"Contact one-oh-five, danger close!"
A chorus of gunfire erupts from the hill to our east. Along the rise I can barely spy the vague shape of enemy soldiers. Aiming down the sights, I squeeze a burst into the thick treeline obscuring the hill. The returning gunfire is immediate. Shouts for a medic come through the radio. I hit the dirt just in time to hear the hiss of bullets overhead. The wall I'm cuddling is only 3 feet high, and with the angle the attackers have on the hill, I fear it's not enough. Someone else in my squad has the same thought.
"We can't stay here," he says. Our leader, who fittingly goes by "Sarge", agrees. After we respond with a barrage of suppressing fire, he orders us to move west across the road and into the cover of the shoulder high cornfield. Sarge calls for us to "smoke the field" and I toss my smoke grenade 20 yards south in hopes that it draws fire away from our actual location. As another bullet hisses by my head, Sarge orders us to keep moving west to the safety of a house. I won't make it. Just as I emerge from the smoke and corn, a burst catches me in the back and I'm down. Heavily suppressed and without a medic, the squad is forced to abandon me.
Moments like this are common in Squad, a tactical, multiplayer shooter for the PC that aims to replicate the scale and pace of modern warfare. Compared to the explosive action of Call of Duty and Battlefield 4, Squad looks positively boring at first glance. Where both of those shooters strive to distill combat into its sexiest form—a sizzle reel of explosions and drama pulled straight from any blockbuster war movie—Squad feels contemplative and slow. Its depiction of warfare doesn't include flashy betrayals or pretty explosions. Instead, Squad emphasizes the authentic tension of a real firefight, the necessity for teamwork and communication, and the satisfaction of being only one part of a greater machine. And after a week spent playing and training with DevGru, a group mostly consisting of military veterans who take Squad more seriously than most, I'm starting to think I prefer my shooters this way.
Because Squad is already built with strategy in mind, Dev and his clan decided to take things one step further and weave real-world military tactics and formations into how they play the game. For him the decision was natural. He served in an infantry battalion for the British Army and has seen over 90 combat missions during his service. And Dev isn't the only one. While DevGru recruits players from all walks of life, a significant chunk of its 44 members have served in their respective country's military.
"Our aim as a clan is to create an effective and disciplined fighting force with standardized techniques that allow our members to operate together without friction," Dev, the commanding officer of DevGru says. He sounds formal at first but then adds: "And essentially just give everyone a great time."
Unlike most shooters, Squad isn't meant to be played without a group. You won't be sprinting through levels running and gunning your way to a glorious high score, viewing your team mates only as meat shields to draw enemy fire away from you. Instead, Squad endeavors to deliver an experience that puts you in the shoes of a soldier, not a hero. You'll rarely see the eyes of the person you kill—if you kill any at all. This puts Squad in a category of shooters referred to as "military simulation" ("mil-sim" for short), a genre of games that attract players who want an authentic depiction of warfare, not just an entertaining one.
Abandoning the tightly designed maps seen in most shooters, where players are funnelled into combat through a series of paths that weave from one end of the map to the other, Squad focuses on military engagements on a massive scale. Teams of up to 36 are divided into multiple squads, which must then coordinate via their squad leaders to capture multiple objectives while also defending from enemy attacks.
"These real-world skills that we have, for the most part, can't be integrated into society or into a normal job," Dev says. "We have all this knowledge and skill, and we like it, and we would like to continue to use it, so we just put the skillsets we learned into the game."
That blend of military tactics isn't exactly intended to give DevGru an edge over other clans in the game. When I asked Dev about it, he told me that the drills and formations were more a tool to help foster a tightly knit community. Whether those formations actually helped them in a match isn't the focus. Instead, Dev wants to find ways to help his team bond and learn to work together. It just so happens that practicing drills can do just the trick.
Even though Dev's approach to Squad might seem overly serious, there's a massive distinction between what he plays in the game and what he's lived through in real life. "You can't compare war to a video game," he tells me. "They try their best to stimulate your senses and deliver an authentic war experience, but there's nothing like real war. It's raw and real."
"Squad does a great job of demanding teamwork, but war is war and video games are video games."
Instead of spending their time playing Squad just for fun, DevGru works to train its members into knowledgeable and highly functional virtual soldiers. They run weekly practices where new players are introduced to the basics of the game and made to run drills and practice formations. On my first day training with DevGru, I was even given a 38 page training manual that Dev had authored with help from the clan. When I read it later that night, it was hard to remember that I was reading a manual for a video game—what with all the explanations of different ways of firing your weapon, unit formations, and battle tactics, all of it inspired by Dev and his clan's military experience.
