I think I might be a bad guy. At least, that’s the impression I get from the first few minutes (the developers have kindly given us a roughly half-complete beta build) of Space Bullet Dynamics Corporation‘s Signal Ops. Maybe it’s the hook-hand and trenchcoat I can see when looking down at my own character model. Perhaps it’s the live-fire training exercises where I’m asked to casually sacrifice the lives of my thick-headed minions. The suspicion grows as my first field mission involves planting evidence (clearly of crimes we already know are being committed – we’re just proving it for sure) in the houses of dissidents, and all of this being done in the name of The Dark Father, Who Dwells In The Core.
“In Signal Ops, you guide agents from the relative safety of a control room. Complete daring missions to plant evidence, steal secrets, assassinate targets, and perform sabotage.”
It’s hard to feel genuinely evil when playing Signal Ops, though, as yours is a well-meaning, bumbling and oft-comedic brand of villainous fascism. Your shadowy, clandestine organization are out to support the hard-working police and military forces however they can, even if this does mean shooting at them from time to time. You’re also hampered by positively archaic technology, guns that barely function beyond thirty feet, and an endless supply of under-equipped, poorly trained operatives. Operatives can be replaced quickly and easily in the field, but weapons cannot, so you’ll have to send the new guys to pick up whatever gear was dropped by their predecessors.
Signal Ops is an action/tactics/puzzle game in the vein of the Commandos series, or maybe the Hidden & Dangerous games. The twist here is that rather than command your units from an overhead or third-person perspective, everything is done entirely from first-person. Not of your troops, but rather the perspective of your officer, safely out of the way in an underground bunker facility, interacting remotely with your operatives via a bank of broadcast TV relays. Your objective maps and briefing notes come in the form of a clipboard, which you can leaf through at any time. Despite the quirky low-poly, watercolour-painted aesthetic of the world, everything feels very grounded and down to earth.
“One of the key concepts in Signal Ops is that your agents are far away from headquarters, and they stay in contact with you through radios. Agents need to stay within range of a radio in order to broadcast their video feed back to your monitors.”
Your objectives are often quite simple, but the way that you interact with the world makes anything a complicated affair. Your radio expert is the single most important person on the field in any given mission. Your radio transmitter is a large, heavy piece of equipment with a pitifully effective range and a battery life of 30 seconds or so. You can boost the range and recharge it by plugging it into power sockets scattered around each mission area, but this requires you to carefully leapfrog it across the battlefield, covered by other agents to ensure that he isn’t intercepted on the way to the target. Other agents include a sniper that will automatically lock onto any enemy detected when left on overwatch, an engineer who can unlock doors and interact with mechanisms, and a ‘spy’, who appears as an innocuous elderly citizen, and can distract enemies by rambling incoherently about “the time I was in the war.”
Party Like It’s Nineteen Eighty Four
The current beta build of the game does have some clear issues, worst of which is probably your agents frequently getting snared on pieces of scenery, or being unable to navigate from one point to another under their own steam. That much seems likely to improve over time, though. A less pressing issue (and one that may also be addressed) is that at the moment, the rather large cast of characters are all voiced by the same four or so developers. Not that the voicework is especially poor in this early build – it does have some charm to it – but another three or four actors would go a long way to completing that slightly tongue-in-cheek Orwellian atmosphere that the game has going for it. It’ll be interesting to see how the later missions in the campaign pan out – the trailer below suggests that things escalate to outright warfare, which should be an interesting challenge, given the idiosyncratic interface.
We’ll be digging deeper into Signal Ops for a full review once we’ve got the whole thing in our nefarious, hooked hands. Until then, keep a close eye on this one – this quirky secret-war-by-proxy has the potential to be something rather special, even offering co-op as multiple commanders share access to the soldiers in the field. As an aside, the developers are currently trying to get the game onto Steam, so if you think it looks interesting, throw in a vote for it here.