Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tango With The God Sniper

Cheer for me: I bought Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 for $9.99 at Gamestop. An hour into the game and I’m already prepared to call it the best squad-based tactical shooter I’ve ever played. When I say ‘squad-based tactical shooter,’ I’m talking about something very specific – something that started in 1998 with three games: Novalogic’s Delta Force, Zombie’s Spec Ops: Rangers Lead The Way, and Red Storm Interactive’s Rainbow Six.

In its current state, the genre is half chess, half shooter, requiring players to take a levelheaded approach to combat. Running-and-gunning in GRAW2 gets you smoked faster than you can say “Checkpoint reached.”

1998, however, presented a mixed bag of varying paths. The genre took one, and even then, GRAW2 bears little to no resemblance to its great-great-grandfather, Rainbow Six. Let’s go back to a time when Will Smith was cool and see how tactical action shooters got their first footholds.

To gauge the FPS climate in 1998, I need only say: Quake 2. A fluid, furious and violent shooter, Quake 2’s engine was doled out to developers as the software lingua franca of the generation (one of them was Valve, who was a year away from releasing a troubled, much-doubted project, Half Life). The prevailing school of thought was that shooters should be shooters, with lots of guns, lots of ‘splosions and gallons of adrenalin.

Zombie’s Spec Ops: Rangers Lead The Way was the first to suggest another way. Harnessing the mighty power of 3DFX, Spec Ops was a third-person action game that plopped two rangers into the middle of a jungle, desert, et al to blow things up – quietly. That was the catch. Too much noise would get you overpowered by a numerically superior enemy. Play this like Quake 2, the game seemed to boast, and your momma will get a visit from the Department of Defense.

In theory. In practice, Spec Ops was as linear and traditional as the rest, offering only minor innovations and saddling the player with the liability of pants-off stupid AI. Apparently, the Army’s best like to plunge off cliffs and shoot at the sky with no apparent agenda. You could offer them a few rudimentary commands, but what was the point?

Delta Force was a more serious game – so serious, in fact, that you took on every mission solo, with nary an English speaker within the timezone. A first-person shooter, Delta Force’s voxel-based (volume-pixel. Get it?) engine made it a system hog, even while it produced middling visuals. It also manifested the problem that would haunt Far Cry years later – the God Sniper, able to pop your dome from an unrenderable distance. And what distances! Can you imagine the fury of a man who’s walked over miles and miles of fuzzy, cookiedough, voxeled-to-shit terrain only to get smoked by a shot he couldn’t have seen coming? This is before the days of quicksave, kids.

Rainbow Six was unforgiving, but in a different way – it asked you to plan your missions before fighting them. Revision: it demanded you orchestrate a flawless takedown of a hostage situation, arms depot or terrorist safehouse. If the timing of your go-codes was off, tough shit – you had blood on your hands, your teammates’ and the hostages’. In retrospect, the mission planner was skull-numbingly byzantine, but at the time, the power it gave the player was incredible. On the occasion that a mission went off flawlessly, the sense of reward was unparalleled. The game was so damned professional – there wasn’t even a gun on the screen. You nodded your set jaw at the monitor and said well done, men. Or at least I did.

Where is the class of 1998 now? The Spec Ops franchise spawned a hilariously bad sequel before promptly, and justly, dying. Delta Force made a clone and called it Delta Force 2, which made a sequel called Delta Force: Land Warrior. Past that, it’s a blur of budget-bin titles. Check out Delta Force: Extreme 2 to see what I’m talking about.

And of course, Rainbow Six went on to become one of gaming’s most successful and venerated franchises. But I’m going to revise what I said earlier – while Rainbow Six is clearly the dominant lineage, it’s the method first pioneered by Spec Ops – small teams, on-the-fly orders – that would become dominant. The pre-mission planning sputtered out with the lackluster PC version of Rainbow Six 3. On the other side of the sea change, the Xbox version eliminated the planning in favor of a few intelligent guns backing you up.

Okay, class dismissed. Go boot up GRAW2 for a good time. For extra credit, find an old copy of Delta Force and see how long you can make it before you get domed by a God Sniper.