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SummaryDifficult but satisfying
The GoodIt's a well done survival-horror turn-based team-centered tactical shooter with RPG elements and platform puzzles (of all things), that all blend seamlessly well. The game is divided into several missions, each of which takes place on a different map while the objective is almost always the same - reach safely to the end and pick up any survivors.
The game mimics X-COM in that you command a squad of space marines who go about killing aliens while hiding in key locations. Each marine gets a number of turns each turn which he uses to move, attack, use equipment, rest a bit and set up a defensive pose. Each weapon has different damage, firing speed (this means that some light weapons can be fired several times in one turn, while heavy weapons usually cannot be fired more than once), accuracy, ammo quantity, heating values and, sometimes, a special ability. Against a total of twelve weapons you get to fight twelve enemy types (some are bosses and will appear only once) with different speed, armor, health, damage and special abilities.
At first you may be fooled by the simplicity of the gameplay. Very small selection of weapons for a third of the game (and even when you unlock all items, the selection is still pretty small) and repetitive baddies (as only three or four at most enemy types will be used for each level) may look easy on paper, but a single play-through will set you straight! This game completely embraces the survival-horror genre. At a time before the current zombocalypse this game introduced rushing hordes of enemies - all alike - whose goal is to take you down by shear numbers if not by strength. Add to that the low health of your soldiers (half the enemies in the game can kill your troops in one hit), scarce ammo, weapons heating up to unusable level after several shots and decreasing accuracy for long-range combat (what exactly constitutes "long-range" depends on the weapon) and you get an extremely difficult scenario that requires precise planning. Better yet, the atmosphere of the game requires no explanation (and good thing too, because the cut-scenes aren't all that good), with the player fearful for any possible attack that could easily tear through his soldiers' defenses.
Each level is littered with doors to guard, high objects to fire from or hide behind, sewer holes and crawl spaces for enemies to jump out from and moving platforms operated by distant machinery. And all of these things have different tactical importance in different circumstances. You could use a doorway to position a machine gunner in defense mode (fires at any critter it sees during the enemy's turn) when fighting a multitude of fast and weak melee-based foes, but if one armored baddie comes charging at you you'd better run away and use another soldier (cleverly hidden behind a wall) to shoot at the unprotected back of the monster. High objects are both a good point for a sniper to shoot from (secure in the knowledge that he's defended from melee attacks, but open to any ranged attack) as well as a hiding place for your mine layer, that can shoot his mines above the obstacle without exposing himself to enemy fire. The possibilities are so numerous and so context sensitive that are almost always several ways to solve the same problem, turning the game into a complex puzzle rather than a shooter.
Finally, there are the RPG elements. You need money ("equipment points") to buy new weapons, armor and device and skill points to equip those things. Money (as well ammo and, very rarely, free skill points) can be looted from various crates that are scattered in the mission. However, since you have a limited number of soldiers and of turns to get any mission done, sending someone to scavenge for valuables could be a risky and hazardous choice. Skill points, on the other hand, are easier to acquire - all you have to do is gain XP for killing nasties and you're set. However, skill points used to upgrade your skills (for instance, investing in handling of heavy weapons to learn to use the flame thrower, or in battle fitness to wear heavier armor) are not redeemable and you could end up with a soldiers who has no tactical relevance to the current mission. As such, the training of your men is a strategical project that requires you to think across missions, as opposed to weapon selection or the actual management of soldiers within the mission.
The BadPeople say that this game is hard and they are damn right. But hard is not necessary a bad thing, a challenge is much better than easy, spoon-fed gameplay. Unfortunately, there is a vast difference between "challenging" and "needlessly hard" - a difference the developers didn't understand. For one thing, a player has to have some sort of information about what he's likely to expect so that a map would be manageable. And, to Incubation's credit, it is done to an extent - a briefing tells you which types of monsters to expect, your scanner (if you got one) tells you where they are, glowing mark depict the locations where new enemies will pop up and at the start of the level manholes will open to alert you to where more enemies will spawn. But that's just isn't enough! You can never know whether the enemy spawners will produce baddies for just a couple of turns (like in some missions) or endlessly (like in others). You need a different tactic for each of these case and your only way of knowing which one is it this time is to play each mission twice.
That said, the entire game also has to be played twice because of the irredeemable nature of your skill points. At the start of the game you only have access to light weapons (or rather bad heavy weapons) - which is good enough, as those are the most useful against the enemies you face in the early missions. Sadly, this may persuade you to invest your skill points only in light weapons to get the best possible light weapon for all your team mates - a big mistake! If you do that you'll discover, half a game later, that you don't have enough points to equip heavy weapons, and without a healthy mix of light and heavy the later missions are impossible to pass. This isn't just true for weapons, but for all other attributes as well - when you have an over-abundance of skill points at the early levels you may assume that medkits for all is the way to go, only to discover that jet packs or explosion packs are essential later on, and require a completely different skillset.
If that wasn't enough, the XP gains are individual, which means the dude with the most kills gets the most skills. Since you always want to have a mix of weapons and skills, you'll see a guy with a bayonet quickly leveling up by killing weaklings, whereas supporting characters and those with heavy guns (whose precious ammo you want to keep for the toughest encounter) will lag severely behind, reducing the effectiveness of your squad as a whole.
The AI of the game is pretty thick. All enemies will attack either the first soldier they see, or (in case of long range hitters) a random marine. There is absolutely no guile on their part - they would never try to ambush you or gang up specifically to take out a key defender (unless they were already placed that way at the start of the level). For your first playthrough that won't be much of a problem as you'll fight the environment (with its twisting corridors and moving platforms) as a whole and not just the enemy. But it will become a serious annoyance if you try to replay the game at a harder difficulty, as almost nothing in the level design or creature behavior will change.