Full Spectrum Warrior
War is a popular theme these days, but this is war with a difference. Just how much has Pandemic done with the subject matter?
Exploiting the horrors of war for entertainment is a volatile subject, but whatever your stance you have to admit that armed conflict has given us some of the best games of recent memory. Pandemic's Full Spectrum Warrior started life as a simulator for new infantry grunts in the U.S. Army. The company has taken this raw material, spiced it up with some necessarily complicated controls and kneaded it into a tense and challenging loaf of gaming's best.
Many consider compulsory tutorials to be at best a major annoyance, but when the game is as complex as Full Spectrum Warrior is, you'll just have to put your faith in the developer. At over half-an-hour, the opening lessons can occasionally feel like you're being spoken down to, but once you hit the gravelly streets of Zekistan, with bullets grazing your skull and enemy tangos around every corner, you'll be glad to have developed a few reflexes of your own.
The core of the game is an innovative mix of real-time strategy and first-person shooter controls. It feels like you're playing Command & Conquer: Generals in an urban environment from the perspective of the ground forces. Your role is to guide your teams through the urban terrain, directing offensive and defensive tactics as you go along. There is admittedly a period of getting used to not being able to take shots yourself, but the excellent AI of your teammates quickly dissolves any hesitance to embrace the format.
In fact, the AI in general is one of the highlights of the game. Not only will enemies actually make an effort to see your blood splatter the sandstone walls, but your teammates will endeavour to see that this fate doesn't befall you. Since you're constantly switching between teams to nudge closer to the next mission objective, it's comforting to know that your men aren't going to get themselves shot down as soon as you leave them alone.
You control two four-man teams, each comprised of a grenadier, a rifleman, an autorifleman and a team leader. For the most part each team acts a unit. It is possible to assign individual actions to the specialised team members, but you can't move them around separately. Full Spectrum Warrior incorporates the military concept of the Fog of War--as seen in games like Intelligent Systems' Advance Wars--that limits your awareness to spaces you're physically observing. Depending on the difficulty level you're playing at, this has either little or significant bearing on how you approach missions. By directing team members individually you can ensure no ne'er-do-well is going to gun you down from behind.
Gameplay is mission-based and unfolds as you complete mid-mission objectives. This adds to the prevalent sense of tension that permeates that game. You never know just when an enemy is going to round a corner and blast you in the face. And there are enough of them that you need to use the skills you learned during training, checking each corner and slowly making your way to the goals. For the most part, you're forced down linear paths, triggering scripted waves of attacks as you progress. While obviously not noticeable during your first play-through, the predetermined nature of opposing force attacks severely reduces repeat-play potential.
There's a certain element of moral responsibility that accompanies creating a war game, which is something that a lot of companies sadly choose to ignore. Full Spectrum Warrior embraces this responsibility, and the game is filled with commentary both minor and obvious. Your teammates oftentimes talk out of nervousness with each other as you roam the desolate streets, and when your rifleman says that he wishes he was back home, you know he means it. The enemies in the game are unnamed guerrillas, but there's no agenda of vilifying the enemy out of hand. The game is presented from the perspective of a team of soldiers placed into a situation they would rather not be in, but who pull themselves together to get the job done.
Technically, Full Spectrum Warrior is hard to fault. The soldiers move with violent grace thanks to impeccable motion capturing, and the bobbing of the first-person camera as you sprint for cover adds to the already asphyxiating atmosphere. This is most definitely a third generation Xbox game, as the real-time shadows, detailed textures and rigid frame-rate will attest. The game is littered with cut-scenes, alternating between those drawn by the in-game engine and prerendered segments.
Aurally it's even better. There's voice-acting throughout, and despite the absence of any name-actors the performances are superb. Each of the nine main cast members (including your commanding officer) is a well-rounded character with a personality and idiosyncrasies all his own. There's more character development in the brief snippets of dialogue than most story-intensive games manage in their entirety. And this has the sundry effect of making you damn-well aware and mindful of everyone in your team. This is war with conscience, and no one gets left behind. And then there's the orchestral score, which mirrors the onscreen chaos and ominously warns you of lurking danger or ushers in relief as you clear an objective.
The nature of the game design means that translating the single-player experience into something a bit more social is not the easiest of tasks. There's no player-versus-player option, but co-op play via Xbox Live is a more-than-worthy alternative. Oddly, Xbox Live is the only option, and those with a propensity for lugging their kit around for system link play will be disappointed. That said, playing with headsets via Xbox Live has the advantage of approximating what's going on in the game world, and the imperfect sound quality of the headsets only adds to your sense of being there. You and some random (or not) Internet stranger each take command of a four-man team, and just as the teams communicate with headsets in the game world, you will have to plan your strategy with your new best friend via constant barking of commands. This is the perfect sort of game for Xbox Live; Traversing a perilous street is transformed from a now-comfortable set of button presses to putting your life into the hands of someone else who lays down suppressing fire to get you across.
Full Spectrum Warrior is not perfect--there is an element of repetitiveness to the gameplay, and it's not quite as open ended as it could be. But this is still one of the best games to come out this year. The interesting controls and arresting game design will have you crossing streets and gunning down alleyways on tenterhooks. There's no exploitation here; Pandemic have used war as a backdrop to create a forceful strategy game that'll have you enthralled until the final breach.
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Full Spectrum Warrior
E3 2004: Trailer from conference (640x480, 1Mbps)
Full Spectrum Warrior
Direct feed video trailer as unveiled at X03. [320x240, 464kbps]