Joint Operations: Escalation Hands-On - New Vehicles, Graphics, Maps

The creator of the 150-player online shooter Joint Operations is gearing up for its next tour of duty. Get the early details here.

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It almost seems hard to believe that first-person shooters started off as arcade-style games that you played from a first-person perspective using a variety of guns to blast everything in sight. This is especially true in light of the successful launch of NovaLogic's Joint Operations earlier this year--a team-based, online multiplayer shooter that features real-world weapons, drivable vehicles, and the very impressive option to host as many as a whopping 150 players simultaneously in a single game. And the developer is getting ready to jump right back into the fray with a new expansion pack later this year. Joint Operations: Escalation will add new vehicles, new maps, new gameplay options, and even improved graphics. We recently had a chance to try out an early version of the game, and we have much to report.

Joint Operations: Escalation will feature all-new weapons and vehicles.
Joint Operations: Escalation will feature all-new weapons and vehicles.

The upcoming expansion will continue to focus on near-future conflict in Southeast Asia. However, where Joint Operations might have included a few skirmishes in the region, the expansion, as its name suggests, will feature escalation into all-out war. This is most clearly reflected in the new vehicles and weapons, like the 7.62mm caliber G3 assault rifle--a more heavy-duty assault weapon, and the devastating Javelin antitank rocket launcher, which can put down most ground vehicles in a single shot.

In addition, while many of Joint Operations' vehicles focused on troop transport, most of Escalation's new vehicles will focus on offense. Like in the original game, Escalation will feature two playable sides: the global Joint Operations group and a faction of rebels, and each side will receive a new assault helicopter and a new battle tank. The Joint Ops side will now be able to commission the AH-64 Apache attack chopper and the M1A1 Abrams tank. The Apache has mounted machine guns and a powerful rocket launcher, while the M1A1 features a mounted turret cannon along with a mounted machine gun for a tank commander, which can actually be used to paint targets for the turret gunner. Likewise, the rebels gain access to the KA-52 attack chopper and the T-80 battle tank. These powerful new vehicles are intended for use in assaults, and they still require multiple people to use them effectively, keeping in line with Joint Operation's emphasis on teamwork. None of these new vehicles have weapons that can be fired by the pilot. The same is true, to an extent, for Escalation's other vehicles, a passenger taxi and a two-man motorbike. While neither affords good protection, the motorcycle is the fastest ground vehicle in the game. The NovaLogic team is apparently going out of its way to make sure you'll be able to not only cover good ground, but also to make a few jumps along the way in Escalation's new maps.

Along with the expansion's new weapons, Escalation will add all-new sound effects for its new vehicles and weapons, plus enhanced graphical options, like more-dense environments and more-spectacular explosions. The development team was able to look back at the original Joint Ops and optimize a lot of graphical code. This means that you'll still have games with more than 100 players, but you'll also see new environments packed with architecture, such as ruined villages, offshore oil rigs, and a construction site made up of a huge network of scaffolding and girders. These new environments will be just as huge as those of the original game, but they'll be much more tightly designed.

Several of the expansion's 30-plus new maps will have multiple control points clustered in an area. This is to let players who prefer close-quarters combat to be able to spend their matches fighting tooth and nail over these hotspots, while other players that prefer to use the game's vehicles will still have that option. Meanwhile, there are more than a dozen new maps for the advance-and-secure mode (which requires teams to capture and hold control points on the map). In addition, you can expect to see plenty of spectacular explosions, along with other particle-based special effects like smoke clouds, heat haze, and even a huge waterfall. These were special effects that were worked in without being extremely taxing to the game's performance. In fact, NovaLogic estimates that the final expansion, with the possible exception of a higher 512MB RAM requirement, will probably have about the same system requirements as the original game.

You can expect to see tighter environments with more action.
You can expect to see tighter environments with more action.

In practice, Joint Ops: Escalation's new maps do seem to encourage more-frequent action, especially those that feature motorcycles. The airport level, for instance, features small civilian taxis and motorcycles scattered outside the departure area that seem to make crossing over into enemy territory a much, much faster proposition than it was in the original game. In fact, thanks to the faster vehicles, it seems like Escalation's maps are more fast-paced. In the levels we played, we found hardly any need at all to wait around for a ride, and we were able to get into the action quicker. Frontal assaults on foot seem about as effective as ever. When carried out by a coordinated team that knows how to use cover, these assaults can be effective, but they're a death sentence for anyone who tries to capture an occupied enemy base alone. Like in the first game, snipers seem to be able to make good use of the game's plentiful cover to fire from a distance. However, Escalation features more visual effects, like swarms of insects that appear at different times of day, as well as fog, mist, and even steam from vents, which serve to make a sniper's job of getting a clear shot from a distance at least a little tougher.

The team at NovaLogic has clearly taken advantage of the feedback it has received from its fan community, and it appears to have taken much of it to heart. In addition to the above features that will be included in Escalation, NovaLogic will also roll out additional support for squads (long-standing groups of players, or "clans"). The studios will also release free downloadable maps--smaller, five-on-five multiplayer versions of original Joint Ops maps (and the team also plans to later release smaller scale versions of Escalation maps), along with enhanced map editing tools. If the developer can make good on its goals, Joint Operations: Escalation will offer more-cohesive 150-player battles, more-powerful military vehicles, and an even better large-scale battle experience. The expansion will ship later this year.

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