Close Combat: First to Fight Final Hands-On

We get our hands on the final version of Close Combat to see what Marine Corps-inspired urban combat looks like.

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Close Combat: First to Fight
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Close Combat: First to Fight, the realistic first-person shooter based on the United States Marine Corps, is pretty much done at this point. We know because we have a copy of near-final code in our hands, and we've been busy playing around with First to Fight to see how the game turned out. First to Fight won't ship to stores until mid-April, and we'll have a review of the final code then, but for now we've been gleaning some initial impressions of the game from some firsthand reconnaissance.

Once upon a time Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East. That was long ago.
Once upon a time Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East. That was long ago.

In First to Fight, you'll play as a lance corporal in charge of a four-man Marine fireteam, the basic fighting unit of the Marine Corps. First to Fight, which was developed with the assistance of the Marine Corps, is an attempt to depict the grittiness and complexities of modern urban combat. The game will ship for the Xbox and PC, and the PC version will come on three compact discs, with a paper foldout sleeve filled with famous quotes about the toughness of Marines and the importance of honor, courage, and commitment. Of course, the Xbox version will ship on a single DVD.

First to Fight is set in a fictional, near-future conflict in Beirut, Lebanon, but you really can't play this game without wondering if this is what some of the combat in Iraq is like. After all, First to Fight has a Middle Eastern setting, and a slew of Marine combat veterans fresh from the battlefields of Iraq served as consultants on the game. There are other allusions to the Iraq conflict as well, including high-value targets, identified by the playing cards that they're associated with, sort of like how Saddam Hussein was the Ace of Spades. The first high-value target that you encounter in First to Fight is Akbar al'Soud, otherwise known as the Ace of Hearts.

We've had the opportunity to play through the game's opening levels, and a few things have stood out to us so far. First of all, this is a game that you will probably enjoy more on the harder difficulty levels, simply because on the easier settings it's far too easy to bulldoze your way through a level, which sort of defeats the game's purpose. On the flip side, you probably won't want to play on the hardest difficulty setting, which is what the Marines plan to use for themselves, because it's a very unforgiving, one-shot, one-kill experience. That leaves the middle difficulty settings, which strike a decent balance of gameplay and realism. You can absorb a fair amount of damage before you go down, and you can always bandage up your wounded Marines and yourself if things get bad.

No, you can't shoot the press. Well, you can, but you're not supposed to.
No, you can't shoot the press. Well, you can, but you're not supposed to.

The second thing is that First to Fight is somewhat similar to the recently released Brothers in Arms, in that both games are about realistic squad combat. But in Brothers in Arms, there's very much a conscious effort for you to use fire-and-maneuver tactics effectively. In contrast, First to Fight feels more like a regular shooter, and you don't need to constantly order your troops around. That's not to say that you can't give the fireteam orders. You can use squad controls to order your fireteam to go to a certain location or take down a room, and the fireteam will use proper tactics to do so. You can issue these commands to the team as a whole or give them to individual Marines by tapping on the appropriate key.

It's very tempting to play First to Fight as a traditional first-person shooter and try to do everything yourself. But this means that you end up doing the majority of the shooting, since you're at the tip of the spear. You'll discover it's far more useful to send your team out ahead of you by giving the simple "go there" command, which is the G key by default. This will get your fireteam in the action, where their firepower can overwhelm most opponents quickly, while letting you play in more of a support role. As the fireteam leader, you're armed with an M16 rifle with an M203 grenade launcher attached. This gives you the ability to deal with technicals (pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the bed), as well as concentrated bunches of enemies.

Even though we had played through some of the opening levels before, it was interesting how we developed new tactics as we gained familiarity with the game. For example, in one situation your team has to climb out of a sewer and onto the street swarming with bad guys. In the past, we simply climbed straight up through the sewer and came under heavy fire. But an easier way to get through is to toss a smoke grenade up through the manhole first, and the thick smoke allows the fireteam to climb out of the sewer safely. And while you can certainly play the game like a regular shooter by running around, taking damage, and healing up, it feels more rewarding if you try to take a more realistic approach.

Marines fight anywhere on Earth, even if it's in a sewer.
Marines fight anywhere on Earth, even if it's in a sewer.

Many of the levels so far feel like they're designed to present a series of tactical challenges that you must overcome. In one, you may have to clear out an apartment building, while in another you have to advance up a street. What will probably surprise you are the very narrow streets and alleyways that are common in many ancient cities, as they don't offer a lot of room to maneuver. With that said, some levels feature alternative routes, presenting you with multiple solutions. For example, if a street is clogged with bad guys, you can try fighting your way through the adjacent shops. The advantage is that you won't be sitting out in the open, but the disadvantage is that you have to fight room by room. Enemies can appear from all directions, including on balconies and rooftops, which can make the game even more challenging, especially on higher difficulty levels. The level design is fairly linear, and some of the opening levels feel a bit small, but the game opens up somewhat the further you go, and there are some larger areas, such as plazas, where you have a bit more room to maneuver. Close Combat: First to Fight looks pretty much good to go at this point, and we'll see how it does when it hits the shelves in the middle of April.

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