First Look: Squad19 Dec 2016 0
It’s a good time to be a fan of realistic multiplayer shooters. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago when all there were to choose from was Battlefield 2 and Bohemia Interactive’s original ArmA - both impressive and successful in their own ways of course, but somewhat prototypical in their approaches to tactical realism given that they directly inspired games that have only in recent incarnations been nominally justified in unfurling a “mission accomplished” banner for genre fans to whoop at.
Although vanilla ArmA 3 is unrivalled in terms of it being an immense military sandbox, fans of team-focused gunplay will argue that it still has some way to go before it can claim to be a reliable multiplayer ally. Battlefield meanwhile has gone on to dominate the genre, which despite the occasional foray into unfamiliar territory, has via its core sequence of games kept largely in step with the origins of the series...
Largely though it’s been via the efforts of ‘milsim’ fans that the above now-mainstream series have fulfilled their early genre potential, to the degree that development efforts have been a collective force for change that has become largely independent from any host game. Between ongoing efforts on an impressive array of ArmA 3 add-ons (ACE3, et al) and the perennial poster boy of FPS realism mods Project Reality (which has been entirely independent from BF2 since 2015), Squad may well come to represent the ultimate evolution of those efforts.
Designed as a successor to and with core team members from pre-independence era Project Reality, Squad has been in active development since early 2014 and went on to secure close to $330,000 in crowd-funding before joining Steam’s Early Access program in December of last year. Since then Squad has been bought by close to 300,000 people and looks set to at least equal the success of New World Interactive’s Insurgency, a game that also originated out of a realism mod that after a similarly lengthy period as a paid pre-release game is now in the hands of some 3.1 million people (which puts it alongside ArmA 3 sales-wise).
Part of the reason to be optimistic for Squad as it prepares for a 2017 release is that, as of now, on the first anniversary of it’s introduction to Steam, it offers up a remarkably solid, consistent and compelling experience, one that in spite of its relatively obscure origins and hardcore leanings, is not nearly as intimidating as one might expect. For one thing the game appears to have been designed to be as familiar as possible to as many people as possible, whether they’ve wandered over from Project Reality, ArmA 3, Battlefield 4 or even Call of Duty. The control system is tight and focused, more so even than Battlefield’s, with excellent default key mapping, and feedback and UI systems that are immediately intuitive, from the all-important and remarkably efficient map to the (lack of) in-game overlays.
The only aspects of Squad that are initially overwhelming are those that come with the territory of being realistic, such as when immediately being fired upon and being unable to discern from where the shots are coming from until it’s too late, or not being able to discern between friendly and enemy units and blowing away one of your own. Thankfully by default you are signed into the game’s excellent voice comms system and can relay your early frustrations and profuse apologies to your colleagues without fear of recrimination or reprimand.
Of course there are a few Squad blowhards out there who insist you talk in military acronyms or “GTFO”, but you’re only really in danger of antagonising others if you’re taking up space within an established fireteam (always check tags before joining a squad), not contributing vocally (which isn’t always possible if your kids are sleeping in the room next door) or you happen to be purposefully throwing frag grenades into friendly buildings just to incite a reaction (in which case you really should GTFO before someone does it for you).
As a whole though team communication works out well, not because Squad has more dedicated players or people that are more accommodating than those that frequent ArmA or Battlefield, but because the game has been designed to make teamwork as fundamental to the game as pulling a trigger. Squad leaders need squad members in order to drop spawn points, establish FOBs, capture zones and of course follow orders such as bring in supplies, keep an eye out for enemy units and lay down fire. Likewise the members of a squad need a leader, not just to lay out the rules of engagement, but to observe and call out potential targets, give permission to use vehicles, direct medic and fire support and muster the defensive upgrades for a firebase. Then of course the squad leaders need to talk to one another (which they do on a separate channel), to coordinate efforts to effect a win, or hurry in support when things don’t quite go to plan - which they often don’t.
What’s important to understand about Squad is not that it’s super realistic - because it isn’t - but that it’s realistic enough to offer just the right concentration of authenticity in the right areas, while retaining a certain degree of fun and fairness in others. Maps are big enough to heighten tension before each engagement, but not so big that you’ll be yomping around for an hour before seeing any action. Getting killed by an unseen enemy is frustrating and frequent, but there are ways and means to get back to the action quickly, either thanks to medical support or a variety of spawning options. Then there are the game modes, varied and realistic to real world combat scenarios, and the factions, which depict people fighting rather than highlighting heroes and villains. As an aside and in addition to its other qualities, Squad may well be the least patronising game to focus on contemporary Middle Eastern conflict.
Squad undeniably has a bright future, one that will see increased mod support, more vehicles, weapons, maps and factions. It could do with a new Firing Range tutorial and a few tweaks here and there (building bases is fiddly, there are some clipping issues and jumping is imprecise), plus being in an unoptimised alpha state means that frame rates aren’t great, but the foundations in terms of design and functionality are rock solid.
With no new Battlefield due until 2018 and ArmA 3 only recently augmented by its Apex expansion (and Project Reality looking increasingly ancient), it seems a fair assumption to make that Squad will spent most of the next year uncontested as the military sim fans’ multiplayer shooter of choice.
It’s a good time to be a fan of Squad.