Let’s
get the boring intros out of the way right now. My name’s
Russ Fischer — dubious Atlanta resident, proud Red Sox
fan. I met Nick at a press screening in Atlanta a while
back, and we got to talking about all the typical topics:
zombie movies, the glory of Uwe
Boll and baseball video games. I’d been covering games for
a bunch of outlets, and told Nick to give me a call if CHUD
ever wanted some games coverage. We kept talking about it,
and plans slowly began to gel.

A
week ago we finally hammered out a rough schedule to start
pumping game info into the site, beginning with a weekly
column. But then Monday came, and I saw Fahrenheit 9/11.
The movie is dedicated in part to a guy I worked with a
few times, which made objectivity kinda
tough. I’ve spent the week thinking and writing about that,
the Al Jazeera doc Control
Room
, Fog Of War and a bunch of other politically
minded material that, all things considered, I’d really
rather put out of my head. But I can’t, and games have seemed
like an afterthought for a few days.

So
I’m sitting in a hotel room in San Diego last night trying
to figure what I’d fill this page with. The most obvious
choice was the game that took me to California in the first
place – EverQuest II
– but I’m not sure that’s such a good idea right now,
not least because dropping details would be like pissing
on Sony’s online blanket coverage plans. That’s not a picnic
I’m ready to ruin just yet. I kept coming back to politics
anyway, and since I haven’t seen nearly enough written about
THQ’s excellent Full Spectrum
Warrior
, that locked the subject.

So
after that preamble that by now feels longer than the pre-credits
sequence in a Timothy Dalton Bond flick, let’s get to it.



Full
Spectrum Warrior
was
originally developed as a training exercise for the US Army,
but the consumer revenue stream was apparently too inviting
to resist. And for a game originally greenlit
by beaurocratic brass, FSW
is damned involving.

There
aren’t many truly original games out there, but FSW definitely
makes the cut. Maybe that’s because it was designed to fulfill
a singular purpose rather than the blanket demands of focus
groups. It’s not really a first or third person shooter,
and not really a strategy game, but some Frankenstein combination
of the three. And we’re talking about a Peter Boyle monster
here: all singing, all dancing, all rampaging. You’ve got
control of two four-man squads, but instead of directly
controlling any of the men, the controller issues group
and individual commands. The setup seems strange on paper,
but in combat, it’s friggin‘ beautiful,
and the game captures combat like nothing else I’ve seen.

Each
squad is specialized – a leader, two rifleman and grenadier
are the standard. Gameplay exists in the open spaces between buildings, shelled
cars and piles of rubble. The original
design was an urban combat trainer, and Full Spectrum
Warrior
totally delivers. You’ll command men to move
slowly, picking cover spots and keeping layers of fire available
anytime a soldier moves ahead. The command system is simple
to use, but offers enough flexibility to handle any urban
situation. The inability to enter closed buildings is a
mystery, but the game remains strong without it.

The
level design is ingenious, and while it’s pretty easy to
master simple flanking techniques, the AI’s aim is sharp
enough that there’s always real danger that one bullet will
scrub a friendly soldier. And the scripting and dialogue
performance is so good that the game easily beats Call
of Duty
in the character business. The squads are made
up of real people with personalities, and it really hurts
to lose one. We don’t see enough of that mechanic.

And
part of the success is due the camera system, which shows
every perspective on the action with perfect clarity. There’s
even a replay system to let you see what went wrong, where
and when, and then jump back into the action at the crucial
moment. Commands are easily given, and there’s a realistic
delay between issue and squad follow-up. (Sometimes it’s
too great, actually, but that’s not a huge deal.) The game
is beautiful, with particle effects powering destructible
environments and lighting that filters though objects like
paint.

Now,
it’s true that the collection of levels is a bit too short.
Even with the online co-op, it’s possible to exhaust the
included levels in a few days. More online options (like
a competitive mode) would help a lot, and downloadable extras
wouldn’t hurt, either. But put that complaint aside, and
there’s almost nothing to bitch about with Full Spectrum
Warrior
.

But
I can’t help wondering what people want out of war games.
Is it compelling story and stabs at character, or is it
better to jettison all the literary crap and just blow the
hell out of some stranger from Kansas? The numbers on Call
of Duty
say one thing, but the unbelievable longevity
of Counter-Strike punches CoD
in the face. (Which reminds me: the Source-powered version
of CS that’ll ship with Half-Life 2 is simply
brilliant, and is going to reinvigorate that game like a
horse needle into Uma Thurman’s
chest.)

I
also wonder if most war games do service or disservice to
guys that really have to fight, or are the two things totally
unrelated? Does an Iraq-fresh soldier
come home and fire up FSW or Counter-Strike only
to realize that it’s a completely fucked-up thing to blast
digital people after having to shoot the real thing? Since
9/11 war games have exploded — you should have seen the
military at E3 last year. It’s natural, sure, but I feel
like were walking both sides of the line between acceptable
and crass. All this is serious stuff, I know, but I’m betting
that some of you have served or have family serving now,
and I want to know how it works. Write letters, people.

Without
having combat experience, the bottom line is that Full
Spectrum Warrior
is one of the few war-themed games
I’ve played that doesn’t feel like a cheap commercial cop
on what the real experience is like. It doesn’t insult gamers,
or the people it simulates, and that’s so rare that playing
it is really worth the time. Given its history, that’s obviously
the point, but that the game captures squad fighting so
well is still a great surprise. THQ is following the Halo
pattern and putting the PC release off until September,
but for now, the game is one of the best excuses for an
Xbox in 2004.

There’s
a lot to talk about in the future, from the glut of upcoming
Star Wars games, a new generation of impressively
cinematic titles and the ’04/’05 wave of football titles.
But let’s hear what you want to know about, what’s interesting
in gaming and what aspects of the industry are over-hyped
bullshit. Was there something at E3 that most of the press
glossed over, or are game previews just part of the advertising
machine? Make some demands, and I might even obey them.

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