Two years is a pretty long time for PS2 and Xbox owners to wait for a conversion by anyone's standards, but Black Hawk Down appears to be one of those rare instances where it's worth the wait. Rather than just lovelessly shovel a straight-up conversion onto each system with all the compromises that go with that, NovaLogic has employed two separate UK studios to produce versions tailored specifically to each platform - both significantly different in approach from the PC original, it turns out.
Released on PC way back in 2003, the chart-topping FPS based itself on the infamous conflict in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 - a brutal encounter where 100 elite Delta Force Operatives found themselves in a hostile environment under siege by thousands of militia. With almost a fifth of their unit wiped out by dawn, it was an encounter that was eventually to be immortalised by the Mark Bowden book and the Ridley Scott movie, also called Black Hawk Down. As with the PC version, the PS2 and Xbox campaigns focus on the Operation Restore Hope and Task Force Ranger campaigns, with a series of "daring raids" against the "oppressive Somali warlords".
Remodelled and redesigned for PS2
First up, Novalogic was keen to show off the Rebellion-developed PS2 version, the Oxford-based Britsoft veterans behind the only other PlayStation Delta Force related title, Urban Warfare. Taking us through 'Shattered Palace', the eighth of 16 single-player levels, it's evident Rebellion has completely redesigned the game from the ground up with a totally different look, has an all-new stats/experience system that builds up as you play through, and a new command-issuing system for your squad mates that's also aided and abetted by support for voice commands.
On the visual side Rebellion has done a fantastic job creating an oppressive feeling of being in a baking hot desert environment, with some neat blurring effects creating the illusion of a heat and dust haze, which solves those thorny draw distance issues that PS2 developers often have such a hard time dealing with. Buzzing around the urban environments in a chopper, it was also evident the streaming technology allows Rebellion to create vast play areas, giving it the opportunity to recreate the PC environments without compromise or any perceivable load delays.
On the ground, the game certainly looks the part, with detailed hostile environments full of dense, narrow alleyways and intricate layouts providing plenty of rooftop and window-based hiding places for the enemy. Although the story elements should follow the PC version relatively closely, Rebellion has taken the opportunity to remodel certain areas: for example, the Olympic Hotel is discernibly different to the one featured in the movie; but then when you consider the movie was shot in Morocco, it's actually fair to say the game is actually truer to how Mogadishu looks in real life.
Elsewhere, the game comes to life with reasonably detailed, well animated character models, not to mention 28 accurately modelled real-life weapons from the campaign (three of which will be exclusive to the PS2 version, we're told - the H&K G3A3, H&K G36E, and H&K PSG1 Sniper Rifle in case you're curious).
Command and conquer
But the most significant change comes with the stats and commands system. The former splits each soldier's abilities into two distinct categories: Attributes and Weapons. Attributes takes care of Marksmenship, Dexterity, Endurance and Leadership, while the self-explanatory Weapons breaks down into Power, Accuracy, Range of Fire and Rate of Fire. Needless to say, the better your abilities, the better your all-round usefulness on the battlefield, with, for example, Leadership proving useful in getting your squad to respond to orders quickly and so on. New bonus skills unlock as you go through the game, and players also get to unlock and assign weapons related to character class.
Although the all-new command interface is slick and intuitive, the Voice Command support lets you quickly and efficiently bark orders such as 'Cover Me', 'Need Ammo' or quirky hidden commands like 'Do Your Exercises!' which makes your men do star jumps in front of you. If that doesn't appeal, the command interface via the joypad is easy to manage, with triangle bringing up a Team Command interface, with further use of the D-pad required to select, health, ammo/hold fire and so on. From our brief encounters with the enemies, our squad reacted swiftly with skill and intelligence, taking up sensible cover as well as pulling off flanking manoeuvres with ease.
But outside of the single-player is the mammoth 32 player support, with NovaLogic once again making the most out of its experiences with PC online gaming and applying it to the often underused PS2 online arena. While most games struggle to support eight players adequately, Black Hawk Down promises to be one of the most compelling PS2 multiplayer games around when it ships this September. Be warned, though; hosting your own games will result in a lower maximum player support.
Having been in development for over 18 months already, Rebellion has somewhat gone to town on multiplayer modes, with the all-too-rare four-player split-screen being included alongside online, with co-op support in 10 of the 16 missions according to our NovaLogic representative. All the popular modes (and more) are supported, so we can expect 16 on 16 deathmatch and CTF, although how one organises such things is a moot point.
A traditional approach
Meanwhile, we were also given a run through of the entirely different Xbox version, which Climax, another Britsoft veteran, has been tasked with converting. It's fair to say that this version is more in keeping with the original in terms of overall visual style and straightforward gameplay principles - hardly surprising given the similarities between architectures.
As such, there's no need to worry about stat building or issuing commands like the PS2 version; it's very much a case of playing it pretty much the same way as the PC original - and as such feels more 'traditional' if you will. Certainly to look at, the style is much 'cleaner', and less 'tricks' have been utilised to cope with the areas that the PS2 struggles at. That's not to say it looks in any way worse, but it's definitely different. It looked sharper, without doubt, but we preferred the rough, dirty feel of the PS2, which is unusual.
Although some of the maps have been "subtly redesigned", the story elements remain the same. One key difference is the Xbox's ability to save anywhere - albeit a limited number of times (while the PS2 uses a checkpoint system).
50-player Live support
But the key enhancement NovaLogic is really pushing on the Xbox is the incredible 50 player Live support, smashing through the standard barriers of the 16-player limit that every other Live-enabled game has maxed out at up to now. NovaLogic promises team support, stats, matchmaking, eight game types, not to mention offline four-player split-screen support (including co-op in "seven or eight" of the 16 single-player missions). With multiplayer being NovaLogic's key focus for both titles, expect to hear a lot more about its plans for both versions, with European tournaments being planned including "traditional five on five maps". Some 25-on-25 CTF and Deathmatch should be a lot of fun too...
Delta Force: Black Hawk Down is coming to the PS2 and Xbox this September. Check back in the coming months for our review.