill them up with their wacky biological "fuel", Stroyent. Both can resurrect freshly killed teammates (as long as the killing blow wasn't particularly nasty), and both have similar weapon loadouts they can choose from, but the differences between them are enough that it still feels like a different game when you switch teams.
The armaments are totally different between the two sides as well. While the GDF generally use ballistic and rocket weapons along with helicopters and wheeled or tracked vehicles, the Strogg use plasma weapons (which don't usually have ammo but instead can overheat), hovercraft, and jet propulsors that allow their flying vehicles to move quickly from side to side in the air. Both sides' engineers are able to deploy things like turrets and artillery, which at certain points are almost must-haves for victory. This means you can't have everyone on your team trying to kill people with sniper rifles and railguns, even if those classes are nice to have in moderation.
The single map included in this beta test is called Sewer. No, it's not a stereotypical FPS sewer level with goop monsters and a bunch of confusing maze-like passages. Most of the map takes place above ground as the Strogg are defending the sewer system they need to take over Kanagawa, Japan. The GDF have come in to take it back and must disable the Strogg shield, get inside, bust open a wall, and then hack the controls to the sewer system to bring it back under Earth's control. The whole time the Strogg will have to try and thwart them by disabling explosives and just flat out killing the enemy as they assault.
And this is an important point to mention: as the attacking force progresses, the front line moves and spawn points will often adjust based on it. What's important here is that there is an actual front line, unlike the Battlefield games where the best way to win was to use smaller squads to capture or hold different points all around a big map. The Titan gameplay mode in BF2142 was a good way of breaking it up and creating a new point of offense and defense where people would congregate, but let's face it, folks; Battlefield was a better game outdoors anyway. With Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, the indoor gunplay and outdoor, longer-range action both seem more exciting, and with what feels like much more solid network code and more solid-feeling player movement, this feels a lot more like Battlefield-done-right. Sure, it's still Quake, but that larger feeling of aircraft, vehicles, and on-foot forces all clashing together is definitely the most important thing.
For now, the beta servers all have a 24-player limit at most. This is not a hard-coded limit and can eventually be lifted, but for now that's the official, supported maximum number of players. I think you'll find that with the objective system and once players eventually learn the maps, that having a battle between twelve to fifteen players will be pretty common. Considering that many 48-player Battlefield servers would only see a fight of this size once in a while, I definitely prefer the style of game given to us in Quake Wars.
The classes you get to choose from have been seen in games like this before. The GDF Soldier and Strogg Aggressor are your standard weapons-toting tough guys with a selection of guns like assault rifles, shotguns, machine guns, and rocket launchers. They can use explosive charges to blast open holes in stuff that will further their objectives; on Sewer, the GDF Soldiers can blow open sewer grates to allow a Covert Ops to hack the sewer controls (once an Engineer has disabled the Strogg's shield,that is). The GDF Medic and Strogg Technician both heal their buddies but while the Strogg can use enemy bodies to spawn up closer to the battle, the GDF can call up air lifts of ammo and medical supplies. The Strogg Constructor and GDF Engineer have a couple of weapon choices and can deploy turrets, fix vehicles, or defuse enemy explosive charges. The GDF Field Ops and Strogg Oppressor can bring in larger turrets and fixed installations, replenish ammo, deploy shields, call down Orbital Strikes or airstrikes, and more. Finally, the GDF Covert Ops and Strogg Infiltrator can disguise themselves as the enemy, snipe, and deploy radar. Each class on each side also has a unique perk or two, like the Strogg Infiltrator's personal teleporter that allows him to get up into otherwise inaccessible sniper perches. More perks and even some weapons are unlocked if you play on the same server for a while and build up "XP" (which is your score - the player with the most kills on a map is noted at the end of a match, but otherwise the only way to get to the top of the score list is to do productive things for the team), but unlike Battlefield 2142, all weapons are available and there are no persistent weapon unlocks.
