Saturday, July 8, 2023

Six Days in Fallujah - Early Access Preview and Critique

Gritty. Unconventional. Realistic. Slow paced. Multiplayer oriented. Unforgiving.

First off, a disclaimer is due: this game pulls no punches in portraying a recent real life battle. I have no problems divesting myself of any political opinions and moral judgement about the fairness of real war because my interests are educational and entertainment-oriented. Not that I don't admire and value the USMC and their sacrifices in Fallujah, I just don't feel that a game featured in Steam is the right context to pursue discussions in international politics and the savage nature of war. So, if you feel the urge to virtue signal, discuss politics or any other type of contemporary online social form of non-discussion enforcing, you are in the wrong place.

Military first person shooters have changed a lot over the years. First person shooters look fantastic nowadays, the gameplay mechanics have improved immensely and the mainstream market leans towards massively-multiplayer, action-packed, fast-paced, virtual-death-is-costless clones of themselves with a heavy dose of gear customization that verges on the ridicule.

Ironically, many developers are attempting to get back to the old days of Rainbow Six or Ghost Recon. Not only in the gameplay but also in the overall theme of their new endeavors. Even Arma, after walking itself out of the very thin ledge they walked with the half-assed futuristic Arma 3 is seemingly looking through iron sights back into the Cold War which started the legendary series. It would be a long essay to summarize those attempts, but you get the idea. The old may be new again.

Six Days in Fallujah (SDiF) goes a tad further than the above designers with a very focused theme, historically realistic roles to play, multiplayer sessions limited to four persons and a procedural technology that changes the buildings' layout every single time you play a mission.

SDiF is now in early access and this preview was written for version 0.1.3. Whatever is described in this preview is of course subject to change.

The subject of SDiF is the Second Battle of Fallujah (Operation Phantom Fury) from the eyes of an US Marine. Each mission is limited to a USMC fire team (in multiplayer mode) and the span of the terrain is in average 8/9 blocks square. The designer's focus is to both educate the player from the historical point of view and to expose him to the some of the grim realities of real life urban military operations.

In multiplayer, the sessions are limited to 4 players, each one taking the "ready" (point rifleman), "team" (leader, grenadier), "fire" (SAW gunner) and "assist" (assistant automatic rifleman, SAW spotter). The player can invite Steam friends for a multiplayer session and if the group is less than four the game offers you to find extra players and take them into your lobby. There is no server browsing as far as I know, but I was never short of game time because the matchmaking works really well and the amount of players appears to be high. The game automatically chooses from a template of around 4 missions (ranging from area clearing to convoy defense) which play differently every single time because the buildings are procedurally generated for each session. There is a time limit for some of the missions, with no options to modify it. Casualties can be re-spawned if the leader retreats to the where the AAV is located.

For single player, I would say you are limited to a training mission which is a shoot house where you can practice your movement, breaching and shooting techniques. You can create a "one person lobby" and play as a lone wolf, but in average you die or fail the mission almost inevitably. The single player aspect of this game is practically a placeholder for when USMC computer-controlled team mates are added sometime in the future.

The game has a very handy "point at" mechanism. In this case my son is pointing me where to bounce a fragmentation grenade to get the bad guys on the roof.

The principal area represented in SDiF is urban combat against irregular forces. The game succeeds at reflecting the need for team work, drill and communications. An average SDiF multiplayer scenario/session will easily outcast lone wolfers and tends to emphasize how toxic "I-do-the-shooting-you-just-cover-my-flank" team leaders can be. Communications are through in-game infrastructure, either proximity voice or radio via push-to-talk. There is also a mild component of fire support in the form of AAVs and LAVs providing suppression until your team moves deep into the hellish maze of dilapidated houses and rubble. No other form of support (direct fire from snipers-heavy armor or indirect fire) is available.

The tactical decision making is at the core of SDiF. As a leader, your decisions on deciding a point of entry, how to pace that entry and when to pull out of a building are harrowing. Will you walk your team into an ambush? Will you walk out of a building into another ambush? Does the mission warrants bypassing an ENY stronghold? As a team-member, would you be strong enough to provide cover before building entry even when your team has seemingly moved into the guts of a building? Will you be able to quickly grasp what is the fireteams sore spot in terms of cover? Are you keeping the right spacing while stacking? It is important to point out that you can play only as the USMC side and that the computer controlled enemy AI is quite alright, pulling some nice flanking moves at the group level and moving out of danger at the individual level.

The areas in which SDiF does not align with real life USMC urban operations are more the result of the limited features and capabilities of the early access game. For example, a single fire team operating lonely in an average mission area in SDiF is unlikely (another fire team at a minimum would be a fine compromise). Another aspect that is very rigid in SDiF is the order of battle (mandatory "ready-team-fire-assist" teams). The USMC tends to leave SAWs on external windows or to cover long fields of fire. This rigid team composition and the inability to mix and match fire teams tends to create awkward situations like having a SAW gunner clearing a room. The current one-fireteam-only limit makes building delayed entries almost impossible, your team will get shot from nearby buildings without the watch from other fire team. Overall, these abstractions are not by design and could go away with bigger multiplayer sessions.

Moving and shooting in SDiF can feel a bit odd sometimes. Although the keyboard layout is relatively simple, I am not very fond of hitting two mouse buttons to aim and look through the ACOG sight. Aiming through the iron sights in an ACOG-equipped rifle remains a mystery to me; it works and I can hit stuff, but the visual representation tends to show a rifle aiming at the ceiling. Running around gives the impression of a heavy-loaded Marine struggling through difficult terrain, which is accurate for rubble but not so much for an open and clear street. Peeking on corners is problematic for some buildings. The low resolution of the ACOG sights view is very odd. One important thing missing in SDiF is the ability to open doors staying clear off the door way. I understand that in order to breach a locked door you need to be in front of it, but for unlocked doors the standard practice is to open the door without being in front of it (i.e. hugging the wall) and pull back along the wall immediately to avoid indiscriminate fire aimed at the doorway and surrounding walls.

Judging by the direction the early access version of SDiF is taking, it feels like a needed breath of fresh air in a crowded market place in which almost every offering looks like a clone of the next one. The emphasis in military history, realism in tactical decision-making and the innovative approach to map generation positions this game as one of the most interesting first person shooters to watch into.


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