Full Spectrum Warrior Preview
We check out Pandemic and THQ's upcoming tactical shooter for the Xbox.
We recently had the opportunity to visit Pandemic Studios and find out how development on Full Spectrum Warrior is progressing. The game has made a few appearances, most notably at Microsoft's recent X03 event, and so far it has looked quite promising. Our visit to Pandemic allowed us to get some hands-on time with the game and to chat with members of the development team to get a good idea of what to expect from the upcoming shooter.
Full Spectrum Warrior's unique beginning as a military simulator is now a pretty well-known fact. However, while the game's roots do lie in the simulator Pandemic was contracted to create for the military, the Xbox game is anything but a simple port of it. It's better to think of the military sim incarnation of the game as providing the foundation for FSW's gameplay, since the Xbox game will end up being a very different animal by the time Pandemic is done with it.
Whereas the military sim version of FSW offers a very specific experience tailored for military personnel, the Xbox game will make a number of refinements to every aspect of the game to ensure that it will work as a proper game. Director Wil Stahl highlighted some of the changes during a demo. The game will feature a more accessible structure and will make use of a traditional story and premise. You'll take the role of a sergeant dispatched to a fictional country whose current leadership has come to power via a bloody coup and is using anti-Western rhetoric to mask a campaign of ethnic cleansing. NATO, anxious to return the legitimate government to power, sends the military force you are a part of to the country to make that happen. The game's structure is mission based and will follow a day in the life of a soldier, from 6:00am to 6:00pm. Your role as sergeant will put you in command of two four-man squads, which you'll have to direct through a series of missions, spread out over roughly six chapters, which follow the methodical steps taken to lock down a city.
Full Spectrum Warrior's gameplay takes a unique approach that you wouldn't expect from the way it looks. At its core, FSW is a strategy game that forces you to think your way out of bad situations as opposed to blasting your way out. Rather than take active control of a soldier, you'll issue orders to the two squads. If you try to take a run-and-gun approach to playing FSW, plan on becoming intimately familiar with two things: the start of the first mission and the sepia-toned "game over" message screen. The game is less Contra and Halo and more X-Com or even Fire Emblem.
The game's realistic approach and reliance on military doctrine force you to scale back any dreams of being Rambo and to make the most of the two squads at your command. As mentioned, you won't actively control any one soldier. You'll issue orders to the group or individual troops instead, as merited by the situation. While the mechanics will take some getting used to, you're helped out a bit by the very impressive soldier AI. Your troops have good virtual heads on their shoulders and aren't in a hurry to have them blown off. As a result, once you issue an order to a squad or soldier, they'll move to follow it as best they can. For example, if you order them to move to a particular place, they'll go to the location and make use of any available cover as they go. Once they arrive, they'll do what they can to ensure they aren't easy targets.
The realism in Full Spectrum Warrior runs throughout your game experience, which will make it difficult to be too lazy. Your soldiers don't have life bars, and ammo is shared among squad members, so if you don't properly manage the usage of ammo early in a level, you may wind up sorely disappointed later on in your mission. The game will also have a variation on the "fog of war" that's common in many action and strategy games. You'll have to rely on what your squads see as you go through the game, which will pose some interesting challenges. You'll have to be aware of potential trouble spots and make sure you have one of your members keep an eye on alleys that are behind you or a building off to one side that would offer enemies a prime shot at your teams. You'll be able to toggle a view that shows which areas your soldiers are covering and which are exposed.
If the above sounds challenging, that's because it is. Your brain will hurt for a bit when you first start playing, since managing two groups of soldiers is not for the timid. However, Pandemic is taking steps to ensure that the game remains accessible. The interface is being tweaked and refined to offer the visual feedback gamers are used to. (An interesting side note: The military version of the game has no real HUD. Players are required to glean information from the troop status reports and by visually inspecting their surroundings.) You will have an onscreen compass and other meters to help you get a handle on the game, such as a cursor above each of your soldiers that will change color to reflect their situations. For example, green cursors indicate they're using their cover effectively, while red is a warning that they are exposed. Health bars will be included for certain types of cover that are destructible, such as cars that can be destroyed.