One of the downsides to having a system like this, though, is that every time you play a new map or switch sides you've got to learn what to do. Whereas with a game like Battlefield it didn't matter so much which map or what side you were on - you could still reasonably be able to kill people and capture the spawn points - this adds a level of complexity. Throw in the fact that only Covert Ops can hack that terminal or that only Soldiers are the only ones that can open up that hole in the wall, and you've got a game that's much more confusing to new players. Splash Damage and id are basically making a gamble here, and they're hoping that gamers are ready and able to take on that new level of complexity. Considering how popular both Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and the last couple Battlefield games were, I don't think they have much to worry about.
Even with all the new stuff the player will have to think about, the developers have made efforts to try and get people to do useful, team-oriented things during a match. This is embodied in the Mission system where, depending on which character class you choose, you can optionally have a mission assigned to you. So far this system seems to mostly be a way for the game to tell new players or specific classes exactly what needs to be done to stop the normal progression of the front line, and doesn't give any generally helpful suggestions like "you're a Field Ops! Try and put down some artillery to hold back the enemy!". If you just want to kill people, there is certainly a place for you in Quake Wars, but even the soldier-like classes still have goals they will need to do. The better class for a loner who just wants to own people is probably the Sniper where you'll get to choose between a sniper rifle or an enhanced, more recoil-free version of the assault rifle that other classes on your side get.
There are a few issues here and there in the beta. A few spots on the map seem a little too open and ripe for easy killing and cross-map spawn camping, and some of the sound effects' volume need to be adjusted. The in-game server browser is pretty good, but you have to get a "New List" rather than just do a quick refresh if you want the server populations and pings to update correctly. Alt-tabbing directly is not supported at all, although players can work around it by hitting Alt-Enter to switch to a windowed mode and then they can alt-tab. There's also a lock of 30 frames per second that is built into the game, and while it can be disabled with some console commands, you'll find that if you've got fast enough hardware to run the game comfortably, the frame rate is usually stable and smooth enough that you might not need to bother with fiddling around in the console.
There are some really cool special effects here, especially when a Strogg vehicle you're piloting gets hit, and the new "Megatexture" technology does give the terrain some nice details while helping keep frame rates fairly stable. Most of this new technology isn't really going to be really impressive or sometimes noticeable to someone who's just looking at whether the graphics are as good as in other games, but at the very least things have been tuned with the focus of enabling the gameplay to be fun and frantic.
I've tried the beta on both my Dell XPS M170 laptop and on my more powerful desktop computer, and Quake Wars definitely requires a fairly beefy computer to run it at a decent resolution and frame rate on a 24-player server. The developers said last year that just about any computer that could run Quake 4 can run Quake Wars, and while that may or may not still be true, it doesn't mean that you'll get the same frame rates. Whether it's additional debug code in the beta version, the 24-player servers, or just more eye candy added over the last year, my 7800GTX Go couldn't run the game at anything higher that 1280x800 and medium detail (along with a couple of features like Anisotropic Filtering turned off) if I wanted to get near the soft-cap of 30 frames per second. Q4 definitely ran better than that. Again, though, if you've got the hardware to run it at a setting you like and a half-decent broadband connection, then you'll find a very smooth gameplay experience.
Personally, I have enjoyed all of Digital Illusions' Battlefield games, but was frustrated at the strange-feeling player movement and lack of good feedback when hitting my enemies with small-arms weapons. Jumping onto a big server with a bunch of friends on a LAN was of course a lot of fun, but I always found that the best way to get things done was by grouping up with one or two other guys. Having twelve people crowd up one capture point was a waste of time. In Quake Wars, getting everyone together is a vital part of winning, so I'm really looking forward to the first LAN party after this game is released.
So far I have been really enjoying the beta, even with a few relatively minor issues. The gameplay is solid and has the depth needed to keep the online community interested for months and probably even years. If Splash Damage and id Software can make the right tweaks, fix the more obvious bugs, and maybe improve the frame rate somewhat, then it's going to be a contender for the best multiplayer game this year. Currently the official release date for Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is "when it's done", but the theory is that we'll likely see it by the end of this year. It's coming not only to the PC but also to the PS3 and Xbox 360, although the console versions are slated to be launched sometime after the PC version.