My squad is bleeding. After establishing a Forward Operating Base and securing an objective, we’re pushing up to take a bridge from the enemy. Halfway to the bridge, Squad 3 and Squad 5 run straight into two squads of enemy soldiers, and it’s an all-out shitstorm. We scurry into a mud-walled compound, surrounded and taking a lot of fire.
I’m running around like an idiot with my medic pack out. I don’t have time to reach for my rifle. The moment I get one guy healed, another one calls for a medic and I’m off, sprinting through smoke and tracers to the next emergency. After one guy bleeds out in a doorway, I revive him, bandage him, and nurse him back to health just in time for his head to explode.
Squad, a new multiplayer-focused modern war FPS, just landed on Steam Early Access. Though it looks and moves like Battlefield, it’s chasing after the same ‘realism’ that we’ve seen from Arma and Insurgency. Where Insurgency features small maps and twitchy combat, and Arma features massive continents with plodding combat, Squad lands right in the middle. There are two things it does especially brilliantly: enabling great communication and forcing teams into close-quarters fights.
Communication enables the game’s squad organization. Each squad can talk to each other anywhere, and specialized soldier roles like heavy weapons, sniper, medic, and squad leader help support each other in battle. Squad leaders can plant rally points, which function as temporary, disposable respawn locations. These maps are huge enough that it will take several minutes of sprinting to cross them, so striking out on my own would be self-defeating in more ways than one.
A built-in voice chat system is key here, and it already works very well. Local voice channel talks to anyone (friendly or enemy) within a few meters. A squad channel communicates to all squad members, and a command channel lets squad leaders coordinate their efforts. Having that voice support function flawlessly helped immensely in organizing a group of randoms into a functioning military unit.
A squad is only as good as its leadership, though, and that’s where my game-by-game experience varied widely. Squad leaders have to communicate and think ahead, and that’s a difficult skill. During one mission in a rural poppy-growing region in Afghanistan, my squad leader was audibly out of his depth. He stammered, he stuttered, we could feel his indecision dripping through our headphones. Luckily, the squad medic knew what we should be doing, and gently suggested directions to the officer, our very own Radar to our Colonel Blake. Still, it wasn’t long before we were pinned down, surrounded, and stuck with no real plan of attack. Other games with other squad leaders were more successful—and more fun.
The squads are set. They have functioning communication and leadership; now where do they fight? Afghanistan, mostly. Squad’s maps are large and crowded. City maps are choked with small compounds and market stalls and winding streets. There are a few major capture points on most maps, but any location can be reinforced. Squad leaders establish FOBs and mark areas for construction. Rank-and-file riflemen come in behind and build HESCO barriers and fortifications and ammo depots. With a few minutes and an organized group of soldiers, any random location can become a heavily fortified supply-and-spawn-point depot.
Most soldiers aren’t equipped with binoculars or zooming optics, and that makes the maps seem even larger. You may be able to see a couple of pixels moving on a hillside, but you won’t be able to shoot at it effectively until you get much closer. This forces large groups of organized enemies to close with each other and fight over territory from within a hundred yards. In Arma, I’ve seen how 25x zooming scopes turn every firefight into a firing range exercise as lines of soldiers shoot at each other from kilometers away. Squad maps feel large, but the firefights are much more intimate.
When two big groups get in close and start slinging bullets at each other, Squad’s audio design steals the show. I usually play games with a headset at full volume, but for Squad I had to turn it down a bit. Grenades and RPGs have a bass hit that I can feel in my spine, and rifle shots are painfully loud.
We have giant maps with dynamic chokepoints and strength concentrations, full of well-organized groups of lethal combatants. When combat kicks off, it’s the loud and brutal and smooth, but with no overproduced flash or distracting visual fluff we see in other military FPS. Squad’s biggest achievement is that it’s very, very good at taking random players and organizing them into functioning groups like those found in hardcore Arma communities. That’s a remarkable feat for any game.
The more I write about it, the more I want to go back and play it. There’s a feeling I get in the back of my throat when I tell people about Squad. I want to gush, I want to yell about it. At the same time, I remember that it’s an Early Access game. It’s going to change a lot. It’s got rough edges. Maybe something bad will happen and it will never get finished. I understand all that, but still. Squad is everything I’ve ever wanted infantry-level Arma to be, and it’s only just getting started.