I was going through my ancient Iraq laptop trying to find some pictures for a friend, and I found this old review that I wrote up for Caltrops, but never posted. I wrote it after being in Iraq for all of 2 or 3 months. I'm tempted to edit it so it's less embarrassing, but it looks like Caltrops is now just Jsoh and VORPoster, so who really cares.
(Note to reduce confusion about the first paragraph: Each year-long rotation in Iraq is given a number. The initial invasion was called "OIF 1" and then my rotation was "OIF 2".) -- E. L. Koba
Welcome to Adventure!
After the blockbuster success of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which raked in billions for every company involved in the production, it was obvious that a sequel would be forthcoming. Even before the first OIF was completed, design work was commencing on OIF 2. Although news of the production has been all over the media, many of the details of the gameplay have been kept tightly under wraps.
Luckily however, I was one of the select 100,000 or so chosen for a hands-on demo of the work in progress. Although some of the details have to be kept secret (I am under an extremely strict NDA) I can report on much of what I have seen.
There are two different modes at which you can play OIF 2 – Company Commander (CO) mode or Sergeant (SGT) mode. In the original design you could play as a Platoon Leader (LT), Platoon Sergeant (PSG), Specialist or Private, but after playtesting it was found that these roles were tedious to play and could easily be replaced with AI. The LT and PSG roles just pass information between the CO and the Sergeants, and the Specialists and Privates have almost no say in what they do and where they go. I will cover the CO and SGT modes separately because the gameplay is drastically different for each. I did not get a chance to play CO mode, but I watched over the shoulder of the person playing the CO in my game while I played as a SGT.
Company Commander Mode
The CO mode can best be described as a cross between a traditional RTS and the strategic part of X-COM. You are given troops and command of a Forward Operating Base (FOB). You begin with a rudimentary base that is turned over to you from another unit, a starting supply of building materials, and a monthly stipend of money with which to improve it.
When you start the game in CO mode you are given some options on how your unit is built out. First you choose your Service, sort of analogous to Race in an RTS or RPG. Of course each has an advantages and disadvantages. There are three available – Regular Army, National Guard, or Marines. Regular Army units have the most equipment available to them, but have a negative effect on the local populace. National Guard units get a bonus when dealing with the locals as well as some free FOB improvements, but have limited selection in equipment and slightly lower staying power when in the field. The Marines were just being added at the time of this writing and their advantages and disadvantages have not been revealed yet.
Once you have chosen your Service you get to your Unit configuration. Your core unit is pre-set as Humvee-mounted Infantry, but you get some choice on your attachments. You can add on Engineers, Mortars, Cooks, Military Intelligence, Mechanics, etc. All the attachments have special skills and are very useful to have around. There however two exceptions: Snipers and Military Police. Snipers demand a lot of resources and support, but do not seem to give anything in return. They never seem to take any enemies out or gather any useful intelligence. They also cause a lot of friction between themselves and the rest of your troops. Perhaps they would be more useful on other terrain, but on the map I played they were essentially useless. Military Police also seem to be another worthless unit. All they seem to do is drive around and get hit by roadside bombs, they are not worth a damn in a firefight, and they also cause friction between units. I am not sure why the designers included these two units, but make sure you do not choose them when building your Unit.
Once you have you have your Unit built, trained, and set up in your FOB it is time for the real gameplay to begin. Your mission at the FOB supposedly can vary, but really it all just boils down to patrolling the area around the FOB and reacting to any incidents nearby. You can decide for yourself whether or not you want to try to win the local populace over to your side. Doing so will bring you a lot of advantages in Intel and possibly lower the number of attacks on your troops, but it requires you to limit your actions and control your troops.
There are a lot of variables you have to consider while running your FOB: Morale, Hygiene, Operational Security (OpSec), Intel, Local Support, Discipline, etc. All of the structures available to improve your FOB affect these ratings in some way. A few examples that I have seen:
- Internet Café: improves Morale but lowers OpSec
- Shower Trailer: improves Hygiene and Morale
- Morale, Welfare & Recreation Trailer: improves Morale
- Haji Mart: increases Morale, Intel and Local Support, but lowers OpSec and occasionally can have a drastic effect on Hygiene (bad chicken)
- Free Clinic: improves Local Support and Intel, but lowers OpSec.
Of course all of these cost money, and you are limited by the amount given to you by your Battalion Commander. Some base improvements can be built by your troops, such as watch towers and bunkers. But making your troops work too hard can lower their Morale, especially if they have to run a lot of missions in addition to FOB improvements. You can also hire haji workers to come into your base to do a lot of the mundane chores (take out the garbage, clean the shitters, fill sandbags) at a cost of money and OpSec. Hiring haji labor can also improve Local Support as long as your troops treat them well. They are very cheap so you will tempted to hire as many as you can. Be careful though, as your OpSec will drop drastically if you hire too many haji workers.
