Monday, September 28, 2009

Raven Squad Review

Raven Squad, developed by Atomic Motion and published by Evolved Games and SouthPeak Games.
The Good: Seamless transition between RTS and FPS modