Preview by Tim Eller
Tucked away in the Western edge of Minneapolis, Minnesota – the suburban city of Plymouth, to be exact – is a game development/publishing studio called Destineer that’s been cooking up something hot in a climate known for its seasonally bitter cold. As a representative for Gamer’s Hell, I was treated to a sit-down session with two point men of the Destineer business conglomerate to discuss Close Combat: First to Fight, as a new take on an old genre using the design pragmatism of the Close Combat series. Peter Tamte, president of Destineer (who also played key roles at Apple, and Bungie during the Halo glory days), and Al Schilling, General Manager of MacSoft (a prominent Mac publisher division of Destineer) were on hand to do a little lockin’ and loadin’, showing me the ins and outs of this very unique FPS.
The truth of the matter is that First to Fight is actually a combination of a strong FPS foundation with some of the best Squad Tactical supporting elements I’ve ever seen. Using the basis of the Marine attack/defense strategies, which involves a tight crew and formation along with prudent and ingrained directives, is really what First to Fight is all about, and it made a difference to see it all in action. Right away, some would mention similarities to the very competent example of Full Spectrum Warrior, but there’s always the obvious fact that FSW is not a shooter. That one piece makes a big difference in how First to Fight is viewed, played, and felt, as I was about to discover.
Destineer set about to create a new experience three years ago, making the decision to build their own proprietary engine that would shape the unique gameplay of First to Fight (as well as a new Close Combat RTS called Red Phoenix, but that’s another story). Since early 2001, the Destineer development team has been working on an engine that would produce a startling realism, be capable of some of the most evocative next-generation graphics techniques including volumetric shadows, normal mapping, and specularity (the reflective property of an object or surface), and perhaps most importantly, produce a behavior model for the central Marine team, as well as the enemies they encounter. In fact, Peter mentioned that a comparable amount of time was spent working on how the Marine team would move, coordinate positions, defend and assist as was spent on the portion of the engine that handles the beautifully rendered environments.
Many specific goals were laid out in the making of First to Fight. Primary amongst these goals was a feel that was true to the Marine code of conduct and experience, which is what this game is all about. “One of the reasons why we wanted to include First to Fight as part of the new Close Combat series is because we wanted to communicate to people that First to Fight is not an arcade game,” Peter explains, “We’re after realistic battlefield simulations.” In order to produce the kind of realism in a game that would emulate the strength in training, focus in objectives, and steadfast principles of the Marines, Destineer Studios worked closely with actual Marine soldiers of various ranks to draw on real-world combat situations, team support and formation, and all the tiny details that make up a Marine fire team and the situations they may encounter. Indeed, Marines have been involved in the consultation process throughout the development process, and are encouraged to point out the smallest adjustments in order to bring the grounded experience of a trained Marine to life. First to Fight will, in the end, become a virtual training ground for Marines, as well as an entertainment package suitable for the general public.
Integral in the fire team stratagem is a progress-and-protection formation of the Marine soldiers called “Ready Team Fire”, which consists of a fire team leader, a Ready position, a Fire position, and an Assist position in the rear. This tactical design is meant to provide 360 degrees of security and protection for the fire team at all times. First to Fight demonstrates this behavior in the various terrains that the soldiers encounter with astonishing accuracy and sentience. The idea behind it all seems simple enough, but watching the Ready and Fire man cover an intersection as a team is impressive all by itself, not to mention the many other ways a trained Marine grouping executes a forward move with logical precision.
In the first of several situations that Peter and Al presented to me, the fire team was working through some beautifully crafted subway service tunnels, the whiteness of the wall tiles tainted with the faint blackness of grime, and bright lights accentuated shadows and intensified the claustrophobic conditions. At a tunnel intersection, I got to see the most basic slice of the Ready Team Fire formation, the lead moving forward, while the Ready and Fire men covered the intersecting tunnel from both directions, with the Assist man following up.
As the team crept forward to a subway platform, Al took some extra steps to prepare and direct his team. A simple right-click of the mouse button brought up a radial menu, which gave the leader pointed orders for his team, such as location suppression, cover, room clearing, smoke grenade, and others. Al directed his team to execute a room take-down, which involved the soldiers “stacking” near the hot zone in preparation for a quick entrance, at which point they waited for the team leader’s “go” command. This calculated approach punctured the defensive positions of the enemy combatants, and left nothing but a clean movement schematic for the fire team to follow. As the team leader progressed from cover to cover across the platform, the gunfire of his team mates could be heard coming from behind, amidst the noise of the confrontation. Yet Al (as the team leader) never wavered in his own shooting. No further directing was necessary, no secondary placement orders were given to the other team members regarding attack directives or self-preservation.
“The second [the player] has to worry about whether one of his guys is standing out in the open taking fire is the second he’s no longer doing what a fire team leader’s supposed to do. The fire team leader is supposed to make the decisions that are going to allow his team to successfully execute their mission. He’s not worried about whether his guys are standing out in the open, because he KNOWS they’re not. They’re behaving like trained Marines. They’re following their doctrine.” As Peter explains the “reasoning” behind the team members’ actions in the on-screen combat scenario, it becomes more than apparent that creating this simple behavioral template has cost them more time and money than most would spend on a lifetime of groceries. Placing that confidence in the hands of the fire team members in-game perpetuates the realism Peter and his team are shooting for (no pun intended).
Wasting no time on impressing the ease in which Ready Team Fire covers all angles and provides necessary protection, we moved on to what the Marines call the “fatal funnel” – the dreaded stairwell. Open in the center from the ground level up the many floors, the fire team is vulnerable from so many angles, it would almost seem impossible to plug the myriad holes of danger or death that any soldier would meet. But as Al slowly spun to show the positioned soldiers, each covering an exposed flank, it became clear how important, and intensely effective, the dynamics of the Ready Team Fire concept are.
