Sunday, December 4, 2016

Squad Early Access Impressions!

                Writing something more serious about Squad has been a long coming and I wasn’t going to let this article join the folder of postponed indefinitely. With the recent free weekend I rejoined the ranks to check up on the progress and I picked up this article right from where I left it shortly after the game’s Early Access release, almost one year ago.
                Kickstarter is probably the only medium where a game like Squad could receive the financial support it deserves, because Squad is for the most hardcore fans of war simulators. After a successful crowdfunding campaign and more than a year of development, the shooter powered by Unreal Engine 4 and created by the people behind Project Reality entered Steam's Early Access on December 15 2015. I used to follow the progress of  the Project Reality modes, but by the time they became popular I already put Battlefield 2 behind me and I never got into ARMA 2 (I don’t know exactly why). Yet, I played all the tactical and tactical wannabe shooters of this generation and I was intrigued by this game from the moment I spotted it on Steam's Greenlight.
                In my first day of Squad I wind up being a squad leader, I had no clue what to do but I was guided into the right directions by members of an exemplary community that have been playing in the Alpha stages for months. Using army lingo to provide tactical guidance, these experienced players pulled through despite my minimal contribution. This was one day before the Early Access launch and one of my mentors of that day said something interesting: “the recruits of today, the squad leaders of tomorrow.” An interesting phrase that wouldn’t have any meaning in most of the so called tactical shooters of this generation. Why? Because the word tactical has lost much of its value being thrown on anything that resembles a real setting. So I picked up the squad leader mantle that was standing on the floor of the game’s Early Access launch using the lessons that I was thought (plus all the experience gained from all those years of playing strategies and ARMA). I might not have been the best, but a few weeks down the road I was successfully leading my unit in an offensive meant to take our enemies by surprise, cutting down their reinforcements. Tactical thinking, visualization of the terrain and orders were instinctual now and I could see my leadership making a difference, tickling my gamer’s ego, but this is not really the point of the story. The truth is that Squad is designed in such a way that is capable of splitting the playerbase in two groups, leaders and followers, and as someone who has been part of the two, I can say the game needs the best of both. There are always going to be cases of insubordination (yeah, that’s a word I can use here), but one of the many beauties of this game is that the dedicated players don’t have to deal with those for long. You either stay in line or don’t stay at all, because Squad is the closest we get to a military experience and we take it as such!
Tactical advancement.

                In the last 5 years I’ve sunk easily over 2000 hours playing military shooters, yet the switch to Squad took me by surprise. The adjustment to a gameplay that was more realistic than ARMA 3 came fast enough, but even after I’ve gotten a hold onto the game’s mechanics and how Squad should be played, old habits got in the way. From time to time I had some of those “derp” moments when I forgot that Squad is not a generic shooter where you charge into a group of enemies with a decent enough chance to kill them all. Deaths like this were a constant reminder of how different this game really is.
                The seriousness of Squad strikes you from the loading screen which has the keyboard control schematics with more useable (and useful) keys than some of the annually released shooters have combined. Joining a match won’t let go of that initial impression, the nonexistent crosshair, the slower movement and sluggish animations tied to a stamina bar and weapons which are hard to control but lethal give a new meaning to realistic gameplay. When you factor in that TAB doesn’t provide straight up information about your combat performance and that most of the players use military terms, you realize that this is as real as war simulation can get in video games. And it’s not like I wasn’t expecting a simulator, but I never thought the community took it this far and I loved that.

                Squad is about war authenticity and not in the cinematic way that presents the atrocities of war, instead, it’s looking at war from a combat perspective putting players in the boots of a soldier with limited supplies and the resilience and view range resembling that of an actual human being. When your character is not meant to be a John Rambo, the gameplay takes a different turn. Teamwork becomes the only way to accomplish something and the transition is so brutally natural that players are not constrained, but lead into this direction. It does help that the game provides all the necessary teamwork tools which include controlled dedicated servers and multiple voice chats.
                From a strategic standpoint, the Early Access version of Squad is not much more different than any other big scale shooter out there. The game modes have two teams fighting over the control of large maps filled with objectives forcing teams to engage each other and bleed tickets in the process to the point where one stands victorious. When zooming in to the actions of each squad involved in these battles, the gameplay reveals its true complex form, widely different than the other shooters I was thinking of.
                Each team has its own squad holding up to 9 players which can pick from a limited number of different roles that define the squad’s engagement options. Aside of the rifleman grunts, squad members have access to roles like: medic, marksman, light anti-tank and support. Each role being capable of changing the outcome of a combat scenario, but getting there means going past a learning process that starts with leaving your basic shooter instincts behind and following your orders. Yes, I said orders. At the top of a squad stands its leader, which in this game is not just a formal title with a star next to the player’s name allowing others to spawn on him. A squad leader is a role with responsibilities that start with working on the team’s strategy and transforming that strategy into a tactical plan for the squad. And it goes as far as micromanaging each member for increased combat efficiency. It’s a delicate job not meant for delicate people as it requires nerves of steel, leadership skills, tactical thinking and a certain charm that can get a bunch of people from the internet to act in the team’s interest (and we all know how people on the internet can be).
Scopes are rare.

