Sunday, August 16, 2009

All Aspect Warfare Review

All Aspect Warfare, developed and published by 3000AD on Gamer's Gate.
The Good: Huge planet with large-scale battles featuring lots of vehicle types, distinct visual style, varied soldier classes with unique items, 64-person multiplayer with competitive and cooperative modes, seamless campaign structure with no cut-scene or loading interruptions, much more intuitive than previous efforts
The Not So Good: Extremely high level of difficulty is discouraging, AI pathfinding issues when indoors, no scenario editor, bland base design and robotic enemy AI hinders shooting portion
What say you? Pleasing flight mechanics and passable FPS elements combine in this open-world futuristic military game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Open world games are all the rage these days, providing insanely large areas to explore and usually shoot people in. From racing games like FUEL to military simulations like ArmA II, restricting the player to a linear adventure is very passe. The latest game from PC stalwart Derek Smart (who gets needlessly attacked on many online forums, partly attributed to his frank comments and propensity to respond) combines flight simulation and first person shooting elements from his previous games Galactic Command and Universal Combat. Taking place on a single (but quite large) planet, you and your team are against all odds versus an alien foe that likes to shoot you without hesitation. Does All Aspect Warfare feature the deep but impenetrable gameplay of previous entries, or was 3000AD finally developed a game that's more appropriate for a larger audience?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of All Aspect Warfare are distinctly improved over previous 3000AD efforts, and parts of the game easily compete with any top-flight flight simulator or first person shooter. Highlights include the buildings and vehicles, as they both are very detailed and look quite nice. No two buildings look the same, and the vehicles are also varied and have some nice effects such as heat trails behind aircraft. While the interiors of the buildings are bland, each vehicle and plane has a slightly different arrangement and the 3-D cockpits look good. The visual style is distinctive, creating a plausible space setting overall. The terrain of the planet changes with latitude, creating varied environments in which to blow stuff up. All Aspect Warfare also has dynamic weather and time-of-day effects to further increase the realism. Bases do need more small objects, as there is really nothing between buildings other than the occasional boxcar and supply station: additional cover would also make the FPS mode more interesting. Still, I was quite satisfied overall with the graphics of the game. Sound is slightly worse off, as in-game dialog is not voiced and the background music is repetitive (but effective at getting you PUMPED). Weapons and planes have appropriate effects, rounding out an effective presentation that exceeded expectations based on previous efforts.

ET AL.
Being stranded on a hostile planet can mean only one thing: it is time to make things explode. The game features a sixteen-mission campaign that follows your deserted patrol of four as they fight from behind enemy lines. There is a story to follow, although since All Aspect Warfare lacks voice acting of any kind, you'll have to read along. The campaign takes about eight hours or so, depending on how often you die (usually a lot) and have to start a mission over. I died multiple times two minutes into the first scenario, as I was hit with a rocket from an unseen enemy. Nice. The missions themselves involve either infiltrating or escaping enemy bases, and eventually waging war against the enemy. Normally you will be assaulting enemy bases, defending friendly ones, tracking down important data, or scouting for friendly troops. You will also drive and pilot a variety of vehicles, and typically you will be given a choice as to which ones to commandeer. This is decent variety for a first person shooter, though the missions feature scripted enemy locations so replay value is lowered. Still, the open nature of the levels removes any linear restrictions to strategy, and there is usually more than one way to approach an objective. Unfortunately, the game could be more clear on what, exactly, your objectives are: you really have to pay attention to what your allies are saying through the subtitles, as the game only gives very vague directions on what to do and where to go. The equally vague HUD (with yellow circles of interest but no explanation on what they mean) and planetary map that doesn't zoom out far enough don't help matters. The missions themselves flow together seamlessly without load times or cut-scenes interrupting the action, promoting a realistic nature to the campaign. There is a time limit for each mission, and if you finish more quickly, you must wait around healing and buying shiny new guns (or leave the room and watch TV, as I did) until the preordained allotment has passed. Of course, the flip side is that the next mission starts whether you are ready or not, so I suppose it's better to have too much time than not enough. You can choose to be any of the four characters in each mission; they only vary on their weapon loadouts (which are customizable from a list). There are also two sandbox missions where you can fly around, although there is no real point to these as there are no objectives, dynamically generated or otherwise. Sixteen instant action missions round out the features package, although there are really nine that vary time of day or vehicles. The instant action missions are too instant, retaining the high difficulty of the story mode. What would be really cool is the ability to design quick battles: just place some forces for either side and let them at each other. It looks like the AI is in place to handle this kind of situation, but we are relegated to the instant action missions for more immediate conflict.

