Its Not COD.
Im pretty awesome at First Person Shooters. Im not normally so blatantly narcissistic, but then again I dont have that many other skills worth bragging about so youll excuse me having a bit of a gloat over this one. Granted, I havent got the reactions I had when I played my first online FPS, Team Fortress: Classic, back around 98. Its probably fair to say I peaked around 2002 when I was the king of Soldier Of Fortune 2, single-handedly decimating a team of five and defusing the bomb with two seconds to spare. The downward spiral may be well underway, but Ive still got it.
What Ive noticed change the most, in almost-subliminal response to this skill shift (I refuse to say decay), is my choice of game. Many of you will agree that an FPS isnt just an FPS; from the epilepsy-inducing frag-fests of Quake, through the frantic CQB skirmishes of Modern Warfare, to the comparatively sedentary tactical battles of Bad Company 2, shooters cater for a wide range of interests. Much as Ryan Giggs has grown from the frighteningly-quick winger of his teens into an intelligent central midfielder approaching retirement, my increasing experience coupled with the fact I can no longer rely on the muscle-memory I had at fourteen has led me to adopt a more thoughtful approach to my gaming and thus look to more though-provoking titles.
The Battlefield series has long provided the tactical gamer with large-scale, squad-based games that mix infantry tactics, armoured support and air assets to great effect. Dedicated commander functions including UAV coverage, supply drops and even sub-net radios for formal communication links further serve to increase the realism of games that manage to appeal to the purist and the casual gamer alike. But just how far can you take this realism? And can you go to the extremes of warfare representation while still keeping the entertainment factor alive?
In 2004, during the lead-up to the release of Battlefield 2, many people began planning ways in which they could tweak the soon-to-be-released BF2 engine and generate their own playable modifications. One small band of avid gamers, modders, military enthusiasts and serving military personnel came up with the idea of developing the engine to see how much more realistic it could go, and whether such changes would benefit gameplay. Their endeavour was christened Project Reality, and would prove to be one of the most ambitious, complex and successful community mods since Counterstrike.
One of this small band of pioneers is WO2 Craig Turner of the Light Dragoons, who currently trains AFV crews in Lulworth. To the online community that follows Project Reality, he is known as UK_Force (or, more formally, [R-DEV]UK_Force), and his name is whispered with an almost deitic reverence. As he explains, the original scope of Project Reality wasnt quite as wide as the current product would suggest:
Project Reality was initially made up of a small team headed up by Requiem, with myself and around 4-5 others. The team comprised of all Game Developers, apart from myself who came on board as a military advisor. Project Reality was only a temporary name, but it stuck. It was initially planned to create a little more realism in BF2, with the removal of crosshairs, and some very basic gameplay tweaks. We never expected to be where we are today, and that is all down to our Community.
At first, the changes were small and relatively simple. By removing the crosshairs, hit direction indicators, and other elements of the display the game was made subtly more challenging. In the five years since, Project Reality has grown exponentially. Indeed, in terms of requirements creep, only a military-led development project could account for such expansion and diversion!
In total we now have around 150 people working under the Project Reality Banner. Not all of these are purely developers, but we also needed staff to run different parts of the project; media, artwork, forum moderators and so on. With so many people on the staff list, it takes some management. Therefore we have a management team, which are made up of the Leads in each category, and then at the top we have the Senior Management, made up of myself and Jaymz for the everyday running of the team with a further 2 as Web Admins, and General IT management. I think the way our team has bonded is great, as not many Mod teams get together each year in real life to meet up, have a beer and get to know each other. That's something that over the years has created true friendships.
Project Reality now boasts a huge collection of custom avatars representing people, weapons and vehicles from British, American, Canadian, German and Israeli forces, along with Iraqi militias, Taleban warriors, and Afghan and Arabic Insurgents. Players choose their combat roles based on a huge collection of kits, which can be as simple as the basic infantryman kit or as complex as the Officer a role which allows the player to mark enemy locations on the map and initiate the construction of emplaced weapons and other facilities. Apart from basic trucks and jeeps, vehicles require dedicated crewman (or pilots, for aircraft) to operate as drivers or gunners. Each vehicle has been lovingly recreated to reflect realistic performance characteristics of handling and speed, even to the extent that the British vehicles sounds are taken from expert recording of engine tones and weapon effects. There is no mistaking the rumble of a Challenger 2 approaching your position!
