The free-to-play model for online games is on a rapid rise. I'm not talking about flash portals, but fully featured MMOs and other online titles that you'd normally pay a monthly subscription for, or at the least a flat fee. Under free to play, you download the game for free, playing as long as you want without spending a cent. There are in-game items you can buy with real money to improve your character, but these items can also be purchased using in-game currency you gain over time from skillful play.
Now with never being required to spend money you'd expect these games to suck, right? Wrong. Alliance of Valiant Arms is built on the Unreal 3 engine, and sports just as much detail as the Rainbow Six: Vegas series, with a hell of a lot more customization. Besides being able to change your character's appearance in minute detail, you can select your weapon loadout for each of the three classes, and customize those weapons with over a half-dozen different part types, improving things like ammo capacity, stability, and sheer stopping power. Skilled players could probably do without, but for us mortals it's nice to have an edge on the battlefield.
...sports just as much detail as the Rainbow Six: Vegas series, with a hell of a lot more customization.
We got some hands-on time with Alliance of Valiant Arms and I was blown away. Not just talking about my many, many deaths either. Yes, the game looks amazing, but for real shooter fans it's all about the gameplay. AVA boasts responsive controls, great maps, perfectly balanced classes, and the tension that comes from knowing in every firefight you're only a few shots away from death. Emerging the victor in a shotgun duel is a rush like few fully commercial FPS titles can manage. Here, it's all due to how quickly I can cycle through my three weapons or pull a grenade, following one of the map's alternate routes to get the drop on enemies tagged by a teammate. Even though I wasn't the most brilliant player in the game, I was still helping out my team and always having fun.
The three classes of scout, assault, and sniper can be switched at death, and changing classes really changes how you play. The scout is fast and in your face, using powerful but short range weapons. Assault is great for medium range shooting, providing covering fire with his assault rifle. And the sniper is absolutely deadly at long range, but catch him up close, and he's a goner. After only one session, I knew which class I needed to come back from the grave with, and give my enemies a good face stomping. Only they changed classes too, and returned the favor. It kept the situation fluid with no team truly dominating until the end.
The plot of this alternate present involves a fierce war between the European Union and the Neo Russian Federation, with the domination of Europe to be decided in three game modes, each supporting up to sixteen players. You have the classic team deathmatch, and a demolition mode where one team sets charges that the other struggles to defuse, but what we played was escort. Here one team guides an automated tank through the battlefield by remaining close by. You can even use the powerful machine gun in the turret, but that leaves you a sitting duck. Repairing it is something every class can manage, because if the other team destroys it, they win.
The maps are all based on real world locations visited by the development team, through rendered suitably wrecked and ruined to depict a land ravaged by endless warfare. Thankfully the detailed textures and smoke effects never distract from the gameplay, made possible by these sprawling environments full of pathways, niches, and other elements for a clever player to take advantage of.
Alliance of Valiant Arms was one of the two games I wish I had the chance to play more at E3, but I'll have to wait until late 2009 to return to the battlefield.
Watch gameplay footage of Alliance of Valiant Arms (Flash, 5.0 MB).