Squad Early Access Impressions!

by on December 4, 2016

                Writing something more serious about Squad has been a
long coming and I wasn’t going to let this article join the folder of postponed
indefinitely. With the recent free weekend I rejoined the ranks to check up on
the progress and I picked up this article right from where I left it shortly
after the game’s Early Access release, almost one year ago.
                Kickstarter
is probably the only medium where a game like Squad could receive the financial
support it deserves, because Squad is for the most hardcore fans of war simulators.
After a successful crowdfunding campaign and more than a year of development,
the shooter powered by Unreal Engine 4 and created by the people behind Project
Reality entered Steam’s Early Access on December 15 2015. I used to follow the progress of  the Project Reality modes, but by the time they became popular I already put Battlefield 2
behind me and I never got into ARMA 2 (I don’t know exactly why). Yet, I played
all the tactical and tactical wannabe shooters of this generation and I was
intrigued by this game from the moment I spotted it on Steam’s Greenlight.
                In my
first day of Squad I wind up being a squad leader, I had no clue what to do but
I was guided into the right directions by members of an exemplary community
that have been playing in the Alpha stages for months. Using army lingo to
provide tactical guidance, these experienced players pulled through despite my
minimal contribution. This was one day before the Early Access launch and one
of my mentors of that day said something interesting: “the recruits of today,
the squad leaders of tomorrow.” An interesting phrase that wouldn’t have any
meaning in most of the so called tactical shooters of this generation. Why?
Because the word tactical has lost much of its value being thrown on anything
that resembles a real setting. So I picked up the squad leader mantle that was
standing on the floor of the game’s Early Access launch using the lessons that
I was thought (plus all the experience gained from all those years of playing strategies
and ARMA). I might not have been the best, but a few weeks down the road I was
successfully leading my unit in an offensive meant to take our enemies by
surprise, cutting down their reinforcements. Tactical thinking, visualization
of the terrain and orders were instinctual now and I could see my leadership
making a difference, tickling my gamer’s ego, but this is not really the point
of the story. The truth is that Squad is designed in such a way that is capable
of splitting the playerbase in two groups, leaders and followers, and as
someone who has been part of the two, I can say the game needs the best of
both. There are always going to be cases of insubordination (yeah, that’s a
word I can use here), but one of the many beauties of this game is that the
dedicated players don’t have to deal with those for long. You either stay in
line or don’t stay at all, because Squad is the closest we get to a military
experience and we take it as such!
Tactical advancement.
                In the
last 5 years I’ve sunk easily over 2000 hours playing military shooters, yet
the switch to Squad took me by surprise. The adjustment to a gameplay that was
more realistic than ARMA 3 came fast enough, but even after I’ve gotten a hold
onto the game’s mechanics and how Squad should be played, old habits got in the
way. From time to time I had some of those “derp” moments when I forgot that
Squad is not a generic shooter where you charge into a group of enemies with a
decent enough chance to kill them all. Deaths like this were a constant
reminder of how different this game really is.
                The
seriousness of Squad strikes you from the loading screen which has the keyboard
control schematics with more useable (and useful) keys than some of the
annually released shooters have combined. Joining a match won’t let go of that
initial impression, the nonexistent crosshair, the slower movement and sluggish
animations tied to a stamina bar and weapons which are hard to control but
lethal give a new meaning to realistic gameplay. When you factor in that TAB
doesn’t provide straight up information about your combat performance and that
most of the players use military terms, you realize that this is as real as war
simulation can get in video games. And it’s not like I wasn’t expecting a
simulator, but I never thought the community took it this far and I loved that.
                Squad
is about war authenticity and not in the cinematic way that presents the
atrocities of war, instead, it’s looking at war from a combat perspective putting players
in the boots of a soldier with limited supplies and the resilience and view
range resembling that of an actual human being. When your character is not
meant to be a John Rambo, the gameplay takes a different turn. Teamwork becomes
the only way to accomplish something and the transition is so brutally natural
that players are not constrained, but lead into this direction. It does help that
the game provides all the necessary teamwork tools which include controlled dedicated servers and multiple voice chats.
                From a
strategic standpoint, the Early Access version of Squad is not much more
different than any other big scale shooter out there. The game modes have two teams
fighting over the control of large maps filled with objectives forcing teams to
engage each other and bleed tickets in the process to the point where one stands
victorious. When zooming in to the actions of each squad involved in these
battles, the gameplay reveals its true complex form, widely different than the
other shooters I was thinking of.
                Each
team has its own squad holding up to 9 players which can pick from a limited
number of different roles that define the squad’s engagement options. Aside of
the rifleman grunts, squad members have access to roles like: medic, marksman,
light anti-tank and support. Each role being capable of changing the outcome of
a combat scenario, but getting there means going past a learning process that
starts with leaving your basic shooter instincts behind and following your
orders. Yes, I said orders. At the top of a squad stands its leader, which in
this game is not just a formal title with a star next to the player’s name
allowing others to spawn on him. A squad leader is a role with responsibilities
that start with working on the team’s strategy and transforming that strategy
into a tactical plan for the squad. And it goes as far as micromanaging each
member for increased combat efficiency. It’s a delicate job not meant for
delicate people as it requires nerves of steel, leadership skills, tactical
thinking and a certain charm that can get a bunch of people from the internet to
act in the team’s interest (and we all know how people on the internet can