In CO mode combat missions are relatively simple. Acting in response to one of your patrols coming into contact, incoming mortars, Intel, or one of your towers spotting something suspicious, you just direct your Humvee platoons to where the action is. You can give them some guidance and they will occasionally ask for orders or permission to shoot, but pretty much once they are outside the wire the battle is run by the Sergeants on the ground. If things get hot you can request Air Support (usually just observation helicopters) but results on that are pretty random. If you have Mortar attachments you can call fire support missions. Sometimes you will have Tanks and Bradleys based at your FOB for a time and you can request help from them through their chain of command. If so their firepower and observation capabilities can be a great asset.
Enemy attacks are usually only one of three types: Mortars, Roadside Bombs, and Ambushes. Mortars can be nullified pretty easily by sandbagging everything in your FOB and sprinkling bunkers everywhere. Roadside Bombs can be countered by keeping your Intel and Local Support high – your troops will know the current tactics of the bombers and locals will report them to your FOB. Ambushes can best be countered by constant patrolling and changing routes as much as possible. They enemy AI will try to set up where you have gone before so if you are always changing paths they will not be able to ambush you.
After improving your FOB and running combat missions, your final task as a CO will be dealing with the locals. Like in Castles you will have local petitioners every day at your gate. Many will be asking for work, financial redress for actions of your troops, or information on their relatives that your troops arrested, or that were MedEvac’ed to a military hospital. Occasionally, depending on Local Support and Intel you will have a local with information on enemy activity. You have to be careful with this type of info though. Sometimes it will be spot on, but other times the locals will have other motives. In an example I saw, a local came to the gate reporting that a house nearby had a large cache of heavy weapons. The CO rolled all the troops available to that house the next night, but found nothing but a rusty AK-47 (they are allowed to have one per household). It turned out that a neighbor kid had gotten into a fight with one of their kids, and decided to tell the Americans they had heavy weapons hidden in their house in order to get revenge.
This is what I chose to play. In Sergeant mode your job is to take care of your troops and lead them in combat. When you first start you will be a Fire Team Leader in charge of three troops plus your own character. After you have successfully completed one tour as Fire Team Leader, you can unlock Squad Leader which will put you in charge of two Fire Teams.
When not in combat the game plays very much like The Sims. Like The Sims, your troops will mostly act on their own, but you will still need to make sure they are taking their showers, cleaning up the tent, getting enough sleep and food, etc. Left to their own devices the troops will sometimes stay up all night and be tired before missions, or eat nothing but junk food. Some will try to avoid showers so you will have to watch their Hygiene carefully.
You get a tent for all your troops that you can do with as you wish. Like The Sims you will want to equip it with a TV, Playstation, refrigerator, cots and whatever else you can get your hands on. What you fill your tent with, however is limited by what you can buy at the Haji Mart, get sent from Home, make for yourself, or acquire through Black Ops.
Black Ops are undercover missions inside the FOB. Running them is pretty easy - you just tell your troops what items you are looking for, and they will disappear one night and return with the items requested. You have to be ready to stick up for your troops if the 1st Sergeant comes a-calling, however. You will want to limit the number of Black Ops for this reason, plus, if you run too many your troops will start running them on their own for things you do not really need, which will call far too much attention to your Black Ops. If any of your troops have the Sticky Fingers skill you will have extra luck with Black Ops.
You will also want to prep your troops for combat as soon as possible. When a combat mission starts, you will not have any time configure their load-outs before heading out. Make sure they have the proper equipment beforehand and check frequently to make sure it has not changed. The troop AI will occasionally change what they are carrying on its own, which can be a little aggravating.
Like any standard RPG you can configure your Fire Team just like you would configure a party. Your team members unfortunately are preset at the beginning of the game, and replacements are almost impossible to come across, so you will have to make do with what you have. Your weapons are also limited in variety and quantity – M16s, M4s, M203s, SAWs, and 9mm pistols. In addition you will have either a .50 cal and/or M240 machine guns for your Humvees. You will want to carefully weigh the strengths and weaknesses of your troops when assigning weapons and positions. Usually you will want to put your slower or older troops as drivers in the Humvees so they do not have to get out and run around. Troops that were former Tankers make good gunners – they will be the most skilled with heavy machine guns. For your dismounts you will want a combination of young motivated troops, and experienced infantrymen. M203 and SAW gunners have to carry more weight in weapons and ammunition, so make you select troops that are in good physical condition.
