Multiplayer FPS gaming has been around for quite a while now, but like a lot of genre's in PC gaming, over time expectations and desires change. The age of the free-for-all deathmatch frag-fest multiplayer FPS is starting to make its way into history books. Sure, there will probably always be brainless FPS MP action on offer as long as there still is a PC gaming world, but gamers have made it very clear with their buying power that MP FPS gaming is heading into one general direction - teamwork. Games that focus on teamwork seem to be selling, and games that aren't focused on teamwork seem to be re-adjusting their focus so it is a priority. But, as many developers have found, there isn't a magic formula to success; teamwork is a very hard element to implement successfully. Simply re-adjusting the pre-existing MP mechanics to introduce teams is not good enough, gamers want to be completely immersed into believing they are fighting for a cause with fellow gamers, not simply fighting their own cause in the same general area as fellow gamers.
With that said, if you ask 100 MP FPS gaming fans which game they felt captured the best teamwork experience in recent times, you will probably get significantly varied answers. However, one of the more popular answers you will likely receive is game called 'Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory'. This game is notable because it is based on the Quake3 engine, which makes it completely free to legally download and play. At the same time though, using such an engine means it does feel quite dated, but that doesn't seem to prevent ET from still being one of the most played online FPS games to date - 3 years after its release, during which time multiple 'new age' MP FPS games have been released. Much like how Counter-Strike originated, Enemy Territory brought fresh and exciting gameplay to anyone who had a half decent PC with an Internet connection, and it continues to strive even today regardless of its age. When you break it all down, the primary reason for this is simply because ET successfully created an environment that promotes real team work.
However, ET is not far from being superseded. As any MP FPS fan who hasn't been locked in a cell for the last year or so would know, Activision and Splash Damage - the original co-developers of Enemy Territory - have a new (but this time commercial i.e. not free) ET in the works, and this goes by the name of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. Recently, I had the chance to see Quake Wars in action, and I must say; I liked what I saw.
First of all, in case you don't know the basic story, Quake Wars is set before the events of Quake 2. The year is 2065, the location is planet earth, and the current situation has the human race defending against an invading Strogg force. Even though the Strogg are on the offense as far as the storyline goes, the map's themselves feature varied situations for each side. For instance, the map we saw in the real time demonstration had the humans attacking Strogg defenses, tasking the human team with first securing and repairing a bridge so they can launch their attack from a near by base. 12 maps are planned for the retail release and should offer a wide range of environments and scenarios.
Like the original ET, Quake Wars is heavily class driven. Each side has five classes - Soldier, Medic, Engineer, Field Ops and Covert Ops for the humans, and Aggressor, Technician, Constructor, Oppressor and Infiltrator for the Strogg. Each one of these classes feature unique capabilities. However, unlike a few other MP FPS games, Quake Wars doesn't just let you use these unique capabilities, it incorporates them deep into the objectives and tasks for each map. For example, as already stated, in the map we were shown the humans had to first fix a broken bridge which requires an engineer - no progress can be made on the map for the humans before this is done so obviously you will need an active engineer to complete this. However, as the demonstration also displayed, thanks to Strogg defences at the bridge site, the engineer will need cover so right away the teamwork elements in Quake Wars became clearly evident. If you don't work as a group in Quake Wars you won't easily accomplish objectives, and if you don't accomplish objectives you will simply lose the map, as objectives are the entire point of Quake Wars, not frag totals.
On the topic of engineers, it is basically their job to fix and build structures, however while Quake Wars was originally designed to allow engineers more or less unlimited structures, the final product is looking to limit each engineer to only 1 building per spawn. This is a notably change because Quake Wars is centered heavily on structures such as anti-personnel guns and long range missile launchers, but since you only get to choose one structure to build at a time, a degree of strategy and careful planning is required. One structure we saw in action on the human side was the "Hammer" - a laser guided WMD missile launcher that produces devastating results to say the least. Choosing where to build these and when to use them could be the deciding factor in a battle because they really are that effective.
As is the trend with a few MP FPS games these days, Quake Wars will feature an experience/stat system. Experience is generated as you play the game based on your actions and carries over from one map to the next providing the next map is part of the same campaign (generally 3 maps per campaign). The advantage here is you gain upgrades and enhancements but these are reset every time a new campaign begins. On top of this, stats will be tracked via an external server much like Battlefield 2 with is becoming more of a standard these days than a truly groundbreaking feature but it's a nifty addition to see nonetheless.
