Joint Operations is a squad-based shooter from NovaLogic, the creators of the successful Delta Force series and Black Hawk Down. The game is set in 2006 within a heavily populated country being torn apart as the nation's military splits into two factions. Violence between factions is a threat to the country's innocent civilians as well as the world's economy. Joint Operations gives players the opportunity to either enlist in a Joint Force to neutralize the threat or to play as a separatist in the fight for independence.
Running on an enhanced version of the Black Hawk Down game engine, Joint Operations features what NovaLogic refers to as "realistic super-foliated" maps. In layman's terms, this means players can hide within the foliage while traveling by foot or in one of the game's vehicles. Players can transport teammates by sea in LCACs, by air in Chinook helicopters, and control other vehicles such as Humvees, troop transport trucks, ATVs, Black Hawks, Apaches, and Mark V speedboats. Multiplayer options include a variety of game modes, such as deathmatch, team deathmatch, king of the hill and capture the flag. The number of players supported is largely dependent on the map, though some maps support up to 64 players.
Once you've played Planetside, Unreal Tournament 2004, and Battlefield: Vietnam, it's hard to imagine epic scale, multiplayer, team-based first-person shooters with vehicles have much left to offer. After these superlative games, maybe it's time to just go ahead and close the book. So when Novalogic politely coughs, raises a finger, and offers something called Joint Operations, the inclination is to pat the company on the head and say, "Yes, well, that's very nice, maybe we'll take a look at your little game as well."
And, perhaps this tendency to underrate Novalogic, which was often justified until the release of Black Hawk Down, is working in its favor. Because in spite of some glitches, Joint Operations is a cleverly designed and solidly executed game that does many things better than the competition. Who'd have thought Novalogic would get it all so dead-on right? This may not be the last word on multiplayer shooters, but it's clearly one of the best.
One of the most striking things about Joint Operations is the way it carefully incorporates vehicles as a balanced element that drives the game but doesn't run away with it. The priority is still getting boots on the ground. Unlike Unreal Tournament 2004 or the Battlefield games, where the vehicles are basically coveted weapons, here they're a nexus for teamwork.
Because the maps are so large and the fighting is often concentrated in very specific areas, vehicles are an important part of getting to where the action is (this is especially true on island maps, where almost all of Joint Operations' elements fall so neatly into place). Because every passenger tends to add firepower by letting them shoot out the windows, there's an incentive to wait until people join you rather than just running off on your own. Vehicles are either frail or very slow, so they don't run roughshod over the gameplay. To counterbalance that, there are plenty of them and they respawn quickly. In the core mode, called "Advance and Secure," the farther you push a team back, the closer they're driven to the base where their vehicles are kept. It's one of Joint Operations' many subtle balancing tricks.
However, most of the game's glitches seem to be related to the vehicles, which are the most ambitious addition since Black Hawk Down. Also, the vehicles' physics are really awful. For instance, you can slam cars into trees with impunity, racing over hills with abandon. There is none of the learning curve or skill that made Battlefield's helicopters so gratifying to fly. Instead, they're simply hovercars with a few clumsy helicopter-ish properties tacked on, such as the way they balloon upwards when they stop. This means the best way to land isn't to land, but to slam nose-first into the dirt like a runner diving for home plate. But at least you have to land; there are no parachutes, so you don't get any of the stupid paratrooper shenanigans that Electronic Arts refuses to fix in its Battlefield games.
Joint Operations' Advance and Secure is probably the best-designed team game yet. Like Planetside and Unreal Tournament 2004's "Onslaught" mode, the action is always focused between defense and attack points, so there's none of Battlefield's porous, free-ranging battlefields. There are also none of Planetside's esoteric rules, bonuses, and control issues. It's simple to see how hotly contested a given point is and where you're most needed. The excellent HUD and mini-maps let you check at a glance what your side is doing, and where they're doing it. For a game with only minimal tools for team organization at the macro level (although there are helpful aids for small squads), it's easy to track the action at a larger scale.
Because of the way the maps are designed, different maps feel very different even when the rules are constant. In "Straights of Malacca," for instance, you have to hunt down infantry on an entire island to secure it. It plays much differently from "Black Rock Beach," where the fighting is fiercely concentrated around the control bunkers, strung out along a long littoral strip of land with open sea on one side and forests on the other. Which plays much differently than "Kutu Arms Market," which plays much differently than "Two Dragons Gorge," which plays much differently than "Bumbu Channel." There are lots of maps here, and they have more personality than anything Novalogic has done before. There are a surprising number of varied visual styles, with a day/night cycle shifting the lighting as you play and giving all the maps a darker side.
This variety, coupled with the freedom to range almost anywhere, gives Joint Operations a tremendous number of different experiences: hilltop battles, close-in city fighting, sniper fests across rice paddies, stalking through foggy swamps, ambitious amphibious landings, manning fortified bases, frontal assaults, hunkering down under mortar fire, creeping through the bushes to flank a position, reckless pilots trying to drop you into hot LZs, careful medics turning the tide of battle, and clueless newbies going AWOL and wandering in the middle of nowhere. And it's all dynamic because of the way Novalogic drapes the game design over its enormous maps.
The spawning system plays a big part in how the fighting progresses. When you choose a spawn point, you'll have to wait up to ten seconds for each person queued in front of you. This means it's sometimes more practical to spawn at a point farther back from the front (cleverly encouraging players to bring vehicles forward to the fighting). This also means when you kill a bunch of defenders, they'll only be able to slowly trickle in as reinforcements rather than suddenly appearing as a wave. This has a significant effect on the ebb and flow of battle. Novalogic deserves kudos for the way these sorts of deceptively minor decisions impact the overall game.
As a multiplayer game, Joint Operations is built on solid net code. Novalogic has been doing this sort of almost-massively multiplayer online gaming for years. It shows. Even on servers burgeoning with 150 players, you'll almost never feel you were robbed of a kill because of lag (although it seems that the weird vehicle glitches are more common on crowded servers). Players who complain about lag might be trying to run on middling systems with the detail dialed too high. This is a demanding engine with a long draw distance and a lot of detail. It might be prudent to step down a notch or two from the recommended default setup.
The engine will look familiar if you've played Black Hawk Down. The palette still has a sort of sun-bleached quality; what should look like a tropical paradise has a slightly muddy look. Night is usually just a blue version of day, which is a shame considering how much impact the night-vision effect would have on gameplay if it were ever necessary. Having said all that, however, this is a truly impressive engine for what it can accomplish: long-range fighting, sprawling battles, thick forests, and distinctive artwork with moody lighting. Novalogic's real contribution has been the incredible ranges that have sometimes made its games a sniper's paradise. Now it's folded in the personality needed to really bring its locations alive.
One point that's important to remember is that, like anything multiplayer, a game of Joint Operations is often as good as its teams. There will be times when you're playing with a bunch of morons on your side and nothing you do seems to matter. Odds are, the other team isn't having that much fun, either. But when you get two equitable teams playing, Joint Operations is really a fantastic piece of work and easily holds its own alongside Unreal Tournament 2004, Battlefield Vietnam, and Planetside. The bad news for Novalogic is that it no longer has the luxury of low expectations.
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