Pandemic plans to include some in-depth training to bring you up to speed on tactics and how to best use your resources in the game. In addition, one of the most useful elements for learning your way around FSW is the unique replay system. Full Spectrum Warrior actually records your entire mission as you play. You'll then be able to watch yourself play, and you can even jump in to play through the replay on the fly, if you choose. The system will be a very useful tool for getting comfortable with the game. However, it won't be a very reliable crutch for making it through tough levels, since enemies will appear only if they've been spotted. So, for example, if your team is attacked by a sniper, the only thing you can do by hopping into a replay is to try to avoid the fire and hopefully spot the sniper so your troops can take him out. If you can't find him, the best you can do is avoid being shot at it.
Though the gameplay in Full Spectrum Warrior sounds like a pretty big handful, the control isn't. It's still being tweaked, but the basic setup is simple. You'll use the left analog stick to move an onscreen cursor, which you'll use to direct your troops, in conjunction with an action command assigned to a face button. The right analog stick will adjust your view a bit and will let you look around your selected squad. You'll be able to toggle the fog-of-war view with one shoulder button, which lets you know where you're exposed, and you can zoom in your view a bit with the other shoulder button. With the face buttons, you can switch command of the squads, issue general retreats, and toggle a targeting reticle for grenades. The simple setup works well; the only real issue is human error. As you play, you'll find that when things get hectic in a level, you'll have a "deer in the headlights" moment when, accessible controls or not, you'll freeze and waste precious moments as you try to think of what to order your troops to do.
In addition to the single-player game, Full Spectrum Warrior will offer some Xbox Live fun. At the moment, the game is slated to include a two-player co-op mode in which you and a friend will each be in command of a squad of soldiers and will go through the game together. The co-op game should change the dynamics of the experience considerably, as you'll have to provide support for each other as you progress through areas, or else you'll spend a lot of time restarting. While the co-op mode is cool, it's also a pretty expected mode for Xbox Live. However, Pandemic is cooking up an interesting feature revolving around the replays we mentioned earlier. FSW will let you take the replays of your missions and trade them via Xbox Live. While this may sound somewhat like a throwaway feature, it could potentially be a very cool way to improve your skills. Not only will you be able to see how other players handle a particular level, but you'll be able to set up unique challenges by passing on a replay of a poorly played mission that appears impossible to complete.
Full Spectrum Warrior has richly detailed characters and environments enhanced by a plethora of little touches that bring the world to life. The character models for the eight light-infantry soldiers that make up the two squads under your direction are very detailed, right down to their uniforms. Animation, which is still being tuned, looks pretty good right now, although there are a few rough spots here and there. The environments, modeled after actual cities, are a very good mix of form and function. The distressed city environment we saw was quite detailed, with crisp textures. In addition to being visually impressive, the environments have a very utilitarian layout that offers realistic opportunities for cover, such as cars, chunks of demolished structures, and nooks and crannies in and around buildings. The environments are significantly enhanced by a robust selection of atmospheric, but functional, little touches. The work-in-progress version of the game we played featured clouds of smoke from ongoing fires, bits of paper and debris being kicked up by wind, and a high level of interactivity with just about anything you encounter in the world. What is especially nice is that these atmospheric details provide information you can use as you play. For example, if you're attentive, you'll notice the strength and direction of the wind in a level by keeping an eye on the way debris is blown or what the smoke billowing up from fires is doing. If the wind is blowing too strongly, you'll know not to use a smoke grenade for cover, since the cloud it kicks up will be quickly dispersed.
The audio sticks closely to the good mix of form and function seen in the graphics. You'll hear an impressive amount of chatter from your squads, which serves as a nice atmospheric touch but will also keep you informed as to what's going on in the game if you pay attention. You'll hear an assortment of weapons fire and explosions that, thanks to 5.1 audio support, will do a good job of selling you on the experience. The game will also feature dynamic music that will change to reflect your situation.
Based on what we've played and seen so far, Full Spectrum Warrior is looking pretty sharp. While the visuals and audio are shaping up very well from a technical standpoint, we have to say we're most impressed by how efficiently they're used. There appears to be very little in the graphics or audio that's not tied to the gameplay in some way. Whether it's the cover provided by the detailed environments or the status updates being called out by your squads during a mission, there doesn't seem to be much in the game that's just for show. The result so far is a game that offers a change of pace from the other military-themed console games. The whole package manages to offer a tense and hectic experience in spite of the fact that you're not actively controlling a soldier, which is no small feat. The Xbox Live support is welcome, and the way it supports the unique replay feature is a cool perk. Full Spectrum Warrior is currently slated to ship next year for the Xbox, with a PC version of the game to follow. Look for more on the game in the coming months. Check out an interview with Pandemic on the game here.
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