Reviews

Special Forces: Team X – Review

Special-Forces-Team-X-Logo

Platforms: PC, Xbox 360
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Zombie
Publisher: Atari
Singleplayer: No
Multiplayer: Yes
Genre: Third-person shooter.

Bearing the most generic name in the history of generic names, Zombie’s new cover-based multiplayer shooter Special Forces: Team X has arrived on Steam and Xbox Live Arcade, promising fast-paced paced action aplenty. And it has attack dogs! On paper, then, it’s offering up a pretty good package for the price, looking a bit like Borderlands and playing like Gears of War, but this shooter has a few flaws holding it back from its true potential.

As a cover-based shooter,  the first thing that immediately needs to be talked about is the cover system, because if that sucks then naturally we’ve got a big problem on our hands. So the good news is that it works, although these days it would almost be impressive if a company managed to make one that didn’t. On the other hand, though, the cover system certainly isn’t particularly great in comparison to many others out there (coughGearsofWarcough) A simple tap of the A button on the Xbox controller will slam your cell-shaded avatar into whatever wall or chest-high piece of cover happens to be in the immediate vicinity, while another tap of A while pushing the analogue stick in any direction will disengage you from cover – Simples. It works pretty well, and the system allows for a fast pace as you can slide into cover from a fair distance away, while double-tapping the cover button when sprinting lets you almost literally fly over walls and land in a full speed run. Think of the game’s speed as more Call of Duty than  Ghost Recon: Future Soldier or Gears of War, with players sprinting around the large maps that offer plenty of space for flanking attacks and sneakery like they’ve had sugar injected directly into their blood, keeping up a satisfying pace that allows for little camping or opportunities to relax. The core shooting mechanics are also solid with weapons feeling pretty meaty, although most players will probably want to bump up the sensitivity a little as the default is a bit on the slow side.

This is what you'll be spending most of your time doing.

This is what you’ll be spending most of your time doing.

That’s all when the cover system is working correctly, though.  At other times the system can be a little temperamental. Maybe he has a hangover or something but the first major complaint that needs to be addressed is why the hell is my highly trained special forces operative incapable of moving along cover if it changes height at some point? By which I mean this: if you’re hiding behind a wall that has a chest-high barrier joined to it, you cannot simply push the stick sideways and have your character crouch down automatically to allow you to take cover behind the barrier, instead he’ll just stop at the transition point and refuse to move, like he’s afraid that it’ll bite his head off. This also works the other way, so you cannot move from a chest-high barrier to a fully fledged wall, because apparently the ability to go from crouching to standing while in cover wasn’t taught to soldiers in military school. Instead you’ve got to detach from the wall, maneuver,  and then take cover again, exposing your head for the exact amount of time it takes for someone to blow it off of your shoulders in a shower of blood, bone and other nasty stuff. This problem is a particular pain in the ass when you’re attempting to fire out of a window. Imagine you’re crouched down below the window sill, popping out to deliver death to any unlucky heads in the area. A hail of bullets greets you the second time you try it, advertising the fact that the enemy are now fully aware of you, so you decide to abandon position. Thus, you push the stick left so that sensibly you’ll remain in cover by stepping behind the wall, whereupon you’ll then just wander off to find your next victim,  except you can’t do that because your soldier won’t transition from crouching behind low cover to standing behind full cover, which means to retreat from the window you must detach from the window sill, which means standing up in front of the bad people with guns….

Another problem is that the cover system can sometimes be a little sticky, making getting away from grenades, which incidentally have useless indicators leading to some frustrating deaths, a bit tricky. And speaking of grenades, there’s also an issue where your character is sometimes unable to throw a grenade properly when you’re taking cover at the edge of a wall or a door frame, instead he’ll toss it above his head so it bounces straight off the wall and over your head, which can be a pain in the arse when it’s a flash grenade and you end up blinding yourself and half of your team. Seriously, where did these special operatives learn their so-called skills? At the Acme military school? They’re more likely to blow themselves up than the enemy, assuming the enemy don’t blow themselves up first in a fantastic display of how not to use small, explosive devices.

Yup, you can taunt enemies in Special Forces: Team X. Doing so normally results in you getting your smug face shot.

Yup, you can taunt enemies in Special Forces: Team X. Doing so normally results in you getting your smug face shot.

