I love the smell of broken cellophane in the evening. It smells like... a new game! Forgive the mangling of an Apocalypse Now quotation, but it's eerily appropriate for Joint Operations. JOPS is a Massively Multiplayer Online Shooter from the same stable as the perennially popular Delta Force games. Set notionally in the Indonesian Pacific, the game takes place on a vast archipelago, pitting the insurgent Indonesian Separatist forces against a multinational UN force (spearheaded by the redoubtable Delta Force) charged to restore the recognised government.
It's a sign of these politically charged times that Novalogic have left the morality of Separatist forces unexplained - there's no mention of the singularly emotive word "terrorist" here. The Separatists believe they are in the right, and so do the UN forces, setting in motion the inevitable collision between Unstoppable Force and Immovable Object.
Whilst JOPS is a dedicated online shooter, it does include about a dozen well-constructed tutorial missions that can be played alone and offline, which introduce you to the multitude of weapons, vehicles and classes available in the game. All the standard classes are there; rifleman, gunner, sniper, medic and engineer - each of which limited to carrying specific types of weapons. Most are self-explanatory, but the Engineer is probably the most interesting, being able to carry RPGs to take out helicopters, or a mortar to provide heavy fire support across long distances. This is a very useful ability, because if there's anything JOPS does well, it's long distances.
The draw distance, depending upon PC spec, can be anything up to 1000 metres, and a typical map can be anything up to 50 square kilometres in size. As you might expect, this has advantages and disadvantages. Most obviously, certain shortcuts had to be made graphically to accommodate such large areas. This doesn't mean to say it looks bad - on the contrary - but JOPS is not as pretty as some of its FPS peers. The jungles of Far Cry are noticeably lusher, and the texture quality in Unreal Tournament 2004 puts JOPS to shame, but it's an acceptable sacrifice, given that in terms of scale, JOPS has absolutely no peers in the FPS genre. This epic scale is only achievable at all because JOPS has been built using a highly modified Comanche 4 graphics engine (which had also been used for Delta Force: Black Hawk Down). With its flight simulator roots, JOPS has a better grasp of physics than most FPS games. I'm not talking the playful rag-dolling of UT2004, but a more consistent and realistic grasp of what happens if you introduce flesh to high explosives.
JOPS has a menagerie of vehicles available to exploit the huge game maps, from assault boats, to armoured personnel carriers and jeeps; but the highlight of the vehicular action has to be the helicopters. From the vast Chinook to the nimble Little Birds, JOPS nails each helicopter's handling characteristics perfectly - unsurprising given that the 3D engine was originally used for a helicopter flight simulation. There's nothing that can match the thrill of strafing an insurgent position in a Little Bird, flying low at 50 feet, spewing 6000 rounds a minute from dual miniguns. Novalogic have wisely streamlined the controls for the vehicles, making them easy to learn, but avoiding the pitfall of being overly simplistic: meaning that you expect to jump into a helicopter and pilot it capably without spending a couple of hours practicing your piloting technique. The same is true for the rest of the vehicles - with all the controls being within easy reach.
This emphasis on ease of control becomes apparent when you join your first online game. The effective use of vehicles is essential to your success. The scale of the maps means that spending your time as an infantryman will be particularly lonesome. With objectives on maps being typically separated by half a kilometre or more, the prevalence of vehicles in the game becomes obvious. What can be travelled in 20 seconds by helicopter will take three or four minutes by foot - time that you will feel would be much better spent introducing some hot lead to an enemy's face. This makes effective teamwork essential. A Blackhawk is useless if it's not transporting troops, or if no-one is manning its mini-guns, yet all too often, you'll see a fellow player leap into a vehicle and race off alone, ignoring your plaintive pleas for them to give you a ride. Therefore JOPS suffers more than most online shooters when people won't be team players.
This can be made all the more galling by another of JOPS's more serious flaws: the game's unique selling point is that you can have up to 150 players on a single server. This sounds great in theory, but unfortunately, in reality this makes the game a chronic system hog. Don't expect to go near a 150 player server with a PC approaching the minimum spec and enjoy something we pro-gamers like to call "a frame rate". You know how in anime they pan a still frame across the screen to simulate fast action? Take a sub-2GHz PC onto a 40 player server, and that's the kind of experience you should expect. Only slower.
With this image in mind, picture the following scene. You've just re-spawned on an Advance And Secure map (AAS is the most popular JOPS game type - not unlike Onslaught in UT2004). You're on your own. There are no vehicles at the spawn point, because a load of n00bs have stolen them all. The nearest objective is 600 metres away. You align the objective up in your HUD, and you start the five minute traipse across the map to get to the action. You get to within 100 metres of the enemy base, and you ready your assault rifle. BANG! You're dead. A sniper with 2mb broadband and an Athlon FX has just blown your brains out with a Barret Light 50 before you even knew he was there, because you'd had to reduce the draw distance to the end of your nose to get a frame rate in double figures. You grit your teeth, and wait until you can re-spawn again. You decide to get a sniper rifle of your own to even things out a bit. You poke your head out from around the entrance to the re-spawn point. BANG! A bastard spawn camper has just ruined your entire day. Wash, rinse and repeat, ad infinitum. Now, this is all well and good if you're one of the spawn campers, but if you're someone sitting on the minimum spec, it's a serious source of frustration. It's not helped by the fact that JOPS gives both sides a choice of sniper rifles that would make the average NRA member weak at the knees. The large, open maps give canny snipers a huge field of fire, making life very difficult for people not in a well armoured vehicle. Often your only defence is to counter-snipe, which arguably isn't nearly as fun as charging into an enemy base like Animal Mother from Full Metal Jacket, with your M60 raging.
The Co-op servers prove a welcome respite from all the rampant camping, however, and with a much more limited headcount than the Team Deathmatch, Team King Of The Hill or Advance And Secure servers, are far more likely to give you a playable (and enjoyable) experience the closer you are to the minimum specification. The Co-op servers are also much friendlier, almost to the degree of being social (for an FPS). They also demonstrate a far greater frequency of teamwork than other public servers, even if the challenge isn't quite as stiff against the AI enemies.
Overall, Joint Operations isn't quite as much fun as it should be. It has all the elements in place to be exceptional, but there are just too many little niggles - it somehow contrives to be less than the sum of its parts. The large scale of the maps allows vehicles to be used for combined arms actions in a manner hitherto unseen in any online FPS game to date, but this introduces as many problems as advantages. The number of truly extraordinary moments you will get from doing things like shooting down enemy helicopters with unguided rockets, or successfully ferrying an APC and half a dozen troops into a hot landing zone using a Chinook will probably be outweighed by the frustrating number of unfair deaths from unseen opponents who have a better PC spec than you do. These flaws don't prevent the game from being enjoyable, or indeed rewarding, but they do prevent you from finding a reason to drag yourself away from more accomplished online shooters like UT2004 and Planetside.