The game world of All Aspect Warfare is quite large: four hundred square miles of terrain covering a variety of climates. There is a lot of boring empty space between bases (there are no cities or points of interest), but not being restricted in your travels is a nice feature. The large distances between bases makes for long travel times if you don't teleport or fly, increasing the need for a skilled pilot. The map could also zoom out more to display far-away bases better. All Aspect Warfare allows you to set waypoints to assist in navigation and you can prioritize targets for your AI allies. Multiplayer features five modes of chaos: deathmatch, team deathmatch, competitive cooperative play (two teams of two trying to get more AI kills), tactical strike (destroy the enemy mobile base), base wars (combination of assault and domination: you must hold four places surrounding an enemy base for a minute), and nuclear winter (arm the opponent's weapon). The game supports sixty-four players on official servers that offer stat tracking (for experience points so that you can pilot advanced vehicles). You can add AI bots, but they will be hostile only and will spawn only when you enter an enemy base. While the instant action missions allow you to control any vehicle in the game, skirmish modes (and the campaign) require you to have enough experience to control advanced craft. In fact, marines aren't allowed to pilot the more sophisticated airplanes ever. While this is a realistic limitation that rewards in-game progress, you can be stuck without a pilot if you join an empty server. All Aspect Warfare does not have an interactive tutorial (which, considering the last one, is probably a good thing), so you need to print out the quick start guide, keyboard reference chart, and manual and read them in order to understand what's going on. Now, I will say that All Aspect Warfare is much easier to learn than previous 3000AD efforts, with a decreased number of crazy abbreviations and a more consistent interface between vehicles.

There are two main things you'll be doing in All Aspect Warfare: shooting (with some driving) and flying. The FPS aspect of the game is fairly conventional, although there are some unique features to reflect the futuristic setting. You are given a radar to locate infantry, ground, and air units, in place of a minimap. In addition, you get a medkit for health and fatigue, nutripacks for health, toolkits for armor, night vision binoculars, target designators (for AI pilots), shields, cloaking mechanisms, electromagnetic jammers, turrets, and repair units. Oh, and the jetpack, of course. In addition to all of these fun tools, you get a robust selection of weapons: four pistols, five assault rifles, two machine guns, three sniper rifles, three shotguns, two grenade launchers, three rocket launchers, and five grenades. Weapons of the same type vary according to damage and clip size. Most of these weapons require different kinds of ammunition, so you'll need to memorize the requirements or keep the list from the manual handy. Supply stations will automatically rearm and reheal you, though. To prevent against incoming rounds, All Aspect Warfare has four levels of armor (from kevlar to heavy) that absorb shots up to its limit. Head shots are always lethal, which makes quite a bit of sense. If you have enough experience, you can also construct aircraft and turrets at the aforementioned supply station. In order to traverse the large distances, you can use jump pads to instantly travel to any friendly or enemy base. It would be nice to teleport just outside of enemy bases, so that you aren't instantly inundated by enemy fire. The large distances between bases means that driving is essentially an impossibility, so you must load any vehicles (APCs, jeeps)you want onto a gunship (or tow it) and do it that way. The futuristic equipment enhancements make All Aspect Warfare a slight cut above cookie-cutter first person shooters.

