I got to play a good chunk of Battlefield 5 over the course of Gamescom, and the grand scale shooter is coming together largely as you'd expect. But I also got to play another indie FPS on the show floor, one that nearly replaced any excitement I might have had for DICE's efforts.
Readers last week were introduced to World War 3 with a simple hook: the FPS that's trying to out-Battlefield Battlefield. And when I ran into various the team from Farm 51, makers of WW3, a couple of them admitted that was more or less the idea.
Set in a current conflict between the nondescript East and West - the team wanted to avoid any parallels with Russians fighting the United States - WW3, at first glance, looks like a more modern Battlefield 3 or 4 with a touch of Escape from Tarkov.
The biggest thing you'll notice upon hitting the deployment screen is a greater amount of customisation. Players were given one of six rough classes to choose from, each of which had two main weapons, a special weapon, a particular type of armour, various grenades, a gadget (options include first aid kits, RC scout cars), and "strikes", which are one of four benefits you can spawn over the course of the game using points you've earned from gameplay.
Those strikes could be as simple as a UAV - which you'll need, because without an UAV, the regular mini-map has almost no information. You'll still know where the capture points are, but you'll be flying largely blind until someone gets radar going.
There's the option for drone strikes and artillery, but strikes are where you'll also be able to call in vehicles - which is essential, since the few vehicles that spawn at the beginning of a match don't respawn throughout the course of a round.
It only takes about a minute to realise that WW3 rewards a more methodical style of play than most modern military shooters, but not slow enough to approach ArmA 3 levels of pacing. There's also a much higher focus on working as a team: you'll earn just as many points for completing objectives and following orders as a squad, as you would through regular kills.
The score screen at the end showcases your performance as a team more than your individual performance, and has highlights that show how many enemies were spotted, assists through suppresive fire, and how many orders were followed.
Case in point: each team has a special squad leader, which - at least in the Gamescom build - appeared to be chosen at random initially. That player has the ability to assign simple objectives to their teammates, like capturing a particular point.
The objectives then pop up neatly in the top left of your UI, and players will usually get between three and five at any one time. (The font is small enough that it doesn't interfere with visibility.) Players will also get other objectives related to their role: engineers can be assigned to repair various aspects of a tank (like the gunnery systems or optics; you can't repair a tank's overall HP), for instance. Most people at Gamescom were just getting to grips with the basic mechanics, however, so I didn't get much of a chance to see the squad leader mechanics in great detail.
What's nice, however, is that you don't have to be resigned to a shitty commander. Because you earn more points for completing team objectives, and those battle points are necessary to call down vehicles and various drones and strikes needed to push through a point, having a leader who gives a shit is kind of important.
So Farm 51 are working on a system for getting rid of bad leaders. Michal Dyjas, WW3's project manager, explained that the team was working on a system where the squad would be able to dismiss their squad leader if they ignored too many orders.
Troops on the ground, you see, can recommend a target if they think it's in their best interest. The squad leader doesn't have to agree, but if they ignore too many orders, the idea is that users will be able to vote them out so they can get a more effective leader. (The game's lead programmer added that once an order has been given, the squad can't repeatedly request new orders, which should prevent trolls from spamming the leader every few seconds.)
It's not the kind of fundamental detail that changes a match. But it's a thoughtful touch that adds a little extra bit of meaning and purpose to a role that shooters have traditionally overlooked, and it's those little details that really made WW3 stand out.
Take proning. It's important for a game like this - who doesn't like sniping people from under a tank - but the last thing you want is to be caught off-guard from behind. You have to get up from prone, turn around, and hope that you haven't been put out of your misery in the process.
WW3 has an answer to this. If you're proned, and you want to quickly turn around, a double tap of the strafe buttons will flip you on your back.
It's such a smart little inclusion. It's the kind of thing that makes you go: why hasn't someone done this before.
There's other little things too that stick out. Every time you - or anyone nearby - gets shot in the helmet, the bullet collides into the helmet with a solid thud. It's a meaty sound that's got a great ping to it, and it feels good when you land a headshot yourself.
On the flipside, when you do get taken down, the death screen gives you a neat little outline showing you precisely where you took damage:
You'll notice that there's a "strike face" armour plate outlined on the body there. You can change and customise the level of armour in your loadout - more on that later - but you can also swap out your weapon ammo as well, if you're having trouble dealing with heavily armoured enemies. It's not just an assault rifle either: there's alternate ammo types for RPGs, tanks have got three different types of shells too.
Perhaps one of the coolest touches is the free-look camera. If you're playing a game like PUBG, you'll use this a lot as a way to scan the horizon for enemies. It's important in large-scale shooters as well, but WW3 has two neat twists.
Firstly, if you're holding down the button, the game will let you continue firing at a spot while you look around. It's basically in place so you can lay covering fire for allies while scanning the vicinity. Secondly: when you let go of free-look, your aim will snap to the current centre of your view - so if you're looking around and spot an enemy, you can let go of a button and immediately start laying fire on them. WW3 will even shift your aim across if you were already laying down covering fire elsewhere.
They're the kind of touches that are manna from heaven for oldschool Battlefield players. Other bits that are neat: if a grenade is thrown nearby, and your HUD and UAV are fully working, you'll get one of two indicators. Red is pretty obvious - get the hell out of there - but if the grenade icon is yellow, then you know you're a safe distance away.
Dawid Biegun, the game's PR manager, showed me an even neater addition in a closed-doors session. While tanks are meant to provide a dominating force on the battlefield, and infantry are equipped with rockets and other strikes to combat that, there's also another way they can fight back.