Before you get to slam yourself into random bits of concrete you’ll need to pick out the map you’ll be playing on, which is where Special Forces: Team X introduces one of the few original bones in its entire body. You see, before a match begins you and the other players are given the chance to piece together a map using three of the nine different tiles available, making for over a hundred different layout possibilities. The concept is that this helps keep things interesting as the map will change every time you play, and thus memorizing the layout won’t be as important as it is in other shooters. It’s a neat enough concept, but ultimately it doesn’t actually affect the game that much. The only thing that changes in each round is where the tiles intersect, and that only takes you a few minutes at most to get your head around. Had each map been made up of many different smaller tiles, say 6 or more, then map memorization would indeed not play an important role, but since it’s three large tiles the concept just doesn’t have the desired effect. Despite this, though, the actual map layouts are really good. They’re a fair size and  the overall speed of the game, the multiple routes and  the various angles of attack,  emphasis flanking enemies and keeping on the move, unlike other cover-shooters where it’s far too easy for players to become entrenched, leading to pro-longed battles where you just sit and trade bullets for a while. The result is fast-paced, almost frantic action where running and gunning has its place alongside more careful usage of cover, making for some great battles. The only disappointment that stems from the map designs is that they’re visually  boring, with nothing memorable or distinct about the different sections you’ll be fighting through

Located in chests scattered around the maps are good old-fashioned power weapons for players to get their dirty mitts on. Available to you are a minigun, RPG,  chainsaw, airstrike, one-hit-kill sniper rifle and a  grenade launcher, for those days when you feel there simply aren’t enough things that explode in the world. It’s cool to see a modern shooter using power weapons since the industry sort of forgot about them, but in Special Forces: Team X’s case they feel like  a wasted opportunity to help set itself apart. Usually weapons like these should be highly prized, with intense firefights springing up around them as both sides attempt to claim them, but in Special Forces nobody is really that bothered about getting their hands on them, because they’re simply not powerful or useful enough to warrant the effort. Only the minigun, which can mow down people in a few hits, RPG and the one-hit-kill sniper rifle are worth chasing. The airstrike feels a bit useless due to the large amounts of indoor spaces on the map, although objective based modes like Hot Zone do see it come in to its own somewhat, while the chainsaw is a rather tricky proposition to use because people can hear you coming from a mile away, giving them ample opportunity to take cover and shoot you in the face. Finally the grenade launcher is incredibly weak, only capable of gently tossing out grenades with  small damage zones a very short distance. With a bit of tweaking these weapons, though, could be made a little more dangerous and thus play a larger role in the game.

During my entire time with the game, I killed about 4 people with a chainsaw, because attacking people behind cover with a chainsaw is rarely a great plan.

During my entire time with the game, I killed about 4 people with a chainsaw, because attacking people behind cover with a chainsaw is rarely a great plan.

As for the game modes they’re your pretty standard selection. You’ve got Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, neither of which warrant an explanation from me; Hot Zone, which tasks you with taking a holding a position that periodically changes; High Value Target, in which being the HVT means you score more for kills but are clearly displayed on the map for everyone to see so they can hunt you down and take your place Rounding out the selection is Control Points which places three areas on the map that must be captured and held to score points. Nothing outstanding then, but they’re tried and tested modes that play well, with the exception of Capture the Flag which doesn’t really suit the cover-based gameplay. The star is most certainly High Value Target, which is utter chaos and great fun.

The game looks pretty bloody game, too. Seriously, just check out those screenshots! The cell-shaded look is a personal favorite of mine and it’s always a good choice for games without massive budgets as it lets the developers hide the rough areas. But this talk of the cartoony look of the game and the inclusion of such things as power-weapons and attack dogs does bring me to a small point I wish to discuss – Special Forces: Team X feels like a game that had a bit of an identity crisis during development. You see, to me the vibrant visuals, power weapons, attack dogs and the messages that pop-up when you kill a foe, such as “dominated!” all suggest that Special Forces: Team X wanted to be a zany, off-the-wall game, that it wanted to try to set itself apart from the other shooters out there. Except it isn’t zany and it doesn’t set itself apart. Under the visuals and the power weapons and the dogs is actually a pretty generic  shooter. It’s like Zombie wanted to go all out on this game, sort of like Gotham City Impostors, and for some reason didn’t. It leaves the game feeling like it’s awkwardly straddling the middle-ground, not entirely sure which side it should leap in to.

Another of the few original ideas that Zombie bring to the table is an emphasis on teamwork with a system that rewards you with extra XP and buffs when you’re near allies. Simply tag along with them and a small display at the bottom of the screen will show you exactly how much extra XP you’re earning per kill by being near your team, with more teammates equalling more points. That’s not all because by being near allies you can also provide them with a boost in abilities depending on what you’ve got selected for your class, from defensive buffs to extra damage. The problem with this comes not from the system itself, then, but from the gamers themselves, who seem utterly incapable of grasping the concept that being near each other will provide them with numerous benefits. Of course the map design and quick sprint speed aren’t helping as they encourage flanking manuevers which are usually far more deadly for enemies that any buffs are.

Who leaves RPG lying around the place?

Who leaves RPGs lying around the place?