If you were to jump straight into a Project Reality game with no prior warning, your first firefight (if you lasted long enough to spot your enemy and shoot back) would immediately throw up a number of gaming aspects not generally seen in your other shooters. The first and most simple thing would be your accuracy, which will almost certainly be pants. As I mentioned earlier, you dont get any crosshairs until you bring up your weapon and use the (perfectly reproduced, weapon-specific) sight reticule. That in itself isnt new, but youll soon find that regardless of how pixel-perfect you place your reticule you simply can't hit. Every weapon is subject to an accurately-modelled dispersion pattern, and bullet drop is calculated over certain ranges. Stance and movement also affect accuracy, requiring you to pause before firing in order to settle into a stance and thus ensure minimum dispersion. Certain weapons, like sniper rifles, designated marksmen rifles, and automatic rifles, come equipped with bipods that can be deployed to increase your accuracy significantly but if you move with a deployed weapon, you wont be able to hit Beth Ditto with a custard pie. Firing from standing is hard enough; firing on the move is nigh on pointless.
Luckily for you, everyone else gets the same penalties. Aimbots in Project Reality are almost entirely useless, as the rapid movement to aim increases your dispersion to the extent that, regardless of the accuracy of your crosshair, you still wont hit. This means that, unless you happen to run into view of one of the only two snipers on the enemy team (and they will only ever be able to have two, which is refreshing in itself), the chances are you wont immediately get nailed. Instead, youll hear the very real crack and whizz of rounds flying around you and pinging off the ground at your feet. Again, this doesnt sound all that novel but Call Of Duty never modelled suppression. If rounds are flying near you, or explosions go off in your vicinity, your screen will blur and grey out. This destroys your situational awareness and your ability to aim, forcing you find cover and hope your squad can return the favour, or pop smoke and leg it. A good Automatic Rifleman, or fire support from an APC, AFV or weapons platform, gives you plenty of options to sustain effective suppression on enemy positions and frees up your squad to outmanoeuvre your enemy. Even if your target has the digital cojones to stand up in the face of a .50Cal (not uncommon in most FPS games), he still wont be able to see you enough to shoot back accurately.
The final thing youre likely to notice during your first firefight (or the first thing, if you play it as well as I did) is just what happens when you get hit, and when you die. As mentioned earlier, one of the first things changed in PR V0.0000000001 was the damage of various rounds. The idea was to stop you running off after taking three rounds to the chest. Now, all but the most minor grazes result in you bleeding out. You are still mobile, but your screen goes red, you make a lot of filthy-sounding pain noises, and if you dont get treated quickly (either by your medic or using the field dressings in your inventory) you will collapse. Further to this, you have to remember that maps in Project Reality can be two or more miles across, which is a lot of terrain to cover if you cant get a lift. To give you a little bit of a chance, the game generally doesnt kill you straight away. By and large you will be wounded, looking like a corpse to your team-mates and unable to perform any action other than call for a medic. Many games have revive opportunities, but I dont know of a FPS that lets you sit like that for over ten minutes! Assuming you have a well-balanced squad with a medic on hand, you can be revived and back in the fight quite quickly although if you die again in the next two minutes you are properly dead and need to respawn all those miles away back at the base. As such it is often more time-effective to wait five minutes for a medic than respawn and run back especially if that means crossing dangerous territory on your own again.
All this can sound like too much hard work, and if you were to continue playing the game as a lone-wolf you'd soon get fed up of it. But Project Reality is not made to be played alone. Even those players using the rare sniper kits are expected to provide a constant stream of intelligence, the location of enemy positions, and targeting information for indirect fire and close air support. This focus on communication and teamwork is core to the enjoyment of the game, and key to your success. Through a combination of intra- and inter-squad leadership and cooperation it is possible to establish Rally Points; temporary spawn locations that a squad leader can deploy wherever they please. Drop one in a defensible position before moving into contact and you're guaranteed a much shorter jog back should it all go Tango Uniform.
