From the moment I started playing Section 8, I had to wonder, “Why haven’t I heard more about this game?”
I burn through the atmosphere before hammering into the earth below with a thunderous crash, leaving a me-sized crater decal on the ground. I meet up with my squad and see our target in the distance — a giant planetary defense cannon, firing at our fleet in orbit. Beginning the long run to the objective, I instinctively click the left thumbstick to engage my sprint, as I have been condition to do from years of modern first person shooters.
Lost in the beard-stroking thought of how the pervasiveness of shared control schemes and mechanics have established a standard in game design literacy, I’m just as quickly snapped from that thought when the camera pulls back to third-person view, showing my avatar engaged in a full-on super-powered hyper-sprint.
The fence surrounding the facility quickly approaches as I race toward it, struggling to find a jump button so I might not have to end my mad blitzkrieg just to find a way around the obstacle.
Much to my delight, I manage to engage my jet pack, sending myself soaring above the fence and into the heart of the enemy base. While my opponents are distracted by my squadmates, who were not quite so suicidal as I, I seize the opportunity to hack the control panel, allowing us to capture the target and complete our first objective.
I repeat that exact same strategy for the next objective. And the next. And the next. And the next, for the remainder of the singleplayer campaign.
As I played Section 8, I took notice of more reasons why I probably hadn’t heard more of this game. Mission objectives just had me acting as a gopher; capture this base, retrieve those intel. documents, kill these officers, defend this spot for a designated amount of time. Environments ranged from interesting — the aforementioned giant defense cannon, the wreckage of a massive starship strewn about a desert, a giant communications satelite — to bland and boring — streets and sidewalks that were no more than flat textures on the ground, hard-edged geometry attempting to pass as natural terrain. I was frequently equipped with pre-determined new equipment “loadouts” at the start of each new level, which prevented me from ever finding a style of play with which I was comfortable (though to be fair, these loadouts can be changed mid-game at purchasable supply stations).
At one point, I was put in control of a tank which, thanks to its horrible controls, became much more of a liability than an asset. Worst of all, the “burn in” mechanic I had heard touted as giving the player the ability to drop in anywhere on the map was limited to just a small radius.
Then again, maybe the single player wasn’t the best way to get introduced to Section 8. I know Section 8 is primarily a multiplayer experience, so, once again relying on that instinctual reaction to the literacy of game design, I just assumed the campaign would function as a long-form tutorial for the multiplayer built around a throwaway plot. I was half-right.
The plot of Section 8’s campaign isn’t particularly memorable. You play as Corde, a member of the 8th Armored Devision of…uh…the good guys? You’re fighting a faction called the Arm of Orion, though for what purpose, I never had a clue. I’m not going to argue that a multiplayer shooter needs a good, compelling plot for its single player campaign, but without one, and when that campaign introduces you to only the game’s most basic concepts, I have to ask, “What’s the point?”
The actual game to be found here, the multiplayer, was a most welcome change after trudging through the campaign. Finally getting to it only served to highlight the campaign’s problems even more; in multiplayer, you can “burn in” anywhere on the map; the preset load outs are completely different; the in-game economy and the ability to purchase objects is integral; objectives are dynamic.
The campaign prepared me for none of this, mind you.
It took me several live matches to learn how to play this other game, but once I did, I was brought right back to those first moments: Why haven’t I heard more about this game? From a tactical standpoint, the ability to drop in anywhere on the map opens a massive branching tree of advantages. You can drop down with your squad, contributing to a united frontal assault against an enemy base (or a tightly-knit defense); drop behind enemy lines and activate a sensor blocker, making you invisible to both radar and automated defense turrets; drop down right into a crow’s nest and take out your sniper rifle.
All of these advantages are balanced by the use of AA guns that can shred any incoming player to pieces before they hit the ground. All bases come with their own AA guns but they can also be purchased, though in very limited quantity, making them a valuable resource. Destroying them can completely turn the tide of a fight, allowing your side to literally get the drop on the enemy and swarm them from within.
Team coordination is vital, but the biggest thrills come from the occasions when you are able to play a key role in your team’s success. The Arm have AA guns and supply stations massed over the control point and turrets surrounding the perimeter. That is, until you come in.
You drop in behind the base and make your mad dash for their center, jetting up to the target. You throw detonation packs onto the AA guns, triggering them and using your missile launcher to destroy what’s left. Now outnumbered, you make a tactical retreat, leaving them to repair and replace their defenses. Seizing the brief window of opportunity, you call in your own AA gun and a supply station. While the station gradually heals you and replenishes your ammo, your own AA gun is now picking off their incoming replacement reinforcements. The one gun isn’t enough to get everything, but the brief interruption is enough for your team to overwhelm their position. Before you know it, you’ve won the base, and completely turned the tide of the fight in mere minutes.
The best part is, everyone gets these hero moments. Even playing defense, a role that normally bores me to tears, was a thrill that actually became my favorite thing to do. The fact that, thanks to good forethought and smart placement of AA guns, turrets, sensors, supply stations, and a bit of luck, I could almost single-handedly defend a base was immensely gratifying. Section 8 is a game that rewards skill.
That thrill of personal and team gratification is once again echoed in Section 8’s Dynamic Combat Missions (DCMs). DCMs consist of various “missions” that pop up every so-often for each team, from escorting a convoy across the map, protecting a landing zone for a dropship, capturing enemy intelligence and returning it to your own base, and several others. What’s great about the DCMs is that they’re really just the standard multiplayer FPS modes (king of the hill, capture the flag, etc.) thrown into the mix of Section 8’s basic structure of capturing control points. Completing them is a huge boon for your team and their random nature keeps you on your toes.
Section 8 is a pleasantly surprising sleeper in the crowded realm of multiplayer shooters. If anything, the campaign just contradicts what the game is supposed to be by teaching you something completely different. I realize I’m harping on an admittedly small and arguably negligible aspect of the game, but I feel that I have to because, even after the roughly 4 hour affair, it still took several live multiplayer matches for me to learn how to play (and unlearn what the campaign taught me). That there was no worthwhile narrative and the fact that it not only failed to teach me about the game’s mechanics and rules, but actually deceived me in regard to them, made it a terrible introduction to what turned out to be a fine game. I feel this is an important point because its exactly this kind of barrier to entry that’s absent from other, more accessible multiplayer shooters. Section 8 has a lot going for it, but its occasionally muddled, aimless and even contradictory design makes it its own worst enemy in a genre that’s not lacking for competition.