In the next selected level, the fire team was removed from the closed quarters of hallways and stairwells and placed in an outdoor, urban setting in order to show new techniques, and fire team direction. From here, the soldiers were made to exhibit a double-column maneuver, an ideal setup for a four-man crew trying to work their way down a dangerous street. Splitting off two of the team members, Peter pointed out that as the pair of deployed Marines worked their way across the street the soldier on the left always covers the upstairs of the street opposite him (and vice versa), which is exactly what the Marine on the left did. As they progressed down the street as a unit, the Ready Team Fire rules remained in effect, as point positions checked advancing danger spots, and rearguard was covered by the Assist man.
Marines as a team are not islands unto themselves, despite their fierce effectiveness in situations most soldiers wouldn’t wish on their worst enemies. A secondary support system, called MAGTF, short for Marine Air Ground Task Force, is a “combined arms effect” used to supplement the squad, creating an intricate connection between the fire squad and its support. MAGTF, also available in that handy radial menu, can include supportive actions such as mortar fire or a gunship attack – two examples that I was actually able to witness. As a tool in combat, MAGTF plays a vital role in yet another psychological element to the strategy of Marine tactics.
“Marines believe that the driving force of all action in war is the human will,” Peter narrated, as Al attempted to flank a heavily guarded hotel, the street alive with gunfire. “In other words all men respond psychologically to fear, danger, [and the] extreme violence of war. That’s war’s most basic ingredient. The problem is that that ingredient is missing from every military shooter so far.” With as much as I’ve been allowed to see, it’s not necessarily a surprise to hear that the huge effort poured into creating the accurate behavioral model for the Marine fire team is also evident in the reactions of the enemy to their immediate situation. With this in mind, the onscreen fire team continued to attempt a flank on the hotel entrance, but was stuck behind cover for lack of a safe route to their final positions. Then, using the MAGTF contingent, the big guns got called in – support fire from 81MM mortar rounds.
As soon as the chatter off the radio abated and the orders were received and confirmed, a series of explosions rocked the hotel, though not with pinpoint accuracy. However, finely tuned targeting is not only unnecessary in this instance, it misses the point completely. As the mortar shell blasted an upper floor of the building, a flood of enemy combatants ran in panic from the entrance, easy pickin’s for the collected Marine fire team. Any that got away were, at the very least, no longer entrenched in that hotel, and the fire team could now move through what was originally an impassable urban death trap. This is exactly what Peter has been talking about all along, and the implications that this portion of the game engine exhibited will make for a whole new kind of virtual warfare. “You should be thinking about the way you’re going to apply tactics and firepower in a way that is going to cause the greatest impact on your enemy’s will. That’s the way the Marines really do it. That’s what we’re hoping players will take advantage of in First to Fight.”
Team dynamics come to the forefront in First to Fight, though not in a way that demands that the player engage in serious team micromanagement. As cited earlier, the engine that First to Fight is built upon will handle the relatively complicated routines and positions of the player’s squad mates. However brilliant the engine might be, making hasty or unnecessary moves can result in dead soldiers in a firefight. While Marines killed in action can be replaced from mission to mission, there’s a powerful impetus to avoid losing teammates. The remnants of an RPG element sneak under the radar here, as your fire team actually develops greater fighting skill, accuracy, and a stronger constitution in their independent psych profiles as they succeed through the mission objectives. In a game that places high stakes on the mental soundness of your capable cohorts, it becomes an imperative to minimize losses, creating an ever stronger group of Marines behind you.
What about multiplayer? Well, there are very few details about that right now, but I was assured that it would be available in a LAN environment, as well as through Live on the Xbox. With a strong emphasis on team-based play, one can imagine the tactical possibilities of teaming up with other online gamers and operating as an organic unit through very serious and dangerous situations. In the strong single-player mode, First to Fight will feature a series of missions segmented into progressive levels. And if you’re looking for something a bit more dramatic, you can work your way through a storyline, placed in a real city in the near future year of 2006. While no story details were presented, it was said that the events could easily evolve from real-world environments, and with the current world conflicts, there’s certainly plenty of raw, definitive material to build upon.
One should really expect some very dramatic backdrops from Close Combat: First to Fight. Indoor environments bled with the dirt and sediment of a place in chaos and aggression, or were lit and bent by the shadows cast along walls and floors. Outdoor streets cradled garbage and debris along the confining walls, dimly lit by the fiery orange of a setting sun. Marines and enemies alike look and move like the real thing, drawing the line between fact and fiction that much thinner. But as with most games being produced in this current generation, visuals will only bring the player in so far. Destineer has fostered the idea that a more “human” dimension will not only create a relation between the player and his fire team leader persona, but will infuse the hostile situations they encounter with the natural chemical responses we all feel in times of strain, defense, aggression, and panic.
With realism on the brain, and an invaluable investment in a game design and engine that will be, as Peter Tamte called it, a “first step” towards the future of game reaction psychology, First to Fight is shaping up to be a very prominent spearhead. Destineer is aiming for that unique play experience defined by in-game responses from the players and their AI adversaries. How closely Destineer actually comes to bringing this very polished team-based shooter to life may depend more on the player than the actual game, taking into account that the player will be in charge of how their team, and their targets, react and respond. As far as the game itself is concerned, three years of hard work and unmatched vision have already produced a game worthy of a retail space and some innovative accolades. For the rest of us, we’ll all just have to wait until Close Combat: First to Fight sees the light of day for Mac, PC, and Xbox in Q4 of 2004. Semper Fi!