Julian Gollop: Sons of Rebelstar - Today's iOS Squad Tactical Games

By Guest Post 01 Jun 2012 0
One final guest post while Owen is on holiday - and it's crackerjack. Julian Gollop, the legendary designer of X-Com and Rebelstar Raiders, plays three contemporary games that followed in the footsteps of his designs and tells us what he thinks of them.

X-Com's iconic Skyranger.

I have had a certain passion for making turn-based tactical games going all the way back to 1983 when I made Rebelstar Raiders for the 48k Spectrum. It was a simple two-player game in which players controlled a squad of futuristic soldiers, taking turns to move and shoot at the enemy.

It wasn’t until I created X-Com: UFO Defense (or ‘UFO: Enemy Unknown’ as it was called in Europe) that I added a strong RPG element to the squad-building, plus an interesting real time meta-game involving UFO interceptions, base building, research and manufacturing. Since X-Com I have revisited the genre of Tactical RPGs a couple of times. After playing Advance Wars on the GBA back in 2001, and then Fire Emblem, I was convinced that handheld computing carried the torch for the turn-based strategy games I loved.

I had this opportunity in 2005 when I made Rebelstar: Tactical Command for Namco on the GBA, and then again with Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, a 3DS launch title made by Ubisoft Sofia. Now it seems that mobile phones and tablets provide the opportunity for such games to find a new home. I am defining ‘tactical turn-based RPGs’ as a genre in which the player controls a group of characters in turn-based combat missions linked by a story with some kind of character improvement system – and where the emphasis is somewhat more on the tactics than the RPG side (as in the numerous fantasy ‘SRPGS’ from Japan). So, armed with my new iPad, and somewhat older iPod touch, I have looked at the most promising entries in this genre and penned a few of my thoughts.

The three games I tried are Tactical Soldier – Undead Rising, Call of Cthulu: The Wasted Land and Hunters 2. Each game has a setting and story played through a sequence of missions. Wasted Land has the most intriguing premise, set during the first world war, where a Cthulu cult is operating on the German side and you have to investigate and fight it. Tactical Soldier pits you against zombies in a military base after an experiment has gone wrong. It’s not the most original idea, but it is quite well told through comic-style cut scenes. The main problem with them is that the style is somewhat in conflict with the moody in-game graphics and looks very low-res on the iPad. Hunters 2 has a sci-fi story line where you are in charge of a group of mercenaries investigating corporate skulduggery. It keeps your interest, but it is not as crucial to the game play compared to the other games.

The anodised world of Hunters 2.

The role-playing aspects of these games are also an important factor in the sense that developing your group of characters is part of the longer term strategy in the game play. Wasted Land is based on the classic Cthulu pencil-and-paper RPG from Chaosium. One interesting aspect is the Sanity value of your characters. Attacking the unspeakable horrors reduces a character’s sanity, which can only be cured by using psychoanalysis books. In the early stages of the game you get a barrage of stats without really knowing what effect they have – the type of design decision I no longer like. Tactical Soldier is simpler and more understandable, but not very interesting. Hunters 2 does it better. In addition to a standard set of upgrades for each character, there are a set of special upgrades which depend on two specific skill sets, such as ‘scouting’ and ‘combat.’ Each skill set can unlock special abilities with easily understandable effects, and this allows the player to make interesting decisions. It’s a great system. Hunters 2 also allows you to craft weapons using a simple interface which gives you some more flexibility and interesting decisions when kitting out your characters.

As for the actual combat systems, there are some interesting differences between these games, but with some serious interface problems for two of the games. Wasted Land is a bit of a disaster as far as the interface and controls go. My main problem was selecting characters to attack, which requires a tap and hold. Even more annoying was the endless amount of time I spent scrolling the map to select a target. It’s worse on the iPad, because you can’t zoom out very far. Tactical Soldier works quite well with a reasonable intuitive interface, but the 3D view causes problems. I spent a lot of time just fiddling with the camera and zoom. Hunters 2, with its 2D top down view has an excellent interface and control system compared to the others. It makes the pace of the game faster, allowing you to concentrate on those interesting decisions rather than battling with controls. It shows a real appreciation for good mobile-oriented design.

The Great War trenches of Wasted Land.

Wasted Land has the most obscure game mechanics. It wasn’t really clear to me whether there were any cover effects from the trenches. The movement system is also a little weird, with characters hopping in and out of trenches with apparently no extra difficulty. It also has the dumbest AI, with enemy characters persistently walking through patches of deadly gas, often killing themselves in the process. Tactical Soldier is much better by comparison, with some interesting weapon differentiations and often some tense moments as the zombies close in. I can’t say much for the AI here either, as the zombies really are pretty dumb. They are not the most interesting opponents to fight against. Hunters 2 has a simple, and easily understandable game system, but the developers have used every possible variable to create something more interesting. You do get a feel for the different weapons and abilities very quickly. But the AI is not brilliant here either, and the game becomes more like a puzzle, where often you have to repeat a mission to ‘get it right’. Still, I found it more of a compelling experience than the other two games.

I think there is still a lot of room for improvement in this genre, and I think it has a potentially bright future on mobile platforms – especially the iPad with its fantastic screen. I would really like to see better AI and good multiplayer options. It is also essential that the pacing of such games is carefully thought out. Strategy games are all about making interesting decisions. With turn-based games, any turn which has no interesting decisions becomes a chore for the player. This problem is compounded if the interface is slow and problematic. It also helps if the underlying mechanics are easily grasped by the player so that those interesting decisions are based on quantifiable choices rather than guesswork. For these reasons, I think Hunters 2 gets it mostly right, but I hope to see even better tactical turn-based RPGs in the future, with more than just a set of loosely linked missions. For example, something involving a larger scale meta-game with base building, research and manufacturing would be cool.
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