Turn-based strategy fans will no doubt remember the classic X-Com: Enemy Unknown, released a few years ago to critical acclaim. Now, Shock Tactics looks to pay tribute to the X-Com formula with their own blend of turn-based, xenocidal shootery. Shock Tactics casts you as the captain of a ragtag band of mercenaries, out to seek their fortune on the mysterious planet of Hephaestus. The story takes a page out of Space 2001, with the protagonists encountering a towering black obelisk endowed with some inscrutable alien power. They proceed to build a base around this obelisk and scour the surface of Hephaestus for more salavage, fighting against aliens, pirates and rival mercenaries.
The X-Com similarities are laid on thick right from the start; your squad is dropped onto an isometric combat map at the start of every mission. Immediately, you’ll be ducking around enemy fire using half cover and full cover, with a similar movement spectrum (coloured green for your walking distance and blue for run distance). Even the UI feels the same, with red icons at the bottom of the screen to represent enemies you can cycle between targeting. These are the first heavy hints of the game Shock Tactics is aping, but if you think it might be incrementally improving on a solid formula, you’re in for a disappointment.
Like in X-Com, some effort is made to introduce tension into levels by having enemy reinforcements appear on a timer. Sometimes you’ll also need to rescue a potential new recruit holed up and under fire on the other side of the map. However, most of the time your recruit will just trade missed shots with those they’re supposedly threatened by. One time I saw an appallingly stupid AI trooper climb up on top of a box when I came to the rescue of my ally, exposing himself to fire from all directions, seemingly unable to process the idea of finding cover from multiple flanks. Exchanges like these typify the entire game – it’s X-Com, but stripped of everything that made it unique and exciting, with just witless cover-shooting left in its place.
What’s really telling is how every design innovation that’s not directly copying X-Com just makes things more awkward. First, there’s the pointlessly in-depth movement system. In Enemy Unknown you receive two actions per character. You can shoot, walk and shoot or run. After that, your turn ends automatically. In Shock Tactics, it’s mostly the same, except each character’s turn is divided into action points, which allows you act as many times as you want as long as you have enough AP points. The problem is that you have to end each non-firing character’s turn individually, rather than it being automatic, which makes it enormously tedious when you’re moving your team across large expanses with no enemies.
One mildly amusing innovation from X-Com is how the scenery will periodically turn deadly. Sometimes it will spew out toxic gas, or alien plantlife will impale nearby creatures with its spines like a hedgehog. This random element is good for a few cheap laughs when you watch an enemy taking cover, only to get perforated by some crystalline spines, but this just reflects how much more dynamic maps in X-Com were. In X-Com, stray rockets and bullets would trigger explosions, destroy walls, set fires and keep every map exciting and ever-changing. In Shock Tactics, you have large, but mostly static levels that are predictable to traverse. In X-Com 2 you might be carefully sneaking up on a patrolling group of aliens, or get ambushed out of nowhere. The sudden music change would wildly pitch-shift your psyche to put you in a moment of nail-biting tension. Shock Tactics has more of a consistently boring tempo. It’s difficult to suppress yawns as you work your way across a procession of baddies who just wait patiently on the map for you to run across them and have a cover shooting fest.
There’s also some absurdly unbalanced cooldowns on certain skills. For example, the assault trooper archetype has a skill that sprays bullets in a conical area affect attack. It’s borderline useless because it requires you to be on the same level as those you’re riddling with bullets when enemies are almost always spread out over different platforms. It also has a whopping ten turn cooldown, meaning you’ll seldown get a chance to use it twice in a mission. The Sniper’s “aimed shot” skill has just a one turn cooldown – which means you can use it every single round! Functionally, it means there’s no nuance to using the skill – you just use it every round instead of your basic attack, which becomes useless. A lack of forethought into the skills system permeates the entire game, meaning that instead of carefully timing skills for that crucial moment, you’ll just be listlessly spamming the overpowered ones and ignoring the others.
The presentation really underlines the blandness of Shock Tactics. Your squad is made up with interchangable helmet-wearing men who have the same voice and physical stature. Over than the colour of their suits, they’re indistinguishable from eachother, so don’t expect to form any attachments to them. Adding to the forgettable music is the hammy and jarringly stilted voice acting. The actors read the briefing dialogue in a flat intonation, delivering their dialogue with the same emotion as if they were reading their tax returns. I would be surprised if any of them bothered to do more than one take. I can’t really blame them if they wanted to get their readings over with though – I was counting the seconds until I could stop playing this game.
The overworld lets you drive your “ATV” across the weird and wonderful surface of Haephaestus, where you can initiate battles to capture bases. Bases will net you artifacts and a passive income of credits and other resources you can use to build up your base, train your troops and create new weapons. This is where you can build buildings and then better versions of those buildings. You can build weapons and then weapons that are better than the previous weapons. I would word these two points more articulately, but I’m running out of ways to say “it’s identical to X-Com but not as good”. Base camp is also where you can give your interchangeable troops some interchangable skills (unlike X-Com with its unique class-based upgrade tree) – most of which are just boring but useful stat boosts. If this all sounds like the base building mechanic is lacking in any kind of meaningful choice or customisability – that’s because it is.
Shock Tactics is a perfect illustration of how to make an X-Com style game wrong. With an inane story, bland characters, horrendously unbalanced mechanics and endlessly repetitive cover-shooting, it manages to be tiresome on every level. Shock Tactics could only be recommended to those who have the most intense, junkie-like addiction to X-Com, and are willing to tolerate a cheap knock-off to sate their needs. Some say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in the case of Shock Tactics, it’s almost an insult.
Final Verdict: 2/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: EuroVideo Medien ; Developer: Point Blank Games ; Players: 1 ; Released: April 11th, 2017 ;
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of the game given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.