The year was 2002, and Conflict: Desert Storm was generating an impressive amount of hype for a new intellectual property. Although it would become the first entry in a franchise, Pivotal Games hyped their debut tactical shooter by promising a fully cooperative campaign supporting four players in split screen.
Cooperative game design had taken off following the release of Halo. Fellow Xbox exclusive Brute Force set a sales record earlier in the year by hyping its own 4-player campaign mode, and I struggled to even buy Conflict: Desert Storm during its release month, such was the popularity it enjoyed from day one — I couldn’t find a copy anywhere!
The game is set during the Gulf War, with players leading soldiers from the British SAS or US Army Delta Force to combat the Iraqi military invading Kuwait. War games like these became a common sight following 9/11, and in a move rarely seen nowadays, this one makes its politics explicit on the NTSC-U cover which reads, “NO DIPLOMATS. NO NEGOTIATION. NO SURRENDER.” (Yikes!)
The Xbox version has the original code base, with ports to other formats featuring various upgrades and downgrades of their own. (By contrast, the PlayStation 2 version only supports a max of two players.) As a starting point though, this first edition was a decent effort. It can still be fun today, providing you play it alongside some very patient people.
Achieving a simultaneous 4-player experience on a sixth generation console inevitably came with compromises. While Conflict: Desert Storm isn’t an ugly game, the 3D character models and environments look pretty basic. An unpleasantly low frame rate was also needed to portray many large desert maps where low draw distances and frequent sandstorms make it hard to spot targets.
Despite the aggressive use of auto aim, it’s tough to know when your bullets have hit something. It’s often easier to follow a gun’s travelling reticule around the screen before jamming the trigger and checking the compass to see if any red dots disappear! Auto aiming is essential because the manual first-person view is sluggish, as are the crouching and prone stances soldiers can adopt for a (supposedly) better aim. Fighting enemy troops in close quarters is even more awkward when your character turns and reloads so slowly.
This third-person shooter aims for realism where it can — more Hidden and Dangerous than Medal of Honor. Players issue tactical orders to reposition their CPU teammates and establish firing lines. Human players must constantly communicate, lest they be blown to smithereens by respawning enemies. This does create a good cooperative atmosphere, though downed players simply writhe around until someone revives them with a med pack, which is frustrating when invisible enemies unfairly attack from the distant fog. And speaking of unfair, how about those tanks who snipe you from absurd distances? Any mistake made during those encounters results in an explosive knockout, so it’s no wonder players are given so many med packs on missions featuring them.
The fiddly and unintuitive controls mask some nice mechanics like alternate fire modes, the ability to share equipment between squad members, and finite save states which provide an extra layer of strategy without save scumming spoiling the experience. Anything that isn’t directly servicing the multiplayer experience feels dated. From the game engine that has characters haphazardly bouncing down slopes as they walk; the driving segments featuring vehicles with armour about as tough as paper and even worse steering; to the low quality bullet sound effects that will have you reaching for your TV’s mute button — this game can be tough to enjoy at times.
Pivotal Games lived up to their promise though by producing a sizeable campaign that’s 4-player to the end, with participants controlling multiple characters where needed. This can encourage some inspired tactics like in the 3-player campaign I played recently where my brothers split control of a C4 charge and its detonator to distract and eliminate an enemy tank during a city mission. Justice at last!
Conflict: Desert Storm is a rough ride that still has its moments then. For a cooperative shooter circa 2002, it has a delicate balance between action and tactical depth; a wonky yet still impressive achievement for the era.