A few years back Chris Roberts, the creator of the treasured Wing Commander
franchise, left Origin systems and founded his own company, Digital Anvil
. Under the watchful eyes of Microsoft, the company promised two premiere titles, Freelancer
, a PC-only space simulator, and Brute Force
, a squad-based game that many referred to as the next HALO
. Two years and a cavalcade of delays later the game has hit store shelves.
This is not HALO
. Let’s make this clear for a moment. Aside from the fact that the game is a shooter that happens to reside on the Xbox, the two titles share very few similarities. They’re developed by different studios; have different directions and have a significantly different feel to them. After having played both, there’s no mistaking HALO
for Brute Force
or vice-a-versa. While the two may look similar in screenshots they’re worlds apart when set into motion. Unfortunately, this severed analogy works out far better for HALO
than it does for Brute Force
Not that BF
is a bad game by any means. Far from it, to be more precise. In fact there are times when BF
actually outshines HALO
. It’s just that it’s an entirely different game that tries to succeed on an entirely different premise. Sure HALO
contained a multi-player campaign but the main focus was placed squarely on the shoulders of the game’s single-player elements whereas in Brute Force
the main focus has been placed on the multi-player elements and the single-player facet is just ho-hum.
Meet Barney. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.Brute Force
unfolds via a series of non-connecting missions that are related in some facets, but are basically self-contained. You’ll receive your mission briefing via a short CGI video but most of the time they’ll tell you very little about the task before you and only serve to show off the CGI talents of the folks at Digital Anvil. Mission objectives basically range from blowing the hell out of everything in sight to, well, blowing the hell out of everything in sight. Mission design could be stated as amateurish at best. At times the game even resorts to bringing back the old “kill all of the guys in order to unlock the door” tactic that was all the rage in 1996. There’s not much structure or design to the missions and most of them just serve as a reason for you to land on a planet in hopes of causing a ruckus. And trust me, you’ll be doing a whole lot of ruckus-causing throughout the duration of this game. Brute Force
has you controlling a squad of four soldiers who have different abilities and purposes. Serving as the group’s muscle, and requisite wannabe Duke Nukem, is Tex, a bad-ass who has the ability to wield the bulk of the game’s heavy weaponry. Complementing him in the fracas is Brutus, a lizard-like creature whose quick speed makes him great in combat. Taking point from a distance is Flint, an enhanced human who has the ability to see further with weapons than her squad mates. Rounding out the cast is Hawk whose main asset is stealth and agility. As the game’s tagline implies, they’re dangerous alone, deadly together.
To try to differentiate one character from the other Digital Anvil gave them unique abilities that are supposed to make each one non-expendable. To be honest the only abilities that I ever found to be useful were Tex’s multi-gun ability and Flint’s auto-targeting ability. Brutus’ feral rage, which allows him to see enemies clearer, doesn’t really do much for me while Hawk’s cloaking ability runs out far too quickly to be effective. In order to keep things fair usage of these abilities is limited via a bar that depletes when the ability is activated. When the ability isn’t in use the bar gradually refills. It’s mostly for naught though. Even when I was controlling the players manually I found myself forgetting that the abilities existed and instead opted to neglect them more often then not.
In theory each character serves a different purpose but in practice they’re all basically the same. In my head I had visions of sending in Hawk for a few stealth kills and then setting up Flint on the high ground for some aerial support before sending in the big guns. It’s a shame that the game never does quite pan out like this as most of the combat is relegated to the head-on mano-a-mano sort. Not much is made about teamwork or tactics and most of the time the game is just about rushing headlong into combat and vaporizing everything that moves. In the end everyone just basically rushes into the fracas and expels their weapons until all of the red dots are off of the radar.
When playing single-player you’re given limited control over your AI squad mates. Orders are rather basic and are pretty much limited to follow me, hold, move here and fire at will. The AI isn’t exactly brilliant either and has the tendency to make the worst possible decisions whenever possible. Most times AI squad mates will get stuck on objects or wander around in circles like a dog chasing its tail. It’s well understood that the game is action-oriented but it’s just begging for an overhead tactical map for giving out orders.
Dammit Tex! For the last time, can you please look at the camera?
The game really gets interesting when another controller is plugged into the console. Your friends can jump in and assume control of any of the squad mates at anytime, regardless of your progress. So if you’re in the middle of combating one of the game’s many bosses and your buddy Jimmy comes by, all he has to do is press start on another controller and he’s right in the action. The game supports up to four players on one console although I wouldn’t recommend it as the third person perspective makes it almost impossible to see the action in the tiny screens.
Perhaps the most obvious difference resides in the varying vantage points; HALO
is played from a traditional first-person perspective while Brute Force
is played from a significantly more agitating 3rd-person perspective. Not only does this make precision aiming a tedious task, it also makes single-console multiplayer a bitch due to the reduced viewing areas. I wouldn’t say that the multiplayer campaign is as engaging as HALO's
, mainly because it’s not as addictive and as engrossing. I never felt like there was a grand scheme or a purpose to what I was doing.
More problems arise in the level design. It appears that the majority of them were designed with choke points and designated “kill zones” in mind. As you progress through the game you’ll come to associate various areas of the game’s world with action areas and others with safety zones. Chances are if you see a smattering of cover and a long corridor in front of you a huge firefight awaits you.
