Warface: hands-on with Crytek’s free to play FPS

Warface is a left-of-field proposition for Crytek, a developer best known for the enduring power of its development engines. It’s a free multiplayer FPS that needs to set the performance bar low enough to gain traction in the Internet cafés of Asia, yet must still be able to compete with the big-budget shooters that dominate in the west. Having recently topped five million players in Russia, it’s demonstrated it can do the former – can it go the rest of the way?

As a competitive shooter, Warface’s main reference point is Call Of Duty, but there’s a little Counter-Strike in the way its maps encourage careful area clearance and generate firefights around chokepoints. Movement is slow and heavy, meaning that a poorly timed break from cover can leave you exposed, and encouraging liberal use of the sprint button. As a consequence, the majority of surprise encounters become quick-draw duels as both players stop dashing to bring their weapons to bear. Warface differentiates itself with a slide mechanic that allows the player to pass under obstacles or get behind cover by diving from a sprint into a frictionless butt-glide. This isn’t a game that takes itself very seriously, and if the name wasn’t proof enough then watching a man slide under a fence holding a primed grenade should drive the point home.

Free-for-all and team deathmatch behave according to type, and there’s also an objective capture mode in which teams swap attack and defence roles. The game’s offering in this regard is strictly functional – this is the FPS as a service, a suite of playstyles that support rather than challenge the basic idea of running around a box and shooting your friends.

Similar to Nadeo’s free-to-play racer TrackMania, maps are drawn from themed asset packs. As such, players should be ready to see the same storage container, desert shack and burned-out car in a wide variety of different contexts. The upside of this is the speed with which Crytek can generate and iterate upon levels, which should enhance their variety and quality in the long term.

Weapons are drawn from a similarly familiar pool – assault rifles and shotguns, SMGs, handguns and so on. You swap in a wide range of scopes, silencers and other attachments on the fly, a feature cribbed wholesale from Crysis 2. Gun feel is a mixed bag; some of the shotguns in particular suffer from underwhelming animation and audio, but the assault rifles and pistols tend to fare better. The most satisfying feedback comes from the red hit indicator that blooms in the centre of the screen after a successful shot – in many ways, Warface’s military bearing belies the coin-op sensibility that’s lurking underneath.

This is most apparent in the game’s co-op mode, a score-attack challenge that leads a small team of players through linear stages punctuated by boss battles. Enemies behave with the fidelity and grace of pop-up bandits, but the combo multiplier at the top of the screen encourages the idea that enemy soldiers are points waiting to be scored, not opponents to be taken seriously. The simplistic AI could limit the longterm viability of cooperative play, but the mode looks fit to serve its stated purpose, providing an alternative way into multiplayer FPS gaming for players unwilling to brave the competitive side straight away. This is reinforced by the way that co-op missions are doled out as MMOG-style daily challenges. They’re framed as a diversion to be dipped into, rather than a game to be invested in.

In the west, Warface will launch alongside Gface, Crytek’s proprietary social network. It won’t be the first shooter with the support of a web app, but it’s among the first to acknowledge the way that these kinds of games plug into the daily lives of the majority of players. Its Time Crisis-style co-op mode, its pared-down deathmatch arenas and even its name are expressions of the idea that, despite their allusions to real conflict, modern military shooters are the definition of mainstream. Warface’s potential comes from the way that this meshes with its business model – it may not push technological boundaries in the way that Crytek is known for, but as a lunchtime blaster with a low barrier to entry it nonetheless looks something like the future.