As far as other equipment goes, body armor and helmets are standard issue for all troops. You will also have a limited number of weapon accessories to distribute to your troops – 3xMag scopes, red-dot scopes, tactical lights, and infrared laser pointers. You should have night vision goggles as well, but of varying qualities. Make sure you give the good goggles to the ones who need them.
When equipping your Team, a classic rookie mistake is to give all the best equipment to your own character. This is a bad move. In combat you should be spending more of your time directing your men. Make sure they have the best gear they can get. It will also lower their Morale if they see you with all the best equipment while they have to make do with shoddy gear.
Setting up your Humvee is another important task you will want to take care of as soon as possible. If you are lucky, you will be given a new up-armored Humvee that will not take much work to be combat ready. All you will need to do is make sure it is loaded up with weapons, ammunition, extra water and whatever miscellaneous gear you want with you. If, on the other hand, you are given a standard Humvee you will have to modify it yourself. Having squad members with the Welding or Auto Mechanic skills really comes in handy here. What you can bolt or weld on to your Humvee is limited to what you can scrounge up – especially with Black Ops. Be careful of loading up your Humvee with too much weight as it will slow your movement rate and increase the chance of getting stuck while driving out on the canal roads.
Once you are outside the wire and switch to Combat Mode, you will probably spend most of your time just driving around and looking for the enemy or anything suspicious. The path-finding of the Platoon Leader AI is pretty competent, but be sure to check his work frequently – you will not want to get lost on some dead end canal road. Be especially alert for Roadside Bombs!
You will encounter a lot of civilians, and especially children, while you are outside the wire. It is a good idea to load your Humvee up with candy before you roll out. Often you will be given a mission just to go out and talk to the locals, and giving candy to the kids is a good way to break the ice so the adults will talk with you.
I have not had a chance to get into a firefight during my playtest so far, but most of the others in my game have. So while firefights are not infrequent most of your missions will just be running patrols, setting up roadblocks, investigating possible bombs, etc. You can pull over any vehicle you want to search it and its occupants, but your chances of finding any enemies or weapons in them seem to be completely random. Reportedly searching cars full of young men in certain vehicle types will increase your chances, but I have yet to have any luck with that.
The graphics are on par with any of the current high-end games. However they really dropped the ball on some of the models. There are only three male Haji models: Poor Farmer that wears a dirty gray frock, Wealthy Landowner with a big belly and your classic Arab robe, and Townsperson with pants and a shirt of a random color. The only female Haji model is a shapeless black blob that can not possibly be made of more than 30 polys. And all the civilian vehicles are either orange-and-white taxis, white or red pickups or white or blue Kia flatbed trucks.
The sound design is phenomenal. Mortar explosions will rock you to your balls. RPG rounds streak over your head. When a .50 cal starts rocking right over your head it will leave your ears ringing. During the night you will hear booms and gunfire of the wider war around you.
The user interface could use some work. When you are out on ops the only thing you have to guide you is a map that does not even show your own position, let alone the position of friendly or enemy troops. You will have to figure out on your own where you are and where you need to go. I highly recommend buying a GPS on the pre-deployment screen so that you can at least get an accurate grid on your location. The map they give you is not very detailed, and in many cases out of date, so only use it as a general guide. When you first start be sure to drive around the immediate area to get a good lay of the land.
In CO mode the UI is limited as well. You can not see exactly where your platoons are – you have to rely on them reporting in frequently and the AI to accurately plot on the map each location. And in a rather drastic move you can not enter one single command using standard input devices in CO mode. All commands are issued using voice command.
In general, though, the voice communications work pretty well. I only have to repeat myself occasionally. The AI can usually figure out what you are trying to say as long as you stick to proper radio procedure. There is a rather lengthy tutorial (the game calls it “Basic Training”) that you are required to play before beginning the game that will show you how to communicate properly.
This is by far the most controversial aspect of the game. The designers are remaining very hush-hush on how you actually win the game. This can only be in response to the critical lashing they took on the ease at which OIF 1 could be completed. Some players reported they managed to take Bagdad out in less than 500 hours of playtime. So they are taking a far different tact this time. For the current playtesting there is a time limit to how long you can play, and no player has reporting even coming close to a conclusion. There are rumors that if you can manage to win all the locals over to your side, or kill all local fighters that you can win. But for now we will have to wait and see.
Is this a game for everyone? No. But it is for sure a game like nothing else out there. Despite the intricate design and vast possibilities for play, it looks like the new OIF will not be nearly as popular as the original. There are reports that the shareholders of the publishing company are not happy at all with how OIF 2 is turning out, and are increasingly calling for a change of management.
It is an interesting game, and there is much more to explore. But it can get really tedious because I can not seem to find either the time advance or the quit options.
E. L. Koba