Updated Sun, Dec 20, 2009 by Ethec
by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
January 31, 2008 - Ten Ton Hammer is a network focused on MMORPG news, information, and commentary. Warmonger Operation: Downtown Destruction is a multiplayer first-person shooter. As a rule, we don't comment on these types of games, but we're making an exception in this case. Reason being, Warmonger is more than just a shoot-'em-up showpiece for Ageia PhysX hardware acceleration.
When we met with Scott Brown and NetDevil at Game Developers Conference last year (link)to learn more about Warmonger, Brown described the project as a tentative step toward a totally new form of combat in MMORPGs. Explaining that one of the failures of Auto Assault was that NetDevil tried to turn the traditional MMORPG too much on its head, transitioning MMO gamers from orcs and elves to fast-paced car combat with only a wink and nod at the driver's out-of-car avatar, he described Warmonger as a baby step towards a revoluntionary style of shooter gameplay where tactical control of the environment could offer a huge battlefield advantage. We were promised the ability to hole up as a sniper on the second story of a building, cutting off pursuers with a rocket blast to the sole stairwell. Or to level the playing field (literally) by blowing a hole in the floor to attack that sniper.
Rocket launcher, building. Building, rocket launcher.
Game developers have been doing this kind of thing for years, true, but only as part of a scripted encounter. Never have we seem something like this in a dynamic, open-ended multiplayer game environment, and from what we know of Ageia's proprietary tech, it's due to the power of PhysX to add a new layer of realism to the game experience, rather than just topping up the framerate. By distributing physics calculations to the physics processing unit (or PPU, a separate PCI hardware card), game developers can allow structures to fail and cloth to tear dynamically, even droplets of water to flow depending on how the gamer interacts with these in-game objects, and all without an additional drain on the central processor or graphics card.
It sounds very cool, but a game developer can't make aspects of gameplay dependent on the user having a PhysX card, especially in a multiplayer environment. It wouldn't be sporting if PPU-enabled Player X could channel the acid to dissolve PPU-less Player Y if Player Y didn't at least have the opportunity to do the same to Player X. Or even if Player Y suffered a massive performance hit when venturing into Player X's acid playground as Y's processor strained to render the fluid caustic badness.
So, historically speaking, the power of the PPU has been relegated to window dressing - flags blowing in the breeze, jungle vegetation that reacts to bullet impact – even though PhysX hardware support is offered in a number of venerable titles, like City of Villains, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 1 & 2, and Unreal Tournament 3. But NetDevil's mission in Warmonger Operation: Downtown Destruction was to finally make PhysX relevant to gameplay in a big way. Did it succeed?
On the face of it, Warmonger is a fairly no-frills multiplayer shooter with above average graphics (though you might expect a little more polish to the animations in a retail title). Aside from the secondary shielding ability of your "Cutlass" minigun (shield mode forbids movement and firing) and the severely imbalanced pwnage doled out by the rocket launcher, the weaponry and interface are pretty much garden-variety FPS. This was about what I expected from a game that seeks to distinguish itself on robust player tactics and the visual appeal of sheer destruction rather than a nuanced storyline, or superman-style protagonist. The feel of Warmonger is gritty, post-apocalyptic, and senseless by design; and the closest you'll get to a single-player campaign is an "offline training" mode featuring AI-controlled "bots" in lieu of online teammates and opponents. It's heady stuff to dive into if you're not a dyed-in-wool shooter fan, but the tutorial (though understandably Spartan and hella quick) is adequate to introduce you to the controls and tools of the warmongering trade. Once the tutorial ends, however, it's all about the team rather than the individual, and Warmonger pits red against blue, Halo-style.
It's in the tutorial that you'll get your first hint of PhysX's influence. One enemy will set himself in ambuscade behind a cloth curtain. You can't see him, he can't see you, but he can sure shoot you if he has a general idea of where you are (or the magazine capacity to suppress your approach while his teammates close in). Fortunately, a hail of gunfire will reduce this hiding spot to shreds, and this might be a good preemptive strategy when you spot a curtain and you're unsure of who's owns the ground ahead. But hosing down the curtain may reveal your position and bring unwanted attention. It's this kind of back-and-forth that fires the imagination for what PhysX could bring to gaming if developers follow Netdevil's lead in giving this technology a chance.