One question teamwork based online shooters always have a hard time answering is "How does the game prevent idiots from ruining the experience for others?". At this point in time, it is too premature to say whether or not Quake Wars will make anti-teamwork attitudes redundant, but there was one interesting feature discussed in the demonstration that appears to be locked onto this exact topic. This feature is called the "Solo Assignment System", and it will basically assign gamers individual objectives generated on the fly. For example, if the gamer desires something else to do other than the main objective, the game will locate a smaller task, such as eliminating an anti-personnel gun or some other enemy target, and you will gain XP for doing this. While it appears the gamer will have to go out of their way to request personalised objectives, features like this will go a long way to help make the experience better for everyone.
New to the series with Quake Wars will be vehicle control, which obviously expands the possibilities of teamwork combat as seen in many current MP FPS games. While most vehicles probably won't surprise you, the few we saw in action were quite impressive - there was an amphibious personnel carrier and a heavily armed personnel carrier on the human side on show, plus a powerful mechwarrior type machine called "Goliath" and a jetpack device on show for the Strogg. An interesting note is Quake Wars appears to promote the idea of unique vehicles for each race as opposed to matching each vehicle with an equal on the other side. I personally like this approach because it forces gamers to learn tactics for each race rather than simply carrying over the same methods. After all, we are talking humans vs aliens here, the technologies and machines should be completely different between the two.
At the present time, it has been confirmed that 24 player games - i.e.12 vs 12 - will be the maximum in Quake Wars. On one hand this does sound a little low particularly when other MP FPS games are reaching 50 and 60+ player limits, but I wouldn't pass judgment on this decision just yet. The prime focus is teamwork and when you involve too many players, that can spiral out of control pretty quickly. Even if it is proven that the 24 player limit is not sufficient, I doubt it would be hard for Splash Damage to increase the limit down the track via a patch. In any case, given the power on offer via vehicles and other machinery in Quake Wars, I have a feeling 24 players will be more than enough for intensive action packed gameplay. Still though, this will be an aspect to Quake Wars that will no doubt be on everyone's mind come launch time.
For you consoler's out there, the demonstration did hint that Activision and Splash Damage are interested in exploring the possibility of porting Quake Wars to the 360 and PS3. Perhaps - and this is pure speculation - a Live Anywhere solution could also be a possibility. It would certainly increase the online success of Quake Wars; imagine the online user base when you combine the 360 and PC audiences. Although, this does bring up the whole "Won't PC gamers have an advantage?" question. Given the rather premature nature of the Live Anywhere technology, I'd say this is a long shot to ever eventuate anyway.
As far as the visuals go, obviously being based on the Quake4/Doom3 engine ET: Quake Wars looks impressive to say the least. One visual highlight was the previously mentioned "Hammer" WMD missile. This baby doesn't just show awesome destructive power, but it also shows pretty awesome visuals as well. Outside of the explosion itself which I would think is going to be the biggest weapon in any MP FPS to date (outside of the Strogg's equally impressive alternative that is), the eerie visual sensation achieved by watching it launch high into the sky with a dominating smoke trail behind it - never going out of visual range - as it slams down into the ground is down right cool. Behind the scenes, Quake Wars will feature John Carmack's touted MegaTexture technology which eliminates the need for restrictive drawing distances and fog of war, not to mention it gives landscape a much more realistic look texturing wise - a nice visual feature that was very evident in the real time demonstration on show.
Quake Wars right now is looking good, but some questions can't be answered until it is out and about. When a game basis its gameplay and effectively its likelihood to succeed on an element such as teamwork, it really is hard to predict how it will fair in the reasonably tough MP FPS genre. There is really no way to tell just how integral to the gameplay teamwork is or just how vulnerable to anti-teamwork tactics by less than mature online players a game is until it is released into the wild. With that said though, from what I've seen from Quake Wars, I get the feeling that MP FPS fans are in for a real treat - the gameplay looked sharp, the graphics were naturally stunning and the focus on teamwork pretty much takes what worked so well in the original ET (not to mention ETPro) and moulds it to suit the storyline and possibilities of a futuristic war. While a release date is not yet set, early 2007 seems to be a good guess, so get whatever value you can out of your current favourite MP FPS game now because I firmly believe ET: Quake Wars is going to occupy your PC for a while when it does finally see retail release.