Friday, August 28, 2009

Section 8’s Eyes May Be Bigger Than Its Stomach

section8jan22 A few months ago I heard about a first-person shooter with plans to abolish some genre conventions.  In an interview with Gamasutra, Robert Siwiak, a producer on Section 8 with TimeGate Studios, discussed the studio’s desire to “take what has been contemporary for first-person shooters for the past 10 to 15 years and say, ‘You know what, in some areas, there's a different way to do things.’” 

“A different way to do things” means nixing fixed spawn points.  It means allowing the player to airlift in vehicles or turrets.  It means Dynamic Combat Missions, a series of optional objectives that can easily change the course of a battle.

With the open beta in full swing, a demo available on Xbox Live, and a retail release just a few weeks away, I decided to see what the hubbub was about.  Unfortunately, my experience with the demo’s only gotten me worried about an otherwise-promising IP.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to reinvigorate the FPS genre.  And why not give TimeGate, a studio known primarily for its Kohan series of RTS titles, a shot?  Section 8 is angling for a share of the Big Ass Battle market, proven alive and well by the recent success of Battlefield 1943.  And TimeGate even got Microsoft to agree to some clan support by allowing players to run their own dedicated servers on Windows PCs.  Servers like this can bump the player cap from 16 to 32, which should make for bigger and crazier battles.  So far so good.  But how does Section 8 play? 

Your Heart Was in the Right Place…

If someone stuck a gun to my head and demanded I detail three reasons why they absolutely must play Section 8, I would cite the dropship spawning system, the customizable suit loadouts, and the Dynamic Combat Missions.  When players spawn, they do so via orbital dropships, choosing their location from a map.  They may want to drop in right next to their squad-mates (perfect for turning the tide in a firefight) or just outside the enemy-controlled base in hopes of sprinting past the sentry guns and hacking the control point.  Each control point is outfitted with AA turrets capable of shooting down players spawning within their firing range.  No camping here, folks. 

Every time they spawn, players can select from one of six suit loadouts, a feature reminiscent of the customizable mechs from Mechwarrior or Chromehounds.  There are six standard options, ranging from heavily-armed artillery to speedy infiltrator models.  However, they can all be completely customized:  their weapons, their equipment, and even their passive modules which grant bonuses to weapon damage, shields, etc.  This means that players can, depending on the objective, switch out a knife for a repair tool or a pistol for a rocket launcher. 

These personalized loadouts come in handy once the Dynamic Combat Missions become active.  DCMs, upon completion, grant teams points toward the total required for victory.  Objectives include driving an armored convoy vehicle back to your base, escorting a computer-controlled VIP, or retrieving enemy intelligence.  They all have time limits, so the enemy can stop you by either destroying your objective or simply holding you at bay.  Essentially, it wraps up a variety of common multiplayer modes into one big skirmish that also happens to have control points.  It’s an online shooter smorgasbord.

But You Bit Off More Than You Could Chew

A little bit of ambition never hurt anyone (a lot of ambition maybe, but not a little).  But I’m afraid that the Section 8 team may have missed the forest for the trees.  While they had less trouble inventing fresh mechanics than G.W. Carver did coming up with uses for the peanut, the game lacks an overall level of polish and competence that we’ve come to expect from full-priced retail releases.  And since said release is about only two weeks away, I believe the demo to be a pretty good (or bad, in this case) indicator of what’s to come.

For one thing, I get stuck on terrain.  A lot.  My supersuit-powered space marine gets his feet caught in divots in the ground, and I have to wait for his jetpack to recharge before I can get him out.  My rocket-launching convoy tank accidentally tumbles off a riverbed and gets stuck under a bridge (what I wouldn’t give for some destructible terrain).  Also, the jump height is atrocious.  Without resorting to his jetpack, my supersuit-powered space marine can clear ledges maybe 1 ft. tall.  I’m not asking for Halo jumping, by any means, but Source engine ups would do.  I could also go into a lengthy discussion about the mapping of the Jump command (and the rest of the completely unintuitive, only-sort-of-customizable controls) on 360, but I fear I might just give myself an aneurysm.  Suffice to say the controls felt like a surprisingly high barrier to entry.

Another thing that gives me pause is how buggy other parts of the demo were.  Occasionally after matches, I was treated to an inescapable, roaming camera tour of the map.  I was literally trapped in the game for multiple minutes and had to retreat directly to my Xbox Dashboard.  If this is happening prelaunch, I worry about the game’s stability after TimeGate turns it over to the user-created servers.  Also, I couldn’t always tell if and when my grenades and rockets were exploding.  Whether or not this problem was caused purely by lag I don’t know, but sometimes it just felt like my commands refused to register.  I also noticed input difficulty when trying to exit my supersuit’s Overdrive mode, which is a shame given its handiness in map-traversing sprints.

Hoping for the Best

When Section 8 clicks, it’s wonderful.  I’m requisitioning turrets from my dropship, blasting opponents with the handy recharging Lock On function, and completing a variety of objectives in a single session of play.  When it breaks down, it’s a shame because I’m reminded of all the awesome things I could be doing.  Furthermore, how this multiplayer-oriented gameplay will translate to a single-player campaign is beyond me.  I expect a lot of derivative narrative draped around missions that would be ten times more fun in multiplayer.  If Section 8 doesn’t have its act together by the time it hits shelves, I’ll watch, disappointed, as a forward-thinking game languishes under the long shadow cast by Halo 3: ODST before fading into obscurity.