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MOH:Airborne Multiplayer Summit Review

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This is the first of two parts of my review of the MOH:Airborne Multiplayer Summit I attended recently at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. This first part focuses on the reason for attending - the multiplayer game. This is a rather extensive review (8 pages in Word!), so dig in when you have time. Once you're done reading, or if you have questions or comments, please visit our forums to discuss this article.

 

Medal Of Honor Airborne - Multiplayer Review

innocent bystander

Admin, After Hourz Gaming Network


Prologue

I preface these remarks by stating a few facts to set the stage and perspective of my review. First, After Hourz is primarily a PC gaming community, and in particular I am exclusively a PC gamer. While I watched over the shoulder of the Xbox guys a few times, this review is exclusively based on what I saw playing the PC version of the game. In addition, what we saw was not the final finished game. It was close, but it was not the final release. That said, I have to base my review on what I saw since I have nothing other to go on. However EA got a lot of feedback from us, and even while we were still in there playing they were already working on things based on our feedback. More on all that later - on with the review.

 

Out of the Box Experience

Since I was in the early group, I got to see a mini-preview of the game that night as we were getting ready to leave the sports bar. BlackHat (MOH:A Community Manager) and Tom Hess (MOH:A Multiplayer Producer) loaded up Destroyed Village on two of the PCs. I was astounded as the US character leapt from the plane, hit the silk, and I could see miles in every direction as the character floated into a town that was at once familiar and then again not. I’m so used to the limited view of the world in that town, with the tree line being right up behind the ubiquitous 15-foot stone wall, that to see hills, and fields and a horizon – really quite stunning the first time you see it. You land in town and the layout is instantly familiar – but much more detailed! It’s a bit like the first time you ever saw a show in HD – it’s the same game of football (or whatever), but its like you just put on glasses and saw what it’s really like all this time. The map is wonderfully detailed, with all the same basic routes as before. Yet there are new openings, new options, the graphics are so much better – like I said, familiar, but then again not. A great way to whet the appetite before we retired to the hotel for some drinking to await the late arrivals (including PK at 2am).


The next day after the tower jump and lunch, we returned to the sports bar. We had to wait around a while to get in there as 12 PCs, 12 Xboxes, and 24 monitors overloaded the power circuits. Shutting down a couple of each and running some extension cords from other sockets got us over the hump (except a few times tripping the circuit), and in we went to finally check out the game.


So up comes the game, with some nice CGI sequences to bring you into the easily understood menu. With Tom’s help I fired up the listen server for the group of 10 of us to play on. Of course I chose DV as the map right off, and away we went. At first I rolled German, and of course grabbed my trusty K98 to start. I spawned in and looked around and there in the sky I see parachutes blossoming! Holy shit they’re really dropping in on us! Really cool the first few times you see it and a bit of an adrenaline rush. However my initial enthusiasm was tempered by a disturbing inability to put the aiming post where I wanted. I thought it was me at first, but after fiddling with the controls I quickly realized it wasn’t. I made a mental note to come back for further testing, and switched to a MP44. I quickly found that I could make hay with this weapon, and I stuck with it. The map as I noted earlier was awesome – amazingly detailed and much bigger than it used to be. One thing you figure out about Airborne pretty quickly is the game is now three-dimensional, like no other game before it. Rather than bunch of little circle-jerk maps that play for the most part in the X and Y dimensions (maybe with 2nd floors in some buildings if you’re lucky), Airborne maps add the Z dimension – the vertical. From the jump from 800 feet up, to bunkers that go 2-4 stories down, you learn quickly that you have to constantly look up as well as around corners. This totally changes gameplay and makes the maps so much bigger than they are in the overhead. So we played a few rounds and I personally had fun doing so, but I was already seeing areas of brilliance and areas of concern. I’m going to break them down by category.


Spawning

Of course the big unique feature of Airborne is the parachute drop. When the map starts and you’re US, you start out in a C47 hauling ass through a big open countryside. You go through the whole cycle – stand up, hook up, light turns green and GO GO GO GO, and out your stick goes to drop into the map. You can free look around during the whole sequence, and you change places in the stick on each initial spawn. However later spawns put aside the airplane sequence, and just spawn you in over the map right under the chute so you’re not waiting for the whole plane thing each time.

