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"Burning": Hands-On With Section 8

The past few days I've been absorbed by Timegate's closed multiplayer beta for sci-fi shooter Section 8. I understand that there's actually some single-player element to the game, which will explain some of the sci-fi story which underscores the action, but what I've seen so far is a multiplayer game of fair complexity. It's a Unreal 3-powered amalgam of jetpacks, drop-pods, and guns that go dakka. I want to say up front that I'm having great deal of fun with this. It's the kind of game I go into for five minutes to take a screenshot, and emerge from two hours later. Read onwards for why.

When people were throwing the "Tribes" word around to explain where Section 8 sat in the big scheme of things, I was unconcerned and not particularly inspired. I assumed it would be another vague sci-fi squib that wouldn't really satisfy anyone. Tribes-alikes have a habit of not quite hitting the best things about multiplayer gun-violence on the head. As much as I respect the original games, their weapons, physics and environments never quite grabbed me in the way they did so many other people. So you can imagine that I was pleased to find that despite some similarities in the sci-fi, jetpacks and vehicles sense, Section 8 is very much its own game. The feel of Timegate's project is chunky and solid, and rather traditionally PC multiplayer, while the tactical play is a strange mix of perhaps half a dozen games, including Battlefield 2, Crysis Wars, Team Fortress 2, Quake Wars, PlanetSide and Tribes itself. It's hard to know if this will be one of those games that captures the imagination of a swathe of gamers, but it's certainly got many of the right ingredients for greatness.

A the most basic level it's a classical reds vs blues team game. The central contest is over the control of a number of bases spread across the map, which build up your victory points. The round is over once one team hits the victory cap. It makes for some nail-biting games, where teams finish with in a hairsbreadth of each other. The bases need to be hacked to be controlled, and you can counter-hack if you get there quick enough. The more bases you control, the faster you speed to victory. It rapidly ramps up from there, because there are also a number of secondary missions, such as protecting/killing a VIP NPC character, escorting/destroying a convoy, or deliver/intercepting intelligence, which can all add to your overall victory quotient. It's as if other game types occasionally break out on the map, and have to be dealt with as you play. For a team game, there's a whole lot of variety in a single game type.

It's the player's own combat experience that Section 8 handles best, however. That begins with a loadout screen on which you have a formidable array of options. Everyone gets a force-shield equipped suit of power-armour as standard, but how you take that into battle varies. There's a basic set of classes, including the stealth guy, the sniper guy, the missile guy, the engineer, the medic-type, and the standard guy-with-machinegun. But you can swap out elements of any of these in a way that reminds me of how we used to play around with our setups in PlanetSide. Once you're set up you select somewhere on the map to drop and - also like PlanetSide - you come hurtling out of the sky to deploy. Choosing where to deploy is a bit of a trick: you have to avoid the firing arcs of the anti-aircraft pods, and it's possible for enemies to deploy more of these. You can also choose to take a bit of a hit on impact and hit your "air brake" late, meaning you come in faster and are at less risk of being shot from the sky.

Once down on the ground you begin dealing with the battlefield challenges. Working as a squad is, as in any game like this, often crucial to victory. The fights centre around the hackable facilities which, once hacked, have AA and anti-infantry defences of their own, and can also be fortified by the deployables of the two teams. The combat can be become appropriately hectic, with grenades, gunfire and missiles crackling back and forth. Yes, that's the crucial bit: how does the fighting feel? Well, combat is noisy and suitably violent. Things don't explode vigorously enough for my liking, and the guns could be just a little more brutal and mechanical as they fire. However, they are at least all noisy projectiles weapons, rather than pew-pew lasers, which is something I like in a world of forcefields and starships. You do feel solid and chunky too: you are definitely a big man in half a tonne of power-armour, especially when you're in control of the mech suit, which can grab, crush and hurl any infantry who get too close. Of course, having a jetpack means you can scale heights and make quick exits too, but it doesn't lead to the skiing motion of the Tribes games. Instead you have a kind of super-run, where a few seconds sprinting causes you to put away your gun and simply leg it.

And all this goes well beyond simply being a good firefight, because there's several other layers of abilities and modifiers to take into account. You can patch stuff up as an engineer, you can call in vehicles (tank, mech), and you can use a whole range of "passive" modules, which give you some advantage in the field. A sensor jammer, for example, stops automated turrets from shooting you or nearby chums, making your entrance into enemy-held bases a little easier. This is the kind of thing that's going to be excruciating for TimeGate to balance, but could make for exhaustive strategising by the gamers who start taking Section 8 seriously, and want to play competitively.

Although it does violence well, has some lovely armour designs, and is packed with little details, visually Section 8 is not particularly surprising. We've seen many variations of this very glossy Unreal science fiction sheen over the years - but it can nevertheless be very beautiful. One of the maps is set within the skyscraper-sized burning wreckage of a crashed starship, and the entire landscape is a sight to behold when you've got the game ramped up to maximal prettiness. Ash and fiery particles wisp through the air as drop pods come crashing down into the wreckage: it's exactly what I want from my far-future spacewar battlefields. I'm actually really excited to see what TimeGate come up with for the full range of maps, because there's said to be 18 in total, with player totals ranging from 16 to 64 on a map. And being Unreal-powered, of course, that maximal prettiness is pretty easily obtainable with even slightly older systems. New, buff PCs are going to handle everything this can throw at it, with sizzling particles and wafting smoke effects aplenty.

I've seen a wide range of criticisms of what we've seen from the beta so far, such as it not having unlocks - which I personally don't give a crap about, because games like this are about skill and victory, not loot - not having enough vehicles, and even the netcode being a bit troublesome. Well, on that last point, I've been playing on North American servers with what is normally a fairly wonky connection, and it's been stable, solid and reliable. Overall the game has a huge amount of promise and - unusually - I found myself certain I'd be playing much more, even after the first few minutes I spent in the game. I think this could be pretty popular and, from what I've seen so far, it deserves to be popular.

I believe and open beta for Europe and North America is due for around August 10th. I'll expect to see a few of you in there.

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