With the number of mainstream war games available for consoles and Windows, it would be easy to forgive someone for thinking that being a soldier means going into battle with 12 grenades, absorbing 24 shots to the torso before falling down and running in with guns blazing in an attempt to hit anything within range of easily replenished ammunition. At the same time, it’d be easy to see how someone who plays real-time strategy games has an entirely different (and perhaps more realistic) concept of resource management and battlefield tactics.
So it was intriguing when Pandemic and THQ created Full Spectrum Warrior, a game that tried to marry these two concepts of military action while “keeping it real” throughout. The initial game was created with the U.S. Army in mind, meaning there’d be no uber-hero or aliens, but consumers got a taste of the re-imagined game this month when the retail version released in North America.
The result is the first console title to implement real-time strategy gameplay in a way that not only feels right using a controller, but also plays as strategically as expected for an RTS yet just as frantically as shooters like Rainbow Six 3. Does it do a good job? Is it entertaining and fun? Absolutely. But is it a game for everyone? Hardly.
Full Spectrum Warrior puts players in the over-the-shoulder, omnipresent role of a squad commander. Players exercise control over two squads of troops as they fight through wave after wave of terrorists in a fictional yet somehow familiar country. Known as the three-block war, the urban conflict plays out over the course of an entire game, with each battle presenting different enemies and opposing weapons, each of which calls for different tactics.
Unlike Rainbow Six 3, though, where “tactics” largely meant little more than point and shoot, the tactics in Full Spectrum Warrior require as much thought as would be expected in any Windows-based strategy title. Running in with guns blazing will get soldiers nowhere but the morgue, and tossing a grenade around every corner will only result in a lack of grenades when the big artillery comes rolling in. Instead, the gameplay requires slow, deliberate and planned troop movements, basically akin to leapfrogging between cover.
Moving troops is incredibly intuitive, accomplished by first selecting the squad you want to move, then moving the left thumbstick in the direction of their target. Once at their target, the troops must then either stand pat, be assigned an area to watch for enemies, or move to the next location. Given the urban settings, though, the majority of your troop movements involve constant switching between squads so one is constantly covering for the other as it moves into position. And in Full Spectrum Warrior, position is key.
Corners make great places for both defensive and offensive cover, as do dumpsters and automobiles. Couches? Not so much, although they are available. The trick, then, lies in flanking your enemies to achieve the best possible angle from which to safely take them out. In many cases this involves circling a building with one squad while the other one has the enemy engaged in a firefight, although in some cases it means little more than engaging the enemy while the second squad readies a grenade or grenade launcher.
With all the squad-switching and intense firefights, there’s more than enough action to satiate most shooting-game fans, in spite of the fact that players never fire a single round. Arguably, the no-shooting aspect will put some people off, but the argument for the action in Full Spectrum Warrior is similar to the argument that combat in Knights of the Old Republic was sufficient to keep even button-mashers busy. It’s fast-paced and intense, but in a different way.
Should a member of the squad get injured, players have a limited amount of time to get him to a case-vac, or a medical station. These are generally located near the insertion point of each level, although longer levels have one around halfway through the mission or between key save points. If the squad member dies before reaching the case-vac, the mission is over. A single casualty results in mission failure. This game’s not just about leaving no man behind; it’s about leaving no man’s behind on the battlefield while the rest of him heads back to base. Full Spectrum Warrior is no Rainbow Six 3. It’s much more realistic, much more focused on teamwork and much more immersive.
Unfortunately, since the game takes place over a limited urban area, the missions, as strategic and immersive as they are, can feel somewhat repetitive. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; look how many people play years-old RTS games on their computer, even though the only thing changing is the environment and computer’s occasional use of a new tactic. Likewise, Full Spectrum Warrior offers occasionally fresh scenarios and enemies, but it’s the planning aspect that will either intrigue people or turn them off, not the action itself. Is it repetitive? By some definitions, yes. But is it fun? In our opinion, yes.
If switching between squads isn’t your bag, you can always take the game on Xbox Live and play co-operatively through the entire game, with each of the two players controlling one of the squads. The progress you make in online co-op doesn’t translate to the single-player offline version, but it does remain tracked for whenever you and a friend hookup online.
Still, whether you play online with a friend or not, it’s the game’s artificial intelligence that controls the gunfire and aiming, and it’s not exactly infallible. We’ve seen several instances where our troops expended 40 percent of their ammunition on a single enemy who, for all intents and purposes, was wide open after we flanked him. Kevlar or no, the enemy should’ve gone down, and he never did.
Likewise, we’ve set up ambushes in some of the game’s few scripted moments thinking our team would take the enemies out with ease. Instead, we’ve watched as our squad sat idly by while enemies popped out of a building, set up camp, roasted a few weenies, cracked open a beer and only then decided to open fire on our soldiers while they played tiddly winks behind a truck. For the most part the AI, both enemy and friendly, is fantastic, but it’s those isolated yet frustrating incidents that you really remember. (You can even record your gameplay between checkpoints, just in case you want to share those “can you believe that?!” moments with friends over Xbox Live.)
One of the aspects of Full Spectrum Warrior that makes it hard to comprehend the game’s RTS nature is its graphics. For starters, the game is played from an over-the-shoulder view rather than the traditional top-down or isometric view of most strategy games. Secondly, the game looks good, a slight improvement over Rainbow Six 3, particularly where the characters and animations are concerned. Third, the camera has a Handicam feel to it, not unlike the immersive camera in Sony’s Killzone, and that’s not a system often used in a strategy game. Basically, everything about the game’s look was designed to reinforce the fast pace yet support the camera-angle and other requirements for strategic gameplay. Even the HUD looks shooter-esque, although the information involves core data in graphical form rather than a menu.
The sound in Full Spectrum Warrior is equally confusing, if for no other reason than it breaks the RTS stereotype of background music and an occasional scream. Instead of these RTS standbys, Full Spectrum Warrior involves full Dolby Digital surround sound, dynamic music, great explosions and some of the best war-time dialogue we’ve heard. In fact, one DailyGame staffer said on multiple occasions that “somebody at Pandemic must’ve spent a lot of time in the military, or at least talking to them.” So if you’re not going to be firing any bullets yourself, at least the game’s sounds will make you feel like “one of the guys” on the battlefield.
Still, as many steps forward as Full Spectrum Warrior makes for the RTS genre on a console, it also makes a few sidesteps along the way. Pandemic did a fantastic job of bringing RTS controls and gameplay to a console audience and controller. They did a great job with the audio and delivered some solid graphics. They even included co-op play over Xbox Live. But the friendly and enemy AI falls short at times, and the missions, while individually immersive, may prove too repetitive in the long run for mainstream gamers to give the genre a chance. If you can get through the excessively long (but necessary) tutorial, Full Spectrum Warrior will probably provide some good times. If the tutorial is a bit too much, though, Full Spectrum Warrior may be one campaign for which you’ll wish you’d not enlisted.
- Gameplay: 9.1
- Graphics: 8.7
- Sound: 8.9
- Replay: 8.7
- Overall: 8.9
- Ingenious, but a little gameplay short of “must have.”