A SWAT Tag Team of Reviews

Lately, there has been a release of several games in what I would call the “top-down SWAT Tactics” genre, most notably the games Survivor Squad and Door Kickers.  I suspect there are several reasons for this.  For one thing, the games can focus on relatively small spaces – in Door Kickers, most missions involve a single building, and in Survivor Squad, the levels may extend to 3 or 4 buildings total.  For another, the artwork doesn’t have to be complex – the player is essentially placed in the shoes of a captain planning the attacks on a white board, so the scenery can be done at a level of detail one might expect in that situation without it feeling incongruous.

So, these games are simple enough to allow indie developers to focus on what makes the gameplay interesting without having to bankrupt themselves on level and art design.  It is, seemingly, a dream genre for mechanics focused indie devs, and I suspect that is exactly why we see a recent resurgence.

And, from the other side, SWAT teams usually only consist of a few people, meaning that gamers who have started moving towards strategy games from other genres – such as action RPG’s like Torchlight, team shooters like Left for Dead, top down shooters like Alien Swarm, and even MOBA’s and some RTS games – can intuit a lot of the basic strategies and concepts with only some minimal help.

Unfortunately, both games have some flaws that keep them from being quite the game it feels like they could be.  Not that either is bad (though Door Kickers is definitely better).  But both have definite room for improvement.

Survivor Squad

Survivor Squad is definitely the more disappointing game of the two, though that’s largely because of the divide between its potential and what it actually delivers.  Even as someone who never cared that much about zombie games, I felt the game’s premise had a lot of potential.  Starting as a single survivor of a zombie apocalypse you slowly travel across a hostile world, collecting fellow survivors and creating small bastions against the mindless hordes.  The main game world is a collection of small nodes connected by lines, with each node representing a city or town.  When the survivors arrive at a city, they disembark their jeep, and go from house to house clearing them of zombies and salvage.

Now, the main selling point of the game is that all of this is accomplished from a top-down perspective, with each survivor controlled much like an action RPG character, and with an extremely heavy fog of war outside of the survivors’ vision cones.  Unfortunately, this is also much of what causes the game to break.

The first issue is the fog of war.  Specifically, the fact that it is a “hard” fog of war – anything within is targetable, and anything outside of it might as well be invisible for all the effort your survivors will put into attacking it.  This can lead to situations where a character may be trying to walk through a doorway and be attacked by a zombie who is close enough to the door to keep it from swinging open and therefore being shot by the survivors who are supposed to be protecting the person being attacked.

The second issue is that the zombies do not seem to have a consistent range of vision.  This means that there are many times where it seems like the characters should be able to hide safely, only to find themselves suddenly being jumped from offscreen.  Which is the other vision issue – sometimes zombies seem to be able to see survivors from well outside what they should be able to, if their eyes work as well as the survivors.  This is especially notable with the “spitter” and “blinder” zombies, whose special attacks sometimes feel like they come out of nowhere.

The designers have managed to, through the game’s mechanics, recreate the kind of situations that we see in classic zombie movies.

But, by far, the biggest issue is the survivors somehow managing to both think for themselves and follow orders at exactly the wrong times.  The game does not seem to have an AI instruction for attack-move, possibly the most common command in an RTS and one that is basically the chef’s knife of strategy games.  This means that in a hectic situation (and being swarmed by zombies is always hectic), it’s very easy to intend to tell a survivor to target a specific zombie, and instead tell him to walk towards the zombie.  This not only leaves him vulnerable to attacks the entire time he’s walking, it means that the zombie you meant to target is likely to be the one visiting those injuries upon him.  Yet, conversely, when they’re told to stand still and face in a specific direction, the survivors decide that they should all turn to wherever a survivor has noticed an incoming zombie – even if this means turning their backs to all the other entryways and missing more zombies coming from another direction.

On the one hand, upon thinking about the ways these mechanics cause the game to play out, part of me is tempted to praise the game.  The designers have managed to, through the game’s mechanics, recreate the kind of situations that we see in classic zombie movies – characters being attacked by a zombie jumping out of a dark room; being blindsided by a zombie in a seemingly safe place; a character staggering drunkenly towards a zombie and being bitten; or characters thinking they’re safely hidden only to be ambushed by a swarm.

