Version tested: PC
Sometimes doing the right thing really doesn't matter.
The British indie developers at Games Faction, the studio behind Project Aftermath, have done nothing but the right thing since the release of this, their debut game. They have embraced digital download culture. They have kept in touch with fans through a splendid, open web presence. They have had post-release support to put almost all the majors to shame, adding 20 challenge modes to the game, complete with online scoring. Hell, when I booted it up this morning for some fact-checking I discovered they had added achievements to the bally thing. They have even sliced the price to ten dollars, which is proving a popular place for PC indie games. If more developers showed the passion, professionalism and enlightened philanthropy that Games Faction has displayed, gaming would be a better place.
None of it matters. The game's no good.
It's a squad-based real-time-strategy game, so rather than controlling an army, you control up to four heroes and their associated soldiers (plus a couple more slots for mission-related people). In terms of reference points, the modern one would be Dawn of War II's single-player. In terms of indie games, think Darwinia. In terms of being really old, think Syndicate. As a game, Project: Aftermath is considerably more intricate than any of the above, but shares the key idea: a limited number of pieces that you manoeuvre to beat a level - either the 10-mission story campaign or the 20 challenges.
There are a couple of resources of which to keep track. GOOP is the main one - a lovely green gel used as currency for a variety of things, including hero characters' special abilities and resurrecting them after death. The latter means the game initially appears a bit of a walkover - after all, what's to stop you resurrecting all the time? Well, if you complete the level with insufficient GOOP, you fail the mission anyway. In other words, you swiftly start trying to minimise GOOP expenditure, and lean on options that don't rest upon it, like pickups around the level, including ones which add more GOOP.
But the handiest one is the battlefield reinforcement system, where slaughtering the opposition fills a meter. As you hit each of three markers, you gain the ability to call in one of the bonuses for the level. It's an elaborate version of the Golden Axe power-up system transplanted into an RTS, really, with you deciding when's best to cash your chips, and what to cash your chips for. Worth saving for a group of hyper-hard soldiers to back you up? Or should you settle for some manner of defence turret? This is one of the strongest parts of the design, with clean-edged and meaningful tactical impact. For example, on the second tier, there's an immobile turret that sets up immediately, and a satellite-powered thingy that can be picked up and redeployed and is more powerful, but takes ages to warm up. One can turn a single fight, or create a single killing zone; the other can be used repeatedly, but is immune to improvisation. That's neat. I wish there was more of that sort of game design.
The lower-level abilities mainly tie into the other lynchpin of the combat system, allowing you to swap your squad's armour, weapons or special abilities depending on the situation. This is necessary due to the game's main quirk - four sorts of colour-coded damage. People with red armour are resistant to red damage, so you're better off zapping them with blue, green or yellow instead. The trick is that each hero is only able to carry two sorts of weapons at once, requiring a manual change to the appropriate one. If you've not brought an appropriate one, it's time to use the aforementioned weapon-swapping stuff. Across the campaign, you receive research points which you use to unlock better weapons and armour. The other flourish is that each of the weapons has its own cost, so you're able to make a level harder or easier depending how much you want to spend, which in turn influences your score.
There's quite a lot more fine detail in there, but they are the tent poles. It's the sort of game where there's this filigree of detail for you to explore, which is one of its conceptual problems: there's not much of a framework to encourage you to play with tactics. The turret stuff I mentioned earlier is a notable exception. It has the sense of all the ideas piled into it, and less of a real sense of why.
But that's a conceptual problem. The bigger issues are far more practical. Let's talk controls. Right-click is generally reserved for contextual options, like swapping guns or formations, which leaves a lot of work for the old left mouse button. It's left-click to move. It's left-click to select. It's also - and this is where it gets iffy - left-click to choose targets. You're playing fairly zoomed-out (you need to know where reinforcements are coming from), so you're clicking and selecting teeny little guys. Mistakes are inevitable. You can only shoot when you're standing still, so if you click slightly to one side of the opposition, you go trundling off instead of firing; depending on where the click went you either move into firing range or you wander absently into theirs. This sort of low-level fogginess permeates the game and saps the fun.
Even so, this is only really problematic for a couple of reasons. First, the combat isn't actually that interesting even when it works - enemies stand there and shoot one another at a steady rate. Second, there are no mid-level saves.
The latter magnifies the problem with the iffy controls. You lose so much with a mistake - and mistakes are easier to make due to the game's clunkiness. There are all sorts of systems for accurate timing controls - for example, giving orders while on a pause, then pressing play to make your troops do their thing - but that's only pre-battle planning; the game doesn't let you pause the action. When you're wrestling with the control system, it's frustrating. For example, trying to throw down a turret in the middle of the action, wondering why it's not working while your men die, before realising that a "select what sort of energy you want your turret to fire" control has appeared away from the button.
It also magnifies the failings in the well-intentioned but actually experience-neutering GOOP system. When things go well, you don't care about your deaths, because you can always resurrect. When things are going badly, you find yourself in the position where using one of your special abilities fails the level by its associated cost. That filters back, so you deliberately avoid tactical options to maximise the amount of GOOP you have, thus minimising the chance you're going to battle through the entire level and fail anyway. It's a game that goes out of its way to actively punish you for experimenting with any of its mass of options - bar the aforementioned ones that aren't GOOP-powered. What's the point having a toolbox as big as this if you've got a GOOP-coloured "don't touch" sign on them?
But the biggest problem is really just boring old level design. I haven't completed the campaign - I got halfway through before deciding I couldn't face restarting level five again. First you sit through a fifteen-second, unskippable panning shot, before embarking on the design classic of a stealth section in an action game. The mission's based around a forced failure that removes your actual heroes, leaving you playing the fragile engineer, whose death is an instant mission-failure. Upon rescuing the heroes, it turns into an escort mission with respawning baddies and, at the point you rescue the first hero, you have to simultaneously set the hero fighting whilst evacuating the engineer safely. Except you can't plan for this on your first time through, because it's only the opening cut-scene that reveals the nature of the mission, and you won't know which hero you need to give the heal power to in order keep the engineer alive until you've unlocked him from the cell. At which point it's too late.
The whole thing is bewildering in a dozen ways. The game's just unlocked your third hero, the first new toy you've had for ages, and the mission that follows immediately removes all that from you. What were they thinking? Sadly it's typical. At its best, Project: Aftermath achieves mild boredom. At its worst, it caused my girlfriend to come and investigate cries of pain.
You know, occasionally I get accused of indie game favouritism. Next time anyone thinks of suggesting that, just remember this. I'll be trying to forget.
4 / 10