Saturday, September 12, 2009

Section 8 Review

Section 8, developed by TimeGate Studios and published by SouthPeak Games.
The Good: Spawning anywhere elegantly solves camping, fully customizable loadouts with no experience-based limitations, deployable turrets and vehicles reward competent teammates, dynamic side missions always give you something to do, jetpacks and lock-on targeting promote varied combat, overdrive sprinting reduces cross-map transit time, low weapon damage promotes battle tactics
The Not So Good: Damn you Games for Windows Live, squads are pointless
What say you? Numerous positive innovations makes this online first person shooter really stand out: 8/8

TimeGate Studios is one of my favorite developers. Why? They are responsible for my favorite real-time strategy game of all time: Kohan II. It was innovative with a blend of clear-cut resource management, squad customization, and random maps. Plus, I was good at it. Since then, though, the studio has regressed, churning out a couple of lackluster F.E.A.R. expansions that really stunk. But now they have an IP of their own and hope to improve the online first person shooter for the better with a number of innovative features, like allowing you to spawn anywhere and completely customize your weapons and abilities instead of being restricted to childish classes. How will this online shooter stack up against the stiff competition offered by Enemy Territory, Battlefield 2, and Tribes?

Section 8 uses the Unreal Engine 3 and the visuals are quite comparable Enemy Territory: Quake Wars (which, incidentally, came out almost two years ago). Other than the neat and distinctive burn-in effect, there is nothing too impressive or innovative about the graphics. The character models are OK, although they look repetitive as everyone is issued identical armored suits. Large battles look convincingly chaotic thanks to tracers screaming across the landscape. Speaking of landscapes, Section 8 has a decent variety of settings, although the military architecture tends to repeat from map to map. Really, there’s nothing to set Section 8 apart from any other futuristic shooter: you could place screenshots of this game next to Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Frontlines: Fuel of War and you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. The sounds of battle are convincing but not unique: weapon effects, explosions, and the occasional automatic voice commands from your allies. The voice acting is passable, with an over emphasis on action. The musical score is enjoyable enough and only intrudes during the main menu. Overall, the graphics and sound of Section 8 are simply average.

Section 8 has been deployed on some planet to defend against the rebel force that has taken over something. The single player campaign is not the highlight of the game: although it incorporates the multiplayer aspects of the game well, the linear nature of the levels are more limited. Fortunately, the outdoor environments lend themselves to varied avenues of attack, but once you play through it once, that’s enough. Since you can respawn as many times as you’d like in a campaign mission, difficulty is more a matter of how tolerant you are of respawning over and over again. You can play a skirmish “instant action” game with and against the AI, although you are better off playing online since empty spots will be filled with bots anyway. The only point of doing offline action is to play one man army mode, which pits you against an entire team of AI bots: tough stuff.

Multiplayer games feature 16, 24, and 32 player map sizes and the game scales well The map designs are all the same: three or four buildings with open terrain in the middle. Each server is fixed at a certain maximum player population, so the game doesn’t dynamically adjust like Battlefield 2. In total, there are eight maps, although with size variations (smaller maps use portions of the larger ones) the number increases to eighteen. All of the maps use the control point mechanic popular among team-based shooters. There are options for almost competent AI allies: they can fill out the server, or all be placed on one side in equal (co-op mode) or greater (swarm mode) numbers. The AI in general does a decent job obtaining objectives, but isn’t aware of your presence fast enough, although the increased armor at higher difficulty levels make them a formidable foe. Games for Windows LIVE! almost brings the multiplayer aspect of the game screeching to a halt; I have no idea why developers continue to insist on using it. The game doesn’t log you on automatically and the server browser takes a good ten seconds to list all of the games: crap. The first week of release there were problems with stats being recorded correctly (that have been resolved); I didn't realize the intrinsic motivation of stat tracking until it didn't work correctly and I felt less motivated to play the game since all of my l33t skillz won't be recorded. The game automatically places you into squads, although they serve absolutely no purpose: there are no quick commands and certainly no coordination on public servers. and since you can spawn anywhere, the usefulness of a squad leader's position is minimized. The one thing Games for Windows LIVE! does bring to the table is voice chat. Yay.

While pre-scripted classes are nothing new, Section 8 gives you the freedom to fully customize your loadout, choosing any two weapons (an assault rifle, machine gun, missile launcher, pistol, shotgun, and sniper rifle), any two items (an explosives pack, grenades, knife, sensor radar, mortar, repair tool, and sensor jammer), and ten points to distribute amongst your attributes (armor, damage, anti-air, lock-on, repair, shields, the jetpack, detection, and recoil). This high degree of freedom is fantastic and leads to plenty of unique strategies you simply won’t see in other online shooters. It was quite easy to replace all six templates with custom choices, and I wish there were more slots available. You can opt for a long range sniper equipped with a mortar and sensor blocker, a paratrooper that is resistant to anti-air turrets, or an assault loadout focused on close quarters damage: the choices are many. There is a good weapon for every situation, from the long range sniper rifle to the medium range assault rifle. I actually use the pistol, the first game in a long time I can remember ever using it in a shooter, as it’s quite effective at close range. There is no single item that is useless, although there are ones I simply do not use myself (the knife and sensor pack, to name a couple). Importantly, Section 8 does not restrict any of the content, allowing new players to equip everything experienced players can (one of my primary complaints of Battlefield 2142). Section 8 uses a marvelous system for letting the user determine how to play.

Probably the feature that’s gotten the most press in Section 8 is “burning in,” which allows you to spawn anywhere on the map. Yes, no more predictable restrictions that promote significant spawn camping, and a much larger variety of strategies to complete objectives. It’s a great system that gives the player the strategic decision, rather than leaving it up to chance or not giving a choice at all. There are anti-air turrets (both static and deployable) that make life more difficult for those who did not equip the proper modules to prevent people from constantly dropping right on your base. I like to equip my paratrooper loadout (with maximum anti-air protection) and spawn right next to the anti-air turret range (indicated with a circle on the map), and then move towards the base once I have applied by brakes (as you have some control to fine-tune your landing spot once slowed). People won’t like enemies spawning directly behind them and knifing them in the back, but that’s what you get, sniper. Deal with it!

While you will be primarily capturing bases (by hacking control points), eventually dynamic combat missions will be generated that earn a significant amount of points for your team. Triggered using feat points earned for siege, assault, recon, and support actions by your team members, DCMs are a terrific way of changing up the gameplay and they give you something to do other than capture a couple of map locations. Missions include obtaining a briefcase and returning it to a location, escorting a commando or VIP, driving a convoy to a waypoint, defending an outpost, or planting a bomb. Not only do you get points for completing them, but you also earn some points (about half) for stopping the other team. Frantic fire fights routinely break out around outposts, convoys, and VIPs as each team strives to complete their objectives. Section 8 becomes a chaotic mix of people doing different missions, and you are never bored while playing thanks to the dynamic combat missions.

Section 8 also comes with a couple of features designed to take advantage of future technology. Everyone is equipped with shields that absorb damage, making combat a drawn-out process. Jetpacks are also utilized, although they are used in short bursts rather than for long gains of altitude seen in Tribes. Also, you are given a fast sprint called “overdrive” that is activated after five-or-so seconds of forward sprinting: it’s a great way to get across the map quickly. The most controversial feature of Section 8 is lock-on: zooming in with your radar and pressing “E” will lock on to the enemy. The main issue with lock-on is equating it to despised auto-aim seen in inferior console games, but since there are several ways to counter lock-on (the sensor blocker, using cover, modules) and it only lasts a couple of seconds, I find negative arguments to lack merit. Plus, it’s a great way to counter annoying bunny-hopping seen in a plethora of first person shooters. If you don’t like it, equip a sensor blocker! The final tool at your disposal are deployables: sensor arrays, turrets (anti-air, anti-personnel, and anti-tank), and supply depots you can call in anywhere on the map that isn’t covered by enemy anti-air turrets. These aren’t very resistant to damage and can be easily destroyed, but since they are meant for support rather than solitary defense, people expecting something they can plant and leave are using them incorrectly. You can also call in walkers and tanks, which provide a nice amount of firepower and armor, but aren’t invincible if countered with rocket launchers and turrets. The vehicles are locked for the purchaser, so there is no more waiting for vehicles or having others steal yours (or the one you were waiting for). The combat in Section 8 is well-balanced: there is always some weakness to each loadout, since you only have ten points to distribute among nine modules. The skirmishes are also drawn-out, thanks to high armor and shields and low damage weapons: even the sniper rifle takes three or four shots to down an enemy. Those accustomed to Call of Duty-style instant kills won’t like Section 8, but I value what the developers have done, giving you time to try different tactics, which elevates the gameplay above simple reflexes. Teamwork, proper loadouts, strategy, and tactics prevail over lightning-fast reaction times, something older gamers will no doubt appreciate.

I played a disturbingly large amount of Section 8 during the closed and open betas (when I probably should have been reviewing other games), and for good reason: the game is an excellent online first person shooter. Section 8 adds a number of well-developed features that are either unique or inspired (stolen) by other games into a cohesive package of fun. The basic package is there: average but capable graphics, multiplayer features with online stat tracking that occasionally functions (thanks a lot, Games for Windows LIVE!), and a forgettable single player campaign. Section 8’s unique draw start with spawning: you can start anywhere, preferably out of the range of enemy anti-air turrets, and this eliminates annoying spawn camping. Overdrive (really fast sprinting) lets you traverse the map quickly if you did spawn in the wrong place. You are also given total control of your weapons, equipment, and abilities: instead of being confined to infantile pre-made classes, you can determine how you want to play and which toys to play with. Not restricting beginners is also a great decision that puts everyone on the same level playing field in terms of military hardware. The dynamic combat missions, triggered by in-game feats, always give you something to do in addition to simply capturing control points: you will rarely be doing the same thing for more than a minute, which drastically reduces the tedium associated with repetitive objectives. I enjoy the more drawn-out combat Section 8 has to offer: it gives you time to try different tactics using your equipment and jetpack to avoid enemy fire. One-shot-kill kiddies from Call of Duty won’t like it, but I appreciate the balance of action and tactics. Players can also earn the ability to call in deployables for defensive support, in addition to walkers and tanks for more offensive actions. In short (too late!), Section 8 is a fantastic mix of ideas that produces a product fans of online shooters will enjoy.