The Xbox may have had the best launch line up in the history of gaming, but it's been a barren old time since then for exclusive killer apps. Sure, there's been Splinter Cell (briefly exclusive at least), Panzer Dragoon Orta (which sold zip), and, um, Project Gotham Racing (which was MSR 1.5 in some people's eyes), but aside from those it's a struggle to think of many truly benchmark titles.
Praise be, then, that the drought appears to be over with the long awaited appearance of Digital Anvil's third person squad based sci-fi shooter Brute Force, a title that already has us thinking in terms of '21st Century Commando', 'a squad based Halo', and 'my god this is good'.
The preview build, which turned up out of the blue in the middle of last week, is one of those instantly impressive games that has a level of polish, depth, flexibility and attention to detail that should shame and embarrass most of the flotsam that passes as videogaming entertainment these days.
Oh to have the charm of a human
Brute Force can be played in several different ways, and are all as lovingly crafted and enjoyable as the others. Once you've witnessed the incredibly slick animated intro, you're presented with a simple menu that offers Campaign, Squad Deathmatch and Deathmatch. The former is where we spent most of our time, and constitutes the sole single player experience available, but can also be played in co-op mode at any point in the game for up to four players in split screen – and in three levels of difficulty; Standard, Hard, and Brutal. We chose hard, the mode for 'serious' gamers. Rarr [You're not fooling anybody, Kristan. -Ed].
The game begins with Tex, an ultra stereotypical hard nosed yank grunt, with muscles on his muscles, an unintentionally hilarious 100 Marlboro-a-day 'movie trailer voice', and a scarcely hidden sexist air. As part of the 23rd Special Forces unit - codenamed Brute Force - you're deployed into various planets to basically kick inordinate amounts of arse, rescue prisoners, find objects and avoid death wherever possible.
Halo-style, the game leads you by the hand on the first exceptionally luscious first level, giving you a step by step overview of the control system, which is - surprise surprise - very similar to Halo, with left stick for movement, right stick for aiming, right trigger for fire, left trigger for grenades, and the remaining buttons assigned for standard commands such as switching weapons, reloading, and choosing your squad members. Within the first ten minutes, you'll be completely comfortable with the controls, and shooting plenty of expendable grunts in the process. We do like tutorials that are actually built into the game; no self respecting gamer should ever have to play through a bloody tutorial.
I need a ride out of this hellhole... now!
At the same time as showing you the basic mechanics, the game also introduces the basis of how your squad works alongside you. As we mentioned earlier, this can be played co-operatively, via split screen or LAN (not Live, it would seem, annoyingly), with players able to join you whenever they choose, by hitting the Start button, selecting a character and spawning into the game. Likewise they can leave when they feel like it too, without messing up the game in progress. Neat.
Assuming you're on your own, you'll be able to switch to any of the currently alive squad members at any point and take charge of them – very much like the system that Conflict Desert Storm introduced so successfully. However, Digital Anvil has neatly sidestepped those nasty Game Over scenarios by allowing you to re-clone your squad once they're all dead and gone. Via this method, it's possible to complete a level without ever having to worry about saving your game, but there's a payback. Succeed in your objectives, and you'll receive credits, but continually respawn your squad and you'll be out pocket and potentially without any score whatsoever, which in turn will prevent you from unlocking new Deathmatch levels and characters and so on. It may seem like an overly easy way of progressing, but it's a very well thought out gaming mechanic that works brilliantly, because the punishments and rewards are there depending on how you want to play it.
As you progress, you pick up new squad members, each with their own unique abilities, which can be activated for a limited time, and will recharge when you're not using them. Tex's Berserker mode allows him to fire two weapons at once, the lizard man Brutus has the Spirit Of Venger, which allows him to sense spirits, regenerate his health and charge over enemies, Hawk's Stealth mode makes her invisible, while Flint's Auto Target mode enables her to pop a cap in far flung heads. Each is exceptionally useful in the right circumstance, and adds an interesting layer to the otherwise fairly straightforward fire gun/hurl grenade combat.
We fight together, we die together
In addition, some weapons can't be used by certain characters – i.e. some might be too heavy, or they just don't have the skill in that area to use them. Another point to mention is the Halo-esque two weapons system, which limits your ability to charge around with a stupid arsenal, and forces you to think about what is best in any given scenario.
In terms of gameplay, you're pretty much allowed to play it how you want to. You can sneak around picking off each enemy one by one (using Hawk's invisibility or Flint's sniper rifle to deadly effect), or charge in with 'Brute Force', and most likely get your arse well and truly kicked. In our experience, if you have any intention of unlocking anything, caution is advised, along with careful use and aim of the grenades at your disposal. It's a tricky mutha (on Hard, at any rate), but the AI is satisfying without being too clever for its own good.
Visually, it's a tour-de-force, and one of the best looking games we've ever seen. Its texturing is second to none, with all the effects and more of Bungie's classic, has a respectable frame rate that hardly ever drops (although we've yet to see how four player split screen copes), excellent animation, a continually changing environment, and just about everything you could wish for in a game. It really is that good, and is easily the best looking game we've played this year – and will have passers by ooing and aahing as they pass by demo units up and down the country.
Aurally it's a treat too, with constant non-repeating, and hilariously over the top chatter among your squad, as well as excellent quips from the evil enemy. Add to that the great weapons effects zooming over your head in full 5.1 surround and some suitably dramatic music and you're in for one of the most cinematic gaming experiences ever.
While my enemy gently bleeds
We've yet to get to grips with the multiplayer modes, beyond a quick split screen co-op session, which was excellent fun. The remaining multiplayer mayhem exists in LAN based Deathmatch or Squad Deathmatch, but the principle behind these modes has us more interested than usual. Straight Deathmatch is pretty much as you'd expect; choose your character, choose whether you want to be part of a team or not, set the time/kills options and off you go. Squad Deathmatch, meanwhile, puts each player in charge of their own squad, rather than just one player – and we're looking forward to seeing how well this works in practise.
Although Brute Force doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel, it gets all the basics right and just concentrates on making the damn thing as enjoyable as possible. Sadly, the preview build that we have features only the first seven episodes, or about five hours worth. We've no idea how many main levels the full game features, but with the right amount, and an ever-increasing challenge, we're fully confident that Brute Force will become one of the games of the summer. It's got the spirit of Capcom's classic 1985 arcade game Commando, the squad based dynamics of Conflict Desert Storm, with the shock and awe of Halo. This is a huge, huge game for Microsoft, and one that will have X-philes everywhere claiming the bragging rights once again. If you've got an Xbox and you're wondering what to buy, just put this at the top of your shopping list immediately.