Ever since TimeGate Studios first unveiled its science-fiction first-person shooter Section 8 early last year, it has stressed the need to do things differently. Its goals are noble: to eliminate spawn-camping, one-shot kills and team-killing for vehicles, and to speed up the return to action after you die. It also wants to create a more tactical experience which plays out differently each time, and isn't simply a case of memorising the map and the godforsaken spawn-points.
Although designed as both a story-based single-player campaign and as a pure multiplayer experience, it's the latter portion of Section 8 which is being given all the focus in the run-up to its release on PC and Xbox 360 later this year. Currently undergoing beta trials in the US and Canada, last week we got a chance to join in the fun ahead on live servers, ahead of the European beta's kick-off date of 10th August.
Set in the far-flung future, you play as a member of the 8th Armoured 1st Recon unit, a squad asked to pull off particularly dangerous missions. Today's mission is about wrestling control of a planet called New Madrid, which has been occupied by a pesky rebel faction called the Galacticos (or possibly the ARM of Orion). Either way, it's a reasonable excuse for TimeGate to dish out jetpacks and power armour and liberally cherry-pick its favourite bits from Tribes, Unreal Tournament, Team Fortress, Battlefield, and, hell, Medal of Honor Airborne. And why not?
The first thing which hits you is the depth of the character-customisation. When you start out, you get to choose from six different classes, which effectively amount to various preset weapon/equipment loadouts. You've got the standard 'Assault' option, with a machine gun and assault rifle, plus Recon, Engineer, Infiltrator, Artillery and Guardian. If you prefer, you can simply mix and match whatever equipment you want, and dive into battle with a sniper rifle and a missile launcher, or a pistol and assault rifle, or machine gun and shotgun, and so on. Usefully, Section 8 also breaks the convention of only letting you have one big gun and one small, and lets you have whatever combination you want.
Alongside your weapons is your equipment, and this is comprised of grenades, repair tool, micro sensor and the like, giving the game welcome Team Fortress elements. In the same way as Valve's standard-bearer, you can run around being the medic, or run around with the repair tool fixing turrets and vehicles. Adding a final layer of character-customisation are the Passive Modules, and these grant you special abilities and powers which help define your role within your team. You're given 10 slots to play with as you see fit, and these can be filled with helpful things like Armour Plating, Anvil Rounds, Shield Booster, Lock-on booster, Stealth Matrix, Gyro Stabiliser, Repair Field and Deceptor Plates.
It's perhaps a lot to get your head around at first, but once you start figuring out the practical applications of each element - particularly the Passive Modules - it lets you shape the way you want to play the game. You might initially select the Recon class and try your hand at being the sniper, only to discover that it take three shots to take someone down. By fiddling with Passive Modules, though, you can reduce that to two shots by turning up Anvil Rounds all the way to full. The implications for team play are many. For instance, one guy could be the big tank who runs in ahead of everyone while someone else is on the sidelines with the sniper rifle.
Once all that's out of the way, Section 8 takes a neat approach to spawning you onto the battlefield, and it's not a million miles away from the parachuting system you might recall seeing in Medal of Honor: Airborne a couple of years back. Essentially you 'burn-in' from 15,000 feet, and can either 'Free Spawn' anywhere you choose on the map, or simply 'Squad Spawn' to guarantee you'll resume the action near where the majority of your team-mates are fighting it out. Designed to wipe out the spawn-camping nonsense which infects other multiplayer shooters, it offers a degree of complete unpredictability to proceedings.
However, there are some restrictions to bear in mind before you suit up and plummet to the ground in your sexy power armour. When you're deciding where to spawn, the overhead map displays red zones, and these show which areas are under control by your opponent. Trying to spawn into these areas is basically instant death, as they're protected by anti-aircraft fire. You could, as a squad, try and blaze into a restricted area en-masse to gain a quick advantage, but only a few would survive.
To add an extra element of strategy to the spawn mechanic, Section 8 also allows you to apply the brakes during your descent to allow for a greater degree of control over where you land. A sniper, for example, might wish to land on a particular vantage point, or you might even spy an opportunity to take out a stationary target by landing on their head. On the downside, slowly descending makes it easier for your opponents to get a bead on you and possibly take you out before you've even had a chance to land. Landing quickly, though, also leaves you momentarily disorientated.
