I love first-person shooters as much as anyone, but every now and again I yearn for a simpler time - a time when gamers did their killing from a bird's-eye perspective, looking down on a battlefield littered with power-ups and weapons for the taking. I was able to get my fix of god's-eye gaming with C&C: Red Alert for a while, but the fact that I had to use my brain meant I wasn't getting the pure adrenaline rush that only a mindless shooter can deliver.
But now my prayers have been answered with netWAR. With this online-only shoot-'em-up, there's no need for grandiose strategy or complicated maneuvers; all you've got to do to have fun is start running and gunning. Yes, there are some areas where it could use a little polish around the edges, but the bottom line is that netWAR delivers so much high-powered mayhem and over-the-top pyrotechnics that you'll quickly resign yourself to dealing with any trouble spots.
Getting into a game of netWAR's about as easy as emptying an M-16 into the ground. After establishing an Internet connection, you simply launch the program, choose one of eight battle theaters (most gamers gravitate to the first two on the list), decide what game type you'd like to play, then select a character and start fragging. Each battle theater has distinct terrain; in one game you might find yourself moving through a primordial jungle ringed by volcanoes, only to join a new battle and discover you're roaming the not-so-peaceful streets of Washington DC. It's a good thing all the game characters can swim, too, because many of the fields of battle feature large areas of water.
There are four characters to choose from, each armed with a weapon providing a unique blend of firepower and range. A.K.'s AK-47 machine gun, for instance, boasts the highest rate of fire but does the least amount of damage per hit; Sonja's dynamite sticks, on the other hand, result in the greatest blast zone but she can only toss one per second. Other choices include Schmitty (grenades) and the Special Forces Dude (explosive throwing stars). When you begin a game you're assigned a color; depending on the type of game you're playing, other players who've been assigned the same color as you might be your teammates. All the action is viewed from a top-down perspective, with two radar screens that'll show you where all the other players are on the map.
Of course, netWAR wouldn't be a lot of fun if all you had to work with were handheld weapons - and that's where netWAR's vehicles come into play. As you seek out and crush the enemy, helicopters fly over the carnage and drop all sort of goodies. In addition to the usual health packs and power-ups for temporary invisibility and invincibility, you'll be pleasantly surprised to see tanks, helicopters, gunboats, jetpacks, and other vehicles being dropped in random spots on the map. If you're lucky enough to climb into a behemoth tank or armored gunship, you can pretty much count on racking up several kills before you're brought down either by ground forces or an enemy in another vehicle.
There are four types of netWAR games: basic training, mayhem, deathmatch, and team battles. Mayhem is the most popular game type right now, probably because it and basic training are the only modes offered for gamers playing the shareware version of netWAR. Basic training is exactly what the name implies: you're tossed into the middle of a mayhem battle and can frag and be fragged as much as you like without any of it going down on your permanent record. In mayhem mode, the stakes are a little higher: all kills and deaths are recorded and are available for fellow netWAR players to peruse at any time. (In both basic training and mayhem, the decision whether to team up with other players sporting your color is up to you, but as a common courtesy you should probably send a message to all players with your colors asking them whether they're playing as a team.)
Each player has a "home tent" where he can retreat and use money power-ups to buy back health points, but don't count on it as a guarantee of safety: At any time an enemy can "switch" your home tent's color to his own and cause the base defenses to fire on everyone except him. Gaining control of as many tents as possible might seem a simple way to ensure victory, but the areas around tents can degenerate into veritable killing grounds - it's often better to look for power-ups lying on the ground rather than plunging into the middle of a six-way firefight.
Team battle and deathmatch work a little differently. In team battle you and your buddies scramble around the map for the first ten minutes, trying to grab as many power-ups and resources as possible. Don't look for copters to conveniently drop vehicles in team battle - you have to locate certain spots on the map where you can buy them using money you've earned during play. During those ten minutes, all players are resurrected as soon as they're toasted, but once that time is up a kill is a kill - period. Deathmatch is a four-round elimination tourney that pits 16 players in head-to-head combat, with no vehicles or tents to provide a respite.
All this spells instant gratification for action hounds, and for most gamers that'll be the case. But it almost seems as if Headland spent so much time trying to ensure gameplay would be balanced that it overlooked some basic issues. The first is control: Incredibly, there's no support for gamepads or joysticks (except programmable devices where you can assign keystrokes to buttons, of course). Any arcade-action game with a top-down view screams for gamepad support, but inexplicably Headland hasn't included it.
Another problem is that you can only move and fire in eight directions when you're on foot - a number that drops to four (up, down, left, right) when you're standing still. I'm no programmer, but I sure can't figure out why a game character can't face in any direction, especially since vehicles have that capability. And because your character can fire in only four directions while stationary, there's no way to take up a fixed position and safeguard your home tent - to fire at a diagonal angle, you must move in that direction and expose yourself to enemy fire.
More troublesome, though, is that the movement interface abruptly changes when you enter a vehicle. When you're a foot soldier, the directional keys are fixed: the left arrow turns your character so he's facing left and starts moving him in that direction. But once you hop in a vehicle other than a jetpack, the directional keys are relative - the up key moves you forward in whatever direction you're facing, the left key simply turns you left, and so forth. The first time I scrambled into a helicopter and readied myself to unleash a rain of death, I found myself reelin' and rockin' all over the screen because I wasn't expecting a new control interface.
To be fair, though, I enjoyed netWAR so much that I didn't mind tossing down my Gravis GrIP and using the directional keys whenever I clambered into a vehicle. And the game's other problems - the inability to select who'll be your teammates in a team battle, indestructible structures that can't be entered by soldiers, and the lack of a scrollable chat window during play - were shortcomings I easily overlooked because I was too busy chasing down potential victims.
NetWAR won't win any awards for originality or strategic depth, but the last time I checked, a game didn't need those qualities to deliver a ripping good time - and that's exactly what netWAR does. Whether you opt for the retail version ($35 gets you the full game, a strategy guide, and a year of online play) or choose to download the game and pay $29.95 for a year of unlimited play, you're almost sure to get your money's worth out of netWAR.