Conventionally, the wheels on the bus go round and round. In Harms Way, they get shot, punctured or blown off by a cluster of landmines. This is no traditional racing game, but a team-based driving and shooter hybrid – an intriguing combination.
Guns and gears
Creator Justin Carpenter describes Harms Way as a cross between Burnout and Call of Duty, which sounds like a Hell of a lot to live up to. And even more intriguingly, this free Xbox Live Arcade game comes close to filling the (very large) shoes of this promising billing.
When we first heard about the game, we assumed that a racer/shooter featuring two player teams would place one person at the wheel, and the other swivelling a roof-mounted turret gun around. In actual fact, the gunner isn’t in the vehicle at all. Instead, they man various turrets which are dotted along the length of the race track. They can shift to the next turret along with a tap of the shoulder button, take pot-shots at the opposition as they race past, and hopefully avoid hitting their team-mate’s vehicle.
Harms Way offers a number of interesting twists on its basic recipe. Four teams race, so there are four drivers and four gunners – but only one gunner at a time can be in a given turret. That means the quickest marksman to move into position will get the prime sniping spot, and others will be forced to take over gun emplacements further down the track, with longer to wait before the racing pack arrives, ready to be peppered with bullets. Switching turrets in a timely manner is an essential skill to master.
In terms of racing, the driving model is solid – if a little imprecise. It’s built along the lines of a rally game, with fairly loose handling that facilitates a degree of power-sliding around corners (particularly in the two lighter vehicles, the buggy and pick-up). There are a number of big ramps and jumps to hit, with arcade-style touches such as mid-air barrel rolls triggering a temporary shield for the vehicle. Tactical ramming is also encouraged – especially for those in the cab of the larger truck or bus, who can play havoc with the nippier buggy.
Highs and lows
Unfortunately, the game’s physics aren’t perfect, and occasional freakish collisions will occur in which the buggy muscles the truck over in an unlikely Herbie-bests-Eddie Stobart scenario. We also noticed a bit of clipping through the scenery at times. Harms Way isn’t without its glitches in this respect, but happily they’re pretty rare occurrences.
Driving isn’t just about learning where the sharp corners and short-cuts are. It’s also memorising where the blind spots of the turrets are located. Clever driving is rewarded, such as keeping under the cover of a rocky ledge, or swerving to make yourself a more difficult and unpredictable target (most drivers end up being breathalysed at the end of a race). Power-ups are key, too, with nitro-boosts to be collected, along with valuable shields which provide temporary invulnerability, and upgrades for your gunner’s turret.
The gunner’s arsenal can be upgraded with mortar-launched mines and eventually guided rockets, and there are tactical nuances for the shooting player, as well. They can use rockets to quickly take out another team’s turret to protect their driving partner, or blow away power-ups so opponents can’t pick them up. The scenery is destructible too, allowing the cunning turret operator to bring down a bridge right on the leader’s head. Marvellous fun – we’re sure McLaren would be salivating at the prospect of bringing a giant Dunlop half-tyre bridge smack down on Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes.
Racing and waiting
The more playing time you invest in Harms Way, the more you realise that under the surface there’s quite some tactical depth. And the more you learn, the more you want to play as both driver and gunner.
Harms Way is all about the online game – there is a single-player mode where you compete against bots, but that’s just for basic practice. Unfortunately, getting an online session up and running is a bit of a lottery.
Due to the seemingly low player population, it can take a while to gather the full complement of eight players required to start the only multiplayer mode: a tournament set over the game’s three tracks. Sometimes, though, you’re dropped straight into the middle of someone else’s tournament as a replacement for players who have quit (there are a lot of drivers who spit the dummy and quit when they’re in last place).
At other times, we found our fellow waiting players were selected as substitutes in another session, leaving us high and dry, staring at an empty lobby screen. Alternatively, the host might just have kicked us. Either way, the sting in the tail with Harms Way is that online players can end up doing as much waiting as racing – and that downtime can be quite vexing.