Reviewed: October 15, 2004
Released: September 21, 2004
After 25 years in the military I’ve played a lot of “war games” both in real-life and simulated. Full Spectrum Warrior is one such simulation that carefully balances itself between action, simulation, and strategy to create a unique hybrid, perhaps even a new genre that I will henceforth dub, Military Simulation. Originally released on the Xbox a few months back, THQ has now brought this outstanding tactical simulation to the PC so a whole new audience can experience what very well may be the best military sim of the year.
Pandemic Studios is no stranger to military sims. These are the same guys who developed an actual training sim for the Army, a sim that I have used and am quite familiar with. Full Spectrum Command is an in-depth training simulation that is used to train soldiers at different levels of experience and command levels. The Army version is focused on officers who run companies and company commanders, typically with 130 people working for them.
Full Spectrum Warrior takes a more limited approach to the concept. Only about 80% of the original concepts and technology have made it out into the “civilian sector”, and Full Spectrum Warrior is focused on sergeants (or team leaders) who might have up to nine people working for them. The game strips away the elements from your typical tactical shooter and replaces them with advanced AI, creating a simulation that focuses on developing strategies, and effectively ordering your men.
No one can argue that there are hundreds of military games available and it seems that more are releasing each month. These typically range from the large-scale RTS games like Dawn of War to the intense FPS titles like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. Full Spectrum Warrior carves out its own distinctive niche in the war game genre by not only creating a totally realistic environment, then dumping you in the middle of it, but it also gives you plenty of authentic (albeit limited) military training to teach you real skills and concepts that real soldiers use every day.
Your training begins with the MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) and I commend Pandemic for making this training “mandatory” – that’s right, you can’t even access the solo campaign until you complete the training and rightly so. You are about to become a team leader, responsible for the lives of up to 12 men at times.
MOUT is more than just a clever acronym. It’s a very real training tool used in the actual military. I’ve gone through dozens of these courses in simulated mock battles and I’ve experienced the real deal in the Gulf War and Bosnia. While Full Spectrum Warrior cannot begin to recreate the life-threatening adrenaline rush of moving through hostile urban terrain, it does a surprisingly good job of recreating the tactical aspects while maintaining a certain level of fun. After all, this is just a game and is no way intended to train or recruit young people.
Training is surprisingly long and even a bit complex, but so is the game. You will go through several stages or missions that teach you about the four types of soldiers that make up a fire team and you’ll learn how to command them to work in concert with Bravo team. You’ll learn how to use a radio, read a compass, designate coverage fire, and move your team to new locations and new formations.
All of these commands are made simple by an intuitive interface that uses the mouse and keyboard to select any man from the currently selected team. You can toggle between Alpha and Bravo teams effectively giving you access to eight individuals at a time, sometimes more if a Charlie team is involved in the mission. The keyboard allows for a much more relaxed input system. There were enough commands in the game that the Xbox had to double-up by giving each button two functions based on pressing or holding that button. And while the Xbox did an admirable job of compounding commands, it's just so much easier spreading the command functions out on the keyboard.
Full Spectrum Warrior is not your typical action game. You have no direct control over movement or when you fire your gun. All of that is handled by the advanced AI. You simply pick your team and move them to a spot of your choosing. The formation indicator will show you how the men will line-up when they arrive at the location. The mouse seems to be a bit more accurate when moving your men but you still have the oddity of having to move your ghost cursor around physical objects, which can make it hard to position your men in some areas deep into the screen or behind solid objects.
Just like in real combat, you never want to move into an active fire zone, so you will quickly learn the skills of laying down alternate cover fire to move your teams through hostile territory. One unique element that will help you in determining weak coverage is the 3D fog of war. RTS gamers will instantly recognize the term, but this is the first time that I’ve seen it used in an action game.
Once training is over you head off to the hostile and fictitious city of Zekistan to take part in a mission that could easily be ripped from the headlines of any paper from the past 15 years. You are introduced to your men through a lengthy and informative opening movie that not only establishes the characters, but gives them personality and helps to seal the immersion factor. You’ll really start to care about these guys before the first mission even starts, and as they exchange banter throughout the game it only gets more involved.
The game takes place over the course of several days and is divided into 11 challenging missions that are tightly integrated together. The game is basically one big mission divided into eleven sections, which again is quite different from traditional game design. Gameplay is challenging on Sergeant (normal) mode and even harder on Sergeant Major (difficult) mode. If you manage to finish the game on both of these skill settings the Authentic mode becomes available. This mode has about the same “difficulty” as Sergeant Major but the HUD removed, as are the mid-mission save points. No pressure.
Saving your game is handled in a unique and immersive way. Throughout the mission there will be only a few locations where you can save your progress. To do this you must assemble both Alpha and Bravo teams at the save icon and use the radio to save your progress.
Wounds and death are also approached from a unique perspective. Soldiers take realistic damage and one or two good shots can take down a man. When a man goes down you can administer first aid to stabilize the soldier. This begins a timer in which you must get the wounded man back to the nearest CASEVAC to restore him to active duty. You can also replenish your ammo at a CASEVAC.
One of the more brilliant design features has to be the replay system. Not only does Full Spectrum Warrior save your missions so you can re-watch them, you can also stop the replay and jump into the game at any point to replay the mission, perhaps to try a different tactic or better your previous efforts.
The 3D camera is nearly flawless. It always centers on the currently selected soldier and you have full control to pan around and even zoom in to some degree. The aforementioned fog of war can be quickly toggled on to show any gaps in your coverage or visual awareness. If you do accidentally start to move into enemy fire you can interrupt the movement command and have your men run for the nearest cover.