One thing I was worried about going in was how the airdrop was going to play out. I figured the Germans with a couple of good rifleman would kill everything before it hit the ground. While there were times where I was killed a few times in a row before I hit the ground, in general it didn’t play out that way. In fact each side as their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the airdrop. The Germans of course can see where the allies are headed (in general), and they can shoot them out of the sky. The Allies can’t shoot back while under the chute, but they do have a major advantage – they can see the entire map on their way in. They can see where the enemies are and maneuver to flank, or they can also see where the friendlies are and maneuver to join them. The Allies also can land literally anywhere on the map they can get to during the drop – roofs, balconies, etc. The Germans can also get up to most of the same places, but they have to climb up and can’t see what’s up there already. The Allies can also throw some pretty wild movements into the chute to make it hard to hit from the ground. One thing I have to note is how nice it is to be back to a game where each team spawns in a consistent place again – no more circle-jerk goofball spawning like in COD. The return of spawning sanity, the welcome change in gameplay due to the innovative airdrop, plus the uber-cool airdrop sequence earn a great rating from me. Rating: A


Gametypes

There are three gametypes we saw at the summit – standard TDM where both teams spawn on the ground, Airborne TDM where the US spawns in the air and parachutes in, and an Objective Airborne. This last one plays basically like Call of Duty’s DOM or BF2, where both teams fight for control points sprinkled around the map, and the US spawns in a parachute. The key difference to this gametype is each team spawns on their own side of the map, and each one has a flag on their side that can be capped by one player. There is a third flag in the middle that takes 2 players to cap, so it makes for a bit different play than DOM or BF2. Of note, there was no classic round-based obj/S&D style gametype. While most of us at AHGN won’t mind, this will be a significant blow to the tournament crowd and many public communities that like this style of game. Neither is there CTF, or some of the other gametypes we’ve seen in other games. At this point we have no information about how moddable the game will be, so it’s tough to tell whether community developers will be able to add new gametypes themselves, or what EA’s plans are for more. Rating: B


Weapons

Each side has the usual complement of weapons – M1 Garand, Thomson, BAR, Cold .45, Shotgun, Springfield sniper, and Bazooka for the US, and Kar98, MP40, MP44 (STG), Shotgun, G43 sniper, Mauser pistol, and Panzerschrek for the Germans. Both sides get grenades, though I didn’t notice any smoke grenades. The presence of the rocket launchers really seems rather silly to me, given the lack of vehicles in the game. However they are deadly little puppies as the splash damage will take out players at a pretty good distance – good room clearers for sure, although quite vulnerable.

Each player gets a pistol, grenades, and primary weapon, and you can pick up a secondary weapon along the way. The sounds, accuracy, recoil, damage, and rate of fire for the weapons all seem well done, historically accurate, and relatively balanced. In general the weapons seemed quite hefty and serious – much like Red Orchestra, in a good way. It really seems like you’ve got a weapon in your hands. I particularly loved the feel of the Garand, and the STG is a mean SOB. In addition, EA has provided for optional weapon upgrades that can be earned as you play along. For example the rifles can add a rifle grenade, and the STG gets a scope (though the recoil makes it hard to use, and personally I found it more hindrance than help – luckily you can take it off). The sniper rifles have some unique features themselves. The first one is you can (and really, have to) focus the scope, using your mousewheel. This provides that extra bit of difficulty to keep things from turning into a snipefest. Additionally, the bullets you fire from the sniper leave a small-but-visible smoke trail. You see the trail go right by your head if you’re looking in the right direction, pointing out the direction the sniper is. It’s not clear if this will be configurable at the server level, but we did ask for the ability to do so. Rating: B+


Health/Damage

The health system in Airborne is interesting, and not like games I’ve played before. Each player has a health bar broken up into 4 quarters. When you get hit, you take whatever the damage was on a 100 point scale initially. For example, let’s say you take 66% damage, the health bar will go down to 1 full quarter and one partially full quarter. After a short period of time (say 5-10 seconds), the partially full quarter will refill the partially full quarter only. So in my example, I will eventually return to 50% damage. I will then stay there unless I’m either hit again, or run over a health pack which will restore a quarter’s worth of health to me. The system was simple to figure out and understand, and draws a nice balance between the old healthpack system and the stupidity of auto-regen as we saw in COD2. As for damage itself, the system seems fairly similar to most other games and true to past MOH titles. A shot in the chest with a BAR gives 50% damage (after the partial regen). A shot to the head kills. Bashes on full-health players take 2 to kill, though the first one stuns them somewhat with shock effect. Reality players will probably want more damaging weapons, but it’s unclear at this point how possible it will be to configure that. Rating: B+.


