by Samuel Corey
reviewed on PC
Not Touching that with a Ten Foot Pole
Where do I even start with this one? This is probably the most controversial game I've ever seen, and certainly the most controversial that I've reviewed. Fursan al-Aqsa has the player take control of Ahmad al-Falastini, a Palestinian rebel who fights his way through a variety of Israeli military installations, culminating in a pitched firefight inside the Iron Dome control centre.
Even under the best circumstances, a game about a hotly contested real-world conflict would be controversial but Fursan al-Aqsa compounds this controversy by being unabashedly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli. In an age where things like Active Shooter get scrubbed from the internet and industry professionals campaign to have Six Days in Fallujah banned before it can release, I'm amazed this game is still on the Steam storefront.
Those looking to this review expecting either a condemnation of either the Israeli or the Palestinian side of the conflict will have to leave disappointed. It's not my place to offer a definitive take on real-world politics. For one, I'm simply not qualified to comment on a 70-year-long period of hostilities. I'm just a nerd who reviews video games online. Moreover, an analysis of the conflict in detail would probably leave very little time to talk about the actual game.
I'm certain that some will buy this game just because of its politics and others will refuse to buy it for the same reason. For those of you whose opinions about the conflict have not yet crystallized, I think you'll be able to find in Fursan al-Aqsa, a game that while flawed, is nonetheless strangely compelling.
Now obviously a game like this which is explicitly about an ongoing real-world conflict is going to rub some people the wrong way. People who have lost loved ones in the fighting would be justified in finding all this in poor taste. However, I found it difficult to take Fursan al-Aqsa quite so seriously when I found that its protagonist can execute a double jump, or after I got to the level where I could enter combat with a baby strapped to my back.
Of course, that is just the in-game mechanics, the game goes absolutely bonkers when it shifts to the cut-scenes. In one scene Ahmed executes an Israeli soldier using a chainsaw, in another, he feeds an enemy to a shark! My personal favourite comes after a pitched battle where Ahmed is piloting a jet fighter and battling an enemy fighter. He ejects from the cockpit of his plane to shoot the enemy plane with an RPG-7. A decision made all the more confounding by the fact that his own plane is still armed with plenty of missiles. In terms of tone, this game's cut-scenes are like watching highlights from the most bonkers action movies of the 1980s.
Intense Firefights and Secondary Objectives
In contrast to the cut-scenes, the actual gameplay takes on a much more grounded approach (well at least as grounded as an action game with bullet time can be). Like in last year's Cruelty Squad, both Ahmed and his adversaries have a very small pool of health, and consequently, shootouts are very tense and frantic affairs. Since you don't regenerate health (though there are med-kits scattered around the map) this means that every encounter is potentially deadly, and even a costly victory can doom the rest of your run. I found myself nervously checking and rechecking my corners whenever I moved into a new location, sometimes ever using the bullet time dodge just to give me more time to spot potential enemies.
The downside is the enemy AI. While the guards can shred you if you stumble into their line of sight unaware, they lack any ability to chase you down. Indeed, most enemies in the game don't even move around the map in pre-set patterns, but instead just stand rooted to the same spot, oftentimes oblivious to the gunfire around them. This means that once you have memorized the placement of the enemies, eliminating them becomes an almost trivial matter.
More annoying than the standard enemies are the special hazards, like the security cameras in the first two levels that cause an alarm to sound and an instant game over. Unlike dying in the standard combat these just feel cheap, especially when you have nearly cleared the entire level. It also doesn't make a lot of sense either, since the alarm will trigger a game over but nobody seems to notice the constant gunfire. Fortunately, these hazards don't show up in every stage, and once you are aware of them they become easy enough to avoid.
In each level, you are dropped into an open map, given a list of objectives to accomplish, and let loose. These mission objectives vary from map to map, so in one level you will be infiltrating Mossad HQ to assassinate the section chief, and in another, you will have to rescue civilians who have been injured in an airstrike. So in addition to each level looking quite different from one another, they all feature some different gameplay. Sure the "kill all enemies" objective will remain constant throughout the game but some things are to be expected. For the most part, this is a welcome variation but some of these objectives can be a bit frustrating. During my playthrough, I once spent half an hour wandering around a level searching for the last civilian to rescue after having cleared out all the other objectives. A hint would have been nice.
I would be lying if I told you that Fursan al-Aqsa was a completely polished and refined game. There are numerous visual glitches and awkward janky moments. The animations used when you climb a ladder, for instance, looks more like your character is somehow swimming up the wall rather than scaling it. The mix of purchased and custom 3D assets gives the game an anarchic visual style where parts of the world are far more detailed than the rest. Yet, these flaws never harm the overall experience. There are no game-breaking bugs and during my entire playthrough the game never once crashed. Indeed, all the odd design decisions and roughness gives Fursan al-Asqa a bootleg charm.
What is present throughout the game is the obvious passion that has gone into it. Fursan al-Asqa never falls into a comfortable routine and repeats itself. There's always another interesting mission objective or absurd cut-scene. It is far from a perfect game, but it is consistently engaging. Certainly worth checking out, if only for the novelty of it.
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Hilariously over-the-top cut scenes, tense and thrilling shootouts, good variety of levels and missions
Some hazards feel unfair, enemy AI is very basic, some objectives are unclear