Brute Force Preview
We check out Digital Anvil's upcoming squad-based shooter for the Xbox.
Brute Force has had an interesting time in the public eye. The game's announcement in late 2001 was accompanied by a batch of screens and an impressive trailer that generated a considerable amount of interest. Following Halo's blockbuster success, Xbox owners were eager to sink their teeth into a new shooter. Brute Force seemed poised to fill that need, thanks to its impressive pedigree--Texas-based developer Digital Anvil was responsible for Starlancer the PC. The game also promised a slightly different take on the console shooter, with a heavy focus on cooperative third-person squad-based gameplay. Unfortunately, the game saw some delays and slipped into this year. We recently had a chance to visit Digital Anvil and spend time with a nearly complete version of the game to see how development has been going.
For those unfamiliar with Brute Force's story, the game revolves around a newly commissioned Special Forces unit code-named Brute Force. The team is made up of four mercenaries "recruited" to deal with trouble spots throughout the galaxy. However, it turns out that recruitment is a little different in the future, as the four members of the team are clones. While the upside to cloning is the team's roster will always be fully stocked, the downside is that cloning the same person repeatedly can lead to potentially unstable clones. You'll be clued in to that bit of info at the beginning of the game, which introduces you to Tex, a soldier whose specialty is listed as "berserker." Although Tex is on his ninth cloning, the powers that be feel that his potential to freak out is low enough to warrant bringing him back for another round of action. Tex is joined on the team by Flint, a synthetic female sniper, Hawk, a curvy female scout, and Brutus, an alien who looks a lot like a surly crocodile. The game opens with Tex setting out to deal with a mercenary group called the Red Hand who is stirring up trouble. But, as the story progresses and the action heats up, you'll find that there's bigger trouble waiting in the wings.
Brute Force offers two basic types of games, campaign and deathmatch. Campaign is the game's story mode, and it tells the tale of the Brute Force team's founding and subsequent adventures. You'll find three levels of difficulty--standard, hard, and brutal--to test your skills with. The narrative unfolds throughout a series of missions that are set on six different worlds, and you'll start each mission with a short briefing on what your objective is. As you make your way through the environment, you'll get updates on your objectives or changes in the environment you should watch out for. You'll start the game as Tex and be joined by the other members of the team as the story progresses. The slow growth of characters on your team does a fine job of easing you into one of the game's key elements: managing your squad. Successfully coordinating your group of mercs is a huge aspect of the game that will determine your success or failure. Each character in your group possesses unique special abilities that you'll need to deal with specific situations. Tex is able to disarm bombs, which you can then add to your inventory, and he can also use two weapons simultaneously for short periods. Flint is able to automatically lock on to any nearby targets with her trusty rifle. Hawk can become invisible, à la Predator, and scout around. Finally, Brutus is able to channel spiritual energy to let him see much more clearly in poor visibility conditions than his human associates, perform deadly attacks on foes, and regenerate his health. These special abilities will be tied to individual energy bars that will slowly charge up when you're not using the abilities. In addition to each character's unique abilities, you'll find a respectable arsenal in the game. You can expect to find 30 different types of weapons, grenades, and gadgets such as miniguns, sonic cannons, railguns, sniper rifles, biorifles, mines, and homing grenades called rollers. Our personal favorites are the biorifle, whose splash damage has the useful side effect of causing enemies near your target to explode if they're too close, and the roller, which automatically homes in on the nearest enemy and detonates when it's close enough.
While most campaign modes are single-player affairs, Brute Force offers a much more fluid experience. Although you'll be able to play through the campaign mode by yourself, you'll also be able to play cooperatively with up to three other friends. As if that weren't impressive enough, the game lets you switch between single-player and co-op on the fly. If friends want to join in, they simply have to connect a controller, hit start, and pick a character while you're playing. When they want to bail, they simply quit the game, returning you to single-player with no interruption in the action. It's an impressive bit of tech wizardry that adds quite a bit to the game. The game's deathmatch mode comes in two flavors: deathmatch and squad deathmatch. Deathmatch offers the requisite assortment of configurable deathmatch options for up to eight players and a selection of dedicated maps to run around in. Squad deathmatch offers the same basic assortment of options but adds some tasty extras. You'll find 20 or so selectable characters that you can choose to play as in multiplayer once you've collected the canisters containing their DNA in the campaign mode. The most welcome feature in the multiplayer mode is, without a doubt, the variety open to players. Aside from the standard split-screen multiplayer support, you'll also be able to play with friends via system link, which should be the cause of some serious sleep loss once the game hits. While Xbox Live support in the game's multiplayer modes will obviously be deeply missed, Brute Force makes the most of what it has. The game will offer a small measure of Xbox Live support in the form of downloadable content. While the exact nature and release schedule of the content is still being determined, you can safely expect new multiplayer maps and possibly more available soon after the game launches.
One of the key hooks in Brute Force is its control scheme, which is surprisingly accessible, despite the fact that you'll eventually be shepherding four characters through the game at once. A large part of the game's accessibility is its adoption of a control scheme that is very close to the one used in Halo. You'll move your character with the left analog stick and look around with the right stick. You'll pitch grenades with the left trigger and fire your selected weapon with the right trigger. The B button will let you manage your inventory. The X button will let you reload and pick up weapons you come across. Y activates a sniper mode when you're carrying a weapon with that function. The black button will let you use med kits you've collected to heal your character, and the white button will let you toggle your character's special ability on or off. The D pad will let you automatically switch characters or issue orders to the whole group. You'll see a menu in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, with each member of your team in the 12, 3, 6, and 9 o'clock positions. Tapping the D pad in any of the directions will automatically put you in control of the selected character, while holding in any direction will call up the squad command menu. You'll be able to select any or all members of your squad by highlighting their headshots and issuing orders. The menu assigns four major commands to each of the face buttons: Y is "stand ground," B is "fire at will," A is "cover me," and X is "move to," which orders your selected characters to whatever point you designate. The four basic commands allow for a surprising amount of flexibility in how you tackle situations. One of the most useful tactics we saw had the squad being set up to stand their ground in a location with a clear view of an open area, at which point Hawk was cloaked and sent ahead to scout the area. As soon as she found the locations of various enemies, the rest of the crew picked them off from a distance.
One of the reasons Brute Force's command system works so well is the game's AI is very impressive. The other members of your squad are an intelligent bunch who aren't about to stand around and get killed. The most obvious indications of this are the varied combat styles used by each of the characters, who will adapt to the unique situations you'll find yourself in. The squad is quick to respond to your orders but will do so with a distinct slant toward self-preservation. For example, when directed to move to a location, the team will usually make sure they aren't exposed and find the best cover. You'll also find some subtle evidence of the team's smarts during gameplay, as they'll heal themselves when necessary and retreat if they're out of ammo. Unfortunately, Digital Anvil has also gone ahead and made sure your enemies in the game are equally swift. As a result, plan on seeing enemies dive away when you pitch grenades into their midst and use every scrap of cover available to them in a firefight. Our least-favorite enemy AI showcase was having a grenade thrown back in our face.
The graphics in Brute Force are looking quite sharp. The characters are highly detailed and animate smoothly. The three humanoid characters feature ornately detailed combat gear that is a nice showcase for Digital Anvil's graphics engine. Brutus, on the other hand, is the most scantily clad of the group, displaying some nicely textured skin. The enemies in the game range in quality from a notch or two below the main cast to much simpler models. However, the game's fluid animation makes up for it. The six major environments in the game feature a solid amount of variety that is complemented by some very slick ambient effects. You'll find barren valleys lined with rocks and sparse vegetation that, while nicely bump mapped and lit, don't provide much cover. A lush, swampy forest shrouded by fog offers entirely too much cover and forces you to proceed methodically through the brush and make use of Brutus' enhanced vision to spot enemies. We were also able to check out a lava-filled environment that featured a hearty dose of particle effects. The graphics on display are also being incorporated into the actual gameplay, thanks to the use of a blurring effect that grows in intensity as your character's health decreases. On the whole, the game made use of most of the bells and whistles you'd expect from a first-party Xbox title. There were few rough edges here and there in the camera, the character self-shadowing, and an odd texture here or there, but nothing glaring. There was some minor inconsistency in the game's frame rate in a few spots, but the team is spending the last few weeks of development ironing out such issues.
The game's audio is easily as impressive as its visuals, thanks to good use of chatter, ambient sound on the levels, and an eclectic soundtrack. The chatter system in the game is easily comparable to Halo's, making use of random bits of speech from your team and the foes you encounter to create a very immersive experience. The ambient sound in the game works along the same lines, with a very rich sound-layering system that gives each of the environments its own distinct personality. The game's soundtrack alternates between contemporary pieces of music and some more-traditional, sweeping action-game tunes. The game's support of Dolby 5.1 provides an excellent experience if you have the setup to take advantage of it.
Brute Force is shaping up to be a very promising Xbox title that shooter fans will want to check out. The game's detailed graphics, accessible gameplay, and solid amount of content to explore, alone or with friends, make it an attractive package. In addition, the extra content that can be earned or unlocked should add to the game's replay value--you'll need to play through it on all three difficulty levels to get everything. While the comparisons with Halo are inevitable, the two games are very different animals in many respects. Brute Force is evolving into a unique shooter that obviously owes quite a bit to Bungie's classic but appears to be carving out a unique identity for itself. The squad-based mechanics in the game are smartly implemented and add quite a bit the experience. Fans of shooters will definitely want to keep an eye out for the game when it ships this May. For more on Brute Force, check out our interview with Digital Anvil, which features exclusive footage from the game.