Prepare for Deployment
People who know me, know I have a tendency to proclaim how bad at video games I am. I mean, I love them, but I do not play to the standards of a professional. My choices are suspect, my designs often flawed, and my builds are usually non-optimal.
A notable exception was the XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I love that game and considered myself pretty good at it. So I approached Shock Tactics with optimism. XCOM had proven this style of game was viable, and I was prepared to love and enjoy even the shakiest clones of it.
I feel it’s important to point out this stuff, mostly because any negative things I have to say about the game stems from legitimate design issues and not my inability to ‘Git Gud’ as the young’uns say. (Oh hell. Is that still a thing? Fingers on the pulse of the youth, right here, I tell ya.)
My earliest experiences of the game as I started on my journey to the planet Hephæst were quite good. I liked the look of the game, the music very easily evoked the space-western theme they were going for, and it was fully voiced – even the tutorial instructions. The voice actors, while criticized by some, I felt did a good job given the material they had in front of them.
I noticed a bit of frame stuttering as the drop ship put my mercenaries down for our first mission on Hephæst. After putting the difficulty down on the lowest, most condescendingly-titled setting, I was prepared to get a feel for the mechanics. But then it crashed and I had to do it all over again. This was the first and only Crash to Desktop I suffered with the game, but unfortunately it wasn’t the only issue I wound up having.
Strong First Impressions
Graphically the game is good. Clearly it doesn’t operate on a large scale budget that other games may. But it plays in a heavier weight class with its graphics. The models and set pieces look good, the animations are slick, and the sound effects are acceptable. As far as audio and visual presentation is concerned, the game is good.
The only issue I have with the UI is in the base building screen. This looks fine, but the camera is always zoomed in and locked on particular structures – the game never lets you take the wheel and look around at your own creation as a whole. Not a deal breaker, exactly, but certainly a let down. If there was a way to free the camera, I sure couldn’t find it.
Mechanically this is pretty much the same formula as XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Action points, turn-based combat, cover mechanics combined with the tried and true percent chance to hit information grant the ability to make tactical choices based on environment and changing situations. You can call games like this what ever you like, but there is nothing wrong with borrowing heavily from a successful game. When done right, games that take strong cues from others can contribute to the development and refinement of a genre. But you always risk being tagged with the title “a poor man’s” version of your inspiration.
The Confusing, Chaotic Life of a Space Merc
Despite the narration, which made me feel like I was an unnamed viewer asking unheard questions to different people, the game was a bit short on details about who you were and why you were there. From what I cobbled together your team is a group of mercenaries and you are paid to help claim sites on this planet with some exotic resources on it. I was left unsure who the bad guys were. Were they space pirates? Were we the pirates? Were we rebels? Were the bad guys some sort of oppressive Imperium? All I knew is there was a counter ticking down until the arrival of some fleet.
(Turns out it was an Imperial Fleet, and they were the bad guys. I had thought they may have been reinforcements against the pirates. Oh well.)
The whole thing gets all the more confusing when you get into the nitty gritty of it all. Am I this oft-mentioned ‘Cap’? Does that mean I am just in charge of the mercenaries? Why do I need to spend my money, that I earn on merc missions – dangerous ones – on building the base for my employer? Why exactly was the Imperium out for us? Why were they so bad? I know this is a bunch of questions, but if I was asking them early on, I’d imagine others were too.
Seriously, though! If I am the leader of the mercenaries, I shouldn’t be paying for base upgrades for my employer. That’s really a shitty arrangement!
What I’m trying to say is that the game needed a better hook for the player to hang their experience on, making it clear what the player’s window into the game’s world actually represents. With XCOM, to use the most obvious comparison, you know right off the bat what role you have as the player (you’re the Commander), and you know who you work for and what duties you have. It tells you clearly what the downsides of choosing one mission or another can be, and informs you to the different perks that pleasing different factions can give you. It also gives you a very good idea of what the stakes are, story-wise.
XCOM tries to give the player a transparent perspective. I’m not saying Shock Tactics should use the same motif that XCOM does, but it would be nice if it weren’t so maddeningly opaque in this regard.
What It Is, What It Isn’t
This is not XCOM. Do not buy it expecting something of the same quality. What you are getting is a smaller studios idea using XCOM mechanics. It feels strange to need to point this out, but I see so many people angry at this game for just not being XCOM. Clearly they already own XCOM, and if they wanted to play it again, they could have saved some cash.
The core combat mechanics are the most familiar aspect of this game. You need to take a few moments to read what a few of abilities do, but if you’ve played games like it, you’ll catch on pretty quick. The tutorial, while it has some issues that I’ll touch on later, is at least clear on how to do things in combat.
While I wanted to scroll around the screen with my mouse, it was smoother and easier to do using the keyboard. The camera control was easy to use, and while it may seem like a no-brainer, it is actually a very important thing for tactical games. A poorly implemented camera can ruin a game like this, so I appreciate when a tactics game gets it right.
