Friday, May 29, 2009

I Didn’t Know I Wanted Multiplayer-GTA-on-Mars Until I Got It

Can you find the sandbox? I’m a fan of multiplayer shooters.  I can generally find amusement in even the twitchiest of twitch-shooters, even if I have to scrape the bottom of the fun barrel.  Hell, I spent a week playing Mechassault 2: Lone Wolf online before allowing myself to admit it was a janky piece of trash.

The general problem with the genre is saturation.  Every game has multiplayer now.  And if you really enjoy Halo or Killzone multiplayer, do you need anything else?  Occasionally - if that something else provides gameplay lacking in other top-tier shooters.  Valve, not content to simply be the go-to developer for PC gamers, delivered two unique takes on the formula with Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2.  By lovingly invoking Romero clichés, L4D forces players to work as a team, reserving no sympathy for people happy to set off car alarms and strand other survivors.  TF2’s art direction and carefully-balanced characters help separate it from the growing pack of class-based shooters on the market. 

So what stones could Valve and the AAA Boys have possibly left unturned?  What game could possibly give us something we don’t already have?  A week ago, I couldn’t have answered that question.  But now I can.  Look no further than Red Faction: Guerrilla.

Exactly a month ago, Rob tipped his hat to RF:G’s single-player demo.  Despite being skeptical of its “GTA-on-Mars” vibe, he quickly became enamored with Geo-Mod 2, the game’s terrain-deforming engine.  See a wall you don’t like?  Bash it with your hammer.  Did it not come down after one swing?  Maybe you should take out its supports.  The physics with which things crumble is sort of astounding.

If you couldn’t tell already, I wholeheartedly agree with Rob’s assessment of the engine.  Plus, there’s a certain genius to the setting of Mars’s terraformed surface.  There are no rules to which Volition needed to adhere in their level design.  They’ve nothing in the real world to be compared to.  Set a game featuring Geo-Mod 2 technology in New York City and you’ve got some problems if you can’t render every building falling (or every chain link fence breaking).  Set in on Mars, where the game’s fiction dictates that all structures be pre-fabricated, and you’ve untied your hands.  You can blow up whatever the hell you want.

As Rob pointed out, how RF:G will succeed as a single-player sandbox experience (see our Sandbox gaming podcast for more thoughts on this genre’s unique challenges) remains to be seen.  Will a middling storyline distract from an otherwise enjoyable experience?  Or will it find someway to make me care about Communist miners on Mars?  Frankly, I’m not sure it matters.  I’ll be playing the multiplayer.

After just a few days with RF:G’s multiplayer demo, I’m convinced that its solid.  Far more solid than any of the structures on Mars.  Let’s check the prerequisites first.  A litany of weapons, including specialized goofy ones like a gun that shoots saw blades (unfortunately not in demo): check.  More maps than you can shake a hefty, space-sledgehammer at (21 promise, 2 in demo): check  Multiple game modes to cater toward different subsections of your run-and-gun brain: check again.  And it is the game modes that warrant special attention.

The demo gives you a look at a mode titled Damage Control, which seems to have perfectly integrated all of the game’s most promising elements.  Instead of simply slapping on a simple game of Territories, Volition merged the tried-and-true multiplayer mode with their Geo-Mod technology.  I reclaim a contested property not by standing in a circle waiting for a meter to fill but by launching a rocket or swinging my freakishly powerful hammer.   Then, I rebuild it with the Reconstructor gun, a magical weapon capable of turning a pile of rubble into a tower in mere seconds (FEMA would die for one of these).  What a great way to tangibly manifest my success and/or failure.

And the two maps available demonstrate a keen understanding of how to design for this mode of play.  In games like this, there’s a fine line between frustrating and boring.  Damage Control deftly tiptoes across the line between the two by balancing the size of the maps with number of players.  With teams of five and three control points, its nearly impossible to properly defend and capture all three.  But that carrot never quite disappears from the end of the stick.  You’ll spend your time running from one point to the next: fragging some enemies, rebuilding a structure, then moving on to whichever one the enemy’s attacking next.  The pace is often just a hair slower than breakneck if you really stay focused on maintaining possession.

Other modes hinted at in the demo are your stereotypical (Team) Deathmatch, a CTF variant, Siege (attacking/defending a host of structures), and Demolition (which promises to give one player on each team some kind of freakish destruction capabilities).  I hope each are balanced and designed with the same care and thought they gave Damage Control.

So what else does RF:G multiplayer have to offer?  A customizable Backpack power-up system.  Your character can equip a number of different backpacks, each with their own capabilities.  Among other things, you can heal, dash, fly, cloak, and break through walls Juggernaut-style all with the help of backpacks.  One of my favorite things to do is equip the jetpack and rocket launcher, then fly over an enemy’s control point and just firebomb the area.  Or you can equip the Concussion backpack, knock your opponent down with a shockwave, and then beat them to death with your hammer (it has a number of uses). 

On a more technical note, I’m already impressed with RF:G’s Matchmaking UI.  I appreciate that it gives me status updates as to each game it tries to connect me to.  I’m sure things will be a bit different come retail, but it appears as if they’ve taken some pages from Bungie’s online book.  A wise move, since Halo 2 (while possessing a thoroughly underwhelming campaign) helped set a standard for online console multiplayer. 

Rob may be right to worry that RF:G’s single-player will disappoint.  Hell, I’m not sure how you turn miners-on-Mars into a worthwhile sandbox experience.  But what I’ve seen of the multiplayer gives me hope for the title.  The clever Backpack system working in tandem with Geo-Mod-ready levels promises an unprecedented type of sandbox-infused multiplayer.  It’s different but not so crazy that it isn’t accessible.  I just hope Volition can live up to their potential, now that they’ve gone and made me want their game so much.