At some point, however, I find myself questioning whether this was the developers’ intent.  Certainly, Death of the Author* rules the day, but I’m not quite sure that I’m ready to move to Death of the Programmer on this one quite yet.  With Bit Dungeon II, a game that I cast significant aspersions at, I felt that at the end of the day they had at least achieved exactly what they set out to make – I just didn’t like it.  With Survivor Squad, I think the thing they set out to make is parallel to the thing they achieved, but they didn’t have the skill to execute on exactly what they intended.  So these “cinematic” moments, when they occur, don’t feel like the climax to a story about how even the best plans can be undermined by hubris, or like the shocking end of Dawn of the Dead, show that man is the true monster.  It feels more like a parody – the survivors all make it out of the shopping mall after a night fighting to keep themselves alive, and are so busy congratulating themselves that they walk out in traffic and get hit by a car.

Fortunately, a lot of this could be fixed by the developers if they were to remake this game.  And they did release “Survivor Squad Gauntlets”, which seems to be a redux of this game with additional map generation tools.  So it’s possible that some of these things were ironed out there.   The “advantage” of these things feeling like bugs is that it means I can at least hold out hope that with more practice and planning, most of my problems will be fixed.

There are some other good things going on in the game.  The fact that survivors have to salvage things means that the player frequently has to decide whether to bring back a few large items or an assortment of smaller materials.  The characters’ starting backpacks only hold 6 slots worth of stuff.  Salvaging food, gas, weapons, blueprints or a healing item will take up 4 of those slots; raw materials like scrap, wood and copper only take up 1.  So at the beginning, there’s a definite tradeoff going on.  Unfortunately, as the player gets better equipped and starts building up settlements, the need for food and gas basically disappears.  Eventually, the armory is so well stocked that the need for guns likewise goes away.  And at this point, the game does start to feel a bit like a long , slow victory lap.  The zombies are still vicious and you can still lose people to stupidity, but the colony is self-sustaining and there’s nothing to keep you from replenishing most losses if you’re careful.

With Survivor Squad, I think the thing they set out to make is parallel to the thing they achieved, but they didn’t have the skill to execute on exactly what they intended.

The game does try to add some additional tactical threats as you go deeper into the game – lights or alarms that turn on, doors that need a hidden switch, or bombs that will explode unless they’re defused.  The problem is that all of these “threats” simply boil down to hunting through every searchable container as quickly as possible in hopes of finding the solution before you can then go back to shooting zombies again.

Overall, for the price, the game is interesting enough to be worth at least trying.  The crafting is just deep enough to keep you wanting to scavenge, and the ability to add new safehouses at least lets you feel like you are making a larger difference.  But there are some definite frustrations in store for people who want their games to feel “fair”.

Door Kickers

Largely, my feelings about what I want from Door Kickers are as split as the game’s two play styles.  I definitely think it’s a stronger game than Survivor Squad.  Certainly, nothing in Door Kickers feels like it needed a little longer in the oven.  If anything, I think it may be as much a “me problem” as it is a “Door Kickers problem”.   That said, there’s some things I really wish were in the game.

In Door Kickers, the player takes on the role as a leader of a SWAT team.  They will plan out the execution of various missions which involve things like rescuing hostages, subduing terrorists, thwarting major bank robberies and arresting drug traffickers.   The player is presented with a map, and where the team is positioned, and from there they will draw out lines of attack much like sketching it out on a blackboard – where will troopers stand, where will they aim,  when to throw flashbangs, and whether they should wait somewhere for a signal.  Alternatively, they could forgo the planning stage and do something similar in real time, tracing out the attack vectors in response to what is happening at the time.

A lot of the trouble I have with this game seems like it’s caused by this bifurcation of intent, because I suspect that some of the concessions that had to be made for the real-time mode to work well and feel like a viable alternative to the “initial planning” mode may have lead to the weakening of the planning mode.   And this is why I say that this is quite possibly my problem and not the game’s.   I’ve played a lot of tactical strategy games, and I approached this game as one of those – not unlike, say, Frozen Synapse.  So, this has predisposed me to see the planning mode as the “correct” way to play the game, and the real-time mode as a novelty.  Therefore, most of my critiques of the game revolve around that mode.  I suspect that if I was to ask the developers, they would probably say that their goal was to make both modes feel like they could be the “correct” play style, which undercuts some of this.  That said, I like examining mechanics, and so I shall.

