Conflict: Global Terror
Touchy subject ahoy.
There's bad timing and then there's Pivotal timing. Not content with somehow managing to release Conflict Desert Storm just before the second tussle with Saddam got underway (and getting the stunningly-subtitled 'Back To Baghdad' sequel out in time for the real thing), it's now inadvertently lining up its take on The War On Global Terror with breathtaking inappropriateness. Roger Bennett, we've got The Daily Mail on line one...
Obviously, Pivotal couldn't have guessed for a second that the most grotesque terrorist atrocity in British history was about to kick off right in the middle of its latest game's key promotional period, but the games industry's hardly renowned for treading softly on the eggshells of human tragedy. It will plead - with justification - that it's just a game that deals with the general subject matter, but we suspect the hacks won't let that get in the way of another chance to slamdunk this perennially attacked entertainment medium.
Back to basics
But getting away from the horrors of politically correct shenanigans, the fourth in the Conflict series finally promises to deliver on the huge potential this chart-topping franchise has shown ever since it first appeared three years back. Finally the team has gone back to the drawing board, listened to the criticisms leveled at it and addressed practically everything we thought was lacking in the previous three games.
Back then, although the game was always a solid performer with an excellent control system that brought the delights of tactical squad-based shooting to the console, it was always hampered by a poor graphics engine, questionable inventory issues, the horrors of respawning goons of death and assorted AI issues. That makes it sound like a bad game, but it really wasn't. It just was a brand that was getting tired with great unrealised potential. Finally Pivotal has had the opportunity to apply its design nous to decent technology.
According to the SCi-Eidos rep the game's engine has been "100 per cent rebuilt" and it shows. The level of detail in the environments has been hugely improved with a level of crisp texturing sorely lacking previously. No longer does the whole scene blur into an unrecognisable mess when you walk up to a wall, for example, and the old bugbears like fogging and draw distance issues no longer blight the scene. Elsewhere, some delightful animation blending techniques have helped to give the whole spectacle a far more convincing feel, with characters capable of making tiny adjustments to their crawling, walking and running stance and speed to excellent effect.
To give some indication of how much more the new engine can throw around, Pivotal claims there are as many polys in the soldier's backpack than there used to be in an entire character, and the closer you look the better it gets. Player faces, for example, are crisply detailed and recognisably different and their eyes - eerily - follow their target.
Almost everywhere you look there are improvements. Pivotal recognised its talents perhaps could be better spent on getting the game right, so the cut-scenes have instead been outsourced - and the result is the narrative thread already looks more engaging as result, with Bradley and co. being thrust to the fore.
But perhaps the most welcome and significant changes are to the control system and AI. Taking the latter point first, we got the usual spiel about the game having the "best AI you've ever seen" and that it has had to be "dumbed down" because it was too good ("I know every PR person says this but it's true!") and so on. But before the cynical sneers appear, there might actually be a grain of credibility in the pre-release superlatives. Pivotal apparently looked at the way people played multiplayer games online and wanted to replicate the same tactics real players used.
Dog and duck
And you have to admit, once you see it action the game genuinely does display a classy level of common sense and dogged realism. Enemies not only duck between cover points, but will actually edge around once they see you coming, always trying to keep themselves safe - even running away and taking better cover when it's appropriate.
Obviously the team did have to make a few concessions to playability, so the advantage is still noticeably with the player, but we've rarely seen such a concerted effort on the part of the enemy AI to keep themselves alive. Naturally, some enemies seem more gung-ho than others and will stand and fight just like players do in real life, but will apparently be aware of when their own health is in danger and take appropriate action.
Even the comedic "Conga of death" won't appear in the latest Conflict. By that we mean the senseless respawning idiots that appear one after the other like Lemmings, who fail to noticed downed comrades and wander into full view. Apparently enemies will now stay back and wait for you to appear rather than blunder into your sights. It's convincing stuff. We're told that it's all down to every enemy having not only the usual cone of sight, but a radius of hearing as well - meaning loud noises will attract them just as much as the sight of your four man killing squad hoving into view.
State of confusion
The nearest comparison we can think of in terms of AI is Far Cry, but as our man says: "Far Cry's was good, but all they really did was flank and run at you, they didn’t use cover," and he has a point. This is looking highly promising; a game where the AI doesn't just stand there waiting for you to kill them, where enemies not only take cover, but repeatedly change their cover points once they react. The best thing is the sense of panic and confusion - all this chasing around makes it easy to lose track of how many enemies you're after, and few games could ever claim that.
A few other minor changes will undoubtedly be celebrated - not least by us. Chief of these is in the more intuitive, streamlined control set up, where little things have been tweaked; like the ability to get all your team to follow you by default rather than have to select them one by one. Another is the ability to heal players without having to go through the mindless process of selecting the medipack than having to reselect your weapon. Another couple of small but significant improvements are the ability to throw a grenade to the precise point you want it to explode - making them far more effective and lethal in the process, rather than trying to judge the angle and the power on the throw etcetera. As our man protests "These are trained killers - they could throw a grenade into a letter box, so why shouldn't gamers be able to do the same at the touch of a button?"
On top of that, orders can now be strategically delayed, allowing a Rainbow Six-style go-code system that makes it possible to storm into a specific area from one side and have them follow via another, while the addition of a lean function finally brings the Conflict series into line with its contemporaries on that score.
Take 'em down online
For the online community, the addition of full online multiplayer action in all three versions will come as a huge bonus, possibly stealing a few players away from Ubisoft in the process. Although we didn't get to see it, we're fully expecting a mixture of free for all modes and co-op, allowing you to get together with some pals and enjoy the 14-mission campaign as a team, which as far as we're concerned is a deal clincher. Offline PS2 owners will have to settle for two-player split-screen, but Xbox - as usual - gets the full four-player experience.
In terms of what the setting is, not a huge amount has been revealed at this stage except that the terrorist threat comes from a bunch of white supremacist Nazis. The game flits about all over the world and takes in a whole variety of locales from South Korea , the Ukraine, a cocaine factory in Columbia and even the Kashmir mountains, meaning not only a radical variety in the scenery, but the types of enemies too. All round Conflict Global Terror is looking set to be a game to watch; and with the game due out for a late September release we're not expecting to wait too long to find out if our first impressions are correct.
Conflict Global Terror is coming to the PS2, Xbox and PC in late September from Eidos-SCi.