Gameplay

The gameplay is somewhat of a mixed bag. Overall I had fun playing the game, and was able to mix charging, laying back, and defending and be effective at each. It’s not restricted, uber-realistic like Red Orchestra or Insurgency, but it’s not noobcannon run-and-gun either, ala COD2. It’s somewhere in the middle, really much like MOH:AA or Spearhead back in the day – comfortable and familiar and a good balance. One of the things it took me a while to get used to was the return of the AA/SH headbob movement. I remember how weird COD seemed at first after Spearhead (like you were gliding over the landscape), and the return of headbob is just as weird and disorienting - I thought was too excessive to be honest. Additionally the field of view (FOV) changes during the sprint->walk transition, along with somewhat excessive motion blur added to the disorientation at times. However if EA can make these items like head bob, FOV changes, and motion blur configurable, then I have no complaints here. There are some missing elements that will bother some people, like no spectator mode and no demo recording. Sprint is in the game, but there’s no stamina bar so you can run forever. The biggest missing element to me was the lack of prone. I must have hit my prone key 200 times out of habit/desire, and all I got was the voice chat menu. For snipers this will be a major loss, but for me the main area I missed it was to take cover when being fired upon. A few other missing elements we’ve seen in other games were true squad-based gameplay (ala BF2) as well as Voice over IP (VOIP). Rating: B- (mostly for the missing features)


Maps

What the maps lack in quantity (6), they make up for in quality – they are really well done. I had a feeling the game would have good maps just looking at the SP trailers, and I was definitely not disappointed. Great flanking options, the verticality factor, the small details, the incredible view in the distance, I can’t say enough about the maps – someone spent a lot of quality time on the maps and it shows. Given the likely size of the server population (20-24 is my guess), the maps are just about the right size. You get 3 old standbys – Destroyed Village, Remagen, and The Hunt. While ‘old’ maps, they are totally new and in many ways different than the originals. Its fun getting to places you could never get before and most buildings that were closed up before now are open. In addition we will see 3 new maps that are also SP levels. Hopefully EA can turn out some more maps by release, or during subsequent patches

Rating: A+ for quality, B- for quantity


Servers

Most disturbing of all for me was the lack of a dedicated server at the summit. All we had were listen servers with a maximum of 12 players, and the listen servers didn’t have a lot of configuration options in setting up the game. The EA reps said they were working on it back at the shop, and while they couldn’t make promises, said they were shooting for it to be available on release day, but as it wasn’t done they couldn’t speculate on how many players it would support. My guess is the most we’ll see is 20-24 players when the dedicated server is available. The major concern I have here is not only is there no dedicated server ready, but I didn’t get the feeling the team really understood the types of configuration, automation, logging, administration, and other details that are required to effectively run a multiplayer server. In short it seems like they spent a lot of time working on the game itself (and it shows), but no thought went into what it would take to actually make a PC multiplayer server actually work in real life. The PC guys (most of whom are also admins) detailed a long list of things that we’d need - features like the ability to control the quantity of the classes/weapons, to disable/enable particular weapons, to turn on/off HUD elements, spawn protection, etc. There was also no information on whether the server side would support multi-CPU servers. Additionally the linux port was just getting started. This issue is fairly typical for most games, so I expect that the linux server version won’t be available for some time after initial release. Most people will be consumed with playing the SP for the first week or so, but the release of a dedicated server for windows, and eventually the linux server, are absolutely critical milestones for the MP side of this game – without them the game is dead before it’s ever released, since GSPs and independent server admins won’t even be able to get a game going. I know EA is working on this and it’s expected to be resolved by the release date, but I have to be honest and call it like I saw it at the Summit - not ready for prime time. 5 weeks to go before release day (and probably 2-3 weeks before DVD production has to start), the dedicated server and associated components should be ready. Rating: F


Anti-Cheat

Unlike another well-known game publisher, EA has seen fit to include Punkbuster out of the box, and they said they were investigating providing hooks for DMW as well. Thank god someone finally got it right. Rating: A+


Ranking

There is a ranking system, which is how you earn the weapons upgrades I noted earlier. However it didn’t seem like that full-on ranked servers (ala BF2) was in the cards, at least by release day. Let’s all hope like hell it stays that way. Rating: B+


Configurability

This section really applies just to the client side, since there wasn’t a dedicated server piece. There were all of the usual configurations that you’d expect to see in your average FPS – video, sound, keyboard, etc. The one thing I really didn’t care for was the default controls didn’t strafe when you had ironsights up – they leaned instead. So many times I threw up my ironsights and tried to move and got lean instead!! The downside to this is there was no way to configure the controls to be like every other game, where lean is separate from the movement keys. I hope that gets changed going forward. Also you couldn’t set ironsights to toggle on/off – only press and hold. Inversely, you couldn’t configure crouch to be press-and-hold – only toggle. The basics were all there, but it just wasn’t totally fleshed out. Rating: C+


Modding

No information at this time, however it will likely be a while before we see a developer toolkit since EA is very dependent on Epic to produce a toolkit for the Unreal3 engine themselves. However I’m hoping that the awesome level of capability and support we see in the Unreal2.x engines will eventually be replicated for U3, and if so the development side of this game will eventually be squared away like never before. But important features needed to actually make modding work, like autodownload, HTTP redirect were not there at the summit, and really hadn't yet been considered yet by the dev team. This probably isn't critical out of the box since there's no development tools, but it has to be there when they are released - again more feedback we provided. Rating: N/A


Performance

The PCs we played the game on had the following basic specs: AMD Dual Core 3800+, with 2 GB of RAM, and running a single Nvidia 7900GTX with 512MB of RAM on board. When we got on the PCs they were set to 1280x1024 resolution, running on both widescreen and 4x3 flat panel displays. The video, detail, visual affects, etc were all first rate, as you would expect from the Unreal3 engine. However FPS was disturbingly low in most cases – averaging 30-35 or so on the PC I was using. The EA guys said they usually got 60s at the office using primarily ATI cards, so it’s hard to say whether this was the beta build we were using, the hardware, the video card drivers, or something else. We did raise FPS however as a major issue. The other major issue we raised regarding performance was the mouse lag I mentioned earlier. Target acquisition was exceedingly difficult for all of us, especially with rifles. At a distance it was pure luck to hit anything moving, and basically required the target to be perfectly still for several seconds while you lined up the shot. In my feedback to the developers I stated that between the mouse lag and FPS, the game was basically played from 30 yards and in using SMGs, because that was the only way to reliably hit anything. My rating is based primarily on the major impact of the mouse lag and low FPS. Fix those two things and this becomes a MUCH higher grade. Rating: C-


Immersion

Absolutely first rate. The sounds were AMAZING – all around, they were probably the best sounds I’ve heard in any game, hands down, with Red Orchestra coming in second. Whoever the sound designer was EA, give them a raise and a promotion, then use them in every FPS game you ever put out from here forward. The environment is detailed, believable, and very well constructed. I can’t say enough about how well the game sucks you into the environment. Rating: A.


Crack

When talking with Tom Hess one night over barley sodas, we were describing some of the fun we’d had during the day playing, and some particular situations that had us laughing and really enjoying ourselves. Tom said "You know what we call that? Crack. Gaming crack" (ie - it's addicting). So this section is named after your crack Tom. Smile

The Allies of course get the best part of all – maneuvering your parachute to land on someone and then kicking them in the head for the kill – the newest form of ownage and possibly the coolest ever. 100% crack. The bash is still there and still cool (in fact, the bash reminded me of Spearhead’s bash like no game since), but the kick to the head beats all. PK got the best one of all when he somehow managed to kick two guys at once who were standing next to one another – just awesome!

