Full Spectrum Warrior wants to start an entirely new genre (one that I really plan to support wholeheartedly) that attempts to capture the dullness of reality. Okay, that seemed a whole lot harsher than I actually meant it to be. In fact, I've been one of the biggest proponents of making videogames, especially ones set in the "real world," more realistic (whatever that means), but FSW really brings that notion to a whole new level in simulating the military experience as long periods of stultifying boredom punctuated by sudden, horrible violence.
The game isn't just a new genre on a conceptual level, it also takes an interesting direction for strategy-action hybrids. The game asks players to control a total of eight soldiers, broken up into two squads. This could easily get too convoluted and confusing, but the developers have managed to find the right balance between control and automation to make the game work.
The game's greatest strength is its incredibly well-designed interface. At first the number of button combinations required can seem a little daunting, but an excellent series of tutorials prepares players for the game quite effectively. They manage to map a stunning number of commands onto the four face buttons of the Xbox controller by differentiating between pressing a button and holding a button down. It seems like a simple move, that I'm surprised I don't see it more used more often for things other than jump height and charging up my mega-blaster. It's not a new feature, but it's used innovatively here to make the game far more controllable than it would have otherwise been.
Another strong point is the graphics. While they aren't anything groundbreaking or even particularly eye-catching, the graphics do a spectacular job of creating a mood and sense of location. There's nothing clean or crisp in this game; everything is dirty shades of brown and tan, smudged by bulletholes and dried blood. Even if players only have a slight familiarity with current events, they'll be surprised to discover how accurate the game's graphics seem. When the sandstorm effects kick up, and the squad onscreen runs along an adobe wall before hunkering behind a brick wall as gunfire explodes from somewhere in the distance, it almost feels like real war footage (a great deal of the credit for this goes to the stunningly natural character animation), which is exactly what the designers were hoping for, I assume. This is meant as a compliment, but it's also part of the basis for my complaints about the title, which I'll address later.
The gameplay, to be blunt, is dull. I won't sugarcoat it by using terms like "precise" or "careful." It's dull. Always moving from wall to wall, moving the two teams in alternating shifts, one covering possible trouble spots while the other runs for it—it's kind of dull. It's an intoxicating dullness, though—the game lulls the player into a false sense of security, all repetitive and slow, and just as I wondered if I was ever going to actually see an enemy, out of nowhere a sniper opened fire, tagging one of my troops and forcing me to give the "Scatter!" order, sending them all behind the nearest cover. This isn't about creating tension, making the player wait for, and really salivate for the adrenaline-pumping moments. It goes well past that, to the point of boredom. The effectiveness with which this is implemented makes me wish that "dull" didn't sound like such an insult, because here dullness is a tool used by the game to manipulate the audience, to create a specific emotion in them—and it's completely successful…
…at least for the first play-through, anyway. And here's the game's first problem: the lack of replayability. The first time through the game, when enemy positions are a mystery, it's a tense, engaging experience slowly weaving through the levels, always mindful of possible angles of exposure. The second time though (or even continuing after being killed) is a very different experience. Since enemies are always in the exact same places (with few exceptions), there's no reason to do anything but run straight through the level at top speed, stopping only to peek around the very last corner where the enemies are visible.
This wouldn't be such a problem if the enemies acted more intelligently or aggressively, but since the game emphasizes strategy over action, they tend to stay behind cover and take potshots at your troops.. Now, there's nothing wrong with a strategic-action game, but when the enemies' locations and reactions are so rigidly scripted, it can sometimes feel like playing a game of chess against an opponent that always made the exact same moves.
I was hoping that the Xbox Live functionality would change this, and found myself eagerly anticipating head-to-head deathmatches with two teams of marines putting all their tactical knowledge to use against another team with a wily human intellect backing it up. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The only Xbox Live gametype available is cooperative. Now, don't get me wrong, this game works exactly as well as it's supposed to, with each player controlling one of the two squads rather than one switching between both, but that just accentuates the boredom inherent in the design. One of the few things that keeps the game from becoming too boring is that in single-player mode, the player is always doing something; i.e., while one team has their rifles trained on a suspicious doorway, the player is actually making the other team move. Not so in multiplayer. Here, one player is forced to sit still while their partner moves the other squad to cover, waiting for their turn to move. Of course, this is twice as realistic, making each player understand what it really feels like to backup another team, but it's also a hundred-percent added dullness, and after a few levels, it just grew tiresome. It really feels like some kind of a combat option is missing, and it's a pity, because FSW could have broken new deathmatch ground in the same way that Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow attempted to.
