Signal Ops Review
6This game was reviewed on the PC.
Every so often, friends or family will write something up and send it to me, asking for my opinion on their first draft. Some of these drafts are impressive, and don’t need any help at all. Sadly, others are not as polished. In either case, I don’t edit these pieces, because editing isn’t what they’re looking for. Instead, they use the phrase, “Just tell me what you think”.
Signal Ops, designed by newcomer Space Bullet Dynamics Corporation, needs the same treatment as the pieces given to me. I say unfortunately because this game feels like a first draft, albeit a complete one with inconsistencies. It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but it has kinks and problems that prevent it from being good.
Let’s begin with the game’s objective. Signal Ops is advertised as a squad-based, tactical, first-person shooter with a heavy emphasis on stealth and subterfuge. This is a bit of a mouthful, so I’ll break it down.
You, the player, do not directly control units in this game. Instead, you are a commander who indirectly controls a squad from a secret base. You’re part of a secret organization that worships the ‘Dark Father’, and this organization has a stable of agents to use when accomplishing missions. These can vary from planting evidence, retrieving secret information, to carrying out assassinations—anything to further the goals of a dark, fatherly figurehead. In essence, you play the bad guy in this game and much of the story plays on this idea (shooting unarmed prisoners becomes quite common).
Instead of taking to the field yourself, you control a team of up to six agents through an in-game terminal. These terminals have multiple screens and each screen gives you the first-person perspective of each agent in your squad. A single terminal can have up to six screens, one per agent. (To say your screen can get cluttered is a bit of an understatement, but more on that later.)
Much of the game handles like a traditional first-person shooter, only multiplied by each member of your squad. There are two options for ordering agents: one way is to take direct control of one agent, move them around like a normal FPS, and switch to others as needed; the second option is for you to give orders that affect all members.
Any agent can order any other agent in a squad to interact with the environment. Opening doors, standing guard, movement, picking up supplies and so on can all be accomplished through these orders, and in most ways, this is preferable to taking direct control. It allows you to focus on one all-seeing view, and frankly, it’s far less fiddly.
Space Bullet Dynamics Corporation is obviously trying to do something a little different with Signal Ops than what is seen in traditional shooters, and the developers provide an interesting game world to give it context. For example, if one of your agents dies, you can simply call in reinforcements once a timer has run out. After all, the secret society always has more grunts in its stable. However, the game is not without its problems.
Let’s move back to the agents who compose your squad. Unsurprisingly, there are different types of agents which can accomplish specific goals. The Wrench agent, for example, can open locked doors, while the Spy can theoretically disguise himself to scout the area safely, without worrying about being shot.
The Bolt agent handles the radio, which is a game mechanic I haven’t mentioned yet. Because you are controlling your agents remotely, a signal needs to exist between your squad and your terminal back at base. Without that signal, your terminal will only pick up static and you, as the commander, will be unable to control your units.
The radio needs to be plugged into power sources in order to broadcast the signal, which has a specific range; if an agent goes outside the range, your screen fills with static. Therefore, much of your time will involve ordering or controlling your Bolt to power boxes around the level, plugging in the radio, and then figuring out what you can do within the radius of your signal. When moving between these power boxes, you’ll need to be fast. Your radio still transmits a signal when unplugged, but will also run out of battery power. If this reaches zero, the signal stops.
Here is a mechanic that feels very out of place. Because of a signal radius, agents cannot split themselves around a level to accomplish specific tasks. If you try, you’ll end up with screens filled with static and useless agents. Instead, your troops need to cluster around Bolt and his radio and wait their turn to be helpful.
Let’s say there is a locked door, and you want to know if there are enemies beyond it. Spy can’t really scout ahead because of a limited signal radius, so when Wrench opens the door, your entire squad needs to move as a group in order to not lose the signal.
This radio mechanic’s problem is how it reduces your ability to play the game. While the idea of having a signal between a home base and a team of agents makes sense in the context of the game world, it hinders gameplay by making it stagnant. You can’t split up your force and use agents dynamically in the environment, and are instead forced to cluster them around a radio and have them wait their turn to be useful.
You eventually unlock different agents to use in your squad. However, any ability to customize you team by mixing and matching team-members isn’t provided. You are only allowed to select whether or not an agent is a part of your team, so unfortunately, you can’t have multiples of an agent type – meaning you can only have one Bolt. While you can eventually pick up a fighter or a demolitions expert, these specialized agents will once again be clustered around a radio, waiting for their turn.
Already a game that’s supposed to be dynamic has been held back, and the graphics further cripple gameplay. Signal Ops has low-resolution textures and very blocky characters, which by itself wouldn’t be an issue. However, in addition, the developers seemingly painted the character and the environment with a watercolour overlay. While it gives the game a unique feel and a different aesthetic from other games, it also makes things even more muddy and blurry, and prevents you, the player, from seeing a lot of detail.
Because Signal Ops is played though multi-screened terminals, the graphical problems are also multiplied. The game screen is cut down by at least half, making things even harder to discern. Noticing chests, buttons on the walls, or even far off power boxes for your radio becomes next to impossible. There’s also the matter of stealth.
Shadows are supposed to play a large part in this game. Characters are supposed to be able to hide in dark corners and surprise unsuspecting enemies if they are out of sight and quiet enough. Yet, because the entire game world is played through blurry textures and small screens, everything looks like a shadow. In the end it’s far, far easier to just shoot enemies in the face rather than sneak up from behind.
Besides game mechanics and graphics that get in the way, Signal Ops has other issues. I consistently ran into clipping issues (game assets passing through seemingly solid objects), and could see through most walls if I walked into them. The controls also have problems, and feel sluggish and unresponsive. An opening scene required opening a door via a switch, then dash down stairs and through the opening while the door slowly closed. The whole time I was bouncing off walls, railings and struggled to run the short distance. If I was able to jump over the stair’s railing, it would have been much easier but alas, there is no way to jump in Signal Ops.
Worse, these controls aren’t explained well in tutorials and cannot be rebound in the options menu. I was stuck on the first door in the game for about half an hour, before I discovered the mouse wheel, not a keyboard key was used to open and close the barrier. There were popups to explain movement and picking up items, but not for interacting with my bedroom door.
Finally, this game is far from bug free. The opening of the game provides three tutorial missions to explain Signal Ops’ unfamiliar mechanics. Once you finish the three missions, a fellow member of the secret society is supposed to lead you to the next area. However, the first time I went through all three missions, the event didn’t trigger. Reloading a saved game and replaying the missions fixed the problem, but this was one of the opening scenes in the game and I encountered similar issues as I went on where things that were supposed to happen, didn’t.
Signal Ops isn’t a bad game, rather an incomplete one. Most of the core ideas behind this tactical, squad-based FPS are solid and I wish I could say they were strong enough to carry the game. However, this is a game that requires a lot fine-tuning and tweaking. Space Bullet Dynamics Corporation has some great creativity to show. However, they need more time to look over first drafts.
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