Review: Section 8

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Section 8, perhaps inevitably, is going to draw in comparisons to the venerable 1998 PC title, Starsiege: Tribes and its sequels for having much of the same gameplay. Tribes had set the multiplayer world on its ear with its blend of fast paced FPS action, a large selection of impressively vast maps, a wide variety of gametypes, weapon and armor loadouts, a commander option, and jet packs.

That, in itself, is a good thing considering the strong fanbase that the game and its legacy continue to enjoy in the PC world. Unfortunately, the odds that the audience on the console will even know what it is are pretty slim considering the dominance of COD and Halo within its multiplayer space in the years since, but it brings with it a number of interesting options to distinguish it from the competition.

Section 8′s singleplayer is a largely forgettable experience designed to acclimate you to the controls so that you don’t end up killing your teammates in your first online match. There’s some kind of story surrounding a guy named ‘Cord’ who fights for the Imperium in a special ops group called Section 8, a rebel group called the Arm of Orion making a mess of things, and a bad guy who used to be a member of Section 8. As for why Cord’s group has that particular name, they literally drop in from orbit and take on the jobs that no one else would making them the crazy bunch of the military.

That’s all that there is to the story and the less said about it, the better, considering some of the dialogue that’s in there although Jason Graves’ sci-fi soundtrack is worth listening to if only to keep the main menu on. Ironically, Section 8′s thick manual might come as a shock to players who may believe that they had picked up an RPG instead of a shooter. It’s packed with interesting bios on the key characters from the campaign and instructions that actually describe the finer points of the gameplay system, making it much beefier than the near-standard ten page pretend manuals that normally accompany titles like this.

The single player does a reasonably fair job in taking you through the title’s paces, most of which focus on simply hacking terminals or flipping switches to gain control of certain control points on the map, but there is a wealth of options that open up online which are only touched upon there. Instant Action is another single player option that can be used to test your skills in a variety of bot matches or try out the Conquest mode first before heading out. If you decide to simply hop on Live for the action and skip the preliminaries, there’s nothing stopping you.

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Finding a game is simple enough, but the interface could have been better rounded with a few more options to make things easier. For instance, the Advanced option brings up a typical browser screen allowing you to search for open games by listing them by Friends, recent servers visited, or by doing a search on a specific tag or clan name. Unfortunately, there is no option to have it simply search for all servers and list them outside of these narrow criteria.

So, new players had better hope that either their friends also have the game or that they have an idea of what to search for. Otherwise, the only other way to populate this list is by playing whatever you can through Quick and Custom matchups which is as backwards as you can probably get with what should be a simple interface tweak. The interface also won’t let you erase old searches, either, so if you’re expecting to use wildcards in your naming conventions in order to find servers with a certain name, you might end up with a cluttered list before long.

The max number of players that can fill a match is a nice, round, thirty two allowing for 16vs16 matchups across the wire in Ranked or Player hosted games. Upon joining a game, you’re presented with a large number of things to think about before heading into the battlefield. The first thing to do is to pick who you want to join: the Arm of Orion (the bad guys) or Section 8 (the not-so-bad guys). Most of the time, this is handled automatically so as to avoid stacking the teams, although it isn’t perfect as it still happens especially when people leave the other team. The game eventually gets around to balancing things out, but it doesn’t happen right away.

In addition to a side, the player will also be able to select what role they want to play which will determine their initial loadout. Similar to [I]Call of Duty 4′s[/I] system with its perks and weapon mods, Section 8 does mostly the same thing only with a lot more to choose from. Ranks are earned online as a matter of prestige, but everything that you will need to work with is right there at the start.

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Two weapons can be carried by any one soldier and these can be changed up into any combination that best suits your approach. Want to carry a missile launcher and a sniper rifle? Not a problem. This is the future!

Gear makes up your secondary option and only two items can be carried here, such as grenades, detonation packs, or rechargeable repair tools, and can be mixed in the same way. Medic-type characters that want to spend the entire fight running around and healing fellow soldiers and repairing vehicles can also afford to dance on the wild side with a rocket launcher and shotgun setup.

In addition, your armor also offers a large variety of extra enhancements. These are called ‘Passive Modules’ and there are nine of these on your armor. Adding extra armor plating can make you a lot tougher to kill, while adding in a few upgrades to your Repair Field can help heal teammates and damaged defenses much faster. A point system keeps players from creating a godlike build by maxing out every module, requiring instead a careful balance focused on what you want to specialize in.

