"We took a pretty critical look at Section 8, both from an analytical standpoint in terms of server metrics, and from the pulse of positive and negative player feedback. We've used the points where we needed to improve as pillars for the development of Prejudice."
Bold words there from Timegate president Adel Chaveleh. His studio is currently putting the finishing touches to the sequel of one of 2008's most curious and innovative online shooters. Its pacey sci-fi thrills were geared firmly towards online play, and the game shared key chromosomes with the likes of Planetside and Tribes.
"People were kind of expecting a full-blown single-player campaign when what we really had was a long tutorial," says Chaveleh. With some five hours of story-led missions, Prejudice aims to offer a longer, broader single-player experience than its predecessor.
It's still a proving-ground for the nuances of multiplayer, but it's a slower, surer lead-in to the main attraction, an adventure with a backstory, and a more substantial piece of scene-setting.
Jumping in fresh, it feels like you'll need that time to get acquainted with the way it plays. Like Section 8 before it, Prejudice's emphasis differs from most online shooters because of the sheer level of player mobility through jump-packs and suit-enhanced running, the enormous variety of combat styles through different loadouts, and the absence of enforced downtime. This is a really unusual element which, even for those familiar with the first game's player-insertion method, is worthy of a recap.
Any given multiplayer match begins with a heady airdrop from your circling dropship. You thump to the ground, fight, die, choose where to drop next, and you're immediately out of the dropship hatch again.
There's time for reflection and backpack-fiddling between spawns if required, but if you just want to get back into the game, you click at any point on the map you choose, and you're off again, dally-free.
What a refreshing change from the enforced wait-to-spawn standard of pretty much every online shooter, ever. There's also an option to squad-spawn with your team, which means waiting, naturally, but it's a pretty important option for focussed clan-play.
Insta-spawning is all fine if you're happy with your loadout for the course of a game, but loadout tinkering is one of the joys of Prejudice. With some 60 new weapon, ammo and tool unlocks through the ranking system, it's doesn't fail to reward.
There's a decent variety of weapons in the kind of categories you'd expect; assault and sniper rifles, rocket launchers, shotguns and so forth. These can be further modified with specialised ammo, unlocked through ranking up, and can really push your combat role into interesting dimensions.
Pick a pistol and machine gun for your two-gun loadout, pack one with shield-reducing EMP ammo and the other with armour-piercing rounds, and you're going to pose a challenge in any toe-to-toe scuffle.
At a recent demo-day hosted by Timegate, in which my slightly up-ranked character had access to a few of the unlocks, it was plain to see that there'll be more variety than most online shooters in terms of toys and tools.
A particular personal favourite is the backpack mortar, which sits outside your weapon loadout as a tool choice, and basically turns you into an artillery piece. An artillery piece with a jetpack. And suit-enhanced super-speed running. Boom!
As you might expect, then, battles are frantic and vibrant, fizzing with the splash of plasma and bright tracer-rounds, and the maps are dense with terrain features. One multiplayer game saw us fighting over a futuristic industrial facility, in which the fight ebbed and flowed around key capture-points which enabled players to set up static turrets to assist consolidation.
One of the more interesting multiplayer co-op modes is Swarm, in which a group of players fight off an AI-controlled attack. It's half FPS and half Tower Defence, as you need to keep setting up turrets to defend from the increasingly large and ornery waves of bots. Success depends on surviving for 15 minutes... No small order. And the bots are pretty handy, to boot.
While no vehicles were available to use in the multiplayer maps we sampled, there will be some in the final game. Early on in the single-player campaign though, we accessed the jetbike, which put Halo's Ghost to shame with its skittish manoeuvrability, blazing minigun/missile launcher combo and sheer, glottis-wobbling speed. Timegate also mentioned the battle-tank, which they say will be a game-changing tool of terror if one side manages to attain it.
One of Timegate's innovations with Prejudice is the Dynamic Content Missions or DCMs. From time to time in a multiplayer game, your HUD will twinkle with a new objective; you might have your hands full and choose to ignore it, but tackling the mission can really benefit your team.
For example - a VIP has entered the battlefield and you're required to escort him to one of your player-owned control points. Once there, he'll act as a high-level bot, patrolling and protecting the control-point for your team, and you'll get a victory-point boost for completing the mission.
Individual players can set their own preferences for which DCMs they'll receive, so if you prefer kill-missions over escorts, you'll get more of those.
With a beefed-up single-player campaign and more intricacy and progression in its multiplayer, Prejudice is promising considerably more content than its predecessor. Which makes the pricing structure and delivery method all the more interesting.
It'll be a download-only game, via XBLA, PSN and Games for Windows Live, and while the region-specific pricing has yet to be announced for PSN it'll cost MS platform-users 1200 Microsoft Points.
That sounds like an awful lot of game for £10.20, and if Prejudice can deliver on its promises it might just be the laser-powered shot in the arm that the me-too online FPS scene so sorely needs.