[Editor’s Note: Our review is based on the version of the game released on the 3rd of April 2013. Images within this review are only from the first couple of levels of the game due to capturing issues.]
Last week, George Osborne, gave a speech defending his new onslaught against welfare to a load of Morrisons employees. What made this speech awful, beyond its content and Osborne’s innate, unlikeable, sneery demeanour, is that he very obviously tried to moderate his usual Oxbridge eloquence and sound more common, in an attempt to appeal to his audience. British became ‘Briddish’. ‘Want to’ became ‘wanna’ and ‘out of’ became ‘outta’. Frankly, it completely undermined his entire speech (or cunningly distracted everyone from its content, I suppose).
Why am I talking about politics on Pixel Bedlam? Well the moral is, there’s no point in trying to be something you’re not. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Signal Ops does.
Signal Ops purports to be a squad-based shooter. Its Big Idea is that you can simultaneously see from the perspective of all your squad members through a multi-screen system. This isn’t a new idea – Space Hulk did the same thing back in the mid-90s – but it’s an interesting one. I’m just not altogether convinced it’s a good one. The different POVs are collated together as screens on a bank of monitors, which, while theoretically a decent stylistic choice, means that each one is quite small. The dominant screen is just about a decent size, but the other two really aren’t and it’s incredibly hard to make out detail on them (you can swap the screens about, but it’s not handy on the fly). This is especially true when you’re sneaking about in the shadows, something that Signal Ops is quite keen on having you do. This isn’t just a squad-based shooter, it’s a stealth focused squad-based shooter.
The trouble is, the game’s really not built to accommodate stealth based gameplay, at least not properly. The graphics aren’t up to it. They’re very murky and dour, yes, but a good stealth game needs contrast of light and shade, which you’re not given here. The shadows become impenetrable black holes, which is especially annoying when enemies wander into them. The controls don’t help either. Despite using the celebrated mouse/keyboard combo, Signal Ops feels very clunky to control. There are some really odd command choices – using the mouse wheel to open doors for instance – and nothing feels particularly responsive (supposedly you can use a joypad, but the game refused to load up whenever I dared have a controller plugged in). The standard walking speed of characters is set at ‘pensioner ambling down a high street’ and while you can run, it instantly attracts attention. When you do inevitably get into a fire-fight, the shooting feels banal and remote.
The thing is though, Signal Ops isn’t really a squad based shooter at all. Like Osborne’s estuary accent, it’s just an odd affection disguising its true nature. At its core, Signal Ops is really a squad-based real time strategy, like Freedom Force and Dawn of War. It’s just not a very good one.
Why’s it an RTS? Because you’re constantly having to micro-manage the actions of your squad. Unlike a proper SBS, such as Rainbow 6, you can’t just issue blanket commands and leave your team-mates to it, you have to hold their hands, if not actively control them, through everything. This wouldn’t be so bad in a proper RTS, where you have an omnipotent view point and a precise interface to work with, but as Signal Ops thinks it’s an FPS you’re stuck with a limited, fractured perspective and clunky commands.
Perhaps the most awkward element is that you’re forced to manage your own fog of war. Your operatives are only able to move a certain distance from a radio transmitter before your connection to them is lost and their screen turns to static. This boundary is marked by a dashed green line, which is often obscured by any objects in the area. To progress into the environment, you have to have your techy grab the transmitter and lug it around. But there’s another catch! The transmitter only works for a limited amount of time before it needs to be reconnected to a power source.
This pretty much hobbles the entire game, as it devolves into an awkward stealth relay race between power points. Again, if this was a proper RTS with an omniscient view point, it would be bearable, but as it is, it’s just irksome and feels like a particularly perverse escort mission.
Signal Ops then is a very strange hybrid of first person shooter and real time strategy that manages to combine the worst from each genre. Which is a shame, as there’s been some effort put into it. Though the visuals are pretty ugly (especially the character models) they’re fairly well rendered. The dialogue is pretty funny also, with good voice acting, but undermined by some bad sound editing and annoying ambient sounds, especially on menus. Add to that an infrequent inability to load savefiles for no apparent reason and it becomes very hard to recommend Signal Ops at all, let alone for its $15 (~£10) price tag.
– Really awkward controls and general interface
– Tedious and dull gameplay
– Leaden movement
– Ugly character models
– Dingy environments
+ Decent voice acting and sharp dialogue
– Annoying atmospheric sound
– Bad sound editing