The spectrum is only half full.
It isn't easy being both a game game reviewer and a political action star. In this past year, the war in Iraq and WMD debacle has made reviewing greats like Battlefield: Vietnam more difficult than it should have been due to the political action monkey of morality riding on my back.
Don't get me wrong, I love monkeys. But when developer Pandemic decided to turn a sophisticated army training simulation into an action/strategy game for the big black box, I knew the conflicting forces within me were about to wage an internal war on a scale unseen since my intestines wrestled with that one-pound double six-dollar burger I scarfed down last month.
Lucky for you, I try to temper my bouts of arm-chair political activism with fair and honest video game reporting. And honestly, THQ's highly-anticipated Full Spectrum Warrior is strong on innovation and presentation but lukewarm on most everything else.
The game is set slightly in the future in the fictitious Arabic land of Zekistan, a city purposely meant to resemble a war-torn Middle Eastern metropolis. You take charge of two small squads, Alpha and Bravo teams, sent into Zekistan to root out terrorist leader Al Afad's evil training camps. Must…gag…political action monkey... …whew.
Your exploits begin with a training mission used to explain nearly every aspect of gameplay needed in the field. The gist of it essentially boils down to you learning how to effectively suppress an enemy with one team while the other moves from one point of cover to the next, until one team can eventually pop the enemy from an open vantage point. This is all done while trying to reach a specific objective/waypoint.
While games of this nature tend to be hands-on action affairs, Full Spectrum Warrior truly does play out like a strategy game - you never really take control of any one soldier like you do in Ghost Recon or Hidden and Dangerous 2. With very simple and intuitive button commands, you will order your teams to run, guns lowered, from one point of cover to another, or jog with guns poised to fire, never leaving your team out in the open. This is the extent of your advancing maneuvers.
You control your squads via a handy RTS cursor-driven interface. Moving the left stick will bring up a cursor of four circles representing your four squad members, which can then be placed nearly anywhere on the ground. As you move the cursor against cars, walls and other objects, the four circles will change formation to indicate how your team will bunch up or "stack" around a specific object of cover. This is actually pretty cool and affords you an unquestionable awareness of squad safety and security.
Other commands include lobbing various grenades, which is the only time you take personal control of a team member. Firing on an enemy comes in two flavors, Suppression fire (full auto) or Point Fire (often in burst shots). Point Fire is primarily used to kill, while Suppression is used to pin an enemy down so you can order your other team to advance.
You are also given a list of more extraneous command options, most of which are rarely used. These include ordering in air strikes, mortar strikes and recons via helicopter to update your GPS/map with enemy locations. I quickly stopped using the latter, since the mystery of enemy positions is really the whole challenge of the game.
You surely won't find much challenge in the enemy A.I. Bad guys rarely move at all. Once they spot your squad, they grow roots and stay put unless one of your grenades comes too close, after which they get really smart and move from a covered vantage point to right out into the open. Throw a smoke grenade at an enemy and they just sit there waiting for the smoke to dissipate like some mysterious white fog just rolled in. They won't try to hide or flank you, ever. They won't anticipate you doing so, either. They just wait for you to find their blind side and shoot at you if you stupidly wander out into the open.
Conversely, your squads' A.I. is pretty damn good - too good, in fact. Your boys will go prone if they come under fire while caught in the open and will return fire when necessary. If left out in the open, they will even bark at the player stating that they need to find cover. This can be nice at times, but the fact of the matter is that you don't need to watch over your teams as much as you should, leading to a game that can often feel out of your control.
It's this very lack of gameplay control that eventually turns Full Spectrum Warrior into something of a bore. The level design is such so that there are a few very obvious cover items and paths to take. Once you get the hang of the team leapfrogging, you'll realize that there just isn't enough to the actually gameplay.
But boy, it sure is a joy watching it all unfold thanks to Full Spectrum Warrior's stunning graphics engine. This is one of the best looking Xbox games to date. The cityscape is very immersive and believable with fitting ambient sounds, dust storms and other little touches that really foster a sense of realism. The player models are not very complex but animate splendidly. Explosions are kinetic and, again, realistic. Unfortunately, you can't enter any of the game's many buildings or structures, so don't expect any heated close-quarters combat. But otherwise, Full Spectrum Warrior earns high marks for its great delivery.
That extends to the audio. In addition to the great ambient sound and music, the voice talent is first-rate. Your soldiers curse at enemies and ramble on about all sorts of things, endearing them to you and nearly jerking a tear when one of them becomes a "man down!" Nice touch.
After you finish the 10 hour single-player campaign, your only replay solace will come by way of Xbox Live! enabled co-operative play, which is identical to the single-player but with another player controlling one of the two teams. So essentially, you get to do even less online than you do by yourself. There is certainly some fun in planning things out with someone else, but there's no guarantee that whomever you find online will be willing to work out strategies and not just go at it alone. It works much better if you play with a friend.
Like the rest of the hardcore gaming world, I had really high hopes for Full Spectrum Warrior. And while the graphics and overall presentation rock, the gameplay is hampered by a lack of depth, length and intricate strategy, leaving this warrior a few medals shy of the full spectrum.