This preview originally appeared in issue 249 of PC Gamer UK.
There are a few ways of responding to a name as silly as Warface. You could roll your eyes, and declaim it as evidence that the machine that stamps out military first-person shooters in the basement of every major publisher has finally become self-aware.
You could laugh and interpret the nod to Kubrick as a sign that Crytek are approaching the Call of Duty sub-genre in the way Full Metal Jacket took on the Vietnam War. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Warface is a free-to-play multiplayer shooter produced with a clear awareness that modern military shooters are the biggest games in the world. On the other hand, the developers are also conscious of the oversaturated and overserious nature of the genre they're taking on – and one way of responding to that, it turns out, is to call your game Warface.
“We think it's awesome,” executive producer Peter Holzapfel told me when I asked him about the name. “The tone of the game is not serious; it's not geared towards realism. It's a first-person shooter – have fun! It's not completely over-the-top, but it's exaggerated. A bit of humour would be healthy, I would say, for the industry.”
While visiting Crytek's headquarters in Frankfurt, the game was initially demonstrated to me running on a conference room PC – the kind of enterprise computing setup that you wouldn't expect to be capable of handling a shooter of any fidelity. In the absence of dynamic lighting and post-processing effects, it's not a pretty game – but it works, and Crytek's success in cramming the game onto hardware this restricted is an impressive technical feat.
“We optimised the hell out of the engine for Crysis 2,” Holzapfel explains. “We took it further for Warface and made it run well on lower system specs – we made it scale with the [game's] other features.”
Warface is a decent-looking game on a more powerful system. Not stunning, but it takes sufficient advantage of CryEngine's lighting tech to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the majority of full-price shooters. When you bear in mind that the most popular FPS in the world runs on the same basic tech now as it did in 2005, Crytek's decision to set the bar lower with Warface makes sense.
There's also an irony in the fact that the efforts undertaken to fit Crysis 2 onto a console is now paying dividends for the developer on PC.
As a competitive shooter, Warface sits somewhere between Counter-Strike and Call of Duty – although the technology underpinning it is flexible enough that larger, Battlefield-style maps are a possibility further down the line. Its offering of modes, levels and weapons tick all the boxes you'd expect in a modern military shooter: free for all, team deathmatch, and an attack-and-defend mode that's a little like a smaller scale version of Battlefield's Rush.
Players move with a lot of weight but bring weapons to bear quickly – this is a game of cautious exploration and sudden action, with a lot of emphasis on positioning and observation. The first map I played in team deathmatch was laid out as an open field with a river on one side, a small area of streets on the other, and each team's spawn behind some buildings at either end. The firefight concentrated around the spawns and streets, with individual players scrapping out in the open for the chance to flank the enemy and clean up.
Later, in free for all, an urban map played very differently – with multiple interior, exterior and elevated routes, I was just as likely to spot an enemy far down the street as I was to suddenly bump into them. Claymores and other deployables helped campers hold on to territory, but I found a varied, exploratory approach more effective. I won, so I'm probably right about that.
Assault rifles, pistols and SMGs handle well, and I also got a kick out of a silenced semi-automatic sniper rifle. When the game's weapons lack punch – as in the case of certain shotguns – Warface compensates with the largest hit indicator I've ever seen, a great big flashing X rendered in red that leaves you in no doubt whatsoever that you've just shot a man in the face.
There's an unabashed willingness to provide the shooter player with what they want, particularly in terms of feedback. Crytek understands that feeling rewarded for playing well is just as important as having the tools to do the job. Warface works best when thought of as a service – a readily accessible supply of gunpowder and dopamine, separated out from the unnecessary extras that are tagged on to the average boxed shooter.
Warface's original ideas mostly manifest in terms of the way you negotiate the map. The most enjoyable of these is the slide, which allows you to dive out of sprint and scoot along the ground on your backside while unloading with whatever weapon you have to hand. In my time with the game, I fell in love with this move a little bit. Sliding past an enemy while firing a pistol is one thing; sliding into an enemy while swinging an axe is another, and sliding off an overpass while firing an anti-aircraft missile launcher at a circling helicopter in co-op mode is firm proof that Warface's tongue is at least partly in its cheek.
Then there are co-op mantling points, highlighted areas on each map that two players can climb by working together. This involves one player giving the other a leg up before being hoisted up themselves, and it unlocks extra routes and unique vantage points that can help teams bypass choke points or flank the enemy. While playing Warface's attack-and-defend mode, myself and another sniper took advantage of a climb point to move around the side of the defenders and prevent them from bedding down in cover around the objective.