Considering the pedigree of the developer, it's not surprising that flight in All Aspect Warfare is more enjoyable that ground-based combat. Pilots get an assortment of fighters, gunships, and shuttles to engage and eliminate the enemy, which vary according to speed, shields, armor, and radar range. The planes uses the same radar as the FPS mode, where you can cycle through targets and select enemies who are nearest or engaging you. Some missiles are fire-and-forget while others need a constant lock, and jamming is an effective counter to an incoming missile. The trade off is that employing your jammer removes any missile locks, basically putting you in a defensive mode. This makes for a pleasing game of when-to-deploy-countermeasures. You are given lots of information on enemy craft, including health, speed, and whether they are using countermeasures themselves. In the event that you are damaged, you can suffer partial or total loss of a number of systems, including the HUD, engines, weapons, or main computer. Another nice innovation is that all planes use vertical take off and landing, making these procedures a lot more straightforward. Flying around in All Aspect Warfare is pretty intuitive; it only took a couple of flights to get accustomed to the control scheme.

AI pilots are quite talented and effective foes, delivering some epic battles as you attack and defend bases around the planet. The infantry AI is hard to evaluate because of the lack of cover: they run towards you until they get into range, and then stop to increase accuracy. If the bases were more interesting, there might be some cool land battles with cover, grenades, flanking, and other assorted heroism. The AI lacks pathfinding for indoor areas (it's not even coded in the game), so it's smart to avoid these areas or your allies will be stuck on walls and doors. You can give you squad orders to escort, defend, attack, and proceed to a waypoint, but there are some limitations to the system, such as the inability to have order an AI pilot to fly you around. All Aspect Warfare has a high level of difficulty because of its realism: you are a small squad up against a foe with superior numbers, so it's not unexpected to die. A lot. The game can be discouraging, though, when you die in an instant action mission in the first ten or fifteen seconds (for the fifth time in a row). This is much more noticeable in the first person shooter aspects of All Aspect Warfare, where enemy units engage you from large distances with extreme accuracy. Because of this, the shooting is much less satisfying than the aerial combat. Multiplayer and the more scripted campaign missions counteract these shortcomings, and All Aspect Warfare is a game that will appeal to the veteran PC gamer.

IN CLOSING
All Aspect Warfare succeeds in being more approachable than previous entries by the developer while retaining rewarding, intense planetary combat. The flight simulation aspects of All Aspect Warfare are the strongest part of the game, attributed to a substantial pedigree: dogfighting and aerial combat are action-packed events with missiles flying and warnings beeping. There are a lot of vehicles to choose from, each with their own strengths. The initial learning curve has also been reduced, as All Aspect Warfare decreases the number of hotkeys and confusing abbreviations and makes flying actually straightforward for the most part. The first person shooter portion of All Aspect Warfare is less impressive, although it also has its highlights, namely the in-game items that grant neat powers like flight and cloaking. The FPS part falls short thanks to bland base design that lacks copious amounts of cover to make for more interesting encounters and simple yet inhumanly deadly AI (although the lack of said cover might explain this predictable behavior). That said, All Aspect Warfare is still a difficult game, usually because you are up against superior numbers (though the plot explains this) that are just as deadly accurate as you are. These superior numbers do make for some dramatically large battles that are a joy to watch, at least until you die. The axillary elements are mixed: large multiplayer battles with competitive and cooperative play are quite nice, but instant action battles usually result in quick death and the lack of an editor to create your own content cannot be ignored. The campaign story is just OK: the lack of voice acting really disconnects you from the characters and the missions themselves are typical action-oriented affairs with scripted enemy placements and rudimentary AI opponents. I like the freedom granted in the campaign missions, though, as you never feel restricted to a single approach or strategy. The lack of loading times or obvious transitions between missions is also a nice touch, as the fluidity of the campaign structures adds realism. But despite having a huge world to play in, having a large-scale battle of predominantly AI troops is an impossibility outside of the fixed scenarios. While the level of difficulty might reserve All Aspect Warfare for the elite player, there is still a lot to like about the game for fans of both flight simulators and action games.