|a game by||Harmless Games LLC|
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Having been one of GameFan's star attractions when the online gaming hub hit a financial iceberg and sank without a trace last November, Infantry was one of the few games to be rescued by Sony Online Entertainment. It currently finds itself taking a backward step into beta stage, but with top crowd-pullers EverQuest, Tanarus and Star Wars Galaxies as next door neighbours, it could prove to be one of Sony's more popular titles.
The first hurdle Infantry has to clear is that it looks drab and uninteresting, apparendy having been put together using every previous game in the genre as a template. You'd get the same feeling looking at a Mitsubishi Carisma, listening to a Westlife track, or watching a film with Steven Seagal in it. Sure, there are lots of weapons, but as with games such as Unreal Tournament, players tend to home in on the effective ones (the remainder relegated to backup for when the preferred firearm runs out of ammo). Yes, the maps are huge, but as demonstrated by Quake: Team Arena, all you do is spend a lot of time trudging about with a numb index finger. And as for multiman vehicles, Tribes players have been jumping on board LPCs and HPCs since, oh, goodness knows when.
So what exactly has Infantry got on offer? Answer: something, but we don't quite know what. Maybe it's the slick, simple graphics and camaraderie of team-based games that rescue it from obscurity. Perhaps it's the fact that the huge, lumbering battle tanks require five cohorts and four passengers before they're effective in battle, each occupant performing a unique task while on the move. It might be the class system, which allows a much wider choice of playing styles and boosts the strategic nature of the game, or it could just be that the game is currently in beta, and thus free to download. But enthusiasm may wane when Sony pump it up to Premium status and begin charging on a pay-per-play basis - which is what we predict will happen.
The game itself is best described as a third-person shooter - much like Diablo or Nox Quest, albeit with a 'flattened' view of the universe courtesy of a 2D graphics engine. It borrows the top-down aspects of real-time strategy classic StarCraft, combining it with in-yer-face, aggressive, class-based elements from Team Fortress Classic. The result is last and furious gameplay in any one of four variations: Skirmish, Ambush, Capture The Flag, Team Deathmatch and GravBall. Skirmish is by far the most popular, accounting for between 80 to 90 per cent of all Infantry players; Team Deathmatch nobody seems to bother with at all, presumably because tactically it offers nothing new - in fact it offers nothing, period.
Whether Infantry has the power to make it big is not clear, as it depends a great deal on the support Sony offers it. If the galaxy-sized user base of EverQuest is anything to go by, tilings could be looking good for online arcade/strategy fans.
Since word got out that Infantry was deep into development, gamers have been working themselves into a frenzy. Even back in November, mail servers were filling up with a deluge of questions. What did it look like? When would they see it? Am I in love?
Today the forums section of the Infantry website holds close to a thousand messages - and nobody's actually played the game yet. I mean, honestly. You could be forgiven for thinking it was Quake IV. All this hullabaloo stems from the fact that British-born Rod Humble, the guy heading up Harmless Games and the Infantry project, is the man behind one of the most successful online games to date: Virgin Interactive's spectacularly addictive SubSpace. At its height, SubSpace boasted a user base of over 150,000 gamers, countless fan sites and its own suite of newsgroups. So everyone knew Mr Humble could deliver.
What's It All About?
Infantry is a science fiction tactical combat game played exclusively over the Internet. The action is set in the year 2200, when a vast empire known as The Collective has spread from Earth to the far reaches of the solar system. The empire is crumbling though, with civil unrest developing into full-scale planetary war - and you're stuck in the middle of it all.
The game looks like a hybrid of FireTeam, SubSpace and Total Annihilation. Says Rod: "I make no bones about the fact that Infantry was inspired by our last game, SubSpace. As for similarities to FireTeam, we were working on our code long before its release. It's a different kind of game anyway."
More than 150 players can fill the Infantry arenas, and with each arena linked to others by portals, the total play area is immense. The special effects line-up is everything you'd expect from a modern game, and includes all the latest tricks, treats and eye candy.
"But it's not just about cramming hundreds of people onto our servers and wowing them with graphics," comments Rod. "We've spent a great deal of time and effort making it feel as fun as possible, because a huge range of opponents and designer backdrops means nothing if the gameplay sends you to sleep."
At its heart, Infantry is an RPG. There are hundreds of skills for people to develop, ranging from medical expertise and heavy weapons proficiency to undercover work and demolition. To accompany this huge scope of abilities there's also a huge range of weapons: lasers, carbines, shotguns, grenades, phosphorus grenades, anti-tank rockets, flamethrowers, artillery, sonic weapons, static emplacement guns, bunkers and a whole lot more. And because you're playing in a constantly evolving universe, the range can only get bigger.
Infantry players can also take advantage of psionics (a sort of magical power of the mind), and special abilities include clairvoyance (the ability to sense life), telekinesis (moving objects using mental power) and pyrokinesis (a sort of mental Molotov cocktail).
Like its rivals, the online Infantry world is persistent, meaning that time passes and events are triggered regardless of the number of players present in the game. As the world doesn't stop turning the moment you go to sleep, so the Infantry server processes information while you're disconnected.
Rod continues: "The software engine itself is dynamic, meaning it's able to create new levels on the fly and adapt rapidly to different styles of play. It can become a simple action game, or a very complex tactical game. That sort of instant flexibility means it should appeal to everyone."
Smells Like Team Spirit
With titles like Team Fortress Classic and Starsiege Tribes, they create the feeling of a close-knit crew. When you join in, you have to know who you're working for, what your orders are and what the bad guys look like. And when your guys win there's a big buzz. Unlike 'regular' deathmatch, the team-play in these titles is a better reflection of the real world and can be a lot more challenging.
To boost the team-play theme in Infantry special skills enable certain players to take charge where others can't. Some enable you to pilot multi-seater transports (if you've played Tribes you know what fun it is to fly four-up with heavily armed buddies). A large battle tank, for example, needs a minimum of five skill sets to function properly: a commander, gunner, hull gunner, technical officer and driver. Team up, grab some passengers and away you go.
You can also set up special communications channels to send and store messages to fellow squad members. These get delivered next time they're online, a bit like a cross between ICQ and email.
When When When?
Rod is hoping for a beta prior to final release in the summer. "Nick, the big boss at Brainscan, is the one pushing hardest for public testing," he says. 'Trouble is, it's not as simple as it sounds. We're still developing core areas of the code. We had a few problems back in March when we changed the data file format, and the whole thing got screwed. I was busy putting the pieces back together for a week."
Whatever happens, you can rest assured that everyone's working hard on polishing every aspect of the game. And they discuss everything.
'There are always arguments," says Rod, "but almost all are to do with quality. We never argue about not doing something because it will throw us off schedule. If it sounds cool, we run with it and worry about the timetable later. Our players are, as ever, our fiercest critics, so once we start expanding our tester base, the design of the game will be down to what they want." Harmless have the right recipe to create an astonishing online game - they've done it all before - so Infantry should be worth the wait.