My geneseed is genetically coded to like Space Marines games. Ultimate Space Commandos. Space Army Men. Templars of Space. In a hardened steel nutshell, military tactical operations in a futuristic setting. So when Legions of Steel from Matrix/Slitherine warped in to my mass effect field I simply had to give it a look-see.
According to BoardGameGeek this is a digital incarnation of a old boardgame, and I can only presume that the rulesets are faithfully recreated here. I haven’t played the boardgame, so can’t comment on that aspect of the game.
Firstly, the most obvious thing to mention about the game is that it occupies the same gamespace as the famous Games Workshop Space Hulk title does. Both in cardboard and plastic and in digital form. I’m not sure of the history behind it all, but this does seem to be a more generic, definitely NOT Space Marines game that would step on GW’s toes. Perhaps it was a cheaper more accessible version?
The narrative is set with partially animated comic-book like cut-scenes, machines against an alien coalition, to be saved by the judicious use of Commando strike teams. As a comic book fan, I like this sort of thing, often more-so than fully rendered 3d stuff.
The game is a top down 2d turn based objective led tactical battle between Commandos and Machines. Even though the game was released on PC first, you will instantly be presented with tablet-friendly controls. They work well enough, but it does sort of suggest that the title was designed from the ground up as a tablet game “Made for iPad” and the PC version is just extra sauce.
There is a campaign based tutorial that introduces each new mechanic one mission at a time, almost in isolation, like a puzzle. Failure to perform the precise actions needed to complete each puzzle-like mission and the complete failure if you go off the beaten path, starts to feel more like punishment and less like enjoyable instruction.I understand its a comprehensive and involved way to learn the intimate aspects of each mechanic, but it seems to labour the precision and draw out the process to the detriment of getting into the action, using your intiative and start spraying your guns.
I can’t quite remember the mission I got to in the tutorial campaign, but a lot of my interest had started to wane because of this puzzle-like beatdown and I had to abandon it, relying on in-game help or some Youtube playthrough to pick the rest up. In the tutorial’s early stages a shot would have 100% kill rate attached, and this alone can be brutal if you place your Commando wrongly.
Visually the game is pleasant. The lighter maps really defining your troops against the background in this 2d top down presentation. The environmental lighting effects are particularly well done.
However, in the darker areas, the brown shadey tunnels, with only hints of luminescence lightning your icon-bearing units, they begin to lose their definition and visually start to blend with the background – with their animated top down forms becoming just vague shapes in shadow. I suppose it creates an atmosphere, of sorts.
You can liberally zoom in and out of the action, and up close and personal the top down units look good, and are nicely animated. All the information you need is on the map before you, unit status, facing and modifier information are presented with iconic labels. I believe the board game used to use small circular counters placed around the units in a similar fashion.
The Machines themselves are rendered with a similar level of detail, complete with mechanical twitching heads. When deploying your troops on a map, you get to see a unit list with well drawn artwork of your units from the side, which adds a bit more familiarity and connection with the Units. Here we see two of the Machine units portraits (although they are greyed out because they’re on the enemy side).
Musically the background tracks are a little too ambient for the setting. I like ambience, but my Marines need more aural sauce to help them clear out infested darkened corridors of death!
Action wise, the game is very reserved. Animated unit movement is competant, but the gun play in the game did disappoint. Rather than epic bursts of fire or pyrotechnics of explosive proportions, you get single shot “pew”, possibly an auto-shot second “pew”, and then mostly “die”.
The feel of the combat is a rather cerebral clinical affair, where your placement and orientation play a big part in your success. The actual gun fire fanfare is as exciting as the roll of a die. Having said that, the combat does get tense, even without the fireworks, because a lot of your success has to do with setup and then initiative rolls, and your chance of a miss. The overwhelming hordes of metal marching towards you, will have you panicked and desperate for a move or a turn more. This is almost an airlock-silent survival horror game in terms of sound effects.
You can switch to Tactical mode, which is very useful indeed. It shows you your situation at a glance without any of the visual niceties. Part of me likes this mode so much that I’d prefer to play in it all the time. On a graphically challenged tablet I’d imagine this mode is essential.
Here we see the full map, and the paths available, to get to the objective, to destroy the Machines terminal. The faded red tiles top right are teleporters where the Machines spawn from, so you can instantly see your path up right is hindered big time. I chose here to split into two fireteams, which was probably a big mistake, because covering lines of fire and laying down supression is the way forward when coming up against endless hordes of death drones.
Placing your troops in positions to cover entry and exit points is key to your success. When in position, your troops take a covering role and will reactively fire at anything coming through. This isn’t called “Overwatch” but “Covering mode”, I think.
