Reviews

Shock Tactics Review – The Wrong Kind Of Shock

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Point Blank Games
Publisher: EuroVideo Medien
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Review copy supplied free of charge by the publisher.

When Firaxis brought back the venerable XCOM series from the dead nobody could have predicted how damn good it would be, its turned-based tactical mayhem creating a palpable sense of tension. It was difficult, too, demanding that you contemplate every move or else lose your soldiers forever. XCOM 2 had a rough launch, but it still managed to improve on Enemy Unknown, refining various parts of the core gameplay. Unsurprisingly several companies have attempted to leap onto the bandwagon. Shock Tactics happens to be the latest game trying to capture the magic of yelling at virtual soldiers because they missed a 90% chance to hit. It’s also not that good.

But let us assume for a moment that you aren’t familiar with the turn-based genius of XCOM: the basic idea is that you’ll take control of a squad of soldiers and guide them through the level. During your turn you can move them, attack and activate special abilities, all of which are governed by an Action Point system. Cover is vitally important to surviving, and because of that flanking the enemy is key to killing them, otherwise you just end up trading mostly ineffectual shots. When it comes to firing at a foe the chances of hitting will be displayed above the target, which also means lady luck plays a big part in whether you live or die; sometimes a soldier will nail a shot despite having a mere 5% chance of hitting, and sometimes you’ll miss even though there was a 90% chance of hitting them right between the eyes. If all else fails you can just stick your squad into Overwatch which means they’ll open fire on the first bad guy who moves during the A.I.’s turn.

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But the truly important thing to know is that if a soldier dies he’s gone for good. Shock Tactics embraces this aspect of the XCOM series, and while you do have a window of opportunity to rescue a downed squad member once that’s over they vanish into the nether realm. The only way to replenish squad numbers is by embarking on specific missions where you have to battle your way to them, of course meaning that you risk getting even more soldiers killed in the process.

Sadly, it’s hard to get attached to your little squad, so their death means nothing more than frustration because you’ll have to find somebody else and patiently wait for them to level up and thus actually become useful. In XCOM you could not only name your troops but also play with their color scheme and facial features, which combined with their unique abilities in the field made them surprisingly endearing. They had their own stories and histories forged through prior missions and their deaths actually made you feel sad. In Shock Tactics your troops are just faceless goons with only their armor color being something you can alter.

Still, within the turn-based tactical combat there are flashes of brilliance, moments where the game nearly manages to match X-com’s tension-filled battles as one of your troops lands a seemingly impossible shot or somehow survives a barrage of firepower that should have surely mown them down. Sure, there isn’t enough variety in enemy types nor enough abilities within your own ranks, and the different classes of soldier feel much too alike, but the XCOM core, which has not so much been copied as stolen outright, remains fun. It’s just flashes of brilliance, though, amidst a lot of….well, okayness. It says a lot that the only thing Shock Tactics does well is what it lifted straight out of Firaxis’ turn-based masterpieces.

The first problem is the level design which bounces wildly from being rather good to outright annoying thanks to what I assume is random generation. There’s a nice amount of verticality to play around with, although it and the thankfully uncommon interiors are marred by an awkward camera that frequently gets caught up on scenery or hides lines of sight. More annoying are the stretches of empty ground that force you to either leave troops out in the open at the mercy of the enemy or play a boring game of trading shots over long-distance that have minimal odds of actually hitting anything.

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Shock Tactics has also managed to inherit XCOM’s habit of sometimes using arcane math that makes no sense whatsoever, only Shock Tactics does it a lot more often. You’ll quickly flank enemies only to find that the seemingly easy shot has somehow been calculated so that you have a tiny chance of hitting, despite the enemy being a mere few feet away in plain sight with zero cover. Likewise strange angles where you are adamant an enemy should not be able to nail a clean shot will be given a high chance of working. Why? BECAUSE MATHS!

But the biggest problem with the gameplay is the enemy A.I. Sometimes it seems to be reasonably adept at flanking and punishing you for silly mistakes, but more often than not it exhibits all the tactical cunning of a three-year-old child playing hide and seek.  Enemy soldiers have a fondness for running out of cover every turn merely to trigger your Overwatch ability, and upon getting shot will frequently run back to exactly where they were. They’ll repeat this over and over again. Indeed, weird loops where soldiers just jog back and forth are an annoyingly normal occurrence regardless of whether they get shot by a soldier in Overwatch.

