The Early Access portion of Steam makes for an interesting case study. Steam itself has been an absolute godsend to independent game developers, very much in the same way that online booksellers and eBooks have opened the doors to just about anyone that wants to put forth the effort to write a book. Steam goes a little bit beyond providing access, though, and the Early Access sale is a great example.
I don’t know what precisely Steam thought would happen with it, but in many cases it appears that Early Access is a combination of paying beta testers and potentially a much-needed cash infusion for the developer. A well run Early Access is easy to spot: there will be a vibrant and participating user community developing in the Discussions pages, there will be developers responding directly to bug reports and suggestions for improvements, and there will be frequent updates as the devs fix/implement features. If I don’t see those things, I usually check the comments to see how people are judging the product before I will buy into an Early Access. The combination of negative user feedback combined with a lack of response from the developer often indicates that the game is not ready and may never be. Those are warning signs that the game may never be adequately finished, although it will continue to be sold. The moral of the story is this: Early Access is not in and of itself a good or a bad thing, but buyer beware!
This brings us around to Soldiers of the Universe. Developed (SOTU) by Rocwise Entertainment, an independent game development studio located in exotic Istanbul, SOTU is a FPS that concentrates on the Turkish war on terrorism. Things are somewhat up in the air politically in Turkey these days, but they deal with the same types of violent extremism that we do. To defend itself against this malignant threat, the Republic of Turkey has a secret organization called the "Akinci Warriors" that specializes in secret military operations. We get to play as Hakan Kahraman as he takes over his father Selim Kahraman’s place as "The Toyga" of Akinci Warriors. In this role, we will lead various and sundry military operations to take his father’s revenge against the enemies of the state.
SOTU is an Early Access title and I was recently offered the opportunity to play with it. It very definitely feels like a work-in-progress, but even as such is shows a great deal of promise. The positive hallmarks are in place: there have been multiple updates, the most recent being less than a week ago, and the developers are active participants in the user community. That said, it is by no means ready for prime time. There are still quite a few opportunities for improvement.
At first (and second, and third, etc.) glance. SOTU looks like the goal was to develop something of a clone of the early Call of Duty games. This is most obviously apparent in the lengthy into scenes and the artistic style used in the load screens. Gameplay is also very CoD-ish in that the battlefield really isn’t a field - it’s a essentially hallway. SOTU is extravagantly not a sandbox. I think I may have found one, maybe two, opportunities to flank an emplaced and sheltered enemy. I also found at least one spot that looked like a flanking opportunity but served only to get me caught in a spot from which the only escape was suicide by grenade. The silver lining here, of course, is that I actually had grenades on me. These hallways don’t look like hallways, but when your only path is forward, well, they’re hallways.
The behavior of the AI enemy is also similar to CoD in that they don’t move around much. I can count the number of times I shot at a moving AI soldier on one hand. The AI seem to have only a couple of ways that they respond in combat: they stand up and fire off an entire magazine of ammo on full automatic until they run out of ammo, or they duck down to reload. I can’t prove this, but I got the distinct feeling that they tactics were limited to firing until running out of ammo, then just standing there until I got around to shooting them. I can’t find any other explanation for the very common case of standing two feet away from an enemy soldier who exhibited absolutely no interest in me or having a brutally negative impact on my personal health.
There are also friendly, yet equally stupid, AI. You play as a squad of four, and local co-op is available to provide real brains for those guys. If you don’t have any friends, you end up like me: a bitter, frustrated guy running around hoping that your AI "helpers" will help by staying out of your way. They seldom hit a target, and very much like CoD, they are very rarely the first into the fray. They just hung back until I made the first move, except on a startlingly few occasions when they decided to get out in front of me and act as human shields for the enemy. I took a look at the itemized list of updates and fixes and saw that the dev team are still working on improving the AI. I wish them luck as this is a major part of the game. Without good AI it’s not even a rail shooter, it’s a shooting gallery.
On the other hand, I found the weapons to be well modeled. The bullet physics seemed light on fidelity, but the recoils felt proper (the barrel jumps up when firing) and the visual styling, including reloading, looked pretty good. The world looked pretty average -not too bad, but not super great either. Ammo stashes are plentiful and easy to find, which offsets the inability to retrieve weapons and ammo from dead AI players. As far as cover, it’s a rudimentary squat/prone system. You can’t lean around corners, and there is no explicit ‘cover’ button mapping. It’s very intuitive, though - you run to a box, or a car, or a wall, or whatever, then squat down behind it. Very simple, very easy, and effective enough.
As I think about it now, I made myself a note to point out that there was no tutorial to be found, but I now realize that I never missed it. With the not-quite-slavish-yet-still-noticeable adherence to the Call of Duty model, I found the controls to be just where I expected them to be.
So, it is a solid foundation, but as I mentioned previously, there are some rough edges. First and foremost is the sound: when running, your soldier sounds like he has two plastic buckets strapped to his feet. I can’t even find the words to describe the sound of your AI squad running. I can testify that it doesn’t sound anything like boots hitting hard desert dirt, but that’s a very safe statement because it doesn’t sound like anything natural. I had been playing for a good 20 minutes before I even figured out what I was hearing - all I knew for sure was that it was an irritating sound. I hope they can find something better. It’s a small detail, but an important one.
I was also surprised by the distances involved. The air is hazy, thus making distant targets next to impossible to see, but the other guys clearly did not have that problem. I would start taking hits (and I like the reaction my character had to getting hit - he loses a little of his balance and it takes a second or so for him to recover before he's ready to aim well enough to shoot back) and not be able to see who was shooting at me. Many times I ended up seeing a muzzle flash off in the haze and I would shoot back at that. I often hit it, too. This long distance fighting may be by design, but I think I would like to have the AI closer to being visible if they’re going to take potshots at me.
Whether the things I disliked will get fixed or not is unknowable at this point. That’s the risky part about the Early Access model. Some things seem easier to fix than others. The sounds may be as easy as finding good asset pack. I suspect the AI will probably be the hardest thing to fix, but sadly one of the more critical. In either case, every issue I had seems resolvable, except one: the game is short. I went through the whole thing in only three hours. I’ve read through the dev roadmaps and I have seen no indication that this is an area that will be expanded.
As an Early Access, Soldiers of the Universe shows promise. The story was neither pertinent nor compelling to this provincial American, but to be perfectly honest I seldom pay any attention to the story anyway. This is an area of taste; some people want to know why they’re fighting, others, like me, are more mercenary about it all. There is a lot of opportunity to polish up some of the rougher edges in things like sounds and putting the ‘I’ into the AI, but the most notable and potentially long-term factor is likely to be the brevity of the campaign. There are many, many choices in the FPS segment and a three hour play time seems to be a notable weakness.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.