There is an extra layer of complexity in that each turn has an initiative roll, and whoever wins gets to choose whether to go first or not. In fact if you have Sergeant or Corporals in play they can optionally lend their “leadership points” to the intiative roll – so you can attempt to stack the dice in those moments of extreme need. You are still at the mercy of lady luck though, and this can be brutal if you need immediate posession because the machines have clawed their way up to your position before you are ready for them.
With your outgoing fire having only a slim chance to hit in most situations and your actual shots being limited to single or two burst adjacent (with auto-shot) shots, supressing fire seems quite overpowered (or rather more like the action I’d expect from Space Commandos). You can set up a line of supression and any enemy stepping into it will take fire, no matter how many walk into it, your Commando will lay down shot after shot.
Below you can see I’d set up a line of supression (you have to spend all your movement points on it, so you can’t move and setup in the same turn), and the enemy had thrown a smoke grenade to disrupt my chances at successful hits, then the machines moved in, and I repeatedly took shots at them, missed most of them, but did hit them eventually. As all enemy units walked down the corridor and into that fire zone, I cleared them all after much firing. Very powerful indeed, even after taking the accuracy debuff of the smoke.
Below that is the tac-view of the carnage afterwards.
My spirits were uplifted at this show of supressive power, and I foolishly thought that the objective was now acheivable. But, I moved my Sergeant into the smoke to set up a line of supression on the northern corridor into the Terminal room, and he was picked off easily by the Nightmare guarding the doorway in. Sad face.
My remaining troops worked their way up the left of the map and in towards the top of the Terminal room. Meanwhile, more and more Nightmares were stepping through the portals into the Terminal room to make a hardened defense of it.
On the whole the AI seems to really know how to play the game well, and I’ve found it to be a very competant opponent. The odds always feel very much against you. As they should.
I try a last desperate attempt at supressing fire across the corridor and onto the Terminal room doorway in the vain hope they’ll all walk into it, and be vapourised, pew, pew, pew. The guy on the far left takes a hit, and my supression plan is scuppered big time.
Here I bring out the K-Pulse grenade to take out as many of the defenders as I could, before getting my other Marine up to put another line of supression down into the Terminal room from the western corridor. As you can see from the fire type wheel, there are a number of tactical options available to your troops, from single fire, auto-fire (double attempts less accurate), advanced covering including specific enemy or location, the welcomed supressive fire, and a grenade and a deployable barrier. The K-Pulse does damage to a 3 by 3 area so planting it in the middle of the horde should do some damage.
Pop goes the K-Pulse. Two hits. Not bad, but not enough to get me in to the main Terminal room. I have two Commando’s left. The yellow tiles are covered by enemy and will kick off enemy reactive fire if I move there.
It just isn’t enough and I fail to get into the Terminal room, let alone get an actual hit on it before Turn 14 ticks over! And so it was a fail.
Oppressive and cautious to begin with, with a loss of an entire fireteam (4 commandos) to the Assault fiend (waving a wicked insta-death melee based Trident). I was really down until the Sergeant pulled out the impressive supressive fire session and cleaned up. Picking my spirits up, only to be dashed when he was caught and downed in the choking mist of a smoke grenade. The remaining men in the last fireteam just didn’t have the minerals to make it through the cloying horde of relentless metallic death machines.
Overall, I’d say the game is a worthwhile cerebral exercise in massaging the rules to your will, positioning units and fire setups to maximise your kill effectiveness on the next turn. Definitely use supression liberally. It’s a challenging game, and there are several modes on offer, escape missions, kill all and survive, to specific objectives.
There is a “Fog of War” mode called Electronic Warfare mode, which leaves you in the dark in terms of knowing where the enemy are. Which adds to the tension and the difficulty big time.
The game supports multiplayer, using Slitherine’s PBEM++ lobbying system.
It feels a lot more like an exercise in mental gymnastics and planning, than one of pushing hardy grunts through claustrophobic tunnels. The combat seems clinical and removed from the action, but it still serves its purpose, in the “plan and reveal” outcome mechanic. I just wish there was more made of the visuals and the soundscapes to give you a more immersive battle resolution. One which has you being scorched by the firepower and the raw panic and aggression of the situation. I suppose the heavy miss-rate might go against blistering gun bursts and boom booms. Perhaps, the more reserved, cold and calculated pew, pew, die reflects the boardgame heritage this game is resurrecting in a palatable format for todays digital soldiers?
Other titles you budding Space Marines/Commandos/Folks might want to look into:
Templar Battelforce (upcoming)
Ultimate Space Command
Games Workshop’s Space Hulk