I’m going to say some things that might be a bit unpopular, but being military myself I think I can safely make this statement: we went into Iraq not as prepared as we might have been. Many soldiers were prepared for quick lightning-war style combat like we had seen in the first Desert Storm. House to house fighting, also known as Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) was not a well trained tactic for most of the military, and our first days after the Shock and Awe campaign brought this fact into sharp contrast very quickly.
MOUT is the basis of Pandemic and THQ’s entry into the world of tactical combat, Full Spectrum Warrior. The game was designed as a tool to assist Army commanders in the field to be able to effectively and safely command their fire teams. Pandemic quickly realized that this tool could be augmented to make a compelling and unique game. Can this realistic military tactical simulation survive the full force of a veteran’s review without cover, or will it shatter like glass under a hail of gunfire?
Suspending disbelief in a game is a delicate balance of graphics, sound, environment, and story. The first component, the graphics, must be lifelike without looking plastic. They must be crisp without looking stiff. In short, they must be real. The graphics in Full Spectrum Warrior achieve this and more. Each member of your MOUT team is detailed down to the flash suppressors on their rifles. The teams are outfitted properly with your team leader, rifleman, grenadier, and automatic rifleman carrying the appropriate weapons and accessories.
The graphics in this title have to be seen to believed. The screenshots don’t give much of an idea of how jam packed and alive the levels really are. Earlier levels have good visibility and are packed full of debris. The streets are filled with choke points and wide open four-way stops. As you progress through the story you will fight your way further into the city and farther into enemy territory. Sometimes its not the enemy that will cause you the most trouble, but the vicious sandstorms that cloud your vision.
The game runs at a unshakable framerate regardless of how expansive the area, or how many objects are on the screen. Adding a blistering sandstorm and papers that flutter through the streets doesn’t shake the framerate. Adding a group of enemies firing at you, all 8 members of your team in view, a technical, and two tanks on the screen still fails to disrupt the framerate lock. It simply doesn’t get much better than this.
Full Spectrum Warrior makes full use of the power of Dolby Digital sound. The bullets whiz over your head and impact on the areas around you. Immediately after those bullets impact you’ll hear some voice acting that really captures the stress and camaraderie of the environment. Your team will react to the situation with statements such as “They got us duckin” or “We’re out in the open, that’s pretty much everything they told us NOT to do in basic training”. As the situation gets more hostile, your team will begin to yell orders at each other and their military bearing will begin to slip.
The game takes place in a fictional middle-eastern country called Zekistan. As a result, you’ll hear middle-eastern music and Arabic language throughout the game. It is truly immersive and I never found myself wanting to turn it off. Granted, you’ll probably not be looking for the soundtrack to play in your car, but it couldn’t fit the game any better than it does.
A quick check of the box should show you that this game is rated M. This will be reflected very quickly by your team’s choice of wording for “Tango down” that can range from “Target eliminated” to “Wasted that mutherf*cker”. You’ll also hear some funny exchanges between your team. An example went a little something like this:
“Aww yea, thats an Apache yo. That’s the shizzy my nizzy!”
“You are not, nor have you ever been, black.”
“Blackness is a state of mind my brutha”
“Lock it up Alpha, the only color in this army is Green”
“Whats that soldier?”
“Not that I would ever contradict you sir, but right now the Army is mostly brown.”
“Shit brown yo.”
As you can see, this won’t be a game to play in front of the kids. The voice acting is well done and really makes you care what happens to your team. Your Bravo team leader sounds like Ving Rhames. Each team member is a living person and they will tell their story as the game progresses. The sound is just like the graphics…it simply doesn’t get much better.
The only mark against the sound is that your guys will simply flood your ears (and screen if you have subtitles on) with chatter to the point where you can’t hear much and can’t see half the screen. It is far more present in the training mission than anywhere else, so don’t base your opinion solely on that.
Most people will look at the back of the box for this game and make certain assumptions. Yes, it is a third person game, but this is not Splinter Cell with a team. As I discussed in the Gameplay section, this game is tactical with you playing the role of commander. You will use what is, on the surface, a very complex control scheme to guide your two teams through combat. The mandatory training session takes roughly an hour to complete and de-mystifies the controls. The multi-staged training shows you basic movement, firing in teams, providing cover, grenades, using smoke, indirect suppression fire, cover degradation, and more. It is a lot to take in, but it is far more simple than it sounds.
The left analog controls the soldier movement, the right controls the 360 degree camera. The D-Pad controls which soldier you are working with, and the triggers show fog of war and zoom the camera. The fog of war shows you where your soldiers visibility begins and ends. The buttons all serve different functions, such as the A button being both supression fire, rush, or bound orders (fire and move). It is all more complicated than it sounds and the training and first few levels will break down the learning curve and allow you to enjoy the game without battling the controls.
The camera in the game is usually well behaved. For the most part, you’ll be able to see what you are doing and a bit off into the distance. At times you’ll also be fighting the camera and positioning cursor to try to figure out just how to move from behind a box to a position just a few feet away. 90% of the time it works beautifully, 10% of the time you just have to switch teams and clear the area so you can move your second team without danger of what you can’t see. I found this issue to be more common in the earlier levels than the later ones. By the time you hit mission 7 you’ll probably not even notice it anymore.
