That special time of the year has arrived early this time around. Every year of my life this time has come - a time of giddy excitement, fear of disappointment, and massive drops in productivity. For 2008, it began on the Monday of this very week, with the console release of Dead Space. Then, the release of Saints Row 2 and World of Warcraft Patch 3.0 (in anticipation of Wrath of the Lich King). Coming soon will be Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, Fable 2, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, Guitar Hero World Tour, Gears of War 2, and that's just the stuff that's coming in the next few weeks! I don't know how I'm ever going to get anything done. These are the moments that I most envy those that work in the industry; I already easily spend 8 hours a day going over this stuff in some form. I'll pick out some number of these upcoming games to latch onto, and then you will be subjected to my rants and reviews.
But why wait to rant and review?
Insurgency - If you have Half-life 2, then you have no reason not to look into Insurgency. If you don't have Half-life 2, then Insurgency may give you reason to acquire it. This is a Total Conversion mod for Half-life 2 that was publicized over Steam earlier this month. It is looking to dethrone Counter-Strike as the King of Community Generated Mods, and from what I've played it may very well succeed if the player base stands behind it. If you've played Counter-Strike, you will know what to expect. You start the game, select a server, then choose to play as a U.S. Marine or an Iraqi Insurgent. The weapons, tactics, and locations are all based on the real battlegrounds that the Middle East has seen over the past many years. The mod has already become quite popular in Europe, and among some of our own men in uniform.
The actual gameplay does an extremely good job of capturing the unforgiving realism of a battlefield. Many of the conveniences a video game HUD typically grants are intentionally not present. There is no health display. It isn't necessary, as one or two bullets will take you out of the fight. There is no minimap. There is a map, but if you want to look at it, you'll have to pull it out manually, distracting yourself from potentially deadly surroundings. There is no ammo counter. If you want to know how many bullets you've fired, you can do it the same way everyone else does: Count. There are no crosshairs painted in the middle of your screen. You can shoot from the hip in a panic, but usually you will want to line up your iron sights before pulling the trigger. If you are lucky enough to have such a weapon available, you may be able to use a scope or aimpoint. Friendly fire is always on for most servers, and the only way to tell if a body is friend or foe is to look closely and use your judgment. Panic fire in a dark, smoky room may end up killing more allies than enemies. And one of my favorite features (or anti-features) is that no information is given to you when you are killed. If a well concealed sniper takes off your head before you see him, you won't be shown his name, his location, what weapon he is using, or anything. All you will know is that something killed you, and perhaps you should approach that area with more caution.
The game plays out slowly and methodically. Those that charge in with guns blazing will be rewarded with a lead-filled brain. All maps are objective based, and some have limited respawns. This heavily stresses tactics and survival. If you run out into the open of a map with limited reinforcements every respawn and immediately get gunned down, resetting the spawn timer every 30 seconds, then your time will be most displeased with you. Those respawns are precious! Objectives on some maps are also much more important than in most objective-based games. On the "push map" mode one team starts owning all of the objectives. If they lose one to the other side, they can never recover it. These maps are designed linearly so that there is always a front line at each of the objectives. Every time an objective is captured, the attacking team (which usually has finite reinforcements and a timer) has their deployment location move up, while the defending team (which usually has infinite reinforcements) is pushed back.
Teamwork is encouraged by the very few unrealistic features of the game. Each team will have two squads, each squad can hold 8 members. One is the typical Attack squad, the other is the Specialist squad. Each squad has a limited number of slots for each class of soldier, so that the team will always be somewhat balanced. This prevents everyone from selecting the same type of weapon and strategy. At some point all the typical rifle positions will be taken and you will have to learn how to use heavy machine gun, or an RPG, or a shotgun! Each squad also has a randomly selected squad leader (unless every member refuses the position). The squad leader has a special icon on the map and is always visible to his squad members thanks to a big fat arrow over his head and a range indicator. Leaders can also set orders and assign objectives to encourage squad members to work cohesively. If the order "Attack Objective Bravo" is issue, then Objective Bravo will be lit up with an Attack icon and a range indicator. Other commands such as "Take Cover" "Flank Left" "Hold This Position" and others will result in every squad member having the order constantly displayed at the top-left of their screen. Nothing forces you to listen to your squad leader, but all but the most thick-skulled will figure out that working as a team always works out better than trying to work solo. There is also in-game voice chat, of course. All these features combined with the deadly and unforgiving gunplay means that a well-coordinated team of two (say a sniper and a rifleman) can completely dominate a disorganized group of 8 commandos running around aimlessly. At one point I single-handedly held down an objective in a warehouse through smart use of terrain. Shooting out of dark windows, frequently using the nearby weapons cache, staying low, tossing down frag grenades when the building was breached, covering myself with smoke grenades when hailed with gunfire, and never peeking out of any one window for too long kept the enemy guessing where the next attack would come from.
If you are looking for a Team FPS that finally gets tactical gameplay done right, then Insurgency is definitely something you should take a look at.