THQ’s and Pandemic’s latest title propels the player into the world of the gaming industry’s latest fetish: modern urban warfare. Urban warfare conjures up images of running balls-to-the-wall diving for cover behind a car with snipers sniping from rooftops while your teammates are screaming in your headset, “He’s behind that garbage can! To the west! See him? He’s right there!” Modern urban warfare is frantic, frenetic, and familiar.
On September 11th, when the terrorist highjackers transformed two planes into missiles, they caused us to re-conceptualize how planes, and by extension other quotidian items, could be used. The type of terrorism exhibited on the eleventh of September is itself an extension of modern urban warfare in which cars are used as bombs, bystanders become victims, houses become headquarters, apartments become lookout points, and anything which happens to be strewn on the street becomes suitable cover. We no longer lay siege on castles or fortified positions. Wars are no longer fought on remote “fields” of battle. We lay siege on cities. Someone’s neighborhood is bloodied. Storefronts become shooting galleries. Modern urban warfare is what happens when war comes home. Literally.
In Full Spectrum Warrior the player controls two four-man units (Alpha and Bravo team). Each unit is comprised of a team leader who barks out orders, an automatic rifleman whose M249 tears through the enemy with a terrible hail of lead, a grenadier who wields a destructive grenade launcher, and a rifleman who assists injured team members while in the field. The player’s eight men weave their way through a labyrinth of debris, taking cover behind sofas, rubble, and washing machines as they move toward their objective (which is usually kill everyone at this place, or protect this point until reinforcements arrive–which translates roughly to kill everyone at this place). FSW’s strongest feature may just be it’s 3rd person perspective which positions itself slightly above and behind a team’s leader. If Alpha’s team leader is positioned next to a corner the camera can peek around it. If Bravo’s team leader is pinned by enemy fire behind a pick-up truck the player won’t be able to see much of the battlefield around him (he’ll have excellent sight of the peripheries though). Plus, the camera jerks and jumps realistically when a team sprints across an open area creating a very cinematic flavor. The camera allows the player to zoom in (a necessity when scoping out the next thing to duck behind) and also touts a “fog of war” option which, when triggered, turns all of the present blind spots in the team’s field of vision blurry so that you know from which angles you may be ambushed (actually, it’s a really hip effect and reminded me of when Frodo Baggins puts on the One Ring in Peter Jackson’s movies–sometimes I’d flip it on just for the visual).
The game takes place in Ira–Afghani–I mean, Zekistan, a fictional middle-eastern country whose history, detailed in the instruction manual, mirrors Afghanistan’s. Zekistan has it’s obligatory dictator who is amalgam of Bin Laden and Saddam. Pandemic took it’s time carefully crafting the environment in which their game takes place. For one thing, the music is phenomenal! When not fighting there is a hauntingly eerie middle-eastern soundtrack, shattered by a traditional bass-driven Hollywood action-flick tune whenever a firefight erupts. The boards are expansive and sometimes confusing–and I don’t mean that in a bad way. In fact, oftentimes the player is stuck wondering if that’s an alley behind that pillar or just a recessed facade. And the only way to find out is to get closer to it (which will open up Alpha or Bravo squad to enemy fire). A huge complaint I do have is that the levels slowly open up to the player. I often found myself trying to go down a street (to outflank an opponent) only to have the computer deny me that option. Otherwise, the looks and sounds of Zekistan were finely stylized.
The game play is highly stylized as well. In fact, I’d say uniquely so. As I said at the outset, modern urban warfare is the industry’s newest white whale and they’ve yet to design the definitive game. Should a first-person or third-person shooter be the model of interactive urban warfare putting the player in the thick of the battle? Does a real-time strategy game epitomize the type of battles being waged in Baghdad?
How about a puzzle game?
Full Spectrum Warrior is as much a puzzle game as it is a 3rd person shooter and a RTS game. I take that back. It’s much more of a puzzle game than a military title. And not a puzzle game such as Tetris in which the player controls almost all of the action creating his own solutions to the problems he himself has created but, more in the vein of Intelligent Cube (for PS) or The Adventures of Lolo (an NES title) wherein the player interacts with a prefabricated puzzle which has only one (or a very limited amount) of solution(s) which is discovered only through repetitious gameplay and long ponderous hours.
FSW’s gameplay works something like this: the player moves Alpha squad up taking cover behind a dumpster while Bravo hightails it to the corner of a building. From behind a pile of rubble a Zeke (short, I imagine, for Zekistani) opens fire on Bravo. Both Bravo and the Zeke have cover so neither combatant can score a kill. This means that the player will have to flank the belligerent Zeke. The player can order Bravo to suppress the Zeke with a constant barrage of bullets which will allow Alpha to swing around to the far side of an abandoned car giving them an unadulterated target. Or, the player can have Bravo team “engage” the Zeke. An engaged enemy does not notice anyone but the soldiers attacking him, which will allow Alpha to swing around to the abandoned car. Or, maybe you can have Alpha bound towards the car which has Alpha break up into two two-man groups who move slower towards the car but have their guns drawn keeping the enemy entrenched with return fire. This is how every battle is resolved. In a cool calculated way the player moves from cover to cover and from engagement to engagement.
Two guys over there. Suppress them. Swing Alpha around. They throw a smoke grenade. Bravo moves under cover. Now Bravo engages. Alpha moves right. Bounds left to that corner. Takes out the first Zeke. Suppresses the second. Now Bravo swings left. Tosses a grenade. And off to the next ambush. Battle in Full Spectrum Warrior is not only tactical. It’s frighteningly logical. It’s an algebraic expression written out in the enemy’s blood.
Interestingly though, you don’t really notice while you’re playing. I imagine a player will realize how slow the game is. At times its tedious! Especially in the interim between battles when Alpha and Bravo are moving to the next objective, the game grinds to a near-staggering halt as both squads dart from cover to cover (ambushes are incredibly fatal and if a Zeke catches sight of an errant squad member a player can pretty much count on starting at the last save point within seconds). But, during battles, when bullets are wizzing by overhead and you’re pinned down behind a car whose cover is degrading into Swiss cheese the player is consumed with the thought, “How will I get my squad the hell out of there?” And, if the player looks hard enough he’ll find the right tools for the job, laid out for him by the kind folks at Pandemic. The rubble’s always in the right place. Boxes are always tactically arranged. Cars are always abandoned at strategic points. War don’t get no better than this!
With everything set up for the player’s victory mission success should be a certainty. However, sloppiness and even boredom weigh heavy, and I often found my men injured or killed just because I was moving too quickly or ignorantly which, from much of the war literature I’ve read, is intriguingly realistic. When a member of a squad is shot the game turns into a cinematic display which highlights in slow motion the bullet piercing your soldier’s body, the screams of the fallen warrior, and the trajectory of the bloodied body (one time a grenade caused one of my men to do, at least, six consecutive cartwheels before smashing lifeless to the ground). I must admit, watching your men become rag dolls is a guilty pleasure.
However, Full Spectrum Warrior’s army doesn’t tolerate casualties. Once one member of your squad bites the dust the game is over. If downed (and not killed), a squad member needs to be assisted by his other team members before he bleeds to death. During a firefight this can get very dangerous, especially if the soldier was hit on his way to cover and his injured body is in the open. If a player can get her unit to assist their fallen comrade someone will carry the fallen soldier on their back until they reach the next convoy (also always strategically placed between major firefights). At convoys injured soldiers are laid on the ground as a medical technician in blue scrubs heals the wounds and declares the injured soldier as good as new. It’s like he was never shot in the first place. Everyone is happy again. His squad members welcome him back, sometimes give him a ribbing and it’s off to the next ambush. This ridiculous band-aids-fix-even-head-wounds approach bothered me to no end.
Full Spectrum Warrior goes to lengths to make the game as “realistic” as possible. Each of the eight squad members has a full biography. Some guys are married. Others single or divorced. Some are quiet. Others very vulgar (the game is deserving of its mature rating). In fact, one of the most promising features of FSW is that during the levels the squad members talk to each other. Unfortunately, they rarely say anything interesting. It’s usually just, “Did you see that mother f-er get blown up.” Or, “Shut the f- up Philly [a squad member’s nickname].” At the official game website a visitor can even read the letters his squad members wrote home. Pandemic really set out to make fully fleshed out dynamic characters, but wound up settling for fully fleshed out static ones.
Although you can’t play Full Spectrum Warrior split-screen, you can jump on X-Box Live and team up with a second player (each player controls one squad). For a game that is so heavily based on communication and the coordination of two pronged attacks, this method of on-line game play makes much sense.
Ultimately, Full Spectrum Warrior is an interestingly unique attempt at modern urban warfare. In the end, it fails. The game is way too slow. And honestly, not enough fun. At the start of the game there is a (fictional) quote that alludes to the tripartite role of a modern soldier. The quote claims that our soldiers act as humanitarians, feeding and clothing refugees, serving as diplomatic peacekeepers that hold apart warring factions, and, of course, warriors who battle highly trained terrorists. If this game included those three roles I’m sure I would have given it a five star rating. However, I didn’t see any refugees. And the only warring factions I saw were the U.S. army and those guys shooting at the U.S. Army. In fact, during one objective I had to position myself at the exits of a hotel and kill any fleeing enemies (Army Rangers jumped from a helicopter above and were cleaning out the joint from the top floor down). My superior officer told me to watch out for civilians. I was enthralled and I felt myself lean closer to the TV as if, being closer, I’d be able to see more clearly. But the only people who fled the hotel carried AK-47s and did as they were supposed to do: shoot at my soldiers who, of course, shot back. No unarmed, innocent civilians fled or ran into my line of fire. The same hands that strategically placed the car I was using as cover had already kindly removed any possible collateral damage.