Version tested: Xbox 360
Despite generating the sort of revenue that could bail out a high street bank, first-person shooters are in crisis. There's a sense that the tide is turning against the market leaders, that too many iterations in too short a space of time have burned out the hardcore, leaving little enthusiasm for new additions to the shooter family tree. We probably won't feel the impact for another few years, but there's a large meteorite headed for these lumbering, violent dinosaurs of the gaming scene.
The original Section 8 was an early casualty of this Darwinian evolution, even as its DNA strived to become something more. It was packed with interesting ideas, ranging from a supercharged "overdrive" sprint to free-form aerial spawn points that allowed you to drop from the clouds to any point on the battlefield. But few could see past the surface similarities to Halo to appreciate the hybrid creature underneath.
This download-only sequel could still suffer the same fate. The back story is a generic wash of clichés, taking in armoured super-soldiers, imperilled space colonies and genetically modified enemies with a grudge against humanity. And since Halo: Reach added jetpacks to Bungie's arsenal, Section 8's most obvious point of difference has been co-opted by its better-known rival. At first glance, this is Space Marine Shooter #425, but in fact it is far more.
What Prejudice does have is affordability and, beneath its generic exterior, distinctive gameplay. It may still look like its dinosaur ancestors, but by opting for a low-price niche where its unique strengths can attract a more appreciative and less risk-averse audience, it's an example of survival of the fittest in action.
Of course, this isn't the first shooter to try to make its name by exploiting the misconception that "download" and "proper game" are mutually exclusive. Blacklight: Tango Down had a stab at it, but floundered because for all its talk, it simply wasn't very good at the basics of the FPS genre. Prejudice, perhaps humbled by the struggle faced by its full-price predecessor, simply gets it right without making a fuss.
The inclusion of a story mode will likely attract some attention, just as single-player becomes ever more vestigial in the full-price shooter genus. Judged on playing time alone, it can stand alongside the likes of Call of Duty and hold its head high. This is a fully-formed campaign that will take the best part of a day to work through on normal difficulty.
The writing is bland, the characters forgettable and the voice acting sounds like they hired Top Shop radio DJs to play grizzled space marines. Yet even with such cheap production values, it's as good as many games costing four times as much. That says more about how poor the single-player FPS has become, but for the gamer on a budget, it's a big tick in Section 8's favour.
Of course, the story is just an excuse to introduce you to the toys you'll be using in multiplayer, but it makes a better attempt to disguise this ulterior motive than the original game ever did. It also means that there's always something new around the corner, whether in the form of fresh gadgets (mech suits, hoverbikes) or set-piece encounters (fighting through a deadly maze of mining lasers is a stand-out moment).
That's not to say the story gets everything right. Difficulty spikes are common, particularly as the game relies on scripted events that can kill you outright if you get ahead of yourself.
Later missions also rely too heavily on the tired old escort/defence template, with one particularly irritating example finding you, a vulnerable foot soldier, protecting a tank from a relentless assault. The tank is apparently made of cardboard and driven by idiots, since it trundles into the line of fire and then sits there, taking damage before flying to pieces in less than a minute. It's punishing and frustrating rather than challenging, and especially annoying since there's no way to change difficulty once the campaign has started.
Of course, that same tank is virtually indestructible in multiplayer. It's here that Section 8 really comes into its own, offering an online experience that is broad in options, narrow in focus and balanced to perfection.
Play the game as you would any other FPS and you'll only get so far. Run-and-gun tactics are of limited use here, and there's thankfully little room for grenade spammers. The freefall spawn system ensures that camping is a waste of time, as players can drop into the action anywhere on the generous Battlefield-style maps.
Indeed, any sniper who stays still for too long can expect to be crushed by a vindictive foe aiming size 12s at his or her skull while skydiving. Making full use of the "overdrive" sprint and jetpacks opens out the space completely, so players who simply jog around on the horizontal plane are only of limited use.
It's in the unlock options that Section 8 becomes something genuinely special. Unlike other games, which either restrict the good stuff to higher-level players or favour quantity over quality by cluttering the loadout screen with dozens of pointless items, the selection available here allows ample customisation without overwhelming you.
Seven basic weapons are backed up with six supplementary items, ranging from an all-in-one repair/medkit tool to portable mortars and radar beacons. Different upgrades can be applied by distributing ten points between modifiers that enhance bullet damage, armour efficiency and recharge times.
Unlockables include new armour and ammo types, enabling you to improve preferred items for specific functions. There are lots more options that become available as you level up, but right from the start even a new player can come up with a unique mix of weapons and abilities and save it as a custom loadout.
This proves essential, as the two multiplayer game modes become richer the more you invest in the customisation. Swarm is for co-op play, as you and your teammates defend a command post against an escalating assault. Surviving the 15 minute countdown is no mean feat. Conquest is the competitive mode, mixing up base-capture and deathmatch mechanics with a more free-form, objective-based mission structure.
There are nine of these dynamic combat missions, or DCMs, and they can be triggered by either side depending on how many bases have been taken by the rival factions. Marking targets for bombing runs, infiltrating enemy outposts, guarding a convoy – there's admirable variety, and each one changes the tempo of the game from the familiar deathmatch scenario.
Success in the DCMs earns large amounts of Victory Points, the in-match currency that already offers up small change for each kill or assist. These can be cashed in for equipment drops, and these too impact the strategy of the game immensely.
Supply points let you restock ammo or change your loadout on the fly. Turrets can be deployed, raining bullets and missiles down on incoming enemy forces. AA guns can shoot down respawning players who drop inside their fire zone. The mech suit, hoverbike and tank from the single-player mode also appear here, and can change the dynamic of the entire game.
It's a frankly staggering suite of options for a downloadable game, yet Section 8: Prejudice never loses sight of its balance. Even when you're getting creamed, it's always because the other team is using all of the battlefield to its advantage, choosing its drop zones carefully, spending its points more wisely, adapting its weaponry more shrewdly and making full use of the DCMs to keep the points rolling in. That's a lot to keep track of, but it's to developer TimeGate's credit that so much of it feels intuitive and logical.
Were it not for the outdated visuals and functional presentation, Prejudice would easily be worth a full-price purchase. It is, quite simply, the best multiplayer shooter since Battlefield: Bad Company 2. As a budget digital download, it's ridiculously good value.
9 / 10
Section 8: Prejudice will launch 20th April on Xbox Live Arcade, 4th May for PC, and sometime during Summer 2011 on PSN.