The ragdolls in the game are also fun, and you do get some funny situations. I saw one where someone had been killed and his foot hooked on something while he body flew the other way. His leg stretched out like plasticman for about 20 feet – pretty funny.

The best for me though was when I shot a rifle grenade at Rudedog. He happened to be on a roof while I was below him. The grenade hit the angled roof next to him, bounced up, and hooked him in the shoulder while he was crouched shooting at someone. The momentum of the grenade carried him off the roof straight into the air, all the while trailing the smoke from the rifle grenade – it looked like he had a mini booster rocket in his shoulder and he was lifting off the pad. He got 15 feet in the air and then the grenade exploded, and him with it. All this was happening while PK was being interviewed on camera, and it was all I could do to restrain my laughter so as not to ruin the interview. It took me about 5 minutes to recover to even speak. Crack I tells ya!! Rating: A


Epilogue

EA obviously spent the time, effort, and money to bring a group of us out there to see the game, and I really appreciate that they invited us, entertained us, and listened to us. As for the PC crowd, we gave them a lot of feedback while we were there and afterwards. There are of course a lot of things that we wanted to see changed, added, tweaked, etc. EA asked us for and we provided a detailed list of these items, along with priorities for what to focus on first. EA has taken that list and seems to have been diligently working on many of them, but we won’t know for sure until the game ships what was changed. In MANY discussions both at the summit and afterwards, the EA folks swore up and down that unlike the last PC MOH title (whose name I will not repeat here), they WILL support this game, and I truly believe they meant it. Tom, Blackhat, and the others from EA I met were passionate about the game, and want it to succeed. Our criticisms probably stung at times, and I’m confident many late hours have been spent working on them since the summit. However if the game isn’t selling the company may not give the developers that chance – just like last time. Time will tell, but if EA doesn’t support this game and once again leaves us hanging, I feel MOH:Airborne will be the final title for MOH you see on the PC. I certainly hope it doesn’t happen that way, because there’s a lot to like about this game, if only it gets some love, attention, and most importantly a commitment from EA to keep supporting and enhancing what was once a great game and one that could be once again with the right investments of time, people, and dollars.


Postscript

While I was writing all of this (including the epilogue you just read), the PC guys all got an email from EA’s Blackhat. In it he addressed the major issues we saw at the summit and that I noted above, specifically the lack of a dedicated server, the mouse lag, and the FPS issues. At the summit, the PC guys were largely in agreement that while the game seemed promising, the 3 major issues I noted were all deal killers. The rest of the items, while some people may or may not get bent out of shape, if you don’t have these 3 things addressed then you don’t have a game. Period. EA heard that message loud and clear from us, let me assure you. Now the last time I was at one of these (for the aforementioned previous MOH PC title), some of these same issues were there and we were also loud and clear to the developers then too – yet nothing got fixed and the game immediately tanked and is now remembered as one of the classic FUBAR games of all time. However unlike then, at this past summit I saw immediate reactions from Tom and the EA team. Within an hour or so of us first raising these as major issues, they were on the phone back to HQ, getting developers to look at code and start the debugging process. Within a couple of hours we were getting first reports on what might be the issues and that they were proceeding with changes to see if it would help. That definitely did not happen the last time. After the summit, we PC guys all collectively wrote a 7 page document, detailing what the various issues and additional features were, how they should work, and what priority each one had. Obviously the three things mentioned above ranked above all others. Today EA responded with what they’d accomplished in regards to the three major areas. Mouse lag – fixed. FPS – greatly improved. Dedicated Server – up and running. They also noted they were working hard on many of the other items we noted, targeting release day or patches soon to follow afterwards. Assuming all this is delivered (and I only couch that because of the last time we did this dance), then it seems like the community process is working as it should, and EA should be commended for taking the chance on us, for taking our constructive (and sometimes strongly-worded) criticisms to heart, and responding. When this game comes out, and if the issues noted are fixed and patches are released that add more configurability and features to this game, then we’ll be playing MOH:Airborne for a long time. Bottom line - I had fun playing it, and look forward to it with the major issues resolved.

 

Final Note

I'd really like your comments and questions on this article. Please post them in our forums .

 
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