I had mixed feelings before I even played Full Spectrum Warrior. While I respect soldiers for their toughness and the risks they endure (voluntarily or otherwise!), Pandemic crafted the core of FSW as a US Army training tool, and I don’t support the reasons the US government gave for the invasion of Iraq, or many of the policies they implement there.
I was hoping FSW would be free of the rhetoric you’d expect in official propaganda like America’s Army, but sure enough the soldiers you command are heart-of-gold types fighting in a purely just war. All that makes the story (what there is of one) bearable are occasional moments of subversion. You get the impression that Army advisors were sometimes pushing hard for friendly PR, and Pandemic didn’t much appreciate it.
The gameplay holds up better, thankfully. You’re given real-time command of two, four-man squads cooperating to call in barrages, rescue allies, and sweep sectors in a Middle-Eastern city that looks suspiciously like Baghdad. The twist from competitors such as Raven Shield or SWAT is that you have no alter-ego in the game; instead, you move and issue firing arcs to whole squads at a time, whom you view from the third person. The movement overlay “snaps” to corners and other forms of cover as well, so at times FSW almost feels turn-based, like X-COM.
Contributing to this is an unrealistic yet functional mechanic of making squads naked in the open, but invulnerable behind certain angles of cover. Literally, your squad could be two metres away from an enemy with an AK-47 and so long as both were behind adjacent cover, neither would hit the other. What this does, though, is force you to apply honest-to-goodness tactics such as flanking, or bounding advances. Especially knowing the lineage of the game, it gives you an appreciation of the thought processes soldiers must actually use in a firefight.
If there’s a major problem with FSW it’s that its scenarios are often too linear for urban warfare. There’s plenty of cover to be found, but in terms of alternate routes, there’s either one or nil in most circumstances. In any case your squads are funnelled along single directions, and the few buildings you can enter would be open to the street anyway. Forget realism; it’s bad enough because it severely reduces replay value. Similarly, enemies always spawn in the same locations and never take initiative except in prescripted ambushes.
Possibly the best way of describing the game then is as a “tactical puzzle simulation,” which I imagine is what the Army was after with their version. A player is confronted with increasingly tough gauntlets where procedure is the best or only way to succeed. This will undoubtedly appeal most to military nuts (i.e. aficionados); there are no other squad-level games for them that take place in real-time and offer this much control. .
At least there’s plenty of single-player content to fool around with, moreso with the two extra chapters in the PC port. I initially decided to plow through the game as quickly as possible in order to get to my review, but kept discovering that what I thought was the climax was a segueway to another objective. I had to slow down to avoid burnout! As a result, I’d bet that for a veteran gamer, there’s a minimum of 15 to 20 hours of gameplay here. And in spite of little incentive for replay, there are multiple difficulty levels, excluding the Army version that was tucked onto the Xbox disc.
How about multiplayer you ask? The good news: there’s a co-op mode. The bad: it’s limited to two players. It’s the work of the solo campaign divided in two, which may possibly be fun for you and a friend, assuming you’ve got broadband and a microphone. The ugly however: there are no publically-hosted campaigns to be found, anywhere, despite built-in GameSpy support. Co-op becomes a rather pointless bulletpoint on the back of the box.
So let’s run a checklist to determine if Full Spectrum Warrior suits you.
1. Do you play strategy games?
2. Can you ignore the political issues?
3. Do you mind sacrificing realism in some areas to boost it in others?
4. Can you tolerate being steered through a game?
5. Is multiplayer unimportant?
If you answered no to one or more questions, you’re in for disappointment. If you answered yes to all of them, you’re set. Just try to consider the game’s implications away from the screen.