Version tested: PC
TimeGate Studios has a habit of doing things differently. The developer's real-time strategy series, Kohan, was greeted with a mixture of glee and puzzlement by the gaming community: it was good, but it was somehow unfamiliar. TimeGate hadn't bothered to ape what everyone else was doing and had created something mechanically unusual, if thematically stuck within the same old fantasy tradition. The same seems to be true of Section 8.
While gun-toting soldiers in space-armour seems like the most generic subject imaginable, the execution and delivery is rather unlike that of this game's peers. Jetpacks might suggest that Section 8 is taking cues from the linear nature of the Tribes games, but it doesn't play like them. The closest in terms of pace is probably Halo, but Section 8's broad multiplayer palette is entirely unlike anything Bungie have attempted. It's akin, in many ways, to Sony's MMOFPS, Planetside - but it's not an MMO, more a Battlefield-like shooter.
Section 8 is a multiplayer combat game which does not seem to have learned that lesson about improving on what the last guy did. TimeGate is, once again, doing something that doesn't quite fit into our familiar gaming templates, and that is both the crowning strength and undermining weakness of the game.
Multiplayer is what Section 8 is all about, but there is a single-player element. It's called Corde's Story, and it consists of a series of missions on the planet of New Madrid, the science fiction setting for the game. As earnest warrior chap Corde you play your way through a series of cutscene-framed objectives, working with various characters to tell the story of what Section 8 (the titular space marines) are doing here and who they are fighting.
As a single-player shooter it's not great, largely due to the way the AI bots handle themselves. They're only scripted at the most rudimentary narrative level, and you're playing across the wide-open multiplayer maps. Thanks to the way the fights unfold the experience is never particularly tight. You soon realise, however, that Corde's Story is simply a gigantic tutorial sequence designed to introduce you to the many different elements and ideas the game will throw at you. Play through Corde's Story and you'll have a basic idea of how to approach multiplayer - and good thing too.
An extended tutorial is useful because Section 8's multiplayer has a number of esoteric aspects to it. The first, and most dramatic, is the fact that you do not respawn on the map. Instead you fall to Earth at a location of your choosing. Much of the map will be off-limits thanks to anti-aircraft guns, but the "burn-in" dynamic means you can pretty much arrive anywhere you like on the map.
This means that strategic awareness is difficult for any player, anywhere on the map, because you can't tell where the enemy is going to come from. You have to continually watch your back, and also the skies, for signs of new arrivals. This alone is disconcerting enough to put off some player but once you've adjusted to the idea of an enemy coming down on your head where-ever there isn't air cover, there's plenty of scope for clever, inventive play.
While you're up in the sky you have another option, too: loadout customisation. At face value Section 8 is a class-based game, with an engineer to repair stuff, a sniper to recon and strike stuff, an anti-armour guy, and so on. But with the loadouts being totally adjustable by the player you enter a grey area of infinite mix and match. Pretty much anyone and everyone can carry the repair tool, and even the basic "assault" setup can be fine-tuned for different methods of play.
And it's not just active equipment and weapons you'll be choosing from: there's a whole bunch of passive modules, with a range of effects, that can also be fiddled with to alter the effectiveness and application of your loadout. I'm sure there will be a bunch of acceptable "optimal" builds as the game goes on, but the variety and possibility space is nevertheless intriguing.
For example, Section 8's armour has two grades of defence. The first is the shield: this is a classic "regeneration over time" system, but it doesn't behave quite how you might expect. Rather than simply being a hit-point buffer it's actually only good for long-range or explosive defence. If you have your shields up and a rocket lands nearby you won't take much damage, but if you're inside a building and someone sets about you close-range with a pistol it'll go straight through to your armour.
People will have their loadouts adjusted with that in mind: a sniper will be keen on high, rapidly recharging shields, while someone defending a capture point inside a building will definitely want high-powered close range weapons, like a shotgun, and hardened armour. Initially the effect of this can be a little baffling: why did that guy beat me? Doesn't my gun work? For folks used to the easy A to B connection of weapons to hit points in other FPS games it doesn't make a lot of sense.
However, it's that "capture point" bit that explains why Section 8's eccentricities make sense in a large picture. There are, I think, two ways a multiplayer can go. Either it makes sense on a very basic, personal level - you shoot that dude enough, with enough skill, and he dies, you win - which props up the very best deathmatch games. Or it makes sense as a team game with team objectives.
Of course there's plenty of overlap to this - I play Quake III capture the flag all the time, and that works both as a team game and as a game of individual skill. However, if you really want to stress team play, and to create a complex set of possibilities for interaction and co-operation between players (more complex than simply capturing the flag, anyway) then it makes sense to focus on team-play systems.
This is what Section 8 has done. Consequently it's never going to be a great "drop in and play" game, and comes off far better when you're playing with a semblance or organisation. Play with a group of players who want to co-operate and it rapidly falls into place. Elements such as the purchase system, allowing you to buy deployables and vehicles, or the aforementioned loadouts, make a lot more sense, and the game becomes an interesting challenge.
To illustrate this I'll run through a game I played the other night. It was a small match, of maybe five aside, on one of the smaller maps. Section 8's Unreal-powered environments are generally beautiful, but a couple are spectacular. This particular map was an island at the base of a space elevator, which you could see disappearing up into the stratosphere.
Anyway, we captured one of the three main base capture points on the map and augmented it with a selection of deployable turrets. Common sense might say that we would lose, two to one, if we only held that single point, but there's even more going on in Section 8 than you might expect, including a bunch of stuff that can only work if you play as a team.
While we had that single capture point sewn up, we could concentrate on the various missions that the game spawns. These are events around the map which also earn points towards your overall victory, including moving a convoy truck across the map, escorting a VIP and delivering intelligence. They are sort of mini-game types within the larger game. If we could foil the enemy's missions and succeed in our own there we would hardly need to waste our efforts taking one of the other points on the map. That's precisely what we did, to a resounding victory.
As we played, the high-hitpoint value of the individual soldiers (and low damage of the automatic weapons) demonstrated how important team play could be. With the enemies at range some of us could not engage them effectively, but we could heal our comrades or call in support tools. When the enemy was in close our high-armour, close range set-ups came into play. Having a variety of tools at our disposal made the game all the more interesting to play. Section 8 is, I think, aiming to keep players alive longer than other shooters: respawning is instant, and easy, but staying alive on the ground is much more interesting.
At this point I should probably be drawing the review to a close but there's still a load of other stuff to talk about: the awesome personal mortars, the jetpack use, the "power-run" which kicks in after some time spent sprinting, the mechs and their melee, the tank, the possibilities for weird defence structures built via deployables... The list goes on which bodes well for the game; it's a thing that can't be learned and mastered in a day.
One thing which deserves special mention is the auto-aim. Everyone gets a few seconds of auto-aim, which can be very useful when trying to do tricky Y-axis tracking of a suddenly jet-leaping target. You can see exactly why TimeGate has included it (to counter vertical evasive moves) and why they included counter-measure modules to defeat it, but it nevertheless feels like it should not have been included in the final build of the game.
Section 8's biggest problem could be in finding an audience that is happy to sidestep "hardcore" FPS conventions and accept this is a game that demands teamplay. It's likely transfix a certain type of player, the kind who doesn't necessarily demand pin-point accuracy from his weapons, and would rather win out with a plan than pure skill. I do wonder how many of those kind of players are out there - we can be rather particular in our tastes.
Section 8 definitely rewards time but it is initially disconcerting. I wonder whether it will be another one of those shooters that develops a small, dedicated community that is difficult to crack. Being on the inside of that community, however, is likely to be glorious. I have already spent weeks playing through some of the best firefights in years: dropping from orbit through a skylight into the midsts of a base assault, leaping from rooftops into a gunbattle in my two-tonne mech armour, valiantly defending a capture point with turrets and persona repair tool while my squad races to my aid...
Section 8 is capable of scintillating multiplayer drama, and it is impeccably solid throughout. I've had some maginficent tooth-and-nail matches, which is all I can really ask for. For all the offbeat design decisions and mechanistic foibles, I've been enjoying the hell out of it.
8 / 10