Six Days in Fallujah - Early Access Review

The controversial game finally comes to market

Six Days in Fallujah - Early Access Review
Source: Press Kit.

Video games and controversy are no strangers to each other. Whether it is infamous and renowned controversies like the Hot Coffee Mod reintroducing hardcore sexual themes into Grand Theft Auto: San Andres or the unspeakable tragedy of the Columbine shooting being blamed on the shooters' love for DOOM and Mortal Kombat, games always seem to be in the negative limelight for one reason or another. One of the more recent and intense controversies is the development and release of Highwire Games' tactical military FPS, Six Days in Fallujah.

The History

For anyone who doesn't know, Fallujah is a city in the country of Iraq, located in the province of Al Anbar, with an assumed population of 250,000 to 350,000 people prior to 2004. During the Iraq War, American forces mounted an attack against the city; once on April 4th, 2004, and again on November 7th, 2004. The official reason for America's interest in pacifying Fallujah stems from an ambush that had happened on March 31st, killing four American military contractors and resulting in their burned and beaten bodies being displayed by their killers.

Within one week, the US had taken a third of the city, but the destruction left in their wake was extensive. Civilian casualties were high, with estimates of around 600, while insurgent casualties were significantly lower, at around 200. Due to this, the Iraqi government pressured US forces to back out in order to minimize further civilian casualties and destruction. The US forces then obliged, turning control of the city over to an 1100-man operation known as the Fallujah Brigade. By September, however, the Fallujah Brigade had been dissolved and all of their American weapons and equipment had been turned over to the insurgents.

In November of the same year, American, Iraqi, and British forces moved in to take the city in full. For a little over a month, US-led coalition forces endured fierce and bloody urban combat. At the end of the Second Battle of Fallujah, 110 coalition members were dead, with another 600 injured. There were approximately 3,000 insurgent casualties. Exact civilian casualties weren't recorded, but the estimated number is somewhere in the thousands. All-in-all, Fallujah was the deadliest battle of the Iraq war, and the bloodiest battle involving US Marines since the war in Vietnam.

Establishing the history of the real Battle of Fallujah is important because it is the reason for the extreme controversy surrounding the development of Six Days in Fallujah.

Source: Gaming Trend.

The Game

Six Days in Fallujah was originally announced way back in 2009, to be developed by Atomic Games and published by Konami. The game immediately drew tons of controversy, given the severity of the subject matter and the fact that less than five years had passed since the actual battle had taken place. Many individuals were worried that Six Days in Fallujah wouldn't be able to accurately depict the nuance and complexity of the Fallujah conflict, nor did they think it could truly represent the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, slaughtered while just trying to live their lives. Others still lamented that the game would be nothing more than pro-America propaganda, downplaying all the damage caused by US forces within the city.

Konami ended up backing out of the project due to the copious amounts of backlash, and very soon afterward Atomic Games went defunct. From there, Six Days in Fallujah bounced from developer to developer, with Sony even dipping their hands into the shooter. Then in February of 2021, it was announced that Victura would publish the game, with Highwire Games being contracted as developers. Finally, after 14 years, Six Days in Fallujah was released on Steam in Early Access on June 22nd, 2023.

Many of the same issues surrounding the initial announcement of the 2009 game followed it into its eventual official release. The most current iteration of Six Days in Fallujah dipped into controversy yet again, garnering the attention of mainstream media and social media alike. Despite the then-17-year gap in time between the events of the Battle of Fallujah and this announcement, the devastation and death that was brought on that day has created permanent and lingering wounds. The same sentiments surrounding the game being propaganda were raised, with the killing of people from the Middle East being a sensitive subject, regardless of whether or not it was virtual or reality. People were worried Six Days in Fallujah would be little more than the glorification of the murder of people of color – Muslim people specifically – further desensitizing the American people to the deaths of the thousands of innocents that called Fallujah home.

Highwire Games combated these claims by saying the game would include interviews with real-world people that survived that horrific day. From the US marines who were sent in, to the civilians whose lives were ruined, as well as surviving members of the coalition outside of the US Armed Forces, the developer indicated that multiple perspectives would be represented. In addition, Six Days in Fallujah would include two campaigns – one from the perspective of a US marine fighting through the city, and the other from a Fallujah citizen trying to flee the fighting – in order to show how the fighting affected all of the individuals present.

Source: Steam.

At launch, however, there were no interviews present beyond just the US Marines. The version I was able to play also did not have any campaigns available, only quick fireteam missions, so I cannot speak on the validity of the claims Highwire Games has made in regard to the campaigns themselves. They have stated that the other interviews are going to be added to the game, and the campaigns will be made available at a later date. Because of this, I will not be commenting on the campaigns, and instead just the fireteam missions available to me. I will be laying out my thoughts on the gameplay first and will close with how I feel it has (thus far) been represented with regard to the controversy.