But if you simply want to hop into a game and start shooting things, you can always fiddle with this later, pick one of the existing classes, and even change to something else either from within the game at a friendly Supply Depot or in between spawns in case someone manages to crush you like an orange with a suit of Heavy Armor. Now that you’re dressed for action, it’s time to drop in from orbit which is one of the more impressive twists to the spawn mechanic that I’ve seen in awhile.

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You don’t simply teleport into the game: you’re launched from orbit to hit the surface thanks to your uber suit which can apparently arrest G-forces from turning you into bonemeal jelly but fail to stop annoying little things like bullets. You can either choose to freely spawn and drop in anywhere on the map, or if you are part of a squad, drop you in wherever your team may be. Of course, there are also dangers to this as anti-air cannons may turn you into a corpse hitting the ground if you ignore studying the map first, but for the most part, most anywhere on the map is game.

Hurtling down from space, you’ll be given a chance to brake your descent with jets and take off running once you hit the ground. This also gives you the advantage of being able to slightly maneuver just where you want to touch down, especially if you see the enemy below and want to land right behind them as they’re busy fighting your teammates instead which is always fun. Hard landing without braking will get you there a bit faster, but there’s a delay of a few seconds as your systems come back online which can leave you vulnerable.

Blasting your way to victory has a few more twists to it in Section 8. There’s a limited “lock on” ability that you can use to target enemies (and there are ways to make it harder for enemies to do this). Running is also a little different with two modes: a regular run which slowly charges up to an Overdrive mode that blasts you across the landscape while it still has energy.

It’s a great way to get around without having to use a vehicle as the maps are pretty huge, but it’s also incredibly awkward to use if you’re not careful. Ramming into teammates can blow their shields away by accident along with doing some damage to yourself, but the same can also be done to the enemy as long as you can aim where you’re going. Stopping is another matter and I’ve seen a lot of players simply run into walls or vehicles in order to simply quit.

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Requisition points reward players for their performance in the game and can be used to drop in things such a missile launcher defense pod to a tank as long as you have enough. Using the store is as easy as pushing up on the D-pad once you think you’ve got enough points and then picking out what you want, especially in the case of deployable goodies like defensive turrets and Supply Depots. Section 8 makes no mistake about its emphasis on team play and with the in-game store and detailed map system, placing that air defense turret or sensor might make all the difference.

Section 8′s only gametype is Conquest which pits both teams against each other in a bid to score the most victory points in a match. This can be done in a variety of ways from simply killing the enemy to hacking and holding computer nodes that control special locations on the map. But Section 8 changes up the gameplay with DCMs, or Dynamic Combat Missions, that can award even more points to the side that manages to complete them. As a team performs in battle, certain “feats”…such as killing two soldiers with an assault rifle…can add up across the board and once they do, a DCM is unlocked for that team making these extremely fun additions to the usual run ‘n gun.

DCMs are completely optional, but the points they dole out for success make them extremely tempting distractions that can literally change the way a fight is unfolding on a map. These range from stealing valuable intel at an enemy base and then delivering it to a specific point to protecting a vehicle as a player drives it on to its destination. If the other team sees this happening, you can bet that they’ll do everything that they can to stop you. In one instance, as I drove an armored truck during a convoy mission, it seemed that every red carat on the map converged on top of my location while my teammates began dropping in from orbit around me in order to help out.

On another map, a mission had unlocked for the other team to steal intel from one of our bases. Suddenly, what had been an out-of-the-way outpost began filling up with heavy armor, a tank, and half the team. Of course, this left a few of our own control points open for hacking, but we could always retake those later. Once the enemy got a hold of that intel and delivered it, those points were theirs.

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But as option filled as Section 8′s gameplay is, it’s largely a multiplayer shooter at its core and its shelf life is largely dependent on whether you’re happy in playing with the options that it brings to the table than the relatively generic feel of the setting and the bland look of its graphics which appear crafted with more of an eye towards functionality than in competing with [I]Gears of War 2[/I] or [I]Modern Warfare[/I].

There’s also the distinct lack of a large number of players on at any one time, although finding a larger number of them during the evening on ranked servers proved to be more fruitful. But that was only one one server. Without a way for the browser to search through all of the games that might be out there, the feeling that multiplayer is populated with a vast array of empty servers is hard to shake.

There are a few ideas here that make it worth a second look, especially for competitive clans that are looking to expand their repertoire, but unless you have an incredible itch to play what can feel like another space marine in a different game online, Section 8 might be better served as a weekend pass than as a career decision.

Section 8
SouthPeak Interactive / TimeGate Studios
Microsoft Windows / Xbox 360 (Xbox 360 version reviewed)
Rated T for Teens