                A squad’s job can vary based on the decisions taken by the squad leader. It can sometimes be as boring as guarding an objective that isn’t threaten by anyone or can get as intense as being part of an ambush or a scouting group searching for the enemy’s hidden objectives. Building reinforced positions which can provide easier ways to attack or defend an objective is also part of this job’s description. By assessing the situation and through coordinated efforts, squads can create an entire infrastructure of FOBs, reinforced vantage points and misleading defensive positions that require a functional and well synchronized logistics system. This way a team can shift strategies and mobilize faster to react against surprise attacks and repair mistakes or crumble and fall if things are wrongly executed.
                At the base of this game stands the squad gameplay (the generic name is no coincidence) and the team with the most dedicated and coordinated squads will most likely win. But Squad is a shooter and all the tactical decisions and orders lead into the same direction, combat.
Textbook defensive position.

                The combat in Squad is rather unusual, but not in the wrong way. The shooting is as realistic as it gets. Controlling a weapon requires knowledge and skill, but even when those are achieved the gameplay experience doesn’t provide the usual left and right shooting of enemies. The satisfaction of killing someone is rare and therefore intensified as this is a shooter where enemies don't meet face to face and those who do usually have done something wrong. Most of the fights unfold from the distance with both teams shooting blindly at each other counting on scouting information, presumed enemies locations or lead by the tracers. Kills sometimes can’t be confirmed and combat effectiveness can’t be measured until the end of the match while the teamwork score has a rather sketchy counter that isn’t always reliable. But all these mechanics resemble the dehumanized experience of combat that’s the closest to what today’s wars really look like.
Kill confirmed!

                With the game still being under development the gameplay is in a continuous change. The introduction of transportation and fighting vehicles has completely shifted the way battles are fought. From an infantry based game, Squad matches have become dependent on the transportation and logistics reinforcement that certain vehicles provide. The fire support coming from combat vehicles like the Humvee or the BTR has increased the tactical depth to a great extent without diminishing the role of the infantry one bit. As powerful as they are, the current combat vehicles are useless on the battlefield without the fire support of the infantry. They might withstand some moderate fire and the unfinished damage model is capable of creating some unprecedented situations in this kind of games, but teams aren’t reinforced with vehicles too often and the price paid for losing one is quite high. For these reasons both vehicles and the infantry benefit from one another creating a synergy that has to be taken into account as it redefines combat to a level closer to that of RTTs. One can only imagine how things will be when the military forces involved will deploy their big guns on the battlefield. When a M1 Abrams and a T-90 will face each other in a battle of wits, cunning and tactical ingenuity reinforced by deployed anti-tank guns and Javelins. I believe that day will change the face of virtual war forever!
Vehicle destroyed!

                As promising as Squad is, the game isn’t without its problems, most of them stemming from an unfinished product that still has quite a development road ahead. Built on Unreal Engine 4, Squad benefits from the versatility of this powerful engine, but also suffers from its problems coupled with the big dreams of a crowdfunded indie studio.
                The visuals look good, a huge leap forward from Project Reality, but they do not always present the graphical fidelity expected from a modern shooter. The ground textures are flat giving the landscape an undeserved unrealistic image crippling the immersion factor and the need for tessellation or photogrammetry can be felt everywhere. On the other hand, the gun models are extremely detailed and animated with a military precision fitting for the game. But despite its somewhat mixed visuals, the game doesn’t project the expected performance and users of AMD CPUs have been struggling with fps drops while rubber banding when driving and other issues are a present discomfort.

                For those looking to make comparisons, Squad doesn’t yet manage to keep up with its older and sometimes wackier competitor, ARMA 3. Weapon customizations, animations, body damage model and sometimes even the shooting are still a work in progress, but the game is slowly getting there. The Alpha 9 release will mark the revamping of the animations system while the others are part of the upcoming features list. Luckily, the game has built in mod support and there are already some cool modes in development including a reimagining of Squad in a WW2 setting.
                The constant failures of Early Access releases has made gamers edgier when it comes to some of the problems this game is facing, but there is really no reason to panic. Offworld Industries’ progress has taken me by surprise several times, proving that they are willing to improve anything about Squad as long as it stands in their power. These developers have been around long enough to know their target demographics and have always kept an open ear to suggestion and it shows. And while from a technical standpoint Squad is still trying to catch up, there are certain elements that can’t be easily found in other games. There is a mix of small but impactful features that highlight the grand vision behind this project. Features like moving clouds affecting the lighting intensity changing the image of a landscape that’s constantly perturbed by the echoing sounds of guns and explosions that mirror reality in a terrifyingly yet entertaining way. And if getting out alive from a burning car that has just been hit by an RPG isn’t enough for you, then what is?

                I said at the end of 2015 that Squad was the most promising Early Access of the year and each new update made me even more content with my decision. I always dreamed for a shooter that will mix the warfare concept of Wargame with the vehicle combat of Men of War. One year after Squad’s Early Access release, this dream is closer than ever. It might not be everyone’s dream, but those who are in for this military ride will probably have a hard time going back to other shooters.

(This article is based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)


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