be).
Scopes are rare.
                A squad’s
job can vary based on the decisions taken by the squad leader. It can sometimes
be as boring as guarding an objective that isn’t threaten by anyone or can get
as intense as being part of an ambush or a scouting group searching for the
enemy’s hidden objectives. Building reinforced positions which can provide
easier ways to attack or defend an objective is also part of this job’s
description. By assessing the situation and through coordinated efforts, squads
can create an entire infrastructure of FOBs, reinforced vantage points and
misleading defensive positions that require a functional and well synchronized
logistics system. This way a team can shift strategies and mobilize faster to
react against surprise attacks and repair mistakes or crumble and fall if things are wrongly
executed.
                At the
base of this game stands the squad gameplay (the generic name is no
coincidence) and the team with the most dedicated and coordinated squads will most
likely win. But Squad is a shooter and all the tactical decisions and orders
lead into the same direction, combat.
Textbook defensive position.
                The
combat in Squad is rather unusual, but not in the wrong way. The shooting is as
realistic as it gets. Controlling a weapon requires knowledge and skill, but
even when those are achieved the gameplay experience doesn’t provide the usual
left and right shooting of enemies. The satisfaction of killing someone is rare
and therefore intensified as this is a shooter where enemies don’t meet face
to face and those who do usually have done something wrong. Most of the fights
unfold from the distance with both teams shooting blindly at each other counting
on scouting information, presumed enemies locations or lead by the tracers. Kills
sometimes can’t be confirmed and combat effectiveness can’t be measured until
the end of the match while the teamwork score has a rather sketchy counter that
isn’t always reliable. But all these mechanics resemble the dehumanized
experience of combat that’s the closest to what today’s wars really look like.
Kill confirmed!
Boom!
                With
the game still being under development the gameplay is in a continuous change.
The introduction of transportation and fighting vehicles has completely shifted
the way battles are fought. From an infantry based game, Squad matches have
become dependent on the transportation and logistics reinforcement that certain
vehicles provide. The fire support coming from combat vehicles like the Humvee
or the BTR has increased the tactical depth to a great extent without
diminishing the role of the infantry one bit. As powerful as they are, the
current combat vehicles are useless on the battlefield without the fire support
of the infantry. They might withstand some moderate fire and the unfinished
damage model is capable of creating some unprecedented situations in this kind
of games, but teams aren’t reinforced with vehicles too often and the price
paid for losing one is quite high. For these reasons both vehicles and the
infantry benefit from one another creating a synergy that has to be taken into
account as it redefines combat to a level closer to that of RTTs. One can only
imagine how things will be when the military forces involved will deploy their
big guns on the battlefield. When a M1 Abrams and a T-90 will face each other
in a battle of wits, cunning and tactical ingenuity reinforced by deployed
anti-tank guns and Javelins. I believe that day will change the face of virtual
war forever!
Vehicle destroyed!
                As
promising as Squad is, the game isn’t without its problems, most of them
stemming from an unfinished product that still has quite a development road
ahead. Built on Unreal Engine 4, Squad benefits from the versatility of this
powerful engine, but also suffers from its problems coupled with the big dreams
of a crowdfunded indie studio.
                The visuals
look good, a huge leap forward from Project Reality, but they do not always
present the graphical fidelity expected from a modern shooter. The ground
textures are flat giving the landscape an undeserved unrealistic image
crippling the immersion factor and the need for tessellation or photogrammetry
can be felt everywhere. On the other hand, the gun models are extremely
detailed and animated with a military precision fitting for the game. But despite
its somewhat mixed visuals, the game doesn’t project the expected performance
and users of AMD CPUs have been struggling with fps drops while rubber banding when driving and other issues are a present discomfort.
                For
those looking to make comparisons, Squad doesn’t yet manage to keep up with its
older and sometimes wackier competitor, ARMA 3. Weapon customizations,
animations, body damage model and sometimes even the shooting are still a work
in progress, but the game is slowly getting there. The Alpha 9 release will
mark the revamping of the animations system while the others are part of the
upcoming features list. Luckily, the game has built in mod support and there are
already some cool modes in development including a reimagining of Squad in a
WW2 setting.
                The
constant failures of Early Access releases has made gamers edgier when it comes to
some of the problems this game is facing, but there is really no reason to
panic. Offworld Industries’ progress has taken me by surprise
several times, proving that they are willing to improve
anything about Squad as long as it stands in their power. These developers have
been around long enough to know their target demographics and have always kept
an open ear to suggestion and it shows. And while from a technical standpoint
Squad is still trying to catch up, there are certain elements that can’t be
easily found in other games. There is a mix of small but impactful features that
highlight the grand vision behind this project. Features like moving clouds
affecting the lighting intensity changing the image of a landscape that’s
constantly perturbed by the echoing sounds of guns and explosions that mirror reality in a terrifyingly yet entertaining way. And if getting out
alive from a burning car that has just been hit by an RPG isn’t enough for you, then what is?

 

                I said
at the end of 2015 that Squad was the most promising Early Access of the year
and each new update made me even more content with my decision. I always
dreamed for a shooter that will mix the warfare concept of Wargame with the
vehicle combat of Men of War. One year after Squad’s Early Access release, this
dream is closer than ever. It might not be everyone’s dream, but those who are
in for this military ride will probably have a hard time going back to other
shooters.
(This article is based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)
 
 
 
 
Nodrim