Full co-op Warface, however, is a different animal entirely. Teams of five players race through linear sections of the map, completing objectives and wiping out every enemy they see, racking up points as they go. Initial impressions suggest something analogous to Left 4 Dead or Payday: The Heist, but that isn't quite right: Warface isn't so much about survival and exploration as it is about efficiency, speed, and the primacy of the massive score combo multiplier that sits in the front and centre of the screen.
A better comparison would be a lightgun game like Time Crisis. Each map begins with the team arriving via Chinook helicopter, blasting enemies from the windows before haring off down a series of streets and narrow courtyards, joining back up with the helicopter, and being shuttled to the next section. Opposing soldiers pop out from behind cover and appear on rooftops with no heed for their own safety and little discernible strategy. Snipers and grenadiers might hold back and harass your squad from a distance, but the majority of troops will bunch up and push towards you in groups – groups whose implicit purpose is to be shot apart for precious, precious points.
The basic mechanics, weapons and loadouts of the game carry over from competitive play, so sliding around picking off foes with a shotgun is a viable way to earn bonus points. Class and weapon choices make a big difference: having a medic on your team allows for in-field revives, and the rifleman's ammo resupply pack keeps you moving when bullets run dry. Fallen teammates are revived automatically at checkpoints interspersed throughout each stage, but if you're all wiped out then it's game over.
The arcade sensibility suits Warface, and the basic satisfaction of shooting people makes co-op an enjoyable diversion. I did find, however, that my choice of weapon greatly affected the score I was able to achieve. Armed with a versatile assault rifle or light machine gun, I was capable of dealing with enemies at multiple ranges – slowing down to line up a headshot on a distant sniper, then taking out a group of enemies mid-slide with full auto fire. With a shotgun, however, the only way was forward – and this led to situations where I'd either run in, get killed and need reviving, or hop around in the street attempting not to get shot while my teammates caught up and cleared out further-off enemies for me.
Then there are the boss battles. I saw two variants in my time with the game. In one, the team comes under attack from a helicopter and has to rush between missile launcher caches to whittle the chopper's health bar down, while regular enemies pile on from the sides. In the other, a single massive enemy appears wearing a combat exoskeleton. He's almost invulnerable from the front, so one player needs to distract him while the rest shoot at the glowing generator on his back. It's the most videogamey thing in the world, ever.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course, but I found that both encounters lasted just a little bit too long. When you're running headlong through the streets with your finger on the trigger, the game's simplistic AI isn't an issue – these aren't real combatants, they're satisfying kills waiting to happen.
When you're locked into a single location circling a single foe, however, the curtain seems to fall away and you have time to wonder at the absurdity of what you're actually doing. There's every chance that more competent teams will be able to clear these sections faster, of course, but it'd be good to see the pacing tweaked for the game's Western release.
Co-op mode is delivered to the player as a series of daily challenges. A selection of maps will cycle in and out as time goes on, with a full range of difficulty levels and time-limited rewards to match. “Once they've played the maps with their friends they move over to PvP, and then come back the next day,” Holzapfel explains. “This takes away many things that could confuse or frustrate the player.” It's also, Crytek are keen to stress, a way into multiplayer shooters that is less intimidating than going up against human opponents.
The influence of the arcade is apparent in other ways. In Russia, players are able to buy instant respawn coins that allow them to revive in the field in co-op mode rather than wait for the next checkpoint. Crytek see this as the equivalent of pumping more tokens into an arcade cabinet – while the very best players will be able to clear stages on a single credit, microtransactions are there for everyone else.
The structure of the store in the European and North American version of the game is yet to be confirmed, as are prices. Respawn coins seem likely to make the transition, as they support the basic mechanics of co-op mode.
In general, though, expect to have to shell out for experience boosters, skins, and equipment for your character.
Weapons and weapon attachments are an obvious example, but the clothes you're wearing also alter the game's mechanics – a particular set of boots might slow the detonation time on enemy mines, for example, while a pair of climbing gloves will allow you to traverse co-op mantling points by yourself if you haven't got any friends.
The comparison to make here is Team Fortress 2, and the way that item builds have added variety to the way individual classes approach the game. The onus is on Crytek to ensure that these paid-for – and earned – advantages don't undermine the rest of what the game
is trying to achieve.
“With the free model, it's really just about delivering a good experience,” Holzapfel says. “Otherwise people will just leave, because they didn't invest anything in it.” The thing that impresses me most about Warface is Crytek's understanding of the kind of game they're making, and where it fits into players' lives.
The last few years have seen the systematic breakdown of the old methods of making and selling games, with the only real exception being the most mainstream experiences – sports games and shooters, specifically. By making the shooter more accessible and cheaper while remaining fully featured, Crytek have a chance to challenge the amount of money people feel they need to spend to get their lunchtime deathmatch fix.
One way of responding to a name like Warface, then, is relief. It shows that, at long last, the shooter is figuring out exactly what it's for.