Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review: "Section 8: Prejudice"

Protect and Sever
review for Section 8: Prejudice (XBLA, PSN, PC), 1-32 player first-person shooter, out now

Something tells me I shouldn’t like Section 8 as much as I do. One can only go so long before drawing the inevitable Halo comparison - you do, after all, play as armour-powered space soldiers, soaking up damage with a recharging shield while juggling two weapon slots and driving around in multi-seated vehicles. Despite all this, I like Section 8: Prejudice a hell of a lot more than I like Halo: Reach, which says a lot to the quality of this $15 downloadable title.

The game gets off to a good start, of course, by having a features list usually reserved for a triple-A release. 32-player online multiplayer is the real draw here – Section 8 (the original) was hailed as “your next favourite online shooter” pre-release, after all. It’s impressive, then, that Prejudice also packs in a reasonable single-player campaign, a handful of co-op gamemodes, and a load of challenge maps. It speaks wonders about Timegate’s ability to craft a quality game, even a relatively small online-focused, download-only FPS.

The single-player is the weakest draw, of course. As part of the elite Section 8 group of space police-type peace keepers, the player is thrown into a conflict that takes them through a variety of science-fiction war scenarios. The very existence of the single-player campaign came into question where, about halfway through, though, when a lead character barked up on my headset saying “we’ve found some kind of doomsday device”. It wasn’t deus ex machina, there wasn’t any kind of build-up. Just out of no-where, “we’ve found a doomsday device”. Then you try to find it and destroy it. Not that I was expecting much from the plot, but even the most sparse of stories can fit in reasonable dramatic curves. Not so in Section 8 – it’s just a linear progression of shoot-out to shoot-out, linked by a poorly-scripted and acted succession of mission briefings. At one point I was plopped right inside a narrow hallway, with absolutely no explanation was to why I was there, or how I got inside. Or why I should care, for that matter.

Occasionally though, this goes to work in the game’s favour. Despite wearing Halo influences on its sleeve like a stain it can’t quite brush off, the campaign has a decidedly arcade bent to the shooting. The enemy AI are numerous enough – and dumb enough – that both run-and-gunning and cover-based tactics are feasible and enjoyable, and whenever a sniper is placed in the player’s hands the game becomes satisfyingly easy. Enemy awareness from long-distance is pathetically short, which could be a problem in some people’s books, but being able to pick off legions of enemy troops before raising the alarms is surprisingly cathartic.

With only the most threadbare plot guiding along the level progression, the game often showcases a staggering variety of contrasting locations to shoot people and blow stuff up in. The campaign becomes like a little sight-seeing tour of well-rendered planets and space stations, which is hardly a bad thing. If I had to define Section 8’s single-player campaign in one word, it would be “average”. It isn’t horrible, in fact it’s well entertaining, and if you don’t want to dive online without acquainting yourself with the game’s mechanics it’s a perfect newbie-training device. It’s still disappointing though, despite so obviously and blatantly being a tacked-on addition to an online-focused game. Perhaps my biggest problem is that it lacks any real atmosphere, or tension, or grit. The levels are all clean and pretty, the weapons pack a punch but they don’t feel quite right in your hands, and the pacing is all over the place. It’s an acceptable diversion with some really fun moments scattered throughout – the vehicle sections and “shooting gallery” parts in particular. It’s just that, at the end of the day, it still isn’t all that good.

Speaking of game mechanics, it might be worth actually walking you through how a game actually plays while I talk about the co-op survival game mode, Swarm, possibly the most entertaining (if unoriginal) aspects of the Section 8: Prejudice package.

The game sets itself up as a very Tribe-like action shooter, and it’s evident from before you even spawn that the game is trying to hit you over the head with its breakneck pace. You choose a loadout from six pre-defined “classes”, and then click in an area on the radar map to choose where you’ll deploy. You can spawn anywhere you want on the sizable, sprawling maps – which leads to a lot of interesting flanking tactics indeed – all you have to do is click on the map. And then shoom!! – you’re launched at high velocity out of a ship and you start skyrocketing towards the battlefield from the air. Very Medal of Honour: Airborne, only breaking the sound barrier. It is, if you’ll excuse my use of English, totally fucking sweet. It is so cool.