Veterans of the Rainbow Six games will instinctively know what to do when put in charge of multiple teams. It’s all about locating, flanking, distracting, and destroying the enemy while never putting yourself in danger. Given enough planning and strategy, it’s possible to finish Full Spectrum Warrior without ever losing a man – something everyone should aspire to.
During the missions you can call in for air strikes to take out artillery or tanks, or request a recon flyover that will light up enemy locations on your GPS. Other than that, you must rely on the skills and equipment your men start off with. Full Spectrum Warrior features plenty of authentic military hardware, both weapons and vehicles. They all look and perform just like their real-life counterparts offering several levels of delightful destructiveness. These weapons lend themselves to authentic tactics such as laying down cover smoke with a grenade or laying down suppression fire while moving, also known as “bounding”.
Full Spectrum Warrior supports online multiplayer but only in cooperative mode and only for two players. I’m guessing a lot of gamers will have problems with the limitations of this decision but I found it more than enough, especially in light of the type of game this is. Basically, the multiplayer game is the same as the single-player game only each person controls their own team, thus eliminating the need for you to bounce back and forth between Alpha and Bravo. It certainly takes the edge off of having to worry about eight men instead of four and by design it requires an advanced level of cooperative gameplay for the two people playing. Using a headset to coordinate your efforts also helps to immerse you in the combat experience.
As far as visuals, Full Spectrum Warrior is one of the more realistic battle simulations going, and even though there is no mistaking the game's Xbox roots, the PC version manages to improve upon the console graphics mainly due to the support of resolutions higher than the Xbox, which makes everything that much more crisp. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay is to say that this game looks “real”. The urban environments are dirty and littered with signs of battle such as burned out buildings and cars. Many of the objects provide cover but just as many can also take damage and eventually get totally destroyed. Toss a grenade at a car and watch the results.
The draw distance is huge and the ability to zoom helps with your situational awareness while not giving you an unfair tactical advantage. The skies are wonderfully lit and full of clouds. The lighting effects are very realistic and create real-time shadows that bring the levels to life. Special effects like explosions, smoke, fire, and particle effects all combine to create some very threatening environments.
Character animation is excellent as are the complex models used to create each of the soldiers. These guys look and move just like real soldiers, using all the proper stances for moving, taking cover, and even carrying their weapons in the proper “ready” position.
The movies all use the game engine so there is no distinct jump between movie and gameplay. There are even some cinematic effects like slow motion and freeze frame effects when a man goes down. It’s not a cool as the Matrix effects but a nice touch nonetheless.
The GPS offers an easy-to-read map of the area and you can also access the menus and mission objectives. The HUD is non-intrusive and highly intuitive with simple icons noting enemy health, protection, and your own team’s formation and status.
The sound package complements the gameplay and graphics perfectly. The music is a rich and exciting mix of military themes blended with atmospheric music and all capped with some Middle Eastern flair. You’ll only notice the quality of the music, but it quickly slips into the background where it will subconsciously enhance the gameplay.
The sound effects are where Full Spectrum Warrior really shines. Each of the weapons makes a distinct and realistic report when fired and when explosions are involved the results are thunderous. My first air strike literally shook the walls of my game room and got the dog barking. There are plenty of other subtle environmental effects to bring the levels to life and all of these sounds are positioned in real 3D space using an excellent surround mix that takes full advantage of the 24-bit EAX SoundBlaster Audigy.
There is a surprising amount of conversations and idle chatter. Some of this is cinematic and other dialogue is heard throughout the game to help immerse you in the action and get you involved with the characters, even though the game never focuses on any of the individuals. There are also plenty of humorous taunts and one-liners these guys will toss out during combat. Not exactly military protocol, but it makes for entertaining gameplay.
Full Spectrum Warrior is about a 15-20 hour game on the normal skill setting. The tutorial alone takes nearly an hour. You can add some time for the hard level and even more time if you dare tackle the Authentic mode. The cooperative online play will also add some additional game time. Most gamers can expect 40-60 hours before they will be ready to move on to something else. The PC version does offer two additional bonus levels that will add 2-3 more hours of total gameplay.
My biggest complaint is with the replayability of this game. No matter which skill level you play or how many times you start a new game the enemies are always going to appear in the same locations. If there had only been a way to randomize these encounters Full Spectrum Warrior would have potentially unlimited replay value. As it is, once you have played the game through two or three times you will instinctively know that four guys are hiding behind that jeep and there is a sniper on the roof to your right, etc.
Full Spectrum Warrior is still an amazing game and you can’t help but play it again and again if for no other reason than to perfect your tactics, but there is a huge potential for this game to be so much more. We can only hope to see a future sequel that addresses this issue and perhaps even give us the ability to actually use some of the wonderful vehicles we can look at but not touch.
I must admit I was surprised at how well Full Spectrum Warrior turned out. I had heard about this “commercial project” clear back when I was first playing around with FSC, and I couldn’t imagine how Pandemic could make this game accessible to the general public. But with the recent events overseas and the proliferation of war games on the PC and consoles the public is apparently ready for a hardcore military sim and Full Spectrum Warrior delivers exactly that.
Full Spectrum Warrior is a game like no other. It almost rises above the definition of the word “game”, but you can’t argue that there is a lot of challenging fun and addictive gameplay to be found in this attractive package. If you love a good strategy game or have the slightest interest in authentic military tactics then Full Spectrum Warrior is not only fun, it’s even a bit educational, and a must-own game for your PC military game collection.