Outside of the combat the game features the familiar ranking system and unlocks that’ is now seemingly glued on to the developers whiteboard at the very start of the project . You’ll scythe through the ranks at a fair enough pace, but there’s not really a whole lot of cool stuff to unlock along the way to keep you motivated, and since the core gameplay is good but far from special  you’ll likely find yourself tiring of the game quickly. There’s some character customisation options so that you can deck out your avatar with different clothes and gear, but it’s all pretty standard stuff and the starting options are weak, so it’s going to take you a while to get your character looking a little different to everyone else’s. Speaking of which, why the hell do you have to rank up to unlock different facial types, of which there’s only three, anyway? If you want to be a black guy in this game you better be willing to put some serious time into it as that facial type isn’t unlocked until level 36! On the weapons front it’s the typical selection on offer, such as your AK-47′s and M14′s.  Again, when you start off your options are quite limited, and even after numerous hours of play there’s not a whole lot to choose from. It doesn’t help that one assault rifle pretty much feels like the other and there’s some poor balancing at work, leading to most players just running around with the same guns. There’s also some weapon customisation to be done, but  the vast majority of unlocks are just slightly different scopes, magazines or silencers.  In short, then, like the weapons themselves there’s nothing terribly exciting. Chucking a silencer on will stop yourself appearing on the mini-map when you open fire, but strangely the weapon stats don’t show that having a silencer equipped decreases weapon damage. And then rather strangely using some scopes transfers you from third-person to first-person when you pull the left trigger to aim, but other scopes doesn’t. For example, a red-dot scope puts you into first-person mode, but a holographic site does not. Baffling.

You can also equip your virtual soldier with a pair of abilities, one passive and one that provides those lovely team buffs I mentioned earlier, assuming that you’re a nice enough person to actually bother sticking with your team instead. The selection on offer is what you’d expect, from defensive buffs to accuracy increases. Where things are at least a little more interesting is when it comes to choosing what goes in your equipment. Sure, you just take some grenades, but that’s boring in comparison to taking a couple of attack dogs, one of the games proudly boasted features! Ignoring the question of just where the hell your little virtual soldier is keeping these dogs that suddenly just appear when unleashed, these little blurs of fury head toward the nearest enemy and proceed to rip his throat out, acting as a handy method of combating enemies that are firmly entrenched behind cover. Or at least, that’s the theory. In reality using attack dogs is a bit of gamble: sometimes they’ll charge off round the wall and savage the unlucky bastard that annoyed you, and sometimes they’ll just stand there and look stupidly at the wall, patiently waiting for you to give them a biscuit or something. I’ve not seen AI quite that stupid in a very long.

Get up behind an enemy and melee 'em for a brutal execution. The hit detection can be a pain, though.

Get up behind an enemy and melee ‘em for a brutal execution. The hit detection can be a pain, though.

There’s still a fair few bugs and problems we need to quickly talk about, as well. Number one amongst them is that pressing the button to throw a grenade often fails completely to work, leaving you to madly hammer away at it until the game finally wakes up and realises what you’re trying to, by which point you’re probably already dead anyway. The spawn system is also a bit of a mess , sometimes dropping you right in front or right behind a group of enemies, and occasion inside a piece of scenery. Yup, you read that right, inside some scenery, where you’re then stuck until some helpful enemy shoots you dead. You’ve also got the option to spawn on your teammates, but this can be haphazard – sometimes it’ll work, sometimes it wont. Other frustrations included reload animations and grenade throwing animations failing to play, and on numerous occasions reloading didn’t actually reload my gun properly. Topping off the cake is some daft team autobalancing which often decided that 4 v 1 was fair, and some connectivity problems.

Oh, and did I mention I had my rank reset? I was level 18 when it occurred, and as you might imagine it infuriated me beyond belief. A quick visit to the magical Internet revealed that I was hardly the only person hit with this problem.

Here’s the thing about  Special Forces: Team X, when it all clicks, when it comes together properly and everything works as it should, it’s a bloody fun game. The cover mechanics work fairly well and the shooting is solid. Sure, it’s fairly generic, but the fast pace of it and good map design lead to some great action, especially when you’ve got two teams duking it out that understand how the team mechanics work and the benefits of flanking. The problem is that Team X just doesn’t click often enough. Too often do the glitches, problems and lack of polish frustrate and mar the otherwise fun experience. It just needed a little more work, a bit more tweaking and polishing, to be a great shooter. As it stands, Special Forces: Team X is something of an inconsistent game: when the gameplay comes together it’s good, even bordering on great, at times, but when it’s not working it can become a frustrating mess that drops into the realms of being merely okay. Despite all of its faults and it’s slightly inconsistent nature, though, I do feel that the fast, frantic fun of Special Forces: Team X manages to override the flaws, leaving a multiplayer shooter that’s worth taking a look at.

The Good:
+ Looks good!
+ The action is fast and fun.
+ ATTACK DOGS!

The Bad:
– Lots of little problems and bugs.
– Does nothing special.
– Feels like it was rushed.

The Verdict: 3/5 – Good
Special Forces: Team X has a lot of problems. It feels like it was rushed out of the door even though it still needed considerable polishing and tweaking to fulfill its own potential.  Despite that, though, it’s still a fun online shooter that looks great and plays well.

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