Version tested: PlayStation 2
Terrorist training camps: should we be frightened of them?
Empirical evidence tends to support the argument that these things are scary. In the cuckoo world of Without Warning, however, things are different. Here, terrorists are taught to hide behind explosive barrels, that running from side to side will outfox the infidel, that looking directly at the ground when patrolling is important because THAT'S WHERE THEY'LL GET YOU, and that just because the enemy has destroyed a crate and it is no longer there you shouldn't feel stupid crouching where it used to be because this will provide ample cover. Moreover, you should always announce your presence by yelling "For the cause!" or something equally terrifying in order to unsettle the enemy, especially if you are a suicide bomber whose potency is only guaranteed if the enemy hasn't spotted you coming forty yards away.
And, to be fair, running from side to side does outfox the infidel's lock-on from time to time.
But then things certainly are different in the world of Without Warning, so perhaps it all makes sense. I mean, it absolutely doesn't, as becomes apparent as the player builds his tactical approach around memorising the guard positions in each tiny level and then running towards them clamping the fire button safe in the knowledge that there'll usually be a healthpack around the corner, and you can always restart the mission and get back to where you were in about 90 seconds, but how were the terrorists to know? Things were going so well in the playable prologue that they wiped out more or less the entire special forces team sent to stop them, leaving just a clutch of scattered, generic gun-toting specialists. Heck, the infidels even complimented them on how well armed, trained and organised they were!
But enough pre-amble (or pre-ambush). Without Warning's been developed by Circle Studio, a UK developer mostly comprised of former Core Design types. It's a 24-inspired anti-terrorist romp that puts you into the varying shoes of people like special forces types (special skills: shooting, shooting and defusing bombs), a cameraman (special skills: attitude problem) an office girl (special skills: sneaking around with breasts), and a security guard (special skills: black). And it has you running, gunning and sometimes doing other things as you try to get to the bottom of a thickly-accented generic terrorist group's plot to take over a chemical plant and sew untold havoc into a biohazardous quilt of smothering toxic warmth. You swap roles regularly, pitching in at different points in the timeline in a bid to help out your comrades, rescue hostages and reach the next save point.
The idea of unique operatives complementing one another over a set period of time is a nice one, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. For example, you'll desire not having to listen to the same awful voice-acted comms exchanges and monologues from each character repeatedly as they crop up during each character's timeline; you'll desire not to have to do so much procedural running and gunning to activate a switch or reach another grey or brown door; you'll desire some sort of interesting weapon or hook beyond the occasional rhythm-action bomb-defusal mini-game; you'll desire decent visuals that don't mock the latter-day achievements of the PlayStation 2 by failing to animate pretty much everything except death; you'll desire better AI, lively music, and a whole host of other things. Most of all, you'll desire some kind of narrative hook, because once it becomes apparent that the game largely consists of manhandling your way through an unwieldy game engine completing unexciting objectives, it'll be roughly all that's left. Sadly you're not going to get your wish.
You'll also wish something had been done about the little cut corners and glitches, like objects hanging in the air for no reason. Oops. Another one: you usually only duck out of a defusal or lock-picking task when you're shot, and since terrorists tend to spawn out of darkened doorways just when you think the coast is clear, this will happen quite a lot and you'll lose plenty of health over it. In one case, I managed to complete a bomb-defusal and get shot more or less at the same time, so while the game claimed I'd defused the bomb in question, the objectives screen didn't; upon returning, my man Reagan (who rather unhelpfully sounds like a cross between Luther from The Warriors and Forrest Gump), settled into his defusing pose and then just sat there fiddling, refusing to initiate the mini-game or exit the animation. Turning the TV back on the next morning, he was still there. Restart Mission.
But the main problem with Without Warning isn't that it never really courts you with anything approaching ingenuity, it's that it never really reaches what ought to be the baseline requirements for an action game. Playable locations are strewn with areas you can't reach and knee-high obstacles you can't vault, the pistol-toting security guard kills oodles of machinegun-toting terrorists but can't pick up their guns, objects to which physics apply barely have any impact on the gameplay, and that with which you are allowed to interact is often signposted miles in advance. The over-the-shoulder camera perspective and analog aiming system, both similar to Resident Evil 4, don't really add anything other than a requirement to sweep the screen jabbing the lock-on button because you'll find it incredibly difficult to aim effectively without it.
When the game makes overtures toward tactics or thought it falls foul of its own limitations: allowing you to duck out from behind cover ala kill.switch is a good thing, but when you'll probably just shoot the top of the box, and your enemies are so Brownian in their tactical manoeuvring, there isn't much point bothering. Its only real virtues are that it works, it's not devilishly hard, and it's probably good for a few hours' mindless blasting. But given that the idea was to bind multiple character perspectives together with something approaching the skill of its obvious inspiration, it's hard to argue that that's good enough.
Having actually sought to review this on the grounds that it sounded interesting and unusual, I now find myself so thoroughly disappointed on both counts that I'm struggling not to mark it down further. So let's be clear: there's nothing devastatingly awful about this, it's just thoroughly outclassed by most of everything else on the market. Here's our warning: do without.
4 / 10