Special Forces: Team X Review
Developer: Zombie Studios
Release Date: 06/02/2013
Reviewed on: PC
Sometimes, you really want to know the full story behind a publishing deal. How did Zombie Studios, creators of the well-regarded, free-to-play shooter Blacklight: Retribution, wind up making this multi-platform, third person shooter for Microprose and Atari?
Yes, that’s the same Atari whose US and French divisions have both filed for bankruptcy in the past month. Which I suppose may explain how Microprose entered the scene.
That’s the same Microprose who … you know what, it’s actually pretty difficult to chart what happened there. Back when they were called MicroProse (with the capital P,) Atari sold them off to someone called the Interactive Game Group in 2007. Then the name appears to have been licensed all over the place, de-capitalised to Microprose at some point, and then mostly attached to Jillian Michaels fitness games.
For a competent and thriving studio (Zombie just announced a new game, Daylight, a few days back,) it’s unusual company to be keeping.
While the specific details of the partnership might satisfy my personal curiosity, it’s the practicalities of it which will have consequences for the long-term success of Special Forces: Team X.
As mentioned, the game is a third-person shooter. It’s multiplayer only, and it’s on the PC (alongside Xbox Arcade.) To survive in the long-term, it’ll need a dedicated user-base and an engaged development team to maintain player interest with a selection of map, weapon or game mode updates.
So it’s not a great sign that any questions about the title in Zombie’s own forums are locked, and accompanied by terse replies about the Intellectual Property being owned by Microprose.
Now, here’s a couple of quick questions. How much news, advertising or unbridled hype have you read or heard for Special Forces: Team X in the past few weeks? And what sort of player numbers do you suppose that translates to?
It’s a pity, because the game’s small player-base seems pretty committed. Despite only seeing 100-150 people online in the US at any given time, getting a game actually isn’t too tough.
Two of SF:TX’s game modes (Team Death Match and Capture Point) almost always have a spot open, with Capture the Flag matches occasionally popping up as well. Hot Zone (defending a specific area which periodically changes) and High Value Target (keeping a certain player safe, or taking him down if he’s on the enemy team) appear less popular, but may perk up as people look for an alternative challenge.
SF:TX itself is pretty robust, pitting sixteen players (two teams of eight, except on custom servers which allow up to four teams) against one another on three-part maps whose components are voted on by players before the match begins.
It’s a by-the-numbers cover shooter in many respects, but offers enough smart ideas (like the aforementioned map randomisation,) to make it worthwhile. Sticking close to team-mates is actively rewarded with bonus experience points for the inevitable levelling system, giving players a hefty clue as to what they should be doing.
Tactically, it’s as you’d expect. Stay close to team-mates; cover one another and yourself; look for opportunities to flank ‘n shank or get the high ground against your enemies.
The majority of game modes encourage regular movement, so the pace remains high and tedious camping is (largely) kept to a minimum. In the event that you do run into someone who’s holed up, a pair of grenades will usually sort the problem out. It’s even possible to set attack dogs on people (just don’t ask where your player is storing those.) Unfortunately, the canines sometimes suffer bouts of doggy confusion and decide to just remain rooted in place.
Winning matches, gunning down foes and generally acting as a warm-body participant will earn you experience points, which in turn unlock new weapons, abilities and equipment. This is handled pretty sensibly, with latter-tier weaponry being appropriate for specialised roles (shotguns, sniper rifles and the like,) but not necessarily ‘better.’
The same goes for the equipment, which expands from the grenade and attack dog combo to include mines, stun grenades and health pickups. Each player also has an ‘active’ and ‘passive’ skill, where the former can be used to give temporary toughness or speed boosts to the team, and the latter dealing with things like extended magazine sizes and mine detection powers.
And yes, you can also unlock hats.
As tends to be the case with cover shooters, playing with the mouse and keyboard can give rise to some finicky issues. In theory, the space bar will pop you (or slide you if you’re a little distance away) into cover, and pop you out again. But in the middle of a quick-paced game it’s easy to accidentally be pressing a direction and space at the same time, resulting in an ostentatious dive out of cover, rather than a smooth transition out of it. It’s not a huge deal, and since this is a precision shooter then it’s still better than the gamepad alternative, but it will cause odd bouts of frustration.
It’s not the only source of aggravation.
The spawn system allows you to resurrect back into existence near to any living member of your team. A decent idea for a team-conscious game, except on occasion it’ll just ignore your selection and spawn you somewhere else. Sometimes that ‘somewhere else’ is outside the boundaries of the map.
A recent patch has allowed all players to see foreign servers (at first I could only see and play on US ones,) so it’s now somewhat feasible to play with non-local friends. However, there’s no in-game friends system whatsoever, so you’ll have to rely on Steam’s own friend functions or external communication to figure something out. You may also want to stay off foreign servers for now, as there are unconfirmed reports that playing on them (and levelling up) resets your level.
Speaking of servers, it’d be handy if the ‘ping’ rating bore any relation to the actual ping of the server. Right now, every single one shows a misleading full set of bars.
At the time of writing, the leaderboards are completely broken.
While the voting system for the map blocks is great, and extends the level variety much further than games like this usually manage, people really don’t need 30 seconds to decide on them. With 30 seconds in the lobby and another 30 seconds on map voting, there feels like a lot of down time between rapid modes like Team Death Match. One method of alleviating this would be to allow players to customise the modes to some degree; bumping up the victory conditions of Death Match from 40 to something like 75 or 120.
Those issues are very fixable, but the question is whether SF:TX will receive the necessary level of post-release support to bolster an already fragile community. With aggressive publisher support, the game could push for a Steam sale (or better yet, free weekend,) and schedule a series of patches/updates to add new weapons, map sections or other attractions like weather effects to the game.
The alternative is the fate that has befallen so many other multiplayer-only games. Players will tire of the current content, hit the level max of 40 and move on. At $15 USD, the title is not expensive, and if you have any interest at all in what it’s offering my advice would be to pursue it sooner rather than later. Right now, you can still get games. That may not be the case in a few weeks time.
It would be over-dramatic to say SF:TX has been sent out to die, but on current evidence it hasn’t exactly been given the best chance to live. With such an uncertain future, it’s tough for me to give it too much of an endorsement.