"It just feels like we're dying for nothing, trying to take this base," lamented one of my teammates during a multiplayer match of Squad. "Well, that's war," replied another in a remarkably somber tone. "A whole lot of dying for nothing."
Squad is a large-scale (current max is 72 players, but the devs are aiming for 100) multiplayer military shooter from the creators of popular Battlefield 2 mod Project Reality. It aims to straddle the line between realistic-ish games like Arma and more chaotic experiences like Battlefield. The result? Steam's latest darling, a game that hasn't left the service's top ten sellers since it launched earlier this week.
The above anecdote from my relatively brief time with the game encapsulates a few of the things that make it unique. Foremost, players talk a lot. It's called Squad for a reason: players are divided into squads, and if you stray from your chatty crew of manly battle men, you'll probably get out-manoeuvred and shot full of more holes than a politician's speech. This is a game where you need information. The other team is almost certainly keeping abreast of your actions and strategising to stay one step ahead. A Squad battle is a series of single steps, and if your team's multiple squads don't coordinate, those steps can add up — leaving you in the dust.
Which brings me to the second key aspect of my little story: Squad's got a bit of a learning curve, and it's easy to lose in lopsided fashion. In the aforementioned game, my squad just couldn't figure out the other team's strategy. We knew they were outmaneuvering us, but we didn't understand how, so we couldn't prevent it. They ended up pushing us out of the base altogether and ultimately taking one of our spawn points. My team still won the match, but not because of anything my squad accomplished.
In another match, however, my squad literally never had to do anything. We were defending one of our team's bases — meticulously setting out defences like barbed wire and tyres (for cover) — but nobody ever showed up to our soiree. Our teammates in another squad had the enemy so thoroughly stymied that we ended up just sitting there for half an hour, firing RPGs at tumbleweeds and listening to the popcorn-like pitter-patter of gunfire on the horizon. If nothing else, it's an alright way to get to know people. I stuck it out, hoping for a moment of glorious climax, but instead I got disconnected from the server. Apparently that's not an uncommon problem.
In some ways, though, long waits — whether you're building up defences or trying to locate an enemy with a Batman-like hide-and-seek capabilities — contribute to Squad's best moments: when shit finally hits the fan. Suddenly bullets are buzzing like a hail of angry bees, and you're clutching your helmet behind cover as your vision blurs. Meanwhile, your allies are barking orders and information, and you're terrified — both because of social pressure and, you know, guns — but at some point you've just gotta act. Playing hero is never a great idea, but you know what they called the guy who did nothing at all? Me neither.
You pop from cover. After more than half an hour of a match, you finally get one kill. Then you get shot so dead that tiny ghost vultures start circling your soul. It's exhilarating. Also mildly frustrating.
But also... encouraging. Squad — with its sheer skirmish size and number of mid-battle options — can be daunting, but it's not wholly overwhelming. When I heard my squadmates talking about all the kills they got while finally pushing our enemies back from an entrenched position or base, I felt like — if I just got a little better — that could be me. In the meantime, being a cog in the machine of these battles is fascinating. It's fun to absorb all the tactics, to try and understand why the other team massacred us or vice versa.
Bear in mind, Squad is still in Early Access, so there's some jankiness — lag, disconnects, some times when controlling it doesn't feel amazing — but I already like what it's doing. At $US40 ($56), it's not exactly cheap, but if you like big shooters and big brains, this one might be worth the investment. As for all the dying, well, it might feel like it's for nothing, but give it some time. Win or lose, you'll probably walk away with an interesting story. That's something, right?