Hands up if you've seen much of the old military hospital comedy, M*A*S*H. You're probably around my age. Being as old as we are has its disadvantages. Forgetfulness and incontinence, for two - and it's terrible walking around having forgotten you've wet yourself - but we're slightly more likely to get the reference behind Section 8's bland title. One of M*A*S*H's long-standing characters was Corporal Maxwell Klinger. This hairy gentleman would constantly try to get discharged from the US Army under Section 8 - a provision which allowed mentally ill soldiers to be sent home. He'd demonstrate his insanity, mainly, by wearing a dress. Anyone in their thirties might be crushingly disappointed this isn't the world's first commercial cross-dressing shooter.
Far from it. The stars of Timegate's new multiplayer space-marine shooter are as generically butch as we all expect, demand, and roll our big jaded eyeballs at. They've earned the nickname Section 8 because they're volunteers. They risk their lives in suicidal spearhead assaults, and it's not for the cash. They do it because they love killing stuff, and they love the pioneering suits they get to wear. So it is about the dressing up - there are just fewer Laura Ashley prints. Their dressing-up box contains power armour that can withstand a 15,000-foot drop directly into the battlefield, taking flak from AA cannons as they arrive.
Timegate is taking the same approach with Section 8 that it did with its 2001 strategy game, Kohan. Their mission then was to take everything the developers didn't like out of the strategy games they'd obsessed over - the games that made them decide to get into development in the first place. The result was fairly excellent, amongst the first strategy games to reduce micromanagement and let you deal effectively with squads. Unfortunately, it was set in a slightly unspectacular universe. As good as it was, Kohan isn't really a game that jostles to the front of any pub conversations.
So, Section 8 draws rich and unembarrassed inspiration from the games Timegate staffers now play in their spare time - the menu presentation of Battlefield 2142, the character hardiness of Unreal Tournament 3, the jet-pack surfing of Tribes - and they've attempted to tweak away the things that obstruct that quick, pure, multiplayer fun. This approach may leave them with something equally forgettable - a smoothed-out experience with too many inspirations to truly stick in the mind. But the hours we played showed it to be an accessible, familiar shooter with enough depth and variety of play to make it well worth following, even if it's with one suspicious, squinted eye.
The storyline, such as we're exposed to, is one of an expanding human race. With factions scattered across the galaxy, the aggressive and roguish Arm of Orion are creating problems for the official federation that you serve. So, you're being launched across space to kill them until you get enough points to declare victory. It's not something you're particularly inspired to believe in, and it's not even clear who the bad guys are - but that's the way it's been since World War II, so fair dos to Timegate for avoiding the good-versus-evil route. With character design good-looking, but hardly unique, the maps are more impressive.
"We want something on every level that people can easily identify it by," says Brett Norton, Section 8's turbo-talking and impossible-to-transcribe lead designer. The map we're looking at is bordered on side by the sea, and another by a huge wall of a dam. A pipeline connects this map to another, visible in the distance. You can't travel between them, but it's a thoughtful touch, to have one map visible from the next - like you're fighting on a planet, rather than squabbling on an isolated map.
The tactical layout of a given map is familiar - numbered capture points defining the strategic areas where the conflict will naturally focus. But there're no red and blue bases in Section 8's multiplayer. The map starts off entirely neutral, and from your overview you can choose to "burn-in" anywhere. Burning In is one of Section 8's stronger selling points - it's a visually impressive aspect with good implications for gameplay. It's an attempt to move towards a more fluid battle, and to randomise the first stages in a way that'll make each game unpredictable.
So, the best tactic is to respond to the enemy, rather than camp out the same old sniping spot. That said, the opportunities to drop on a high area (inaccessible by foot or jet-pack) and snipe the oblivious lowlanders are definitely there, and a couple of times I was left with that hollow, helpless feeling that comes from being picked off by someone who gets their spunk out by staying still for the entire game. Timegate considered adding a killcam, showing you the location of your killer. But as you'll be choosing where on the map to burn in again within five seconds, they decided it'd cause too many instant revenges.