This isn't the biggest problem I had with the game, though, and I actually questioned whether I should include this segment in the review at all—but in the end I decided that it was important enough to mention, especially considering just how much it colored my experience with the game. This subject is, of course, the game's politics. I don't consider myself to be some kind of a conspiracy theorist or anything of the kind, but this game's premise and execution thereof smacks of propaganda. Now, some may say "Well duh, Dan. I mean, the game was created as a training tool for the U. S. Army! Of course it's going to be fiercely pro-American!" That's all true, but I think it's important to look a little deeper here. The game clearly takes place in a made-up combination of Iraq and Afghanistan (hereafter called Madeupistan for convenience's sake), and the only reason to set it there rather than, oh, anywhere else in the world is to capitalize on the current war. There are only three reasons to do that: 1: to sell more copies (rendering the good people at THQ little better than war profiteers); 2: to make a political point; 3: a combination of the first two.
I wasn't in any of the marketing meetings, so I don't know just how much money THQ expected to make by releasing a game about a war in the Middle East while soldiers were still fighting (and dying) there. I can, however, speak to the implicit messages forwarded by the game's content. The game sets up a scenario that reads like an American warmonger's wet dream: Western financial and political interests are being bombed throughout Europe and the Middle East, and the terrorists are being trained in Madeupistan. By an amazing coincidence, Madeupistan is where the Afghanistan Taliban and Iraqi loyalists fled after the US did such an incredbile job of liberating both those countries. So, not only does the player get to continue the current war by proxy, they also get to uncover the link between Iraq and Al-Quaeda.
The scenario is made all the more ridiculous because the fictional situation is so dire that no one could possibly object to an invasion. Not only are there terrorist training camps and attacks against American "interests" there's even cultural genocide going on; still, the Americans wait until United Nations sanctions have run their course and the UN asks them to intervene, and here's the kicker: the country has absolutely no oil! Actually, the way the game bent over backwards to justify its fake war made me wonder if there was a subtle anti-war message being thrown in. After all, if FSW offers the ultimate scenario for a justifiable war, doesn't it just serve to make the current war look that much less justifiable by comparison?
The biggest disconnect between the game's concept (realistic squad combat) and its execution is the attitude towards death. While enemy troops can be slaughtered wholesale, the player is told from the very beginning that absolutely no US casualties are acceptable. Apart from being cartoonishly optimistic, this actually makes the game far less realistic, as bullets and explosions can only ever injure player characters (they can be picked right up off the ground and carried back to a medical truck where, after a few seconds of treatment, they're back at a hundred-percent and ready to rejoin in the fray). The only way to "lose" and force a level restart is to have more than one character injured at a time so that there isn't an extra hand to carry them all back to base. I'm sure that this was more of a practical decision, as they crafted personas for the various members of the squad (there's the young one who swears a lot! And the older one who swears a lot! And the funny one who swears a lot! Picking up the theme?) and didn't want to bother scripting the changes in behavior and character interaction required when a squad member dies in combat. It may have been a practical consideration, but it ends up sending a disturbing message: that a war waged "correctly" can be won without any friendly casualties at all.
I'm left with mixed feelings towards the game. I love the new genre concept, and all of its ideas are executed competently enough, but there are just too many problems for me to recommend the game without reservations. Even if I were to overlook my moral objections to the game's content, there's still the matter of the too-rigid level structure and surprisingly shallow multiplayer. There's potential here, and if the game had really stuck to the realism and gone all the way with it, I think I would have had a much better experience than I did.
Oh, and one final message to the developers, a little note for next time—if you're not going to bother making your characters able to climb stairs, a good way to disguise this massively unrealistic shortcoming is to not put any stairs in the game! Something to keep in mind.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.