A meteor lands in front of you, unfolds into a turret and starts shooting you. This is the central mark of Section 8, a new action-heavy first-person shooter by TimeGate Studios, which seeks to take the popular formula of games like Halo and throw in some new, competition-friendly elements. Their E3 2009 demo shows some interesting ideas that could become the next big online multiplayer game.
The basic premise of Section 8 casts you as a member of the 8th Armored Infantry — nicknamed "Section 8" for the U.S. Army term for "discharged for insanity." Appropriately, your force is famous for taking on missions that everyone else considers to be insane or suicidal. Your enemies, the Arm of Orion, are a rebel faction that has recently begun conquering colonies. You're sent to New Madrid to try and claim one such colony back, and while you're at it, you must figure out why this group's rebelling in the first place. The developers promised quite a few mysteries on that front in the single-player campaign.
However, what they demonstrated on the floor were their ideas on how to improve the multiplayer component. They had quite a few good ideas, including a new take on spawn points, play rewards and bots in multiplayer. They promised 16 players on quick servers and 32 on dedicated servers, with hopes that they can raise the count even further before or possibly after release on all systems. Persistent data for players is kept using Xbox Live or Games for Windows Live.
The spawn points system is unusual for a first-person shooter because there are none — you can pick any spot as your spawn point. Now, before you think "spawn right behind the enemy flag," keep in mind that the developers and the enemy team have both thought of that. Anti-aircraft guns could be a problem when you dive onto the map from 15,000 feet in a burning meteor. Naturally, when you land, you need a few seconds to get up and get your gun. The producer stopped at this point to explain that there will be no one-shot kills in this game unless you land on someone during entry, meaning that sniper camping may not be such a good idea. To make the landing trick easier, you can, when near the ground, slow your fall for a second and adjust your course a bit.
The bot system is also significant, although not revolutionary. The bots were done reasonably well but were clearly meant as stand-ins to keep the game operating with all players in. They're also kept obvious, with generic names like "A. Clef", while players have their more creative options. However, the title lets players drop in and out easily indeed; you just take over one of the bots or let one of them take your character. It wasn't clear how this would work with the weapons/equipment load-out system.
The weapons load-out system is also mildly creative. Each character carries two primary weapons, two pieces of equipment ranging from grenades to shoulder-powered missile launchers, and you can select your options from the entire list, as in Call of Duty. You can also adjust your armor with 10 points to invest in a set of properties, such as improving your lock-on ability, making yourself stealthier, or being tougher or faster. The weapons were all the normal standbys, so there was nothing exceptionally special here, but it was all neatly balanced. The omission of one-shot kills, combined with the "burning meteor" phenomenon, tends to discourage sniping in favor of more close, chaotic combat.
Just in case that isn't enough, though, Section 8 also lets you call in things to help you, including turrets and hovertanks. Turrets are automated and destructible, somewhat like Team Fortress' Engineer creations. Hovertanks, however, reminded me of World of Warcraft with multiseat vehicles, each serving a specific purpose and having specific guns to mess with. You need to earn money by landing kills, destroying things or otherwise completing objectives, but if someone's just owning it up and gets out that tank, you can happily join him to really wreck things.
The title also features Dynamic Combat Missions, a system that gives you special objectives on the fly and offers major cash rewards, which in turn means more turrets and vehicles. This didn't seem to do much during gameplay, but I'm guessing that it's going to get tuned up, since the point is that it makes the battlefield shift actively, encouraging the use of one's wits during play, rather than just going right for the control points.
All of this was beautiful. I didn't hear much by way of music, but the sound effects on the demo headsets had a nice amount of punch, and the "burning meteor" sounds awesome. The graphics were solid, if not exceptionally amazing, but run at an incredible smoothness that meshes very well with the manic gameplay style.
If diving onto a map from 15,000 feet in a burning meteor doesn't sell Section 8 to FPS fanatics looking for something just a bit different, then nothing will. Fortunately, the rest of the game looks like it could hold up nicely when it gets released in August.
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