Another Section 8 game is falling from the sky, and this time it's going to cause far more of an impact than before. Prejudice is quite the incoming object: a “5-hour” scripted single-player campaign, a 4-player co-op defence mode, and the return of the 32-player team conquest game, all for $15. Yes. That's the starting price for this fully-fledged sci-fi combat game from a major studio. Interested? Let me tell you about it.
Section 8, in case you aren't familiar with it, was a game about men in powered armour suits having a big fight on a far-away alien planet. The galaxy's toughest space soldiers turned up at the scene of a space rebellion, only to find that their enemies were equally matched for space biff: the perfect scenario for team-based combat! The resulting game was a multiplayer focused thing in which traditional spawning onto the battlefield was replaced with the ability to fall out of the sky at supersonic speeds, land on your feet, and start a-killing. While some modifiers to this – such as turrets that could shoot you on the way down – limited your deployment, the game was essentially entirely dynamic in its delivery of bodies to the battlefield, which allowed for interesting disbursements of men and back-stabby tactics by determined players. Being killed by a sniper only to land next to him for revenge moments later was a unique experience. Until Prejudice arrives, of course.
There were other things that appealed about Section 8, and those find their way back here, too: the big ape-like robot suits that could clobber each other or grab and squeeze infantry to death, the variety of missions that arose spontaneously on the battlefield, the range of punchy futuristic weapons. Jetpacks! Impeccable Unreal-engine performance. And so on. Best of all were the maps themselves: hyperbolic space architecture that melded beautiful alien topologies with structural fantasies and the burning ruins of crashed spacecraft. Prejudice has all this, and a great big overhaul too. This second Section 8 has more space architecture, more guns, more possible kits for you to take into the battlefield, and more toys to call down from the sky, whether that's in multiplayer, or the game's sizeable single-player offering.
Ah yes, that single-player campaign. Rather than being the tutorial-skewed quasi-multiplayer of the original, Prejudice's gentle introductory offline mode is an actual single-player shooter sequence like they made in the old days, and that apparently comes in at about five hours (although I blasted through the first couple of missions so quickly that it might be shorter than that). It's a wholesome taster, complete with storyline, cutscenes, scripted happenings, and all the things you'd expect of a mature single player game. It's not exactly going to set the world on fire with its story, manshooting, or scene-setting, but it seemed perfectly playable and an superb addition to the more rounded multiplayer offerings. The AI is pretty capable too, even if I'd rather be fighting human players.
And AI does substitute for human players in one of the major new offerings, which is Prejudice's co-op mode. This sees four of you defending a central map location as waves of bots come in. The bot waves are increasingly complex and aggressive, featuring all types of possible enemy, including robot pilots and snipers. To deal with this you have to defend your base from hack in an extremely flexible way. Co-ordinating your fight, healing each other, going off to to take out enemies before they can get in close, and that all plays out into a genuine struggle. It's a great mode for the Tribes-like, although the lack of need to move about across the map as a group perhaps threatens to make it a little staid in time. It's doesn't exactly offer the heart-stopping possibilities of certain other co-op games that we've played of late, but I think it's a healthy development for Section 8, and one that acknowledges that some of their playerbase simply aren't going to want to play competitive online games.
And, of course, the rather more traditional multiplayer game is back at the heart of it all. This is clearly where TimeGate's interest actually lies. They want to make a great multiplayer shooter, and they've certainly made some progress in that direction. Sixteen-aside battles across a selection of maps, with much the same dynamics as before, will dominate the Prejudice experience. As in the original, locking down the capture points with assets called in from orbit (turrets, robots etc) is the order of the day, and co-ordinating tight (TIGHT) assaults on enemy positions in the counter-offensives are extremely demanding. This time, however, the loadouts of your character have even more room for customisation, because the game has an entirely new set of weapons and equipment that will have to be unlocked as you play. There's tonnes of stuff - in a manner reminiscent of BFBC2 - that is intended to keep you playing to get to the goodies. TimeGate say that none of it should really overpower anyone or unbalance play, but I guess we'll see about that.
There are some issues that I suspect will be a continued hangover for Prejudice: the mild “every shooter” characterless of the action and the characters remains the same. In some ways the art direction of Section 8 is fantastic - it's environmentally awesome - but it is just space marines, and not particularly memorable ones. The depth of the game seems somehow unevolved, too, despite all the new toys. While the original game had all kinds of fun elements, there was something missing from making it a really vital team-vs-team combat game, like Battlefield, or Halo. Perhaps it was that great key feature – your fall from space – that somehow removes the vitality of rushing from one base to fight toward another. The other problem I found with Section 8 was that the fundamental physics of the world didn't feel robust or weighty enough to demand that I mastered it. It seems that people agreed with me, too, because Section 8's server populations remained low throughout its life. All these things threaten to make life difficult for Prejudice.
And all these things suggest that the $15 price tag and general digital distribution is intended to produce one effect: to get more people on servers. TimeGate clearly want there to be people playing this time around, enough people for the critical mass of community that keeps a game alive. That they're already planning expansions and map-pack type add ons for this game (unmentioned for the previous title), suggests that they believe this tactic will work. It might.
Watch out for my interview with Timegate's CEO and lead designer a bit later this week, when I talk to them about this, and more.