There comes a time in every reviewers life that they are hit with something that reshapes their world and changes the way they think. For many of us, it was Halo and that is soon set to change again with Halo 2, the bar's about to be raised for every FPS in existence and it's set people a-panicking, but I'm going to get things right out of my system right away here. Brute Force is not a pale imitation or clone of Halo, it's not trying to be Halo with a squad - it's trying to be: Brute Force.
Important to note right now, it's LIVE enabled for downloading new content for the SP game and although it does have a MP Deathmatch and Squad Deathmatch you can't go online with it, you can only download new SP and MP content. It does however support System Link play and you can have up to 8 Xboxes linked for Deathmatch lunacy, or 4 for Co-op MP.
Wait? Did he say Co-op MP? - Yes he did, but all shall be revealed in the MP part of this review.
Developed by the talented folks at Digital Anvil and published by Microsoft this game should really, if there's any justice in the world take the gaming venue of the Xbox by storm. The premise is simple, you're part of the newly commissioned 23rd Special Forces Unit known as Brute Force and your job is to go head to head with the scum of the Universe across 18 action packed missions split over 6 worlds.
Those of you who have played Halo will undoubtedly feel right at home with the control system of the game, since Bungie actually helped design it with DA. Such collaboration could only lead to greatness and read on to find out why I think this is so.
Story: So it's not going to win any prizes for the best Sci-Fi action story in existence and the characters seem somewhat larger than life and clichéd in places. I say this, so what - it's meant to be an action game and it's meant to feel a little more like a big romp with huge guns and a fairly predictable plot, what's different about it is the fact that there is a plot, and it's well told with in-game and hi-res footage.
Gameplay: Is it Halo-esque in gameplay, I wouldn't really say so, this feels far more like an action packed squad-based 3rd person shooter than a FPS, a mixture of arcade style blasting combined with some pretty reasonable characters, each of them possessing their own style and skills. What sets it apart from other games is that you have a reasonable level of control over your squad, they obey orders and they have their own individual AI settings. Initially play can feel a little clumsy at first since there is a higher level of precision involved in hitting things, but given about half an hour of play and you're soon churning far from helpless bad guys into mush.
As I said before, anyone who knows Halo's control system will instantly jump into Brute Force without hassle. Movement on left stick, click in to crouch...look around on right stick, click in to zoom. My one niggle was that you couldn't toggle crouching so your thumb often got a very good workout on the old left stick.
BF Gameplay itself can seem simplified but it's all down to how you use your squad in combat, do you hang back and go the stealth softly-softly approach, or do you blaze in with every weapon and character hoping to overwhelm your enemies with sheer firepower. There are a few times where a quick test of the grey matter seems to be in order, this is usually working out what you need to switch to open a gate or what you need to blow up to get rid of an annoying trap.
BF also allows you to give orders on the fly to the team, via the D-pad, a quick tap changes the controlled character or a prolonged press in the direction of the character you're using, gives an orders menu. Team members can be ordered individually or in a group, selected again from the D-pad. Then they can be told to guard a specific area, move to a location indicated via a HUD marker, cover you or actively search and kill enemies while you bring up the rear.
Health kits and Special powers can also be forced via this menu; it's all very slick and wonderfully done.
Characters: There are four main characters to the game and they each have strengths and weaknesses. You've probably all got your favourite type of character you like to play in a shooter, but here you can choose from four specialists and they're pretty varied.
Tex: A gun-toting Heavy Weapons psychopath, Tex is the man you call in when you want lots of lead or weapons fire in a hurry, he's got the largest health-bar in the game and the longest stamina bar (Special powers use Stamina to activate them) - He can dish out serious damage and take it, he can also disarm Landmines and has the special ability to whip out both of his guns, unloading all of his ammo in both before he returns to a single weapon (Basically his ability runs out when he has to reload, so make sure you've reloaded his weapons before you use it)
While you stay still and crouched, your Stamina comes back even quicker so it's advisable to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each character. Tex's weakness is that he's more likely to charge into a fight when the AI has him and he takes dumb risks.
Tex also hates pistol weapons and would rather chew his enemies to bits than fire such a puny weapon.
Tex's major non-gameplay weakness is that he's an arrogant, over confident and sexist git.
Brutus: Basically one mean alien, of a race known as the feral, Brutus has probably the best special power in the whole game and he's a seriously underestimated character. Don't be put off by his less than good looks or his table manners, this green alien can pack almost as big a punch as Tex. He's prone to saying 'Rawr' a lot though.
Brutus can use Heavy Weapons like Tex and doesn't go for pistols, he prefers more bangs for his buck but it's when he triggers his 'Spirit of Vengar' mode that the fun begins.
Vengar allows: Brutus to see enemies hidden in thick fog and obscuring mist, he powers up and glows like a Christmas tree. He can kill people by charging into them while empowered (Uses all of his Stamina), takes less damage from any weapon while empowered and when not doing anything, regenerates health while empowered.
Brutus weakness is that he takes a lot more damage when not in Vengar mode and tends to be less reckless in fights; this is compared to Tex for instance.
Brutus has the second smallest health bar compared of course, to our man Tex.
Hawk: Hawk is female, she's got a dry and practical sense of humour - she doesn't get on well with Tex and her job is simple. Covert Ops, Hawk is a cool 'stealth' babe who gets a 'Predator' style 'cloaking' device as her special ability. She also has a Powerblade for stealth kills, be careful though, that blade uses some of her Stamina and this can lead to you appearing right in the middle of a hoard of enemies.
She prefers light rifles and pistols, loathing the macho Heavy Weapons that Tex and Brutus can use. Her weakness is a very small health bar and Stamina bar. She also takes greater damage from weapons than both Tex and Brutus.
In a fight Hawk is cautious and seeks cover, she takes pot shots at the enemy and moves close to the rear of the group.
Flint: Flint is a synthetic assassin (sniper) with a cold sense of humour and a sharp set of one-liners. She is the precision tool of the group and should be kept to the back at all costs, using her, as a frontline fighter is tantamount to suicide. She has a small health bar and Stamina bar but has the following advantages.
Rock steady with a scope, she doesn't need to breathe so Flint is perfectly able to pinpoint for a headshot on even a moving target. Not needing to breathe also means she's immune to gas grenades and the like. She has artificial eyes and therefore can zoom up to 2x with any weapon.
Her special ability might seem a little weak at first, but knowing how to use it is key to maximising her effectiveness in the battlefield. It's called advanced targeting and while anything strays in her line of fire, she can hit it bull's-eye, either killing it outright or after another shot. Her eyes also give readouts in this mode, of the enemy's current health.
She takes more damage than the others, but she's got no time to bleed.
In a firefight, she hangs back and tries to get a clear shot...more often or not Tex can't help but putting his ass in the way of her line of fire, this isn't bad AI however...as she'll move to get a clear shot, I am sure they programmed this behaviour in so Tex can actually be an idiot in the game as well as the CGI.
So as you can see, you have four main characters and each of them has specific skills that you can put to use, swapping is as easy as tapping one of the cardinal directions on the D-pad.
Graphics: BF is no doubt a beautiful looking game with no noticeable slowdown, we had four of us playing a Co-op game and there wasn't really much of a drop in detail to be honest, not that we would notice we were too busy marvelling at the OTT action and letting out whoops of joy. The whole look and feel of the game is one of polished precision and the graphics for the levels are superbly done, thick foliage and gritty environments to transport you to varied alien worlds. Textures are beautiful and both the model and environment textures are laid with an artists hands, it's pretty much one of the better-looking Xbox games on the market at the moment.
Explosion and weapons effects are varied, meaty and well worth checking out, it gives you a feeling of power when you fire off some of the more dangerous Heavy Weapons and Tex's Twin Chaingun special mode is a delight to behold.
Level Design/Architecture: This is where BF can feel a tad of a let down, while superbly made they're a bit samey and there's not really much variety. Then again however - what is there is ample enough for the kind of game this is trying to be so it doesn't really lose any points for this and actually gains some for not trying to overwhelm the game with miles of tunnels and interior locales. But the actual design of the levels is pretty well done, they provide a good mix of height and cover so you can use your squad tactically and set up the all important ambushes. A lot of the incidental background can be destroyed as well, resulting in some gorgeously over the top booms.
Models and Animation: It's all done really well, there's not a great variety to the enemies, but what we have works excellently. The main characters, the Confed Marines and all the other entities are superbly modelled and animated, with a wide range of motions and personality. Rag doll physics abounds and the same glory of throwing bodies about via huge explosions is maintained.
Death: Life is cheap in this game and if you die you can always get a clone for the next mission, dead buddies will drop green memory chips and they can be salvaged to bring the cost of the clone down for the next mission. Rogue Trooper (2000AD comics) anyone? I love this though.
Music, Sound and Vocals: It's over the top action and it's got a suitable gung-ho feel to the CGI and the game itself, Tex and the others spout one liners as you play and there's nothing at all wrong with the Voice Actors in this game, they even got a couple of folks who've done a few Justice League cartoons and the like to do voices. The Music is thumping and matches things perfectly and the spot effects, weapons sounds and various other Sonics are great and I have no niggles with them at all - turn the Xbox up and drown out the neighbours Eminem with the growl of Tex's twin Chainguns.
AI: The AI in BF is on the whole very good, enemy AI is suitable ruthless at times and they will draw you into ambushes, use team tactics and any weapon at their disposal to bring you down. Your allies AI is also pretty good, so far I haven't seen many glitches in it and the Tex gung-ho line of fire thing is definitely a trait that matches the big man himself. Each one of your characters will act in a different fashion using their own preferred way of dealing with foes and trying to work as a team with the others. Like the enemy, they'll go into cover and they'll often find high and other vantage points to shoot from depending on whom they are. Often Brutus and Tex will just wade into direct combat and over-estimate the numbers of enemies or trust to the fact they can take more damage than the others.
No niggles with this and it's good AI, some of the best I've seen in a while.
Multiplayer: BF supports System Link for MP goodness and you can link up to 8 Xboxes together for Deathmatch action. In the SP game you can unlock DNA canisters to add extra DM characters and playing SP on harder levels of difficulty yields more rewards. If you have Xbox LIVE then we're promised more content, new MP maps and new SP maps (A bit of a blow for those of you who don't have LIVE though because new SP and MP maps won't be available on disks or anything or so I'm told - sadly it does loose a few points for leaving the non-LIVE customers hanging)
MP is Deathmatch and Squad Deathmatch in the adversarial sense, and this is the most exciting type of game in the MP modes. You can take one squad and pit them against another, either with 4 v 4 human players or a mix of human + AI. You can't play all human VS AI however, but you can use all your special abilities in the MP games. You can play how you want, splitting the players between 2 Xboxes or 8 depending on how many friends you have.
There's a good mixture of maps and some of them remind me of the good old TF days, when siege the base was the order of the day.
Play can be divided into 4 players 1 Xbox as well, with the split screen system, it seems that DA really have thought this part though.
But where BF really shines is in the 4 player Co-op action across the SP game, your friends can jump in at any time and take control of the other characters, at the start of the game one of you will be Tex and the others will be Marines, even the Marines have their own special ability just for the compete experience. If there's just 2 of you, the other characters can be ordered like in the SP game, it really is a very well thought out mode and a welcome inclusion, more game companies take note...this is what we want!
Final thoughts: While it's not going to win any awards for the best and most original shooter in existence, what it does win awards for is being a thoroughly in your face enjoyable game that really needed to support the offline user in regards to new content, I do seriously hope that DA and Microsoft decide that the new levels and content can go onto a disk eventually - I hate to see anything that's solely exclusive of online play, this is why you'll never see me on any pay-2-play game.
Yes, not even SW:Galaxies.
P.S. One utterly neat trick when you go into FPS zoom mode, unless you're Flint you'll see that each character takes time to steady their scope depending on who they are. With Brutus being the worst, Tex and Hawk being one of the best barring our Synth deadeye babe. So there you have it, Brute Force is everything I wanted and more!