Sunday, June 25, 2006

DropTeam Review

DropTeam, developed by TBG Software and published by
The Good: Intriguing weaponry, AI is accurate, varying planetary properties, deformable terrain, built for MODs, voice over IP, minimap targeting great for artillery, available on multiple platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux)
The Not So Good: Campaign is tedious, not many players online, AI not very smart tactically speaking
What say you? This futuristic armored Battlefield alternative has appeal resulting from many interesting ideas: 7/8

Way back in the dark ages of December, 2005, I previewed DropTeam. DropTeam is an online multiplayer shooter where you pilot tanks and take objectives. Sound familiar? Some people may say that DropTeam smacks of Battlefield 2 (and especially the forecoming Battlefield 2142, with the futuristic vehicles), and the basic concepts are the same. But how will DropTeam make itself unique?

DropTeam features detailed units, but generally barren environments devoid of detail. Sure, there are some trees, rocks, and grass scattered about, but most of the locations are desolate places dotted with roads and buildings. This may be on purpose, but when a “base” consists of a square, asphalt-covered parking lot, it’s not so impressive. The game overall looks like shooters that were developed several years ago. That’s not to say it looks bad, just slightly behind the modern, bigger titles. That said, DropTeam does feature deformable terrain, either as the result of artillery fire or an engineering unut digging trenches. A trench is a wonderful defensive structure to limit the amount of tank that's visible to the enemy. There is also a variety of map locations (urban, desert, arctic, mountainous, plains) that provide their own tactical challenges. Another thing DropTeam has going for it is smoke. The battlefield will get covered by thick, black smoke once tanks begin to die. This is something that’s completely missing from Battlefield 2, where a destroyed tank just turns black and then explodes (just like real life, eh?). Not only does the smoke portray a convincing battlefield, but it can also act as cover. I think that’s the most memorable aspect of the graphics. The sound is average: powerful blasts accompany weapon hits, a cockeyed groan is shouted by dying comrades: the usual fare. Again, DropTeam comes away with one memorable aspect of the sound: on the maps where atmospheric density is zero (meaning no atmosphere), there is no sound, because sound cannot propagate without a medium. These maps are haunting with silent explosions going on all around you. It’s a neat effect that goes well with the premise of the game.

DropTeam features three modes of play. The single player campaign is not that impressive, consisting of a collection of missions on various maps where you are greatly outnumbered. It can serve as a diversion from the skirmish game modes, but most people can skip over it and not feel bad about it. The main part of the game is the standalone and network games. They are the same except that standalone games are played against the AI (although network games can be as well). The missions take place on different planets that have different values for gravity and atmospheric density, which can have interesting consequences in gameplay (and render some strategies useless). The three game types are objective (attackers vs defenders), territory (capture buildings, like in Battlefield), and capture the flag. There aren’t any innovative game modes that we haven’t seen before, although creating new modes can be done through the game’s MOD support. Most of the game’s structure can be edited, so the developers are hoping the users will create some intriguing alterations to the game. The number of players online has been disappointing (hopefully that number will increase), so most of the games are played against the AI. The computer opponents of DropTeam are above average for an online multiplayer game. The AI is deadly accurate, can move while shooting, and obeys any commands you issue it. However, it doesn’t actively use cover or move in groups unless instructed to do so. Sometimes it flips over and it seems to congregate in objective locations, making itself easy prey for artillery. While the AI plays OK in objective and territory modes, in capture the flag they will routinely stand around, not doing anything, while you request support from them guarding or getting the flag. The lack of “thinking” the AI does is made up for in its accuracy: it will kill you, especially if you try to send a dropship in its vicinity. Overall, the AI is decent enough to fill the gap left by the lack of human opposition, but you’ll never mistake an AI player for a real player.