The game opens up with a lengthy live-action video describing what Fallujah was and introduces a few US Marines who survived the skirmish. They describe what it was like to fight in the battle, along with the trials and tribulations faced in their day-to-day. It's immediately obvious that these interviews were done during the initial development of the game, as the men who are interviewed are all still relatively young, and do not seem to be the appropriate age for nearly 20 years having passed since the battle took place.

Once the video ends, you are placed on the menu where you can jump into a fire team mission, either solo or with a squad of up to four players behind you. A brief cutscene plays when loading into the game, showing the map and explaining the mission and what you must do to succeed in it. The missions vary, and, while I cannot confirm it, the maps seem to be randomly generated (editor's note: levels are randomly generated). My first mission was to make my way through a city block to take out insurgents on the roof of a building firing RPGs onto the coalition. After the brief explanation, you're dropped in and told to get it done. No fluff, no more explanation. You are to get to the building and take out the threat as you see fit, as you are able to.

The graphics themselves are, frankly, dated. Textures can sometimes be pretty low resolution, and character models have the same uncanny-valley faces and dead-eyed expressions as were seen in many games from the early 2010s. Animations tend to be clunky, with lots of clipping and spastic movement. I even died in one game when, as I was bandaging up from a wound, my character model clipped through the building I was standing next to at the time, exposing me to the enemies inside, who did not waste their opportunity to kill me. It's my hunch that many of the models and textures are holdouts from the original 2009 build, and it's apparent that this game is still solidly in early access due to the glitches I experienced while playing.

Six Days in Fallujah plays very similarly to many other FPS games in the tactical genre. You move extremely slowly, and your gun fires in whatever direction it's pointing (if it's at a low-ready, and you fire, it will fire into the dirt,) you can only be hit a few times before dying instantly or bleeding out, and methodically checking each corner and clearing out buildings is the only way to guarantee your safety. Moving through the streets is dangerous, as walking past a building you haven't checked could mean an eruption of gunfire and a mad scramble for cover, or abrupt death. Ammo is limited and refilling means a dangerous trek back to your starting position, where a convoy vehicle has extra supplies.

Source: Steam.

The game employs an extremely limited HUD, especially when moving, so you have no way of knowing outside of your own perception where threats are coming from. At any moment a mortar may fall from the sky, or you could be targeted by a rocket launched from a building top, killing you instantly. The constant fear of death and the ease with which you can die definitely adds an air of realism to the shooter. If you are hit, you must duck behind cover to check for wounds. If you see blood on your hand as your character pulls it away, you must use a medkit or risk bleeding out. It's tense, it's atmospheric, and it truly does get you thinking how innately insane it is that people do this daily, in person, and survive to tell the tale.

I initially tried to hop into a few games on my own, without a squad to back me up. I very quickly realized the error of my ways, as without a squad behind you, you will almost immediately be overrun by enemies or hit by a sniper you didn't see. I never lasted more than 6 minutes, regardless of how much caution I used. Every corner promised a hail of gunfire from a direction I couldn't recognize and was too disoriented by the chaos to figure out. This resulted in many, many deaths. As such, I joined a game with some strangers to see how the game fared as it was meant to be played, and frankly, it can be a lot of fun. Communication and teamwork are utterly imperative, and when you and your squad are slowly moving house-to-house, stacking and breaching doorways, throwing grenades, clearing rooms, and watching each others' backs as you make your way down the open streets, it can be extremely satisfying and immersive.

Much of this comes down to the downright amazing sound design. Your weapons are punchy and loud and explosions rock inside your headset and leave you disoriented. Player communication has two different variations: you can either use proximity chat, and talk to each other as you get close, or use the radio attached to your gear kit and chat through that. Each of these has very interesting tradeoffs, however. Proximity chat is unfettered, but if you are firing your weapon, explosions are going on around you, or a comrade is firing their weapon, it becomes nearly impossible to understand what's being said to you as their voices become drowned out in the ruckus. Using your radio negates this slightly, and it can be used at any distance, but you must put your gun down in order to hold the radio to your mouth and talk. The radio also crackles and distorts what is being said to you, as a real radio would, making it sometimes difficult to make out what your friends are saying to you at any given moment. Six Days in Fallujah is one of the first FPS games I've ever played that makes you think before you talk, and it's an interesting and stressful addition.

