Parabellum – hands-on

Si vis pacem, para bellum - “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Parabellum’s slogan has a dramatic ring, but it doesn’t tell us much about its content. Anyone know the Latin for, “If you want a free, quick FPS that uses microtransactions, download our game?”

Gratis or not, Parabellum looks pretty. Powered by the Unreal Engine 3, coats of physics, lighting, and animation tech color its two main modes: a non-linear campaign and team deathmatch. We’re trying out the former, a scenario that sees us (and our four counter-terrorist teammates), with just 10 minutes to stop a nuke from making New York do a pretty good Fallout impression. But before we can cut wires dramatically, we have to complete our immediate objective: disarming/planting/rescuing stuff of lesser value. So far, still so Counter-Strike. A first map takes us just a few minutes.

Quickly, we’re progressing through different maps, attacking additional objectives. The aim is to keep campaigns, like the rounds, brief. At the moment, they’re somewhere between 10 and 40 minutes, with the map list differing depending on which campaign you select. It’s not long before we’re running the final map, disarming the big, bad nuke that wants to blow the Big Apple’s house down. If we were in a clan match, this might be when we’d hear the gentle refrain of a battle hymn we uploaded (for a nominal fee) in the background. Once we’d defused the nuke, we’d bask in the moody melodies of Barry Manilow - our opponents would hear it too. Fail, and feel the reverse treatment (Black Sabbath?), with added nuclear winter across the screen.

Structurally, these micro-plots are exactly what Acony is shooting for. The developer is making a game that imposes as little as possible on the player: no charge up front for the game itself, and a campaign format that works to compress a session into as little time as possible, while still providing a complete, cohesive experience. This accessibility feeds into gentle system specs: just a 2GHz P4 and 512MB RAM for the planned minimum. So, no shelling out bucks for a new videocard, but if you do decide to drop dimes on in-game content, it’ll be worth it. Player-uploaded battle music is one example of paying for a cool, if gimmicky, tweak that (as Acony emphasizes) doesn’t impact the game to give you an advantage.

Other paid-for benefits, like turning off the in-game advertising, using clan logos, and other undisclosed content, will be unveiled over time. Weapon mods like scopes and silencers will come from experience and levels, not your wallet. Stat-tracking is another focus, with headshots and kill counts, who took the most damage, accuracy, and more aggregated into players’ profile pages on the Web portal that ties everything together, as well as providing the store’s “Barbie doll element” (Acony’s words, not mine). Like EA’s also-free Battlefield: Heroes, playing dress-up commando is part of the plan. Two hundred costume pieces (with more being added after launch) let you tailor individual sections of your model, weapon, and equipment pieces, making you recognizable to friends and foes alike across servers. Start drafting your clan uniforms now, if you dig color coordinating.

For Acony’s Founder, Frank Trigub, Parabellum’s design thesis is to be a game with the pace of CS, the semi-social, customizable aspect of an MMO, and an incremental business model that encourages constant redevelopment and demands collaboration with the community. A game where the entry ticket costs nothing, and you pay to tweak the experience. When there’s no obligation to pay, the road to financial success lies in listening to exactly what players want changed, and reacting to that. A content schedule is planned for the five years following release. “Most of these Korean games, they’re being made for maybe $1 million, and making all that back. With Parabellum...the costs are much higher.” There’s a pause, and he just laughs - which has to be admired, really. Despite the relative success of free-to-play in the west, it’s still a new frontier for most game developers. What will the results be for high-profile titles when devs adapt these ideas for the masses?

+ Parabellum’s campaign mode could help it stand out against other $0 online shooters, with customizable characters providing some added persistence.
– Paid-for content won’t improve your combat power, but will outfits, ad-less play, and other options be too gimmicky to be worth paying for?

Sep 17, 2008