Pity tactical shooter fans – clearly they’re not numerous enough to prop up a mega-franchise. The home console Clancy games have shed strategy for well-staged scripts, while the tactical warfighters among us are asked to get their fix from this top-down, turn-based game. But this is more than a sop: Ubisoft has brought on board Julian Gollop, the fêted designer of turn-based masterpieces UFO: Enemy Unknown and Laser Squad Nemesis.
If he risks being accused of remaking the same game for a quarter of a decade, then it is at least a very good one, albeit lacking some of the innovations brought by its successors. Nonetheless, the principles of the model’s dogma recommend it strongly, building and upgrading a squad of different interlocking abilities, articulating your units in such a way as to wring out the maximum advantage from each turn. Here, given the narrative gloss of the Clancyverse, each member becomes a character – and their powers are more diverse and colourfully accentuated than in the game’s competitors, albeit appended with depressing caricatures, dredged from the Venn diagram confluence of videogame and war movie cliché.
The game does a tremendous job of relaying information succinctly – at once showing you how far you can move, who you can hit, the power of your weaponry at various ranges, the damage you’ll do to individual targets, your sightlines, potential return fire, the damage you can take, and the level of protection afforded you by the environment. It’s a remarkable achievement, but one occasionally undermined by frustrating inconsistencies between intuition and rigid convention. Disable a turret with an EMP, or suppress an enemy with the chaingun, and the unit can still return fire straight away – even though it is crippled the next turn. Optical camouflage doesn’t quite work as you might imagine: enemies can still see the unit, they just can’t fire at it unless they’ve revealed it by standing in the adjacent square. Nor are the sightlines occluded by different levels of scenery in ways that are consistent with the visuals – you’ll often see bullets clip through the edge of a cliff to hit those below.
Though there’s no strategic metagame of UFO’s world-saving grandeur, the variety of the missions bounce you between open spaces and underground bases, constantly foisting new challenges on the player. There are wave survival and capture-the-hill style sub-missions, in which you must seize command points to call in airstrikes and stop enemies reinforcing. None of which is a conclusive argument for a return to the genre’s roots – particularly not for those with access to the ostensibly similar, extremely cheap games which popularised it – but this is an enthralling title on its own terms, and, given the bombastic direction of its Clancy-game brethren, probably the closest fans will get to true tactics for some time.