Already you're seeing a different level of squad-based interaction than any other FPS that the market is providing. The thing is, it really is only the beginning. As you get into more matches you'll soon find squads being set up to fulfil specific roles that you'd never get elsewhere. Troop transport helicopters are often filled by skilled pilots who have practised with the complex flight physics that Project Reality has applied, and happily spend the entire match moving infantry squads around the map. Logistics teams shuttle valuable supply crates to the front line, and use them to construct Forward Operating Bases, barded wire, fox-holes, emplaced HMGs and TOW launchers. This gives your team defensible positions in which to resupply and respawn much closer to the fight than your main base, and with more continuity than a Rally Point. You can also build mortar pits, the operation of which is particularly realistic and annoying. As a mortarman you are simply given a compass, an elevation indicator, and a calculator to judge angle based on distance to the target. You depend entirely on the accurate reporting of target information and real-time feedback of shot correction, with effective command from an experienced Fire Controller, to be able to provide accurate indirect fire support to your team. As with the other roles previously discussed, you will often find people willing and happy to fulfil this role for the duration of the match.
Last year The Onion did a spoof article on the imminent release of Modern Warfare 3, a game offering such realistic missions as stagging on for a couple of hours, and taking a dump in a bush. Although Project Reality is yet to include a supply of zip-lock plastic bags in the sniper kit, its probably the closest thing youll get to such a game without veering into VBS2 territory. One of the first matches I had with a proper squad, communicating well over VoIP and generally being effective, lasted two hours. In that time I scored one kill. One. Granted, it was a 300m shot with an AT-4 *********** of a BDRM, but by most gamers standards thats a pretty uneventful match. The thing is, at no point was I bored. When you use radios through necessity, but are experiencing large periods of relative inactivity (and there's no CSM screaming about clear nets or voice protocol) you'll find there's plenty of banter to fill in the gaps. The Project Reality community are generally quite friendly and welcoming, providing you ask for advice and do as suggested, rather than attempting to practice your barrel rolls with the only Apache in your base. It's also the only game I've played since I was 14 that has made me consider the benefits of joining an online clan.One of the sheer joys of Project Reality is the total lack of pre-pubescent trash-talk. It isn't a game for those of a less patient persuasion, and generally doesn't appeal to the ADHD-plagued kids of today. But just who do you find playing? Craig and the team are already looking to answer this question: With a Community of 49,500 its quite a large fan base we have, and because of this we are working on some demographics."
In my limited experience, the extreme scope of the game caters to quite a narrow spectrum of people the hardcore military enthusiasts. Within this group you'll find a number of serving and ex-military. A number of these, as mentioned, contribute directly to the development of the game, but many more are involved solely as players looking for something different. Beyond that, you'll find a lot of the types of characters that are often the butt of many an ARRSE joke: Airsofters, paintballers, armchair generals, Rockapes and other people just an eBay medal away from full Waltdom. Strangely this makes the game a little easier to play because, so long as the big-timing is kept to a minimum, it makes the radio traffic a little more useful and, dare I say it, professional. That said, one of my first visits to the Project Reality community forum did begin to fill me with dread when I saw two threads on the front page; one an introduction from a new gamer (who obviously hadn't seen the introduce yourself here thread in big red lettering at the top of the page) expressing his desire to join the RAF Regiment, and the second containing over ten pages discussing the necessity of wearing safety goggles when airsofting.
The supported game modes in Project Reality show the same level of thought, innovation, realism and playability as the rest of the game. Based on the original Battlefield (and Bad Company) multiplayer concept of reinforcement tickets, all matches rely on your side reducing the opponent's reinforcements to zero. The Advance and Secure game mode resembles the Team Fortress Capture Point style with a number of objectives which must be secured in order. With objectives being captured by each side from either end of the map, you eventually get a defined front line where you attempt to push into enemy territory. When you eventually hold a large majority of objectives, you force a ticket bleed on the enemy, contributing to their downfall. Capture zones in AAS are much larger than get in similar games, and can take up to five minutes to capture. This puts the focus more on area domination and ground holding, rather than standing on a defined spot. The real innovation in game mode, though, is in the Insurgency matches. Here, a conventional force fights an asymmetric battle against the likes of the Taleban or Hamas. The insurgents have a number of weapons caches which are hidden from the blue force, who must kill and capture insurgents to obtain intelligence points and reveal their location. The conventional force must destroy eight of these caches before they lose all their reinforcement tickets. The game modes come in a variety of flavours, providing different types of vehicular support to change the balance between infantry and armour. A Skirmish mode is also available to suit smaller servers with few players.
