The stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, 1999, found me huddled in the freezing-cold office of my family's drafty old home in Northwest Indiana. There was plastic sheeting over a poorly sealed, jammed-shut patio door, in a vague gesture at insulation. When I first entered the room, I could see my breath in the air, like I was in some kind of suburban Dr. Zhivago.
But I didn't care how bitter the cold was. I couldn't sleep and I needed something to take my mind off of… everything. So I spent Christmas Eve shivering in my pajamas playing Novalogic's Delta Force, my feet slowly going numb and my hands starting to ache from the cold. I barely noticed. I was the Roland the Thompson Gunner of the unending war on the US EAST TEAM KOTH OFFICIAL SERVER. It was a place where I was good, and talented, and at peace.
As this comes from a former fanboy, take this with a grain of salt. But I still say Delta Force was ahead of its time, a precursor to the modern military shooter. It wasn't as tactical or demanding as a game like Rainbow Six, but it offered something that nobody else did: huge battlefields that at least suggested the scope of modern warfare.
It was able to do this because of NovaLogic's singular love of the voxel at a time when everyone else was trying to adapt polygons to more natural settings, with mixed results. Spec Ops: Rangers Lead the Way, a contemporary game that would ultimately lead to a more successful series, never managed the trick. Its portrayal of the ex-Soviet countryside was as a flat table dotted with telephone-pole like trees and pyramidal hills. Delta Force, however, managed an incredibly detailed and nuanced treatment of terrain that games really only started matching in the last five or six years.
The trade-off for all these convincing gulches, glens, and hillocks was the voxel's signature blurriness. Delta Force had some of the most astonishing vistas PC gaming, but things that looked tremendous at 250 m looked like mud photographed through a greasy lens when you got close. But that's actually what made Delta Force so different, and why it became the first multiplayer game I became well and truly obsessed with.
By the end of the 1990s, PC gaming was really split between the broadband haves and have-nots. Tell me how you felt about Quake 3 and I'll tell you what your connection speed was, or how far you were from a LAN center. Shooters seemed to be designed for a twitchy, fast-paced world where sixteen people were playing together and getting rocketed to death the instant they were spotted. They played at a level where milliseconds mattered and, more importantly, so did a stable and reliable connection to the internet. My shaky 14.4 kbps connection didn't belong in that world, and neither did my more deliberative style of play.
Delta Force felt tailor-made for me. With engagement ranges of half a kilometer across sprawling open battlefields, combat and movement were measured in minutes rather than fractions of seconds. Furthermore, while the voxel landscape looked tremendous in some ways, it had some ...oddities. It seemed to shift around you as you moved, almost shimmering. This meant that players' character models blended into the environment and sometimes were almost swallowed by it. Was that distant cluster of pixels an odd bit of the landscape juddering about as you moved, or was it a sniper drawing a bead on you with a .50 caliber Barrett rifle? The magic of voxels was that you had no idea.
Delta Force came out in 1998 and I got into it a few months later. But by the winter of 1999, the servers were shutting down and the community was starting to dry up as people moved onto Delta Force 2 or other games. Those of us who remained, however, were very, very good.
In our dwindling numbers, we stopped being strangers on the Internet. We were like an armed forum, a community that sprang into being to fight over a magic circle drawn on a map, night after night. You'd see the same twenty of thirty handles come in and out of the server every night. USMC_0223, WHITE KNIGHT, Zapata, SAWMaster… sometimes we were on the same team and sometimes we weren't. We feuded, we banded to together to deal with the hackers who sometimes overran the servers, and above all we played some of the best Team King of the Hill matches I've ever seen in any game.
With hundreds of hours under our belts, we were ridiculously good at the game. Team King of the Hill was where the best players congregated because it actually made all the weapon loadouts useful, and it organized the battle in such a way to minimize the role of blind chance. I remember once a few Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch die-hards showed up to trash-talk us. A couple of us decided to head over into their servers and, for the rest of the night, we basically shut down the deathmatch communities, even without knowing the maps. It was like setting the Predator loose on a Boy Scout troop.