Review: Strain Tactics09 Nov 2017 1
Review: Strain Tactics
Released 02 Nov 2017
I was ready to dismiss Strain Tactics as an utter misfire. A showcase of thrown stickings pried from a very long wall. The game made a horrible first impression; information dumps atop seemingly inconclusive slices of tutorial, an opening mission that highlighted some of the biggest mechanical beefs I’ve cogitated over in a good while. But then I began loving Strain Tactics. Legitimately. Hard-fought, hard-won love....
Note: This is a review of the PC version. For specific impressions on how it plays on mobile, please consult this Out Now entry.
Strain Tactics takes place after a cataclysmic mutant plague swept the world, leaving outposts of hardened survivors to lock, load and carry on. This is not original territory, but Touch Dimensions appear to wear their inspirations proudly, and if you’ll permit the tawdry entendre, it’s an infectious mix. The ambience is pure military science-fiction meets shambler horde, which doesn’t sound particularly enthralling, but Strain Tactics is delivered with such conviction and dedication to grit and tech that I found myself coming to relish its balance of trope-y monsters and super-crunchy fireteam management.
Much like its XCOM inspiration, players will find themselves managing a squad, jumping their combat helo between the home base and a sprawling variety of missions and auxiliary FOBs in the wastes. The explicit aim of Strain Tactics is to hew the mutant threat from the face of the Earth, cleansing and reclaiming what was once the providence of man.
Combat, the core of Strain Tactics, plays out as a facsimile of Doorkickers. Like Killhouse Games’ masterpiece, plays trace lines around the mission environment, upon which your squad follows. And like Doorkickers, Strain Tactics is a game better experienced on a tablet. There’s a tactile sense of command evoked by painting patrol lines around, or manoeuvring a fireteam into complimentary positions. It’s hard to discuss Strain Tactics without mentioning Doorkickers, because the latter is the mitochondrial eve of the former. But where Doorkickers kept its bird’s eye combat lean and lithe, Strain Tactics is often messy and finicky, largely due to environmental design that often does it no favours in comparison.
The opening mission had me thrumming my helo to a locale, with orders to retrieve a laptop. Easy enough, I thought. Scanning the map, you’re able to link up with a far-gone robot, a clunker divulging that the only way to snag the laptop is through a hole in the roof. My naivety had me drag my helo docking overlay around the small but desperately busy map, trying to get a debus marker to trip green for my squad to clamber out. Was it this building? Was it that one? Can I retrieve them from a ceiling insertion, if there are no ground-level exits? Why can’t I see properly?
So many questions.
Amid the messiness, I attempted the mission a number of times after a raft of mishaps. Finally, I dropped my team down the right hole, and while the damn vent had me rappel down into flames – yes, dealing damage and setting off the morale checks – I eventually found what I was looking for. After that, it was a case of making a dent in the local Strain population and choofing back to base.
Back at base, once the auto-save had moored my hard-won victory, one of my squaddies blew a hole through a cryo-vat with a combat shotgun, killing a lab technician in the process. Outraged autonomy had my other soldiers and base NPCs immediately open fire on the hapless perpetrator, gunning her down right there and then.
The ironic part? I was merely trying to manage inventory, making space for med-packs, when I fumbled the damn force-targeting mechanic instead of picking up sticking plaster.
But it was right then that my mood on Strain Tactics changed. I loved that moment. It was a rookie mistake. It was outright stupid, even if helped by kludgy interfacing. But I paid for it. And savoured it.
The combat comes into its own when squaddies survive, itself the uphill battle. Different classes come with different proficiencies, each with their own personal characteristics. In all there are around eighty different types of unit across all the classes. Some feature unshakeable morale, others far less intrepid. And the longer they survive, the better they are.
Unlike Doorkickers, Strain Tactics’ ground-pounders feature a much greater sense of self-preservation and autonomy, based largely on their traits. Rangers might push for cover in the event of a firefight. Green berets tend to step in front of their squadmates to shield them from attack. Once the squad has shucked their FNG nerves, their proficiencies automatically increase. The flow-on to accuracy and morale is obvious. More subtle in non-frontline troops, but no less important. Having a tech decrease the targeting time of nearby squadmates is as important as the bloke pulling the trigger.
Even the little things, like the automatic rear cover provided automatically by a squad member. Were this any other game, this would require finagling with sight and firing vector markers, spooling timers and the like. In Strain Tactics, you can tell the small team wanted to evoke that level of oiled teamwork. An astute bastard blend of Full Spectrum Warrior and Aliens. It’s not always successful, but the concept is certainly welcomed.
But you can’t have a rough diamond without the rough. As showcased in my dreadful display of blue-on-blue, Strain Tactics does need a UI facelift.
I’ve largely played it in touch tablet mode, and being able to navigate basic inventory management feels at times unwieldy. The aforementioned level and environmental design is often outrageously busy, smoke obscuring large sections of the map, or detritus causing a squad to jam and bump awkwardly in clusters as they try to navigate beyond their immediate position.
The helo landing procedure works, but often requires a lot of fiddliness when trying to deploy as required in the opening mission. The disembarkation markers need to be plied and massaged if you’re looking to drop troops in particularly tight LZs, as though you’re playing a particularly rigid hidden object game. An errant ground asset can deny a dock, but shifting laterally a few twitchy pixels might get the green light to debus. Timeliness ameliorated by the pause button, but Strain Tactics’ issues of fussy, busy interface won’t win it many friends not already invested.
But that’s the thing. If you’re willing to forgive these admittedly glaring issues, the game is bristling with creativity.
It was when I stopped playing an off-brand Doorkickers in my head and started actually playing Strain Tactics on its own terms that we become best buddies. If Doorkickers was a cool Michael Mann affair, Strain Tactics is definitely Dog Soldiers-era Neil Marshall.
I’ve dragged infected troopers back aboard my gunship towards the decontamination shower, only to have them mutate explosively inside the helo and the remaining squaddies have a close-quarters firefight against a Tetsuo-grade morass of violent meat and bone. Raking gunship Vulcans far too close to my squad on the ground, saving their bacon with a brace of depleted uranium shells. Eaten instant noodles for a pre-mission pick-me-up. Sold off Strain meat. Consumed Strain meat. Endured the effects. Tagged and bagged the fallen for a session in the cryo-pod.
Beneath Strain Tactics’ glaring interface issues, there’s a rich vein of deep military science-fiction fun. Touch Dimensions have a sleeper hit on their hands, warts and all. The big issue to cracking the surface, and I figure there have and will be a number of pundits just not willing to endure the acclimatisation. The people who do, however, will revel in the grotesque, highly granular squad combat and accompanying layers of mil-SF fluff.