To make matters worse the environments are boring and uninspired. Most of them look very similar to each other. Basically you’ll do combat in the swamp, a desert-like region, in a volcanic region and in Digital Anvil’s poor recreation of an Ewok village. Little is made to ensure that levels look different and varied from each other. Most of the them also feature very little variety in their design and are pretty bland on the whole.
Action is very disjointed and hectic due to third person perspective. I'm not sure who at Digital Anvil decided that this was a good vantage point for the game, especially seeing as how BF
is just a first person shooter masquerading as a third person shooter. Most of the time you won't be able to tell what's going on because it's too difficult to keep track of things from this viewpoint. It’s far too easy to lose track of your opponents, sometimes they’ll hide in the foliage where you’ll run right past them because your field of view couldn’t track them. It’s also a bit choppy as well, to the point where auto-aim is needed to correct any grievous errors you may make while aiming. The game is also insanely difficult but not as a result of brilliance on the part of the AI but because the game is rather ambush happy. Most of the action revolves around you wandering into a clearing only to be surrounded by a cavalcade of enemies. Destroy said enemies, lather, rinse and repeat.
The weapons won’t be taking home any awards either. Nearly 3/4ths of them are underwhelming, both in terms of visuals and in terms of impact. It takes far too many shots to kill enemies, especially when you’re wielding an energy weapon of any sort. Even the rocket launcher in the game is weak. At times it takes three, four or even five direct hits to take out a normal foe. It doesn’t help that the majority of the weapons are laser of energy-powered either. When will designers learn that today’s gamer loves life-like violence? It’s the same reason you preferred to use the standard machine-gun over the energy weapons in HALO
and it’s the same reason that the combat in BF
is so boring and repetitive.
Creature design is another area in where the game is lacking. Throughout the course of the game you’ll do combat with deformed mutants, lizard-like creatures and a cavalcade of big-headed freaks that look like the villagers from Giants
. On the whole they’re pretty boring and are extremely repetitive. As you mow down hordes and hordes of them you may begin to wonder if there are actually any other enemies ahead in the level or if you’ll just be facing an army of clones based off of the troops you just slaughtered. If you’re like me you’ll probably find yourself quoting Serious Sam and saying aloud “Hey, didn’t I just kick your ass two rooms back?”
While they look pretty bad on the surface they animate quite nicely. The designers opted to incorporate some of the rag doll physics that seem to be all the rage nowadays. This makes taking out enemies with heavy weaponry and grenades all the more entertaining. As a package I’d still say that the creature design is a bit lacking, there’s something about killing a pistol-wielding mutant that just isn’t all that satisfying.
Digital Anvil had me drooling over the game’s visuals when I saw the game at E3. It’s just a shame that this is E3 2002 that we’re talking about and not E3 2003. I hadn’t seen the game for over a year and it looked exactly as I remembered it. When I asked about the exorbitant amounts of fogging at E3 2002 I was told that it was a result of the game’s early development cycle and that it would be fixed in time for the game’s final release. A year later and the problem still persists, especially on the later levels. As I ran towards the horizon I could actually see buildings being drawn in on the fly as opposed to being rendered at the start of the level. It’s pretty ugly, considering that this engine was built from the ground-up with the Xbox’s hardware in mind. At times there are some neat lighting effects but the majority of the game looks barren, washed out, dull and boring.
Even the game’s cast is a mixed bag of some sorts. Tex looks great both in the game engine and during the CGI. It’s obvious that plenty of time and effort was spent to ensure that he would be the focal point of the game’s visuals. Brutus looks decent enough but he isn’t exactly what I would herald as the pinnacle of creature design. Then there’s the women, it seems like less time went in to making them look appealing and attractive. Flint’s hair flows and animates smoothly in the CGI cut scenes but just looks atrocious when you get into the game. It’s one solid plastic-like chunk, kind of like the hair from those old G.I. Joe figurines. For a game that’s supposed to take advantage of the Xbox’s hardware, I’m not exactly impressed.
There are some neat audio effects in the game but as a whole they’re on par with what we’ve come to expect from our Xbox titles. 5.1 support is included via Dolby Digital processing but you probably wouldn’t realize it unless you were sitting close to the rear speakers. Sound separation isn’t quite as clear as we would have hoped. Effects emanating from the rear are mysteriously quiet while sounds from the front are strikingly loud. It’s not a very good mix of sound levels and it actually mars what could have been a great soundtrack.
What really puts the dagger into the heart of BF
is the lack of online game play. Brute Force
is just begging for some Xbox Live Support and while it gets it in the form of downloadable content, it’s just not enough. Even the single-console deathmatch shows some promise but four-player split-screen play just isn’t cutting it. It’s doubtful that many people have the means to take advantage of the system link play either. As it stands one can only sit and wonder about what could have been.
What could have been? That’s a question that constantly arises in my head while I’m playing Brute Force
. There were so many promising elements that probably looked great on paper, but the game is flawed in execution. Had the game had a clear direction, better mission structures and a stronger game engine, then perhaps this game would rank amongst the best of what the Xbox has to offer. Consider this one for a light weekend rental but not much else.