Perhaps it is only fitting that a game based around the concept of multiple-perspectives has left me with a rather divided opinion of it. Or perhaps I am merely coercing a common feature of a review into this slightly ill-fitting comparison in order to give it some rather pointless flair. Regardless, the stealthy-FPS–tactical-espionage-strategy game that is Signal Ops is one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever played; Worse than that, I can’t even write a cathartic, scathing review of it as it simply doesn’t deserve it despite the bugs, ambiguous objectives and some rather questionable design decisions.
Waking up as a hook-handed officer within the walls of Facility 7C, you soon find yourself remotely controlling a squad of operatives through various espionage missions in order to defend and promote the religious glory of the Dark Father. From the beginning, there are hints that the plot will develop beyond merely completing missions. It does this, but in a slightly more obvious and convenient way than I feel the subtle set-up deserved. That being said, this is a game that could have easily functioned with nothing more than the initial premise and the missions themselves so the fact that it makes the effort to go beyond this serves it well.
Whilst some levels operate differently, your main concern on most is maintaining the signal of your radio whilst moving it (using the Engineer) throughout the map in order to give vision to your units and complete the objectives. Power points are fairly easy to find, particularly with the power detector, but moving between outlets quickly enough to not run out of charge but sneakily enough to not get caught can be fairly tense. Other agents at your disposal, which have to be chosen before to the mission begins and who each have their own traits, include the combat oriented Assault and Heavy, the suspicion-immune Spy, explosion-minded Demo and the the long-range and unbelievably useful Sniper. You can form an effective force using various team compositions and the levels lend themselves to various approaches – with certain doors only accessible through being picked (Assault) or blown up (Demo) – which whilst largely ineffectual is certainly a nice touch.
The missions themselves are pleasantly varied even if the avoidance/measured removal of enemies is a fairly persistent element. The most interesting level revolved around the identification of a target through simultaneously rummaging through their house for clues with one agent and eliminating party guests that didn’t fit the profile through leading them towards a thug filled ‘out of order’ toilet with the other. Each mission is very much a part of a greater objective, giving a satisfying and surprising sense of progression, but many feel painfully and unnecessarily long. Part of this comes from imprecise objective markers on your map, but most of it comes from the range of the radio as you are constantly having to move it making the novelty of the mechanic wear out incredibly quick. It is an encumbrance that doesn’t add as much in terms of strategy as the game seems to assume. The ability to automatically move back to the last power supply with a button press alleviates some of the frustration but a wider range and less outlets would have improved the game dramatically, as demonstrated by the level where this is indeed the case.
Whilst the aesthetic borders on painful at times, with fluorescent greens and flickering screens, it is a large part of what makes the absurd humour of the game fit so perfectly with the 1950’s espionage setting. The animation has a rather charming, seemingly intentional awkwardness to it that makes simple things like watching your agents crouch-walk towards enemies far more entertaining than they have any right to be. This comedic element is carried through to the dialogue between both co-workers and characters you meet on missions, the latter of which often come with their own somewhat frivolous objectives or amusing eccentricities.
The light-hearted nature of the game is not reflected in its difficulty but, rather unfortunately, some of it is artificial in nature. Spending over an hour trying to find and eliminate an enemy that has glitched into a wall or muddling my way through puzzles with fairly obvious solutions but ambiguous mechanics led to many prolonged absences from the game. Some of the issues I experienced have already been patched and others have merely been acknowledged, but they were frustrating to an almost unbelievable degree and the game bordered on unplayable at times. I quickly developed an almost obsessive save schedule, not for fear that I would fail – if a unit dies you can call in a replacement and there are usually more than enough of these to complete the mission – but because I no longer trusted the game itself.
Not all of the difficulty is irritating, however, as the game is pitched at a those who like to be challenged and occasionally does so in a satisfying manner. The recoil on the guns and the attention using them draws means that stealth is often your best bet but withthe fairly observant enemies this is no easy feat. Add to this the multiple agents under your control, and it is all too easy to be focussing upon one of them whilst a guard stumbles upon another. There is a flexibility to how you approach these situations, but you will probably end up utilising the spy as a somewhat unfortunate crux capable of indefinitely distracting guards whilst nudging them to their deaths or freeing an arrested comrade just behind them then murdering them with him. They will often re-arrest him, but as the spy you are above suspicion so can simply repeat the procedure. Some sort of suspicion meter would have made the Spy a far more interesting and less broken character, but his ramblings about taxes on salt and making rock soup at least made my over-reliance on him entertaining.
Flawed but with an interesting central mechanic and some pleasant surprises, Signal Ops is nonetheless a difficult game to recommend in its current state. Fully fixed, which I expect it to be relatively soon as Space Bullet Dynamics Corporation have been fairly proactive thus far, it should offer the more masochistic amongst you a frustrating but fun time, even if it will still almost certainly work slightly better as a concept than it does in practice.