As a unit, we practiced movement formations like the "herring bone", which had every member of the squad in single file alternating between covering the left or right flank. Afterwards, we moved on to the process of attacking and securing compounds that can be found on the Middle-Eastern maps. Here we formed up along the walls, with two players covering the door and a third lobbing a grenade into the compound. Once it detonated we stormed the complex, sweeping through it in teams and then securing the exits and waiting for our next orders. Later, we practiced a staggered retreat down an open road, taking turns to cover fire while squad members leapfrogged to the back of the line, folding in on each other and rolling back to safety while still engaging imaginary enemies.
Dev walks the squad through a "Rolling T" formation.
Though an afternoon spent in bootcamp might not sound like the most exciting way to spend your time, I left training hungry for more. It was refreshing to play a game that demanded more of me than twitch reflexes and the uncanny ability to score headshots. While shooting is obviously an important factor of Squad, I went into my first real match with DevGru understanding that a soldier's usefulness extends well beyond how good of a shot he is.
Perhaps the biggest contributing element of success in Squad is communication. Coming from years of playing multiplayer shooters alone, suddenly having a team that I needed to talk to felt strange. But training yourself to communicate effectively isn't as easy or as natural as you might think. Fortunately, Squad provides built-in voice communication that allows you to choose between talking over radio to your whole squad or directly to those in your vicinity. There's even a squad leader channel to help squads coordinate with each other.
Few shooters ever inspire a dependance on your teammates, but Squad is built from the ground up to require players to work together. From calling out enemy positions, announcing you're reloading, to even acknowledging orders, it was the most my microphone had been used in months. It took a great deal of effort when my instinct was to stay quiet.
There's an art to delivering information, as I learned when I excitedly shouted "contact" during a firefight and didn't provide a direction. Someone else had to step in and deliver the proper information before the everyone knew where to aim. Another time, when we exfiltrated a compound as a unit, a player forgot to announce he was the last one, leaving the two men covering the exit to fall behind.
"From the get-go we interview the guys that come in here," Dev says. "So we immediately get an idea of it they're good at communicating." He goes on to explain that their most charismatic players also tend to be the ones that act as squad leaders during matches.
The reason communication is so integral largely depends with how helpless you feel as an individual soldier while playing. Firefights in Squad are pure chaos, and though you have a map that will identify friendly positions, there is no way to know the movement of an enemy without actually seeing them—a stark difference from most shooters that are all too happy to highlight enemies for the sake of ease and fun. The open layout of each map also means determining the direction of an attack can be challenging, especially when all you have to go by is the hiss and crack of bullets striking your position.
Caption: Our unit is engaged enroute to an objective and forced to take cover in a nearby house while trying to return fire.
When we crouched along a tree line to survey the stretch of field before us, I couldn't shake the feeling of vulnerability as I watched for movement. There was never any feeling of empowerment—not one that came from my own actions at least. Instead, it was the realization that, as a single soldier I am neutered, but as a part of a squad I can be useful. It's a revelation that few games ever inspire, and one not found in the way most shooters pat you on the back when you kill enough bad guys.
That is what made every moment of Squad feel like it mattered, even the long stretches where we sat silently holding our position and waiting for orders. Layered with the giant maps and organic flow of battle, my week with DevGru left me with dozens of little moments that each felt authentic and meaningful.
When our squad was tasked with defending a compound from attacking forces, it became a bitter siege that lasted the better part of an hour. For most of that time I was crouched, covering my exit and applying suppressive fire when I could. And when it was over, I hardly cared that I didn't kill a single enemy. Instead, I was thinking of how exhausting and affecting that ordeal was—and I didn't want it to end.
Unlike Arma 3, which is the most hard-core military simulation you can play, Squad is more of a bridge between the two types of online shooter, and right now it's early enough in development that most of what it aspires to achieve is yet to be realized, like the addition of vehicular warfare. But a healthy community has already sprouted up around the game. Some even test their mettle in organized clan versus clan warfare through Squad League, competitive league that streams weekly on Twitch that can be surprisingly entertaining to watch.
My week playing it as a part of a tight-knit unit was one of the more memorable experiences I've had in an online game. Live Dev, I'm not entirely convinced that the extra layer of military tactics and drills gave me a serious edge on the field of battle—definitely not after only a week of practice and exposure to the unique culture of the clan, but even if that's the case, I'm not so sure I would want to play Squad any other way. Even if the difference between victory and defeat isn't in how well you can replicate real military strategy in the game, the added challenge is one that I'd gladly seek out again. While I never anticipated wanting to play with DevGru after this week was over, I can't help but look forward to the next training session. Maybe this time I'll remember to yell out more than just "contact!"