Section 8: Prejudice review: It's raining men

Somewhere, on an ice-encrusted planet, a battle is raging. Enemies literally fall from the sky, crashing feet first onto the ground, spraying up dust and stone. Jets periodically strafe the area with bombs as I frantically rush toward a computer console, quickly activating it to disable the facility's shield generator. High above, I spy a massive orbiting space ship as it bombards the fortified bunker into which our quarry recently fled.

Strangely, the thought running through my mind has little to do with the abundance of action. The mental refrain is one I've repeated often while playing Section 8: Prejudice: "This costs fifteen dollars." %Gallery-105937%
As a downloadable sequel to 2009's retail-bound Section 8, nearly every aspect of Section 8: Prejudice belies its budget price. It includes a lengthy single-player campaign and a multiplayer offering that is just as robust as most full price offerings.

The single-player campaign revolves around the 8th Armored Infantry, a military group that makes Halo's ODSTs look like pansies by comparison. Forget dropping from orbit in a fancy landing pod, the insane members of Section 8 do so in nothing more than a high-tech suit of armor. Much of Prejudice revolves around the concept of orbital drops, as both players and equipment are regularly shot down from space.

Every mission begins with protagonist Captain Alexander Corde dropping from orbit, rocketing to terra firma and landing with dramatic flair. As Corde, players take part in a reignited war between Section 8 and the Arm of Orion, which just happens to be a different group of suicide-diving soldiers. Corde chases the enemy leader Salvador around the galaxy, making stops on several markedly different planets.

Whether Corde is trudging through the snow -- frost slowly accumulating on his weapons -- or carefully traversing pools of lava with his jet pack, the scenery rarely gets stale. Missions are likewise peppered with a few eye-catching set pieces, my favorite being the orbital bombardment described at the beginning of this review.

The campaign did have a few hangups, however, notably whenever Corde has to work with a computer-controlled partner. In one mission an AI-controlled tank did absolutely nothing to stop a missile turret from destroying it. Likewise, there was another mission in which a friendly mech completely ignored a soldier blasting the objective we were supposed to protect. These issues can be overcome -- and admittedly I was playing on hard difficulty -- but it was definitely frustrating.

As meaty as it is, the campaign is really just a precursor to Prejudice's main multiplayer course. Online play leverages the orbital drop mechanics to the fullest, allowing players to drop to literally any point on the map. Once on the ground, players earn money to spend on calling in everything from defensive turrets to supply depots to tanks. Incidentally, the tank -- packing a cannon, a minigun, missiles and a mortar -- may be my favorite of all time.

There are two multiplayer modes. Swarm is a cooperative mode that tasks players with defending an objective from waves of AI opponents. Conquest is a more traditional multiplayer mode centered around territorial control.

Players are divided into squads and tasked with capturing control points. Similar to other team-based shooters, capturing these will accrue victory points over time, with 1000 points securing the win. What sets Prejudice apart from its competition is the Dynamic Combat Mission (DCM) system which is activated throughout the match, providing special missions that reward teams with extra victory points and combat bonuses.

DCMs range from escorting AI VIPs to planting airstrike beacons in an enemy controlled area. While the primary objective is always to hold onto as many control points as possible, completing DCMs can really cement a victory, or pull a losing team back from the brink.

Prejudice also has a very, very long list of unlockable equipment. Players earn experience for making kills, completing DCMs or performing other actions (calling in equipment, healing, etc). As levels are earned, a myriad of equipment options are unlocked, including incendiary ammunition, EMP grenades and various weapon modifications. Armor is also customizable, allowing players to mix and match modules that increase damage, add radar stealth or improve accuracy. Oh, and jet packs come standard.

Both dedicated servers and player-hosted servers are available. The former allow up to 32 players, while the latter caps at 16. Matches can be filled out with bots as well. Overall, the online system works very well, though it fails in one key area that almost every shooter gets right these days. Namely, there is no pre-game lobby, and there is no way to gather a group of friends together before a match.

Prejudice does its best to keep friends on the same team, though its automatic balance system forces players to switch teams in a lopsided match. Making matters worse, private matches are unranked and don't allow players to earn experience. In other words, if you want to play a match with just your buddies, you won't be able to unlock any new equipment. To be fair, in the handful of public matches I was able to play, it seemed like friends were usually all moved to the same team by the time the server was full. Still, the complete lack of a party system is a very strange omission (and an unforgivable one to some).

Which brings me back to that mental refrain. Despite the matchmaking quibbles and the occasionally stilted friendly AI, Section 8: Prejudice is a tremendous package, one that easily keeps up with -- and in some cases surpasses -- the retail competition. After dropping from orbit, summoning a missile turret and launching a mortar attack (while simultaneously jet-packing to safety), it's kind of hard to focus on the complaints. All I can hear is, "This costs fifteen dollars."

This review is based on the final Xbox 360 code for Section 8: Prejudice provided by TimeGate Studios. Section 8: Prejudice is available now for $15 on Xbox Live Arcade. It will be available on PC on May 4 and on PSN this summer.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.