The airdrop spawn system does several things. For one, it negates the need for a spawn timer – the ten seconds it takes to reach the ground is respawn time enough, no? And for two, one of the deployables in the game is an anti-air cannon – which will blast you out of the sky as you’re spawning. It’s a necessity, then, that when choosing a drop location, you pick one out of range of AA guns – they’re marked on the radar map, handily. Hitting the “E” button will slow your fall mid-drop anyway, so if you are rocketing towards certain doom, you usually have time in which to veer out of harm’s way before you meet an embarrassing death at the hands of all those bullets veering towards your oh-so-shiny armoured to-be corpse.

The mid-air antics don’t end there, though. Every player is equipped with a jetpack that grants quite a substantial amount of hang-time. It does make you an easier target, but it makes traversing the terrain much more fun. Actually, that’s probably Section 8’s coolest mechanic – traversal. From the sweet jetpack, to the spawn system, to a sprint system that propels your soldier at a breakness speed across the battlefield, Section 8 handles like a dream. It’s not clunky or realistic at all – you’re basically as light as air, and it makes for much more varied shootouts than “hide behind this piece of wall while attempting to flank pursuers”. It’s nuts, and it’s great.

In the four-player co-op survival mode, the aim is to hack the control point, then defend it for 15 minutes with your pals. Killing enemies gives you money. With money you can buy turrets, radars, vehicles (the hoverbike is awesome), mechs (also awesome). Defending the point gets genuinely hard as the 15 minutes ticks down, as the enemy sends in tougher units and mechs at you – though it’s helped by the fact that every 5 minutes an orbital strike goes off and wipes out every last enemy on the map at the time of impact. It’s useful, and it means, unlike most survival game-modes like Gear’s Horde mode, or Left 4 Dead’s survival mode, it actually has an ending crescendo, and a cooldown period in which you can gawk over your achievements. It’s a refreshing take on what is basically just defend-and-survive. I’m not sure if you can go infinite-long or not – it might be an unlockable – but the default 15-minute Swarm mode is perhaps the most satisfying co-op survival game type I’ve ever played. Unfortunately it feels very been-there done-that… the mechanics of play may be a unique blend, but the enemy types and pacing is generic as hell. It’s disappointing, but it doesn’t stop it from being a balls-to-the-wall good time.

And so we come to the main draw – the 32-player Conquest mode. Basically, it works like survival, only with more control points to hack and defend. If the enemy captures the point, it's their turn to defend it. Holding more than one point on the map at once shoots up the team score – whoever reaches the predefined point limit first, wins. It’s basically take and hold crossed with king of the hill – and it’s slick as hell.

It might not sound like much, but everything combined – the badass terrain traversal model, the vehicle drops, the deploy system that enables for sneaky backdoor flanks, and the really well-balanced weapons, create a satisfying, complete multiplayer experience that schools anything in its competition not rhyming with Leam Kortress Too. The available tactics are staggeringly huge, and the depth underneath the relatively shallow surface is mind-boggling. Without a doubt, this is the tightest, broadest multiplayer experience I’ve had the pleasure to play for a great long time – matches unfold with incredible tension and the natural pacing is brilliant and edge-of-your-seat – unlike in single-player and co-op! It truly is brilliant, there’s no doubt, and if you like online shooters, in any capacity, you should be kicking yourself for not buying this game last fucking week.

Here’s the kicker in the “this game is great and you should buy it” recommendation – there’s no-one playing the damn thing. Oh, well okay, there are people playing it… just probably not in a lag-free zone, or at a peak time that’s good for you. In a game with such innovative, amazing multiplayer, combined with its multiplayer bent, it really is a fucking shame that there’s so little people playing. I mean, you could perhaps gather some friends together, but you try rounding up 24 people with Games for Windows LIVE’s abysmal invite system. Yuk. …it doesn’t affect overall quality, of course. Section 8: Prejudice is a really slick, really well-presented, fun game. And I recommend it wholeheartedly. It’s just a right shame that the multiplayer servers are empty and bare, when they really should be overflowing at the seams. This game deserves it, really.

The singleplayer is entertaining, if overwhelmingly bland, and the co-op is completely stellar, let down by familiarity. Online is the main draw here for sure, and it’s amazing – if you can find a server, that is. However, for $15, Section 8: Prejudice is an astounding achievement with a whole lot of bang for buck – and all multiplayer aficionados should definitely pick it up the next chance they get. It is without a doubt completely worth it, despite the unprecedented flaw of “no-one’s playing”. That says a lot.

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