On top of this, shooting your firearm next to a wall will cause temporary tinnitus, and a shrill ring will fill your ears. Explosions will do the same thing, with the rattling of the environment and the deafening boom accompanied by auditory disorientation. This makes it harder to hear call-outs from your squad mates, as well as making it more difficult to place where enemies are throughout the building you're in. When moving through different structures, you can plainly hear enemies' and teammates' voices echoing throughout the stone walls, and you can get a rough idea where they are, as the excellent sound design distinguishes between upper and lower floors beautifully.

One of the best (and most stressful) aspects of Six Days in Fallujah's gameplay, however, is the freedom to get the missions done how you see fit. Do you think that breaching the door is the best course of action, even if enemies have guns trained on it? Would you rather blow a hole in the side of the building, spending more time outside where you're exposed, in order to make a kill hole that can be fired through? Would enemies ambushing you be better defended from the roof, which gives you a vantage point but enemies from other rooftops can see you, or would it be better on the ground floor, where you can funnel enemies through a single doorway? There are no right answers, but there are certainly wrong ones. It will become apparent quickly which choice you made and the consequences are dire.

Source: YouTube.

This does not mean that Six Days in Fallujah's gameplay is perfect though. Enemy AI is extremely spotty at times. The enemies are either on an absolute warpath, with aim that would make a sharpshooter blush and flanking skills for the ages, or they're walking up and down the same flight of stairs over and over again, standing in the open waiting to be shot, or getting caught on geometry. That same issue is shared with whoever is playing. Your player character constantly gets caught on the environment, making the methodical and immersive gameplay significantly less intense.

Character movement is also just a little bit too slow and clunky, and it can sometimes feel like you're walking in tar as you make your way through the city streets. I understand that soldiers have tons of heavy gear weighing them down, as well as the idea that moving too quickly could result in careless consequences, but even when you sprint it feels like you're moving in slow motion.

These small criticisms aside, what I've seen with Six Days in Fallujah marks it as a solid – albeit standard – tactical military shooter. This brings me to my feelings on the controversy surrounding the release of the game. From what I've seen, even the live-action cutscene preceding the gameplay doesn't seem too egregious in the "America is awesome and the war was justified" front. It genuinely seems like a group of men who lived through a terrible thing expressing their feelings and sharing their experiences of that terrible thing, with one veteran even lamenting that he didn't agree with the war but had a job to do.

As far as the game itself is concerned, there isn't anything the fireteam missions have to offer that games like Insurgency: Sandstorm or various Call of Duty campaigns haven't already done. War games based out of the Middle East certainly aren't new, and from what I've seen, Six Days in Fallujah doesn't glorify the deaths of those who live there anymore or any less than the dozens of other games that have preceded it. There have been so many games that cover the atrocities of World War II and the Vietnam War, and while some of them are controversial in their own right, the outright demand for those games to never see the light of day pails in comparison to what Six Days in Fallujah has faced.

That being said, the campaign itself could (and probably will) completely derail my opinion of the game overall. I have no idea what Hirewire Games has in store for the story-based missions, as they could be handled with the deftness of a sledgehammer. Due to the fact that the campaign is thus locked off, and speaking on only what I have seen from the brief cutscene and fire team missions, so far Six Days in Fallujah's controversial hype far outweighs the actual experience that's on offer. This is not unlike so many other problematic games have done in the past.

Source: CNN.

I will strongly and vehemently defend the fact that I believe that video games are art, and art has many different purposes. Some pieces of art are meant to make you think, others are made to teach, and others still are meant to entertain. Video games are no different in this, and can be a huge tool in educating the masses on events that have happened throughout history. Games like Assassin's Creed have even been used to help educate students in 52 schools across the United Kingdom.

At its best, Six Days in Fallujah can be utilized as a tool to expose the devastation and atrocities that come with war, showing us the fruitlessness of taking lives needlessly for governments that don't seem to ever have our best interests in mind. At its worst, it will be a forgetful piece of pro-war propaganda, doomed to the dusty annals of time as yet another example of a misguided and mishandled property, with the potential to radicalize otherwise fence-sitting individuals, and I sincerely hope that it is the former. Only time will tell whether this game will be worth further mention and how much of it will be seen as nothing more than an excuse to glorify the deaths of people who just so happen to be born somewhere different than the ones we root for.

That being said, I have the privilege of writing all of this as someone who has never directly experienced the hell of war. I understand my stance on this is from a privileged individual who was lucky enough to be born in a country that wasn't being actively attacked by a foreign nation. Under no circumstances do I condone the actions of those in the Middle East (or anywhere, for that matter) who use their own agendas to kill and maim those just trying to exist, regardless of the end goal. With that in mind, I think that Six Days in Fallujah has the opportunity to handle this situation well and come out as a reminder to us who have never experienced war that we never want to – and we should fight tooth and nail to make sure as few people in the world do.


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