This is a really tough title to review. In Joint Operations, Novalogic has done a phenomenal job of meshing together a massive online wargame using just about every vehicle and weapon ever constructed by man (except fix-wing aircraft, and most notably, tanks). Staged in various (fictional?) locations in Indonesia, JO pits elite forces from America, Britain, Germany, France, and Russia against scrappy rebel troops combining forces of land, sea and air into an almost seamless battlefield of destruction. With four multiplayer variants (I’ll go into those later) and five career alternatives (sniper, gunner, medic, engineer, rifleman) with endlessly customizable weapon loadouts, online battles containing up to 150 players lend a lot of replay power to this title. So what’s not to like?
The majority of the problems with JO, the thing that makes it not as much fun to play as it could be, often results from the players themselves. Can I blame a game company because its online game results in wonton slaughter, merciless camping, and wildly unbalanced teams? I suppose I can, because as a massive online game, somebody should have whipped out their crystal ball and seen some of these issues coming.
Issue #1 – Weekend Warriors
Not that I’m an expert by any stretch of the imagination, and I personally tend to lean more towards Call of Duty than Battlefield 1942, but I think running an army takes a lot of planning. The little things, like you guys are going to ride on this helicopter, and that guy over there is going to fly it. This group will come in by boat, and that one will take an APC. That’s all missing from JO in spades. Picture this: I and 74 complete strangers appear suddenly in a field surrounded by military vehicles of every sort. Some of them go for a helicopter; some go for a truck of some kind. It’s pandemonium. I get in a helicopter, unsure if the guy at the controls can even fly it, and he takes off leaving guys on the ground, who then shoot at us in anger! We’re not a cohesive fighting unit – we’re just a bunch of schmoes looking to shoot something. For the most part we don’t even know each other. Think of us as an army of one, multiplied by 75.
JO makes a faint attempt to rein in this chaos with a command interface of sorts in which you can request players join into groups which you can then give goals to such as marking waypoints for them to achieve. In all my playing no one ever tried to give command orders to me, and the few times I tried I was just ignored. Who’s in charge of this chicken outfit anyway?
Issue #2 – A clan with a plan
Inject into issue #1 a group of guys who actually do know what they’re doing. They’re not military strategists in the same league as Rommell, but they’re not up against Winston Churchill either. They work together and have a vehicle that they’re actually good at using, while the rest of us are busy falling out of helicopters and driving our APCs into rivers (both of which I’ve done, by the way). The havoc that these guys can wreak is impressive. It’s not their fault, but while the Novalogic servers keep overall statistics for each online player, there is now way to separate out the newbies from the budding future generals. I even hosted a game called “newbieville,” but found it instantly, unsurprisingly, full of serious predators collecting scalps (probably trying to boost their online stats), and with a game full of people so newbie that they actually consider themselves newbie, it was more lopsided than ever. The tutorial gives you the basic how-to control the vehicles and run around the game board, but it doesn’t really prepare you for actual combat. Nothing ever does.
Issue #3 – Good Morning, Campers
For better or worse, JO tries to make battles seem more realistic by actually giving you a home base, and the enemy a home base. It’s where your vehicles appear and where you and your colleagues try and regroup after a tough day of dying. It’s also where a single sniper perched on a nearby hilltop can killed dozens and dozens of people a fraction of a second after reincarnation. This problem is further exacerbated by an actual game issue, being that sniper scopes have essentially no drift at all even on maximum zoom. You may have the heart of a cold-blooded killer, but you’ve got the hands of a surgeon. Call of Duty overcomes this problem by altering your spawn point if it senses an enemy there. It’s less realistic, but more playable that way. And while BF1942 had this problem as well, it seemed somehow less devastating – perhaps I was just up against less dedicated snipers.
Issue #4 – Taxi!
Containing 150 or so people, the game maps are large, often huge in fact – Novalogic claims up to 50 square kilometers of area. I’ve never made a concerted effort to do so, but even attempting flanking maneuvers against the enemy hundreds of meters off course I never hit the edge of the map (though I did run into other people trying the same thing). This also leads to the unfortunate event of spawning about a mile or so from the battle. You could hitch a ride, or drive a vehicle of your own, but vehicles headed into the battlefield attract a disturbing amount of rocket fire, and the lack of serious armor together with the highly-effective Stinger missiles make this almost a form of suicide. I found that it was better to get out of the vehicle a few hundred yards off and run in, or risk being blown to bits as soon as I showed up at the party. So a game went a lot like this: spawn, drive a car for 5 minutes, run another minute or two, fire off a few shots, die. Wash, rinse, repeat. It seemed like I spent far more time traveling to the game than actually playing it. You have the option of staying where you fall and calling for a medic, which allows you to heal up and begin afresh at that spot. The difficulty is that whoever killed you will probably just kill the medic when they show up to help you, and waiting around for a medic for several minutes is actually marginally less fun than driving from your base back to the action.
Issue #5 – A Tenuous Existence
Boy, it’s easy to die in JO. Just a few bullets, or a grenade anywhere nearby seems to be enough to meet your maker. If you end up in someone’s crosshairs for even a second, there is very little chance of recovering. As you play you earn experience points, which as far as I can tell are not actually good for anything more than bragging rights. The equation that generates it is based on how many kills you have, how many assists, and how many times you’ve died, and other stuff – it’s all well covered in the manual. This number can be negative. I know, because my number was negative the first 5 games I played. Not that the learning curve of the game is particularly steep, but the learning environment is more than a little hostile. The server keeps your running statistical score, so once you’re in the negative hole as I was, digging yourself out can be something of a chore.
As mentioned previously, there are four multiplayer variants – co-op, deathmatch, king of the hill, and advance and secure. In co-op play, online players team up against bots to accomplish missions. In reviewing Novalogic’s Delta Force I quickly noticed that the AI was one that game’s weaker points – it’s no better here. The bots in co-op provide little serious competition, except that they’re all excellent shots, and few people online are playing co-op mode. Deathmatch is of course deathmatch, and king of the hill is the typical land grab. The most interesting mode is advance and secure, in which two teams fight over control of bases throughout the map, a team raising their flag if they hold control over an area long enough. BF1942 had a similar mode as well, but I found the combat here fiercer, playing almost like UT2004 Onslaught.
Technically they let JO out of the box a little early. Considerable frame stuttering occurred early on when there were a lot of players on the screen, but a series of patches has pretty much cleared that up for me. There is still considerably clipping, and I’ve had vehicles drive over and through each other on a number of occasions. Otherwise, the graphics are very good if you have the horsepower necessary to make them go. The water is especially cool. Underwater you can look up and see buildings and boats warped by ripples in the water, and I once saw a helicopter crash into shallow water, the slowing rotation of the blades causing circular ripples to spread outwards. Very cool! At range the sound effects are good, up close they continue to have a tinny sound that is very flat. There is no in-game support for microphones, so you have to resort to a dozen canned phrases (“Anyone need a lift?”) to communicate with other players (or type them out longhand). Most players would probably rather use the microphones.
Novalogic has made a really advanced military simulator, that goes so far as to calculate the weight of your weapons loadout and adjust your speed accordingly, and then reduce your encumbrance weight as you fire bullets and throw grenades (it even recommends dumping your weapons if you need to make a run for it to increase your speed). That’s all fine and good, but to a group of yahoos serpentining around a grassy knoll taking pots shots at each other, it maybe seems like too much, you know? I admit that I sucked when I started playing Call of Duty as well, but the rate of deaths per minute seemed more manageable, that I was building a little more skill each time. How much skill am I gaining if someone snipes me, or lobs a mortar into our camp, 2/10th of a second after I appear? JO is going to appeal very strongly to the BF1942 crowd, and of all the issues above, I expect only the lack of tanks will continue to irk for some time to come. As players form up into clans many of the balance issues to even go away, though I suspect that players who remain ungrouped in the future will find themselves holding an ever-shortening end of the stick.
The quality of your JO experience very strongly depends on the online crowd you find. It possesses essentially no single player game at all, just a handful of tutorials that you’re not going to play for more than 15 minutes. If you can find yourself an online crowd that works and plays together well, survive long enough to get a feeling for the weapons and vehicles, I think this game has a lot to offer, but many people will be turned off by the spawn campers, the simple ballistics, and the extreme ease of dying.