For all its realism, Project Reality is still a game and still needs to appeal at the entertainment level. Some aspects of the engine have been wound back to keep a modicum of balance and playability. The Challenger 2 is not quite the all-powerful killing machine you'd expect when faced with RPG-7s and the like, as MBTs for all factions are roughly levelled to keep it fair. Bullet drop is accounted for on all weapons, but not immediately a sniper rifle will keep a perfectly flat trajectory out to 600m, and assault rifle maybe 300m, in order to keep it slightly simpler. There are a few little nuances you eventually pick up and learn to appreciate, although as with all games there are some things I quickly get annoyed with. Finding a suitable squad and forming an effective team is completely down to luck unless you can put time and effort into establishing contacts in the community, and can arrange your gaming schedule to fit in the long matches. This isn't really conducive to casual gaming, and the added technical burden of running often-mandatory third-party VoIP clients (sometimes two programs, TeamSpeak and Mumble, in parallel with the in-game voice chat function) makes it harder for those less technically competent.
Six years of development and still no official V1.0 release is testament to the level of work that constantly goes in to changing and updating Project Reality. Aside from work on the core game, the team's other main focus at the minute is a transition to the Armed Assault 2 engine. Word is that things are moving along nicely, and various screenshots that the team release show some seriously top-notch graphics. But it doesn't just stop there. The Project Reality team have quite the vision, as Craig explains:
As we have progressed so much, we now run realitystudios, which encompasses all areas including our own games company. We currently have a few things in the pipeline, including a Vietnam conversion, and of course the ArmA2 work. Two years ago we won a large competition, in which hundreds of Mod teams entered to see who could win Mod of the Year through ModDB, and that year it fell to us. We won a Game Engine Licence on the C4 Engine. We have taken advantage of this, and have started the Development of PR2 which we intend to be a retail version of Project Reality. This year we also won Best unreleased Mod for our ArmA2 work. We are also working on a business level with VBS2, in which we are creating a British Army Vehicle Sound Pack for them."
Project Reality is a hobby in its own right. I generally refer to myself as a gamer, but the implications of such a claim are nothing compared to a genuine Project Reality Player. The commitment necessary to get the most from this game are beyond anything I've seen before, even compared to the big MMOs, and the skillsets are as detailed and varied as you'll find. You could play it for a year and still find you don't know it all or aren't cut out to handle large chunks of it. Piloting aircraft, providing fire support, and leading squads are all special talents that some people just won't, or can't, pick up. No other game forces you to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses, or rely on those of others, in the same way. All these things put Project Reality in a very specific entertainment niche, yet it continues to thrive after six years of development. Time and again it picks up awards, bringing more and more players into the realms of hyper-realistic warfare simulations.
If you've got a PC capable of running Battlefield 2, a six year old game, with a few resources spare, I highly recommend you give this a go if only for the experience. Maybe you won't like it; it certainly won't be for everyone, even military personnel who like gaming, but if any demographic can enjoy this game it's you lot, and it will definitely make you think. Get yourself into the community, even temporarily, and find yourself a friendly instructor prepared to show you the basics. Enjoy the learning curve, and reserve judgement until you've really given it a shot. I'd like to think you won't be disappointed.
For the sheer scope, drive and innovation of this game and its team, irrespective of the Marmite-esque style of gameplay, Project Reality can only be given the full complement of mushroom heads.
If you want to play Project Reality you will need a retail copy of Battlefield 2. This is usually available for around £15, including via download from Steam. You must then download and install the Project Reality game data, paying specific attention to the installation instructions. It also pays to set up the Project Reality-specific modification of Mumble, and the latest TeamSpeak 3 software. After that, my personal recommendation is to thoroughly read the manual not something I'd usually do, but made an exception in this case and finally get stuck into the official Project Reality forums. In particular, the offer of community training is not to be passed up. At this point it's only fair I plug the Noobs With Attitude (*NwA*) clan, who provided the instructor known as Snippers to show me the ropes. Good guys, the lot of them.