Speaking of Overwatch XCOM 2 introduced timed objectives in a bid to combat the fact that many players would rely too heavily on the Overwatch ability. Shock Tactics does the same by introducing timed secondary objectives, but sadly Overwatch is so powerful that these secondary goals don’t feel worth the effort. The chances of hitting enemies in cover is very low, and flanking opportunities so minimal, that Overwatch can feel like the only real method of winning, especially on higher difficulties where the A.I. seems to get a few unfair boosts.

Where Shock Tactics does manage to make something of an improvement over XCOM is its explorable world where you move a vehicle around to find new missions. Every hex you traverse takes a day, which is important because after 200-days of in-game time a rival faction invades and the game becomes harder, so that initial window of time is where you really want to tackle as much as possible. Outposts can be captured to produce extra resources, recruitment missions allow you to get new soldiers provided you can keep them alive and others are simple raids to get more stuff, including artifacts needed to create new weapons and armor. There’s also story missions that need to be completed in order to beat the game. No matter what the mission it basically all boils down to killing everything in the area, but it’s still nice to be able to move around and discover new outposts.

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Between missions you’ve got an upgradeable base where you can spend the resources you’ve acquired to construct new buildings such as a training barracks or upgrade existing ones such as your power generator or medi-bay.  Your base is also home to the forge where you can spend more resources to develop new armor and weapons for your squad of cannon fodder. There’s some fun stuff on offer in the armor department, including a suit that lets its wearer transport to three locations and attack at each, and another that allows whoever has it on to fire at every enemy in eyesight. Such abilities are limited to a single use per mission, but can be incredibly powerful when used right. The weapons I found less interesting, but again using them well can swing the tide of a fight since everything bar the standard assault rifle and sniper rifle specializes on damaging health, shields or armor. There’s not really a lot to build or research on offer, and most of what is there can be built surprisingly fast. Still, there is a reasonable sense of progression to be had from kitting out your soldiers and watching them become more effective on the battlefield.

Tying everything together is the game’s entirely forgettable plot. Basically, humanity has discovered a planet rich in resources that has become fair game for everyone with a space ship and some guns. Aside from drab alien lifeforms, the main challenge facing you is other companies and their mercenary forces intent on shooting your troops in the face. The planet also happens to hold some sort of strange monoliths which naturally you want to research and control, their strange energy being the foundation for many of the armor and weapon upgrades you can build. It’s a passable premise for a story but it gets wasted by the fact that the writing and voice acting are atrocious. I’m only making an assumption here but it does seem as though the actors weren’t native English speakers as there was a lot of emphasis placed on odd letters within words that created a horrible flow.

Another heavy indicator of the budget constraints is the game’s overall presentation. There are a few examples of nice art design in the alien plants, but other than that Shock Tactics is not a pretty game. There’s a notable lack of detail within the world, a horrible fog effect designed to simulate what your soldiers can actually see on the battlefield but that actually just makes it look like Vaseline has been smeared over everything. Outside of the voice acting the rest of the audio is poor with soldiers making weird grunting noises when hit and your dropship engine noise stopping too early, leaving it to land it near silence. Given the game has been made by a small studio working with minimal funds and the small price tag poor presentation isn’t much of a problem, but things like the fog effect, poor audio mixing and the art design are harder to forgive.

Other issues affecting the game includes a strange resolution bug where running at 3440×2540 made parts of the home base menu inaccessible, so if I wanted to train a soldier in accuracy I had to drop my resolution down to reach the button. Another odd glitch occurred whenever I turned my screen off to go do something else for a while. When I’d come back the image would be stuck with only the health bars and interface moving around. To get rid of this I had to change the game to windowed mode and then back to fullscreen.

Yet Shock Tactics isn’t actually a bad game as such. Its biggest crime was reminding me how much better XCOM 2 is, but if you have a tactical turn-based itch and have already played the XCOM games to death this might just scratch that itch if you can put up with its myriad of problems. It’s just such a shame that the only things Shock tactics 2 does well were taken straight from XCOM, and that everything else is kind of crap. Except for the exploration. That’s quite neat, I suppose. Yeah, you can sense the lack of enthusiasm in my writing, can’t you?

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