Enemy Territory: Quake Wars Preview

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Having made a name for itself with the popular free but id Software-contracted online team-based multiplayer shooter Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, UK-based Splash Damage is now at the helm of another online team-based multiplayer, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. Formed from the mod team responsible for the popular Quake 3 Fortress mod, Splash Damage has a lot of experience working with id properties in a multiplayer context, experience which has served the team well in what is clearly its most ambitious project yet. Delayed past its intended release of 2006, Quake Wars will now be shipping "when it's done"--presumably some time this year--and was recently announced to be coming to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 at some point after that.

Shacknews' Chris Remo and Chris Faylor recently took a trip down to Santa Monica to spend a day with Quake Wars. Remo had gotten hands-on time with the game prior, while it was Faylor's first experience. Here is what they learned.

Chris Remo: Each Quake Wars map is rooted in the Strogg conflict depicted in Quake II and Quake 4, with Quake Wars effectively serving as a prequel to those games. Though Quake Wars is multiplayer-only, it contains multiple campaigns, which in this case are themed groups of maps dealing with various areas of the war. Valley, the first map we played, is set around a Strogg attempting to contaminate the water supply of the Global Defense Force and turn infected humans into Strogg. GDF players, serving as the attacking force, win the battle by constructing a bridge leading to the Strogg's contamination facility, moving a mobile command post across the bridge, hacking a shield generator, and destroying the contaminator itself. Strogg, on defense, win simply by successfully defending the objectives until the clock runs down.

The progression of large scale team-based objectives gives the game a dynamic feeling, as though there is an actual moving battlefront that the attackers are working to push forward and the defenders are attempting to break. Since the maps are heavily asymmetrical and the multiple objectives are completely different, the flow of the game and the focus of battles shifts in several major ways over the course of a round.

Chris Faylor: Many objectives can only be completed with certain classes--for example, the bridge can only be constructed by an Engineer and the shield generator can only be hacked by Covert Ops. However, certain goals aren't as restrictive; any member of the GDF can drive the Mobile Command Post. With the objectives visible to both sides, a good balance of all the respective classes and a team-based apparoach prove pivotal for success. Sure, any class can steer the MCP, but only Engineers can bring the vehicle back to working order after it sustains too much damage. While Covert Ops may be the only class that can shut down the shield generator, getting to that point requires the combination of a good offensive strike and an even better defense to hold the position during the hacking procedure--gunning it solo just won't cut it against the anti-personnel and anti-vehicle turrets the Strogg frequently set up.

It's definitely possible to the opposition unaware though, especially if playing against an inexperienced or unorganized team. As executive producer Kevin Cloud pointed out, Quake Wars is all about working together as a team and the team that works best is most likely to win. For example, the MCP objective requires players to escort the vehicle through a tight, narrow tunnel just ripe for an ambush. Anti-personnel and anti-vehicle turrets regularly awaited at the tunnel's end, along with proximity mines and a number of Strogg just itching for a good firefight. But as fulfilling as the resulting frantic battles were, it was important to remember that each class had its own seperate role. Playing as Covert Ops, which spawn with EMP grenades, I started lobbing the grenades at nearby turrets, temporarily stopping their automated fire. This helped the soldiers on my team home in and distract the opposing Strogg, in turn making it easier for the Engineers to repair the mobile command post while medics quickly revived any who fell--a concentrated, organized effort, slowly making progress.

Remo: Though Quake Wars is indeed centered around coordinated gameplay, it is not necessary for all players to be constantly in tune with the overall actions of the team. Splash Damage has implemented a system of secondary missions that are not necessary to fulfill the objectives but which can streamline things for the team. While the current main objective is always shown, players can also cycle through available secondary missions, making it fairly straightforward to contribute to the war effort in other ways. Some of these are class-specific--for example, Engineers can construct a guard tower near the initial chasm, making the area easier to defend as the GDC attempts to build a bridge and move the MCP across it. All of the maps also feature spawn point capture objectives, allowing the team to start from more tactically advantageous positions when respawning. I found myself frequently spending my time ensuring that our team kept its hold on the forward spawn point positioned in the map's tunnel, allowing the GDF to more easily keep troops flowing to a major point of interest. While my colleague Faylor spent most of his time on the front lines, I had an unexpected substantial experience working on secondary goals, which actually do provide genuine advantages for the team.

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Remo: Of course, some classes have more general abilities that are always useful, regardless of the map. GDF Medics and Strogg Technicians can heal fallen buddies, and Technicians can also use Strogg corpses to create new spawn points for their teammates.

Faylor: I had and still have no idea what that spawn point creation thing was, exactly, or how it worked, but I know it was badass as hell. I also never got to play with Infiltrator stuff; that seemed awesome.

Remo: The Strogg have a spy-like class called the Infiltrator that allows a Strogg player to switch over to a GDF character model. I had a very frustrating recurring experience of being suddenly killed from behind while attempting to capture a spawn point, and after two or three occurances of this it finally dawned on me that my elusive assailant was in fact the apparent teammate also hanging around in the room.

The game confers experience points for both kills and for the completion of primary and secondary missions as well as for performing class abilities that benefit the team. Being an extremely diligant Medic or Technician, or gathering intelligence as a Covert Ops or Infiltrator with a spy drone can still get you up in the rankings and earn experience points. Since they lack discrete missions in the same sense of the attackers, defenders gain points for keeping attackers away from objectives for certain periods of time. Experience points, which are persistent throughout the length of a single online campaign but are not broadly persistent, unlock character abilities not initially available.

