That's how many terrorists I'd killed by the end of Without Warning. Somehow that seems like a lot to me. Were this some kind of a helicopter game that involved blowing up terrorist bases, or an unsettling cruise missile targeting simulator, that number of deaths might seem about right. In a game about three commandos operating over a twelve hour period, it seems a little implausible. I recognize that this is a videogame, and a little repetition and padding is par for the course, but this is a game set in the real world, one that basely trades on the current fear of terrorism and the heroic image of the people who commit murder for the government. One thousand, one hundred, thirty-six just seems like an awful lot of people to shoot, blow up, and scald the flesh off of with high-pressure steam.
Without Warning is a third-person shooter that embraces (pronounced "rips off") 24's real-time, multi-character format. The premise is simple—a group of terrorists have taken over a chemical plant in middle America, and the player controls six separate characters as they attempt to either kill as many terrorists as possible, or escape with their lives intact. The entire game takes place over a 12-hour period, from the moment the commandos arrive at the plant at 8PM, up until the sun rises the next morning.
Given the 'countdown' format, and the fact that the multi-character system requires the player to see certain events multiple times, it's a little surprising to find that the game is as short as it is. The game's six-hour running time is divided up into a few dozen small levels. Each one of the game's small maps is a level unto itself, and they never take more than a few minutes to complete. This makes for refreshingly quick gameplay—there's no real need for checkpoints, since there's a new level (and save point) every five minutes or so. It also creates a nice variety of gameplay, as one level the player will be a secretary trying to keep her head down, and the next they'll find themselves sniping rocket launcher weilding terrorists.
There is a downside to the system, though, as this constant jumping from character to character and location to location really creates obstacles for any kind of narrative cohesion. The game lacks any kind of overall map, so it's impossible to get a sense of the characters' movement through the complex, or progress in their task. It was only by comparing the total number of hostages to the number I'd rescued that I was able to estimate how far I was into the game.
A lot of these problems could have been solved by presenting the characters' stories separately, in sequence, rather than all at once. That way the player could have experienced six complete stories, each one touching on the others, and crossing over at certain points—seeing the whole story from a different point of view, only understanding the whole story once the game was finished. This device is used a little in the game, with characters helping each proceed from different areas of the plant. Unfortunately, even this doesn't work as well as it could have, since the game orders the levels chronologically, often requiring players to experience the same 5-10 minutes over and over again. Players will hear about an objective being completed somewhere else, and then they'll find themselves playing the situation they just heard the resolution of. If these sequences had been separated by an hour or two, there could have been some effective drama. It doesn't work as well when they're just seconds apart.
For a game about fighting terrorists, Without Warning is surprisingly timid about addressing the concept of terrorism. The game is so afraid of being controversial that the game's lead villain is a French-Canadian terrorist, who has assembled his terrorist forces under the banner of anti-capitalism. Of course, he has a hilarious secret agenda that's revealed late in the game—hilarious because after the secret has been revealed, absolutely no one in the game is shocked by it, and the revelation in no way affects anyone's behavior.
Of course, all of this might have been moot had the gameplay been spectacular in one way or another, but it's standard all the way through. The gunplay is handled well enough, with a decent auto-aim system, and good movement controls. Throwing grenades, problematic in games at the best of times, is ridiculously impossible here. They fly at an arc so bizarre that the rarely even hit opponents that the player has locked on to.
The bigger problem with the combat, though, is that there's just too much of it, and it's all too easy. The game doesn't have much of a cover mechanic, and the enemy's bullets do so little damage that there's little reason to ever do anything but rush headlong into combat. It's fun for a little while, but gunning down waves of enemies gets tiresome a little under an hour in. Making things a little more tedious is the fact that there isn't any real variety to the game's arsenal. Each character has only one weapon for the entire length of the game, and some of the guns are similar enough that there are effectively only three distinct guns in the game.
Without Warning does redeem itself somewhat with its multiple play styles and minigames. There's quite a bit of bomb disposal to be done in the game, and the minigame through which players find and cut the correct wires manages to be challenging and fun every time. The game also features a few opportunities to pick locks, in what may be the best lock-picking minigame I've ever come across. Less admirable are the stealth sections, though—the developers didn't include any hiding or silent movement mechanics, which makes any time spent as the secretary quite a chore. Far more interesting is the reporter character, who is asked to find good newsworthy things to film, and decent angles to film them from. It's a really interesting sequence, and it's too bad that the developers didn't do a little more with it. In addition to his camera, the reporter also carries a pistol, and his levels too often degenerate into shootouts, in which the reporter is every bit as effective a killing machine as any of the commandos.
There are things to like here—decent use of minigames, an attempt at a non-traditional gameplay structure, and an entertaining story that, unlike many other recent games, doesn't set anything aside for a potential sequel. Sadly, anything good about the game gets bogged down in the mindless, repetitive blasting. There's nothing wrong with gunning people down in a videogame, but when the amount and type of violence conflicts so clearly with the game's premise, and doesn't even manage to make the game especially interesting or enjoyable, maybe it's time to take a step back and take a good hard look at the established rules of our videogame genres, and wonder if it isn't time to think up a few new ones.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Playstation 2 version of the game.
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