My two biggest wants in the planning menu are an expansion of the ‘hold’ options and an expansion of the ‘sweep’ options.  Let’s start with holds.  Right now, when the player assigns a route to a trooper, he can tell the trooper where to go, and he can tell him to wait for 2 things – either a set signal (A, B or C) or until the place he’s looking is clear.  Now, the reasons when and why a player would want to use either of these options is immediately obvious upon playing, which is definitely a credit to the team at Killhouse Games (signals are used to coordinate team breaches, and all clear is make sure the trooper doesn’t walk away until the threats he can see are cleared.)  However, there are some additional holds that could be really useful for adding nuance here.   The primary ones I kept wishing I had were – “wait until your partner declares a room clear”, “wait until your partner gets to this spot”, and “wait 3 seconds”.  I know that the ABC signals can be used for that, but I usually didn’t want them to wait for a signal I might mis-time, merely to wait until their partner was safely past a doorway and covering them before they followed, or to wait long enough that a guy I expected to come running out a doorway wouldn’t shoot my trooper in the back as he went.  This led to me playing wih hold orders, lengthening routes, and the usual tricks used to make pathing less efficient.

My two biggest wants in the planning menu are an expansion of the ‘hold’ options and an expansion of the ‘sweep’ options.

In a similar way, the sweep function leaves a bit to be desired.  Currently, you can either tell a trooper to look one way and walk another, or to have him walk to somewhere and thsen look in a direction.  Now, the troopers have a fairly realistic 90 degree (or so) field of view, but they can’t swivel their head.  To have a character turn and change where they’re looking, they need to move.  This means that scanning all corners of a room may require 2 or 3 move-turn commands.  Unfortunately, if the room is large enough, this means a trooper could be shot before he notices the assailant.  Or, he might notice the attacker, but unless he has a “hold until clear” order he seems to only fire a single burst, which might not subdue them.  Then he might turn along his route and be shot.  However, pathing the full sweep and 3 “hold until clear” orders makes it again take long enough that he could get shot.

Now, neither of these are easy problems to solve, admittedly.  And with some clever pathing and tricks, you can ameliorate the worst of it.  But there are still times I find myself wanting to shake my SWAT team.  “Stop walking by that guy in the doorway with a gun!” I want to shout.  And whether that is a failure of myself as a leader and strategist, or of the game, I’m not totally sure.  But the fact remains that I frequently find myself saying “If I could just do X, I could solve this problem.”  And much like with other kinds of puzzle games – once I say that too much, it can be easy to blame the game, even in situations where it’s not the game’s fault.

Wot To Do.

As Moltke said “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”  That is as true in games about SWAT teams as it is in war, and likely even as true in designing games about SWAT teams.  At some point it seems likely to me that time, scope or skill became a limiting factor for these games.

In Suvivor Squad’s case, I think a bit more skill was needed.  Things feel rushed, or unintentional.  In Door Kickers, I mostly think it was a scoping issue.  What’s in the box is complete and polished.  It’s just either missing a few helpful features, or it slightly fell victim to how it tried to hedge its bets by doing both modes.  Also, Door Kickers 2, based on some screenshots I’ve seen, looks like it may be addressing some of my irritations.  Check back once it’s out for my thoughts on that.

However, both games are worth playing.  I feel like both games were trying to do something interesting, and make a fun, small game.  I just think Door Kickers hit it a little better.  My final verdict: for the price, both games are worth trying.  If nothing else, it will give you some things to think about and a look at some neat ideas.

Price:  Survivor Squad – $3.99 / Door Kickers – $ 19.99 ($5 on mobile)

Mechanics: Salvagable, but rusty / Shocking like a taser 

Aesthetics: Flash-lite / Like a little diorama.

Verdict: Give them both a shot.
*Death of the Author is the theory in literary criticism that the work that is on the page should be evaluated without regard to what the author “thought” he was saying – typically for things like subtext, psychoanalysis of the author, etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *