Once the battle's under way, the map starts taking shape. The next time you burn in, you'll notice red areas you can't drop safely into. This is slightly confusing for the red team, given that the red team has to consider red areas hostile, and blue icons friendly. That's part of the reason that the armour colour-coding has been toned down to dirty metallic shades, rather than the bold primaries of the earlier concepts. Anyway, red areas on the tactical burn-in map are those covered by enemy anti-aircraft guns, which are either earned by capturing bases, or built - anywhere on the map - using the requisition points that accumulate over the course of the battle.
So, your options become less open, your tactics less direct. You can get a squad member to infiltrate and hack the terminal. It takes a long time to capture, but not so long to briefly disable the AA guns. Or you could burn in an entire squad, suck up the casualties, and have the survivors overwhelm the defences. The trickle of points from capturing that station will soon recover those the other team gained for your deaths. Alternatively, you can hit your air brakes, and glide into range as you get under the guns. The automatic gun may hit you less hard, but anyone hearing you scream into the atmosphere might just look up and shoot off your feet. This happened once, during our playtest
Another way Section 8 tries to avoid the usual map hot-spots - not to mention another one of the team's pet peeves, which is team-killing in order to get in the driving seat of the best vehicle - is to let you deploy your own vehicles, heavy armour suits, and turrets. As you accumulate a personal stock of requisition points, you can spend them on fortifications, healing supply depots, and sensor arrays that place the enemy on your map. They're considering the option of sharing your points to buy some of the larger items - the four-man tank, for example - but nothing's firm, yet.
Obviously, it's not random - the map design creates sensible tactical areas for turrets and sensor arrays, but the hope is that there's enough possibilities for it to be unpredictable. The beauty of the multiplayer is that from the lie of the land and the buildings, everything is decided by the players.
The combat itself is strong, with traditional weaponry. Both sides are human, so there's no alien technology; no pulses, energy blasts, or meganova polyshots - it's assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and sniper rifles for both sides. The suits - identical in all but cosmetic design for both sides, same as the guns - that can absorb a good amount of damage. Two soldiers squaring off against each other will have a good few seconds to strafe, exchange salvos and retreat. And the visual feedback of the armour disintegration means that even if he gets away, you at least be able to teabag his pauldrons.
Another aspect of the game that adds to the battle - but urgently needs a name-change - is the Dynamic Combat Missions. These objectives, apart from sounding like they were named by a committee of civil servants, can be triggered during a game. Triggered by a team, they act like a slap-in-the-tits challenge. Triggering an assassination mission will warn the other team of an escort mission beginning; a base-capture mission will warn your opponents to defend their capture point. To make it more interesting - and to take into account the fact that the other team might have to pull out of whatever battle they're fighting at the time to answer your challenge - if the DCM fails, the responding team will gain a slightly more generous reward. So it'll pay to pick your battles wisely.
Over the course of a battle, teams earn requisition points by killing the enemy, capturing points, and completing DCMs. These can be spent on deployables that I've already mentioned - turrets, sensor arrays, heavy armour suits - and the eventually four-man tanks, giving both teams a chance to acquire stronger weapons, and bend the map into one whose layout favours them. The issues of balance are, of course, immense - but they've done a few RTS games, they're used to those.
There's not much on parade from the single-player campaign at this time - certainly nothing playable - but there will be a story-led campaign, detailing the extended story behind the battles between the Arm of Orion and the Section 8 soldiers. You'll also be able to take part in the multiplayer maps on your own, with both sides fleshed out by AI. In any other game, that'd be a slightly depressing prospect, but with all the different ways a battle can play out, a gifted AI could make this a decent experience.
What hints there were at a single-player storyline - a soldier's flashbacks to childhood, immediately pre-battle - were lost, as soon as the helmet visor came down, and the first knife was slid into a face. But Section 8 doesn't feel like it needs a story. It's a big, honest, unspectacular premise with enough interesting elements and beefy gunwallops to make it worth keeping an eye on. As long as the whole thing isn't rendered invisible by the ignorable title, and the generic space-face marines.
Section 8 is due for release later in 2009.