The game also implements an interesting world map. As you move around and explore the world to uncover missions of various difficulties and rewards, time ticks on. You can claim sites to help you acquire resources and thus improve your base. Even just the way you interact with the world map elevates Shock Tactics from just a cheap knock-off. It’s clear the devs love the world they have made here, and when I can understand it, it’s an interesting one.
On the other hand, base building, gear upgrades and levelling are all weak points of this game. It really feels like there were more complex and rewarding systems ready to be put in, but time or money didn’t allow. This was a huge let down for me. Even in other similar games base building isn’t necessarily in-depth, but the system implemented here really feels bare bones. None of these mechanics managed to engage me.
Unforgiving Games vs Merciless Games
We now live in an era where game manuals have fallen to the wayside, replaced by in-game tutorials.. Not many people want to spend their first hour with a new title alt-tabbing to a wiki page telling them how to play. So a good, clear, and hopefully fun starting tutorial is often needed. Shock Tactics does not have one of those. Oh it’s clear. But it has a big problem.
The tutorial for Shock Tactics is a jerk.
As you play through the game, the tutorial continues expanding on how to do different things and handle different enemies as they come up. Well, after they come up. Again, let me stress that you are playing the game at this point. These are the characters you are trying to build up and gear up. Like in many of these tactical squad games a mistake or miscalculation (or misclick) can ruin everything. So when a new enemy shows up and you shoot him, and then the tutorial chimes up “Oh, you can’t hurt him from the front, you need to come at him from the side,” I was a bit miffed when the big shielded thug proceeded to butcher my team, who were poorly positioned to fight under such mechanics.
And that was just the first fight of the map. One merc down, the others badly hurt, and a whole load of jerks left. I restarted and went back in with the information. But it should have been made clear before. If you’re a game dev, why would you want to frustrate your players? Let us know what is going on, don’t spring it on us like some devious thirteen-year-old Dungeon Master playing D&D with his friends for the first time.
More troubling than the tutorial were mission objectives and enemy detection. This is my biggest gripe, and it might sound silly, but I am sure other gamers will understand where I’m coming from. Your objectives in missions are often highlighted in games. In Shock Tactics, this is a pleasant, easy to see pale green light. That would be fine. Except, some of the set pieces seem to give off the exact same pale green lights. This makes it very hard to find the highlighted objective.
Sometimes it is easier to understand, and rather than an illuminated area, you just have to kill all the baddies. Sadly, they can be hard to find. The maps are large, but the majority are covered with a fog of war. Sometimes red arrow indicators will pop up, showing the direction of an enemy, but this only happened rarely to me. The game’s AI isn’t very good, with bad guys and allies alike often just running back and forth. So, you can’t even really adopt the “bunker down and let them come approach” – instead, you need to blithely charge out into the fog of war, with no idea what kind of numbers you’ll be facing.
And lets talk about reinforcements. Almost every map I played had a warning about incoming enemy reinforcements. When the counter ran down, I had a fresh group of bad guys to add to my kill list. This would be fine, but the timers were really short. I could not find an enjoyable way to beat that timer. So I was always rushing, putting my mercs in danger and ignoring good cover choices, in hopes of keeping the opposition’s numbers manageable.
All of these things combine into a very unsatisfying experience for me. If you like devious games that point out how you have done wrong before telling you how to do right, this maybe for you. I don’t mind if a game punishes me for slipping up, pressing the wrong button, moving the wrong way, or using the incorrect weapon. But tell me before that it is going to be an issue.
That’s without even getting into the instant kills that enemy snipers get on your guys. That makes me drink.
Needs More Time in the Tech Forge
Shock Tactics is not a game I would spend a great deal of time with, at least not without some much needed work by the devs. The folks at Point Blank Games love their world, I can tell. They crafted an excellent story and it looks like they had some big dreams for parts of the game. Fine tune the tutorials, add easier enemy detection, and – you know I could write an entire article on how to patch this game up.
On the other hand, this could be the start of something new. If you are looking for XCOM, you are not going to get it here, regardless of how it looks. But supporting a rough game with good ideas can yield fruit, and I understand how fans can be forgiving if there is an exceptional payoff. I didn’t care at all for the first two Witcher games, in fact I’d say they were downright bad in parts. But Witcher 3 is one of the best games ever to hit the market and deserved every single accolade it got. So determination and good intentions can lead to great things, and many of the past sins will be forgiven. I can only hope that Shock Tactics can achieve a similar degree of critical success.
I just don’t see it happening with this iteration of the game. As it is now, Shock Tactics is in rough shape, with a frustrating play experience and too many flaws to ignore. It needs a lot of TLC and quality of life changes to make it stand out on its own for the right reasons.
Despite a good setting and decent graphics, as a game Shock Tactics needs serious improvement.
Review by Old Man Mordaith
Edited by Jesse Roberts
This game was received for free to review.