Shock Tactics Review – The Wrong Kind of Shock

When Firaxis brought back the venerable XCOM series from the dead nobody could have predicted how damn good it would be, its turned-based tactical mayhem creating a palpable sense of tension. It was difficult, too, demanding that you contemplate every move or else lose your soldiers forever. XCOM 2 had a rough launch, but it still managed to improve on Enemy Unknown, refining various parts of the core gameplay. Unsurprisingly several companies have attempted to leap onto the bandwagon. Shock Tactics happens to be the latest game trying to capture the magic of yelling at virtual soldiers because they missed a 90% chance to hit. It’s also not that good.
But let us assume for a moment that you aren’t familiar with the turn-based genius of XCOM: the basic idea is that you’ll take control of a squad of soldiers and guide them through the level. During your turn you can move them, attack and activate special abilities, all of which are governed by an Action Point system. Cover is vitally important to surviving, and because of that flanking the enemy is key to killing them, otherwise you just end up trading mostly ineffectual shots. When it comes to firing at a foe the chances of hitting will be displayed above the target, which also means lady luck plays a big part in whether you live or die; sometimes a soldier will nail a shot despite having a mere 5% chance of hitting, and sometimes you’ll miss even though there was a 90% chance of hitting them right between the eyes. If all else fails you can just stick your squad into Overwatch which means they’ll open fire on the first bad guy who moves during the A.I.’s turn.
But the truly important thing to know is that if a soldier dies he’s gone for good. Shock Tactics embraces this aspect of the XCOM series, and while you do have a window of opportunity to rescue a downed squad member once that’s over they vanish into the nether realm. The only way to replenish squad numbers is by embarking on specific missions where you have to battle your way to them, of course meaning that you risk getting even more soldiers killed in the process.
Sadly, it’s hard to get attached to your little squad, so their death means nothing more than frustration because you’ll have to find somebody else and patiently wait for them to level up and thus actually become useful. In XCOM you could not only name your troops but also play with their color scheme and facial features, which combined with their unique abilities in the field made them surprisingly endearing. They had their own stories and histories forged through prior missions and their deaths actually made you feel sad. In Shock Tactics your troops are just faceless goons with only their armor color being something you can alter.
Still, within the turn-based tactical combat there are flashes of brilliance, moments where the game nearly manages to match X-com’s tension-filled battles as one of your troops lands a seemingly impossible shot or somehow survives a barrage of firepower that should have surely mown them down. Sure, there isn’t enough variety in enemy types nor enough abilities within your own ranks, and the different classes of soldier feel much too alike, but the XCOM core, which has not so much been copied as stolen outright, remains fun. It’s just flashes of brilliance, though, amidst a lot of….well, okayness. It says a lot that the only thing Shock Tactics does well is what it lifted straight out of Firaxis’ turn-based masterpieces.
The first problem is the level design which bounces wildly from being rather good to outright annoying thanks to what I assume is random generation. There’s a nice amount of verticality to play around with, although it and the thankfully uncommon interiors are marred by an awkward camera that frequently gets caught up on scenery or hides lines of sight. More annoying are the stretches of empty ground that force you to either leave troops out in the open at the mercy of the enemy or play a boring game of trading shots over long-distance that have minimal odds of actually hitting anything.

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