Unlike the Battlefield series, you can spawn anywhere on the map in DropTeam. All weapons are brought in from a dropship that can be shot down. This prevents spawning in hostile areas, such as directly over a flag. It also allows the player to spawn in sneaky locations away from objective locations; this is really good for commanders and long-range weaponry. In addition to your main weapon, you can call in turrets and sensors that will detect and engage land or air targets. These are a good idea, but the turrets are slightly underpowered and easily destroyed. You can spawn a whole bunch of them, but they are merely annoyances rather than real obstacles. I’d much rather see a smaller number of more powerful turrets that could effectively shut off a portion of the map to the enemy. I do like the variety of vehicles available in DropTeam, each having their own role on the battlefield. There are engineers that can capture buildings (very important on territory maps), command vehicles, anti-armor, mortars (light, medium, and heavy), light attack, main battle tanks, and recon vehicles. Each vehicle has one or more types of ammunition: AP (armor piercing), HEAT (high explosive anti-tank, long range), HE (high explosive, soft targets), ATGM (anti-tank guided missile, can fire after locking onto a target or use the crosshairs to guide it), or laser beams. Switching ammunition types is a simple button press. I thought I was experiencing online lag when switching weapon types with mortar weapons. However, someone explained to me that artillery weapons switch on their own, so I wasn't actually having any input at all! I guess I should RTFM, eh? The different vehicles each have their own advantages and disadvantages and are balanced superbly. Personally, I enjoy a support role with an artillery mortar, firing from large distances, raining down fire. There is a vehicle for every type of player: medium tanks, fast vehicles, slow behemoths, and control centers for those aspiring commanders out there. DropTeam should be commended for providing an excellent arsenal that’s also balanced and, most importantly, fun to play with.

Because of the varying amounts of gravity present on each planet, the game takes care of all the ballistics calculations. All you need to do is center your reticule on an enemy tank and press fire, and the game will automatically adjust the angle of your turret. Hitting moving targets is more difficult, so you can manually determine the range to a target’s future position by right-clicking on a location. Most of the maps of DropTeam consist of many mountains, so line of sight is an important aspect of the game. Most of the intelligence about enemy locations is actually gathered in the 3-5 seconds during which a dropship descends towards the surface to drop some new armor. Since the maps are so huge, targeting everything from a first or third person perspective isn’t adequate. You can also target any location by clicking on the minimap. This is an awesome addition to the game that’s great for long distance weapons, and since I mainly control artillery, I greatly appreciate it. Using the minimap may not be as accurate, but it’s the only way to fire over a mountain without hitting the mountain. In multiplayer matches, you are given a limited number of each kind of tank for the match. Since all the vehicles suffer damage to different components, you can (and will) have your engine destroyed but still be alive and possibly able to fire. Obviously, a stationary vehicle makes for a good target, so you can call for an extraction which will call in a dropship, lift your disabled vehicle from the map, and after an amount of time for repairs, the vehicle will be put back in inventory, ready to be used again. Thus, it is better to break off attacking when disabled, as there are consequences to completely being destroyed (unlike some other games). Commanders have a set of tools at their disposal on the tactical display (essentially a larger minimap) that are very similar to Battlefield 2. Commanders can issue waypoins and commands to AI and friendly units (such as capture facility, attack, and defend flag) and call in support in the form of artillery fire, electromagnetic pulses, smoke, and resupply craft. Communication with other team members is also made easy by DropTeam. There is voice over IP support (by simply pressing P), and your vehicle continues acclerating while you type in messages. The game has pretty constant action, especially when the teams are fighting over a small number of locations. The mix of dropships, fast vehicles, slow moving tanks, artillery raining down, and smoking wreckage is pretty cool. DropTeam feels like war, instead of a bunch of people just shooting at each other like in Battlefield 2. Because the number of objective locations is low, you’ll never be running around the map capturing flags without seeing any enemy units.

DropTeam has a good selection of unique features that makes it stand out as a multiplayer vehicle-oriented shooter. I've reviewed other tank-heavy combat games (Think Tanks and Battle Carry) and DropTeam is far and away the best, and can even compete on some levels with the likes of Battlefield 2. The graphics and sound may not be up to the level of higher budget games, but the smoke effects and silent space maps are distinctive. The game features an impressive list of varied armor to use, appealing to all kinds of players. Smaller additions like minimap targeting and commander support contribute to the overall excellent feel of the game. DropTeam could use some more game modes, a better single player campaign, and improved strategic AI, but maybe someone in the community will use the MOD tools and create some. On the Windows platform, DropTeam will never surpass Battlefield 2 in terms of popularity. However, DropTeam is also available for the Macintosh and Linux operating systems, and there is much less competition there. I think that DropTeam will get most of its players from those platforms that aren’t inundated with multiplayer shooters. Playing DropTeam against people on all three platforms speaks to the flexibility of the game, and hopefully more people will sign up for a tour of duty on far away locales. Although it may not have the graphical prowess of other games, DropTeam is nevertheless an enjoyable title filled with action from an armored point of view.