Faylor: Next up was Sewer, part of the game's Pacific Campaign. There, the Strogg have infiltrated the sewers of Kanagawa, Japan and are plotting to use this as a means to invade a nearby city. Catching wind of this plan, the GDF launches an offensive to regain control of the sewers and quite literally flush the Strogg out. First though, Engineers need to construct an EMP generator to disable the Strogg shields and soldiers must destroy one or both of the sewer gates blocking passage to the sewer control room, which is where Covert Ops will find the control panel they need to hack for a successful mission. Sewer stands out among the maps we played, as it gives the defending Strogg immediate access to one of their most powerful vehicles, the multi-story, mech-like Cyclops. After initially struggling with the controls, I soon realized one directional pointer in the Cyclops' interface indicates the faced direction while the other indicates movement, a system that streamlines moving in one direction while aiming and firing in another. Positioning the Cyclops within distance of the location where the GDF was attempting to build an EMP generator, my powerful fire destroyed all oncoming vehicles and infantry with little problem. Unfortunately, the Cyclops moves slowly, a weakness exploited as the GDF destroyed mine in an airstrike summoned down by a Field Ops player, helping them accomplish their first objective. Moving into the sewer, I quickly found an obscured passageway with one of the sewer grate the GDF was trying to destroy in plain view. I shamelessly camped in the shadows and stopped any GDF attempts to accomplish their mission, until a large task force arrived and took me out. With only one objective left, all the Strogg gathered in the control room, which proved an unbreachable defense and allowed us to take the round.

By the end of the day, a friendly though competitive attitude had developed as we all grew more confident in our abilities. Trash talking started to break out. During one of the final sessions, Remo, a Strogg at the time, took me out just as I was furthering my GDF agenda and defending our objective with proximity mines. It's not like that helped his team achieve victory, but hey, at least he accomplished something.

Of all the games we played though, the most fulfilling had to be a revisiting of Valley at the end of the day. Since everyone was quite familiar with the maps and their mechanics by this point, the various id, Activision and Splash Damage employees who had formerly helped guide us through the game now joined in. When all was said and done, victory literally came down to the last second as a Strogg constructor deactivated an explosive charge and any hope of a GDF victory with only single digits left on the timer--a move that elicited a series of cheers and moans throughout the room.

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Remo: For me, that was the round that really drove home the game for me. It took some time to really get a handle on the teamplay and have a sense of where the overall battle dynamic is in terms of the objectives, but once you do you can very much set your own level of involvement while always contributing.

Faylor: Another thing I appreciated is that, despite the different classes, the same key--F--always activates the appropriate ability of your class when at an objective. So, despite all the complexity and layers and interplay between the roles, fulfilling missions remains quite accessible once in position.

Even with this accessbility, the game still has some nuance to learn. For example, a soldier's charged explosives must be activated after placement. Remo learned this the the hard way, as one of his teammates--me--showed him up by destroying an objective he otherwise would have netted, had he actually activated his charge instead of absently gazing in its general direction. To be fair, that was also when we both discovered said charges will kill anyone caught in their large blast radii, us included.

Remo: Sad times.

One of the features Splash Damage has decided to implement after initially shooting down the idea is bot support, which will be present online as well as offline for those who do not yet wish to brave the online hordes--though there is no dedicated offline campaign, players will be able to play solo or LAN rounds with computer players. Cloud had insisted that if Quake Wars were to have bots, they would have to be "indistinguishable from real players." To that end, the game's bots have been coded by John Dean, creator of the Fritz Bot mod for Wolfenstein. After being hired, Dean was mentored by id Software's Jan Paul van Waveren. Van Waverin had created bots for Quake and Quake II before being hired by id to be the official bot programmer for Quake 3 Arena, and is now involved in numerous aspects of programming for id games.

As a former mod team, Splash Damage is hoping to provide comprehensive tools to the game's mod community. Throughout development, the team has been assembling an internal development wiki detailing every facet of documentation related to creating content for Quake Wars. Once the game is complete, Splash Damage will clean up that documentation and release it for the benefit of mod makers.

The much-touted MegaTexture technology will also be streamlined for modders. Creative director Paul "Locki" Wedgwood explained that since the game's massive non-tiled terrain MegaTextures might be unfeasible for many mod teams to create, Quake Wars will have a geometric texture distribution system through which players can lay out numerous conditions for the utility to automatically generated terrain--for example, grass will be of a certain height across flat land, but will shorten upon reaching a 45-degree incline. Players can also simply draw splines to indicate features such as roads and rivers, and the game will add in those items. After the basics have been placed, creators can ho back and use the "stamp" system implemented by John Carmack to basically paint in numerous different foliage variations, stones, and other visual elements providing a more natural look.

Faylor: As far as other advantages of the PC version, on the subject of why the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions coming from Z-Axis and Nerve Software only feature 16 person multiplayer, Cloud attributed the limitation to the peer-to-peer gameplay model popular in the console arena and the expenses of dedicated servers.

"Gameplay is still fun in eight versus eight," he said, "because of the focused objectives." Elaborating, he explained the impact of tying assets to individuals and classes instead of offering everything to the collective team. Cloud also noted that there are no plans for a simultaneous release of the PC and console versions.

Remo: Despite having had hands on time with Quake Wars before, last week's event is when I really wrapped my head around the game and was able to appreciate its many layers. In particular, the secondary mission system and its option of contributing to the battle while still operating solo--which was promised early on but added within the last year--adds a significant amount of flexibility to the game. Though it has been unfortunate waiting the extra time for Quake Wars, originally set to ship last year, it looks as though Splash Damage has used the time well; the game appears to be all the better for it.

Activision plans to publish the Splash Damage-developed, id Software-produced Enemy Territory: Quake Wars for PC "when it's done" this year. A PlayStation 3 version developed by Z-Axis and an Xbox 360 version developed by Nerve Software are set to follow.

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