One of the most important thing about MOUT tactics is the use of cover. Learning to use the environment you are presented in a way that keeps your team safe from enemy fire seems simple enough. Implementing what you have learned under a hail of bullet fire and explosives is a whole different thing.
The cover you chose is very important in this game. Your team can hide behind a couch, but that’ll provide very little cover against sustained gunfire. A wooden crate will give you a little more time before it degrades, but it won’t last forever. You can use a corner for cover pretty much indefinitely, but the enemy doesn’t seem to ever run out of ammo…but you can. If you don’t adapt and overcome, outflank or outmaneuver, you will run out of ammo and out of time.
The game takes place over 11 levels which you can play in a co-operative mode with your friends over Live, each with a single team. Each team consists of four people including a team leader, rifleman, grenadier, and automatic rifleman. You can think ‘heavy machine gun’ when you think automatic rifleman, and you’d be right. All this sounds like a great setup for a third person or first person shooter, but neither one really makes an accurate description of the title. The game functions with you as a commander giving orders to your two teams. You won’t be taking direct control of your team, or even the elements of those fireteams, but more giving them orders and then watching them execute them. Let me explain with a scenario:
Your fireteams will come upon a BMP (a Russian armored vehicle sporting a 73-mm machine gun) and a Rocket Propelled Grenade wielding terrorist. Your team is locked behind the debris of tank treads. You can give your team orders to use smoke grenades to obscure the vision of the BMP and RPG troop to move one of them into position to move around the sandbag barricade protecting both. Your Bravo team will probably have to provide point fire to occasionally draw the attention of the BMP and the terrorist. Sound dangerous? Its even more dangerous when you realize that by now your Alpha team is running out of smoke cover and are fairly out in the open. You issue your point fire command to your Alpha team to take out the RPG gunner which clears the way to call in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle equipped with a rocket pod to rip up the BMP. If it sounds difficult that might be because a 73-mm machine gun round is about the length of a toothbrush and the thickness of a shotglass. No body armor is going to save your team from a weapon that vicious.
Scenarios of this magnitude are the norm in this game. The game starts off fairly simple with you engaging terrorist opfor (opposing forces) and learning the basics. You’ll learn to outflank your enemy and work as a team. This will become more important as you advance and have to practically knock on the shell of a tank to call in a mortar strike to take em out. Unfortunately, this is where the rough stuff hits. Since the game was designed for the U.S. Army then scaled for the retail market you’ll soon see where those adjustments were made. A mid-game save allows you to save your progress, usually before a major assault. As you progress you’ll find that there are more and more save opportunities. In fact, there are times where you will run a total of about 8 feet with no danger at all just to save again. There are also moments where you’ll run through incredible trials without a save anywhere to be seen. Some balance in save placements (called SitReps) would have been good.
For the realism in this game to remain high, the AI in the game has to be very well tuned. Thankfully, the AI usually reacts properly to the environment and will drop to the ground if they don’t have cover, or report hostiles as they see them. Occasionally they will also put themselves in a ridiculous amount of danger as they cross the wrong way in front of your second fire team or walk the long way around a truck to get to the next position. Usually its not a problem, but occasionally it’ll mean that you are picking up wounded team members to take them back to the CASEVAC for medical attention.
Your team mates can take very few rounds before they are taken out of commission. When they are shot, you’ll get a slow motion view of them flying (sometimes with a ridiculous ragdoll animation) to the ground with blood spatter to tell you where you’ve been hit. That team member will slowly ‘die’ and if you don’t give them attention by picking them up, they will expire and your mission is over. Apparently there are no casualties around this unit.
The last thing I wanted to address in the gameplay section is the mysterious barrier. There are many times where it seems logical that you should be able to bound down a street or down an alleyway but instead you are presented with a red barrier icon. It breaks the realism as you realize that, while you are presented with a host of options of how to assault a particular area, there are times where the game is absolutely on rails. Its just enough to break the immersion of a title that simply oozes it under every other circumstance.
The gameplay is varied and engaging, and coupled with the storyline and character development you’ll find that you can’t put the game down until you finish it.
Full Spectrum Warrior was designed as a single player game and features a robust and expansive storyline that spans roughly 12 hours of gameplay. You can also complete this same storyline with a partner in an Xbox Live cooperative mode. One team will control Bravo and one will control Alpha team. This expands the gameplay significantly as each person you’ll play online will have different skills and patience levels making each run through unique.
The major hindrance with this particular mode comes from the enemy forces. Each area is pretty much exactly the same as it was in the single player mode. Each enemy is exactly where you’ve encountered them in the past. It probably wouldn’t have hurt too badly to make the Live version be somewhat random, but apparently not this go-around.
Given that this game was designed first and foremost as an aid for the U.S. Army, there is no adversarial or deathmatch mode. You won’t be playing a terrorist or squaring Alpha against Bravo. It might have been hard to make this a ‘fun’ experience due to the way that the game plays, but it seems like a Miles Gear deathmatch or 4 on 4 team deathmatch might have been a big hit.