Once on the ground, the idea is to try and gain control of all the various zones on the map, which obviously involves striking a balance between protecting what you have and going on the offensive. Fortunately, getting around these (rather large) maps is made slightly more straightforward thanks to the 'Overdrive' system built into your suit, which ensures that you break into a super-sprint after around five seconds of commencing your run. Even better, you come equipped with a jetpack, allowing you to boost yourself around for a couple of seconds, adding a welcome degree of verticality to the proceedings. Another temporary power is the weapon lock-on, allowing you to zoom in and establish a more precise target for a few seconds - but, like the other ability enhancers, you have to wait a while before you're allowed to use it again.
Finding capture points is always a simple process, as they are not only marked on the game's helpful mini-map, but via waypoints which show how many metres you are from them. Once you've located them, Section 8 has you hack them for a few seconds until a bar fills up, and then a secondary bar creeps up, allowing your opponent a few precious seconds within which to reverse the situation: cue a tense stand-off. With the base under your command, that ensures that your team can now safely burn-in, while the various rocket and minigun turrets now point to your enemy rather than at you.
Another element of Section 8 which helps protect your base is to call in deployables, such as anti-aircraft turrets, miniguns, rocket launchers, tanks and mechs. You don't get them for nothing, mind you: each of these handy death-dealing items cost Requisition Points, which you earn for killing people, hacking bases, or destroying turrets. Particularly useful is the ability to buy your own tanks, a mechanic which TimeGate presumably brought in to stop the amount of team-killing and queuing prevalent in multiplayer shooters when players rush for a powerful vehicle. Tanks also have space for four players: one driver, one missile controller and two others on one of the turrets.
One other interesting feature of Section 8 are its DCMs, or Dynamic Combat Missions, which operate in tandem with the overarching goals of capturing control points. There are six different types of DCM in total - Bomb, Intelligence, Commando, Convoy, Outpost and VIP, and each costs Feat Points, which you earn from different elements of gameplay, such as healing a team-mate, mending a vehicle or successfully sniping someone.
Once you've earned enough Feat Points, a Dynamic Combat Mission will be triggered. For example, in the Bomb mission, a bomb will appear on the map, and one team has to go off and collect it and deliver it to an enemy base. If they succeed, it will destroy all the gun emplacements and things like that in the base. But if you're on the opposing team, you get a rival DCM mission telling you to stop the delivery of the bomb. Likewise, for a VIP DCM, a VIP will burn into the field, and you'll be tasked with escorting him to safety, while the rival team will have to try and kill him.
While it probably sounds risky for members of your team to go off and complete/defend a DCM, the successful completion of one of them adds 100 points to your team's overall tally. With perhaps 1000 points to win a round, it acts as a shortcut to victory - assuming you don't just all charge off and leave your control points undefended.
The plan is to ship with 18 maps in total, each designed to accommodate different-sized matches. 64-player support is mooted on PC for those playing on a dedicated server, while the Xbox 360 will support up to 32 players under the same conditions. Without a dedicated server, the figures are likely to drop to 32 and 16 respectively.
With only a couple of hours' play under our belts, most players were simply getting to grips with the basic mechanics, and there was little opportunity to really operate as a team, nor figure out the subtleties of meddling with the Passive Modules, and the like. What we can say, though, is that Section 8 has a stack of interesting ideas which go a long way to addressing a lot of the perennial niggles many of us have with multiplayer shooters. It's solid, intuitive and the sort of game that you can have a lot of fun with even when you haven't spent hours memorising the layout of a map. Technically it feels robust and polished, but perhaps lacks a degree of artistic spark. Overall, though, it feels like the sort of game where that shouldn't matter a great deal. It's not so much doing different things, as doing the same things differently, and sometimes that's enough.
Section 8 is coming to the PC and Xbox 360 later in 2009. The beta program is currently underway in the United States and Canada, and is due to launch in Europe on 10th August.