Vehicles essentially have two main modes of health: the tank's overall HP, which can't be repaired, and the health of their communications optics, gun sights, and the gunnery controls themselves (or remote controller weapon station, RCWS). Engineers can repair the latter three at any point during a fight, and infantry can also target each of the systems on a tank - if they know where to shoot.
A quick burst from a rifle is all that's needed to knock, say, the gunnery sights out. You can still shoot with the regular camera, of course, and a tank can't be brought offline by Leroy Jenkins and his AK-47. But the agency is the cool factor here: while copping a tank shell is a one-way route back to the deployment screen, players on both sides of the conflict will have tools that they can respond with. If you're out of RPG rockets, you can still try and even the playing field by knocking out the gunnery sights, dropping a smoke, and giving the rest of your team a little more breathing room.
All of that is neat in practice, but underpinning all of this is a broader metagame between the two factions. Whether you're playing a game in Warzone - the basic cap-and-control mode - or Recon, WW3's take on battle royale that's in development, players' battle points will be converted into a currency that can then be spent on an interactive map in between battles.
When you open up a game of WW3, you get a shot of the globe with each of the game's maps. There's four at the moment: Warsaw, Moscow, Berlin and Somlensk, the latter of which is designed for tactical vehicular combat.
From there, users can choose one of the three game modes to play in: 32 or 64-player Warzone games, or the 32-player Recon. Outside of that, players can spend their battle points within parts of the map to help their faction.
In Berlin, for instance, you can donate some of your battle points towards the command centre which will give players 400 battle points every time they start a match on that level. Other benefits, if your faction takes control of the area, might be a fractionally larger magazine size.
Bilcyznski explained that any of the benefits will be fairly minor, and seasons will rotate out after every month or so. What kind of rewards players will get isn't sorted just yet - WW3 is only heading to early access this year, late September save for any delays.
A shot of the deployment screen.
The customisation wasn't available in the playable demo, but the developers gave me a brief preview in a separate build. Basically, everything you want can be tweaked and customised, some of which is cosmetic in impact, while others have tangible gameplay effects that you'll want to consider.
While you don't have to have a tank as one of the four strikes you can call down in-game, as an example, you have some agency about precisely what kind of tank arrives on the battlefield. If you want a longer barrel that packs a heavier punch, you can do that - although it'll cost more battle points to get it into the field as a result. (Adding more weight to the tank means you'll also need a beefier engine; you can add that too, although that also costs more BP.)
All in all, you can adjust the camouflage, RCWS turret, the armour on the chassis, active armour, the engine, what grenades are equipped, the barrel, and more. The same applies for soldiers too: you can swap out your camo, which armour plate you have equipped, your helmet, whether you want an equipment pack (which can repair your body armour) or med packs, which gadgets you want (C4, first aid or anti-tank mines?) and so on.
And, because of course, this applies to the weapons too. Iron sights, stocks, barrels, magazines, ammo types - you can swap the lot out. There's actually a neat roulette-esque transition for all of the customisations: hit a button and it'll cycle through the available kit until it stops on a new configuration. (It took two days to develop, the lead programmer explained, after a request from the company's CEO.)
Customising your weapons and character isn't new, of course. But having this extra depth of customisation, especially when it comes to the score streaks and specifics on the vehicles you bring into the battlefield is. It's the kind of things oldschool Battlefield fans dreamed about, which is a problem for DICE.
At the top of the article I mentioned that Battlefield has a problem. It's not that Battlefield 5 is in trouble, that it's a bad game or DICE has failed in any regard. I spent over an hour with Battlefield 5, and I'll write a bit more about it later this week, but the game's coming together real well. It's a technical marvel - particularly what DICE is doing with the RTX effects - and the sense of scale and chaos on the battlefield is unparalleled.
But the game has grown to a point where it might have drifted away from what I loved about the older Battlefield games, like Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3.
That's most apparent when you compare WW3's Berlin map - what people played at Gamescom - versus Rotterdam, one of the first two playable maps in the upcoming BFV beta. Rotterdam is incredibly wide-open, with a huge sense of scale and long lines of sight that leave players exposed to all manner of angles.
It's a faithful recreation of the city during WW2, partly thanks to the historical research that DICE does for the Battlefield series. But - and I suspect I'm not the only one here - there is a point where realism does get in the way of gameplay and old-fashioned fun.
Specifically: I don't want to be exposed to half the enemy team at any given moment just because I've decided to leave a building, or I'm trying to run along the surface of a bridge.
WW3's Berlin reminded me of what a lot of the old Battlefield maps were like. It's an urban environment, with a lot of tight corners and a lengthy outdoor area that's much more exposed. There's indoor segments that can be a nightmare for firefights, but those areas also don't leave you at the mercy of tank shells and sniper fire from 500m away.
Put simply, I've got more choice in where I choose to be exposed. I don't feel like I'm battling chaos all the time. I feel like I'm embracing it when I need to, or when the team actively chooses to. For me, that's more fun.
And that's in a nutshell why I think Battlefield has a bit of a problem on its hands. Sure, the Battlefield franchise has changed and evolved over the years. It's still going to be a massive success and DICE are still capable of building things that no other studio can.
But there are different ideas of what large scale firefights should be. World War 3 is an alternative to Battlefield's vision of war. It's not going to surpass BFV or what DICE does in terms of scope, polish or support. The problem is that games like WW3 will remind gamers, particularly those who have been wholly unconvinced of BFV's direction, of where the franchise has been - and where it could have gone.
They're the kind of people I spent many hours at LANs with: the ex-infantry folk, oldschool Battlefield fans, Call of Duty players who preferred hardcore mode only. They're the kind who will look at Farm 51's plucky indie and will think, "Geez, I wish Battlefield did more of this."