Developers: Space Bullet Dynamics Corporation
Publishers: Space Bullet Dynamics Corporation
If you were to describe Signal Ops in high concept fashion, you might call it a squad-based, first-person, strategy shooter, with elements of Rainbow Six and, more aptly, Space Hulk thrown into the mix. The basic premise is relatively simple: you start out in a muddy, grimy bunker, surrounded by gentlemen who speak as if plucked from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and you're tasked with handling several covert operations. Instead of hitting the ground running yourself, you take up a position in front of a large monitor, dictating the actions of your agents via multiple displays.
It's a neat idea, and Space Hulk managed to pull off something similar back in the mid-Nineties, but the multiple perspectives frequently get muddled and confused. The game's graphical stylings - a washed-out masterclass in all of the colours you might class under the umbrella of "murky grime" - don't help, and though objects are relatively distinct in each of your displays, the shadows are not, which is not ideal for a game that provides much of its satisfaction from successfully completing missions in a stealthy fashion.
Missions will, more often than not, see you presented with a relatively simple objective - retrieve something on the other side of the map, assassinate a designated target, plant incriminating evidence and then hightail it out of there - carried out by two or three agents. Those agents will, typically have different roles to fulfil. The Wrench agent, for example, is a mechanical fixer of sorts, and useful for opening doors. The Shield agent is your tank, able to soak up a fair amount of damage and ideal for direct confrontation. The Scope is, as one might expect, useful from long-range, and the Demo likes to blow things up.
And then there's the Bolt agent, also known as The Fun Killer.
You see, in most strategy games, you'll have intel going into an area, or a blanket fog-of-war that clears as you explore. In Signal Ops, you have to manage your own fog-of-war, as an agent's screen will turn to the white noise and dancing particles of a TV without signal if you move beyond the marked borders of your Bolt agent's radio. You can unplug the radio to move it, but its power will deplete rather quickly, and you have to shuffle your other agents around inside the transmission boundaries just to make sure everyone can see.
The existence of the radio, rather than having a radar, injects proceedings with constant, needless doses of tedium, and makes missions more of a chore than they should be. You can issue commands to agents you're not directly controlling, using the perspectives of other agents in the field to help move 'dark' agents back into the field of the radio's transmission, but it's all so fiddly, unintuitive, and laborious that you'll quickly get bored. Instead of working out strategic ways of completing the mission, Signal Ops wastes a lot of goodwill by forcing you into micromanagement.
It's a problem compounded by a control scheme that's clearly designed around a gamepad rather than a keyboard and mouse, with the interface mapped in a four-button cross. There are some strange choices in terms of default button mapping (which can't be changed), and it took me five minutes to open the very first door, pressing every single button on my keyboard before realising that the doors respond to the scroll wheel on the mouse. There's a tutorial that goes some way to explaining the game's control system, but it's so convoluted that you'll almost certainly end up issuing move commands rather than interaction orders, accidentally deploying agents into uncharted territory, and skipping to control another agent at the very moment you want to deliver a decisive order.
In most squad-based games, you have either a 'commander's' view of the battlefield that allows you certain strategic benefits, or (as in Rainbow Six) a certain level of friendly AI that means you're not constantly holding everybody's hand, because babysitting is hardly the most riveting pastime. Unfortunately, Space Bullet have made it the entire focus of their game. Stealth is an exercise in frustration because the inky cel-shaded look provides little by way of detailed visual feedback, so shadow-creeping either leads you into a black hole from which you can see nothing, or indistinct cover of darkness where you think you're safe, but aren't. I actually love the game's aesthetics, from a purely visual standpoint. But practically, they provoke violence against computer accessories. Direct combat is dependent on some of the worst, fuzziest shooting mechanics I've seen in a long time, and any strategic planning using the more interesting agents requires you first to move the Bolt into position, time and time again. It's nice to have the freedom of total control, but not from this perspective, where every step causes the camera to wobble in a fashion that would make even Paul Greengrass blow chunks.
It's a real shame because there are some lovely little touches, especially back at the base. The dialogue that plays out amongst the spymasters is often chuckle-inducing, and the fact that you're representing a cartoonish, bumbling branch of Orwellian totalitarianism is worked well into the script and mined for humour. You'll laugh when you first unlock the Spy agent, who distracts guards by pretending to be a pensioner and blathering on "about the war". The mission settings are nicely varied, and you do have the freedom to go about your objectives however you wish, but you're hamstrung by the game's systems themselves. It's a nice conceit that the archaic machinery and distance from the base places heavy reliance on the radio, but it just doesn't translate into fun gameplay.
- Open missions allow for players to take whatever approach they choose
- Humorous script
- The devs have been pumping out patches to account for the game's numerous glitches and bugs
- The watercolour, cartoonish look is awesome...
- ... But not exactly practical
- Awkward controls and interface
- First-person perspective ruins the strategic element
- The Bolt agent makes things terribly tedious
- Awful AI, even when you're constantly hand-holding
The Short Version: Signal Ops manages to combine FPS action together with RTS tactical gameplay, but it does so in a manner which manages to squeeze the goodness out of both of those genres, leaving players with a clunky game, crippled by its own impositions. Nice ideas, but ultimately tedious and laborious in execution.