Cliché though it is, being a fan of First Person Shooters on the PC is like waiting for a bus. After waiting for what seems like an eternity, you suddenly can't move for the things: Unreal II and Battlefield 1942: Road To Rome hit the nation's shelves last week, and over the next few you'll be indulging in some chin stroking down at your local gaming emporium deciding whether to blow your cash on IGI2: Covert Strike, Vietcong, or, later in March, Delta Force: Black Hawk Down. Decisions, decisions.
With all the delays it has suffered, it's fair to say that NovaLogic's latest 'Tactical First Person Combat' title is highly anticipated. When this four level preview version arrived we couldn't wait to get cracking on some daring raids against evil oppressors, but we were advised to temper our enthusiasm somewhat, with each level only 70 to 90 per cent complete.
If you've played any of the previous three titles in the series, you'll be aware that the Delta Force is an elite combat unit from the United States, trained to perfection in marksmanship, sniping, demolitions, and capable of kicking the arse of even the most determined ne'er do well. You won't want to mess with them; Delta "Operators" are "some of the best Close Quarters Battle Soldiers in the world", and are still not officially recognised by the United States government. Yep, if Carlsberg made soldiers, they'd probably be a bit like this.
Scripted, but better for it
Set in Somalia during 1993, you follow members of the Delta Force and US Army Rangers in the Operation Restore Hope and Task Force Ranger campaigns; perform "daring raids", rescue hostages, and generally rid Mogadishu of evil oppressors and warlords. Apparently, ten years back in Mogadishu, they were able to secure an entire building and capture twenty-four armed Habr Gedir clan officials without inflicting a single death. Suffice to say that NovaLogic has concocted a heavily scripted take on the real life events and it's action all the way - far more Medal of Honor, than, say, Ghost Recon; and in our book, that's very much a good thing.
For example, the first mission, Mark Breakdown, you board the awaiting Humvee, mount a 50 Calibre fixed machine gun and mow down the rebels on the way to assisting a UN supply convoy. Then it's off for a bit of on foot action, with some squad members tagging along, providing helpful support. They're quite intelligent as is it, but if you're feeling like asserting your authority, tapping Caps Lock brings up a Team Commands menu, with eight choices including Hold Fire, Guard, Throw Flashbang, and team specific commands. For now, though, strategy was barely necessary other than to kill every enemy in range and follow the way points indicated on the scanner in the bottom right hand corner until you reached an awaiting helicopter.
Once on board, the 'bird' circles the relief convoy, at which point you have to take out the RPG wielding rebels, intent on destroying everything in their path. The next mission, Bandit's Crossing, kicks off on a small boat, where you get to admire the lovely water effects before getting down to the task at hand - protect the civilians. Again, it's a case of following the helpful way points, taking cover, kill the rebels, and eventually taking out a bridge - although in this early build there was a tendency for the game to trip up if you dared to stray from the pre-set path. Being heavily scripted, events would tend to not 'cue up' properly, forcing you to backtrack until it gives you the next waypoint. While it was undoubtedly irritating at this stage, we're confident such basic issues will be nailed when the game arrives next month.
Meanwhile the Radio Aidid mission had us groping around ineffectively in the dark, until we worked out that pressing N toggles our Night Vision, giving NovaLogic the chance to show off its green screen effect that, sadly, doesn't hold a candle to the one that Ubi Soft managed in Splinter Cell recently. Nevertheless, it's a fairly run of the mill level that tasks you with destroying radio equipment and electricity generators, while rebels pop out from dark corners for your cannon fodder delight.
Finally, the Diplomatic Immunity (demo) mission kicks off on board the chopper, with yet more aerial shooting, taking out the nasty RPG wielding gits perched on various buildings. Once that's out of the way, the Delta Force has to storm a building loaded with hostages - which, naturally, you have to rescue - but not before clearing the building of more terrorist scum, and mounting a machine gun on the roof to deal more death to the incoming hoards, before leading the posse of bewildered hostages to freedom, via another scripted horde of roof mounted RPG-wielding enemies.
Throughout, and rather cunningly, we thought, you only get three save opportunities, which you can use as you see fit. Not only does it put an end to the whole quick save/load dynamic that kills so many good shooters, it adds an element of strategy to the proceedings - and thus tension. However, even with this handicap, we blitzed through every level we faced in less than 20 minutes. We're hoping for a sterner challenge when the finished article turns up.
No visual masterpiece
Much has been made of the graphics engine by NovaLogic, and although compared to previous Delta Force titles it's a quantum leap, it's by no means going to trouble Epic or Id for technology. On full detail, running on a GeForce4 at 1280x1024 it merely looks satisfactory, with highly detailed soldier models mixing it with bizarrely low detailed civilians. The scenery, meanwhile, is composed of largely square, bland buildings, uninspired foliage and blurry texturing throughout. After playing Unreal II, this will strike you as a fair step down the technology ladder - although in fairness, at least Black Hawk Down has a decent chance of running on lower spec machines.
Also in its favour is the choice of playing in third person mode if you prefer, while a plethora of control options allow for leaning, crouching or going prone, while the scanner map provides the highly useful ability to see where incoming enemy fire is coming from, with a yellow cone fanning out from your central position to the aggressor on the map itself. The weapons, meanwhile, were the usual early level mixture of the underpowered and useful - The CAR 15 Colt Assault Rifle was undoubtedly the firearm of choice, providing a good sustained burst of fire, useful at both short and long range. The Colt M1911 A1 .45 pistol was almost redundant, however, while the Frag, Stun, and Smoke grenades were useful room clearing devices - and happily our team mates were quite adept at using them.
Weapons R US
The full game promises another Assault Rifle, the M16A2, and the MP5A3 H&K 9mm SMG, while the M203 Grenade Launcher should be good fun. On top of that, there are four types of Sniper Rifle, three machine guns, another pistol, a shotgun, as well as several fixed weapons and explosive devices.
All round, Black Hawk Down is shaping up to be a competent FPS, with plenty going for it to make it one to watch. Graphics whores aren't going to be wowed by it, but if NovaLogic can deliver a sustained single-player challenge and a solid multi-player mode it'll be another worthy addition to the series. We're hoping full review code will grace us with its presence within the next few weeks, so look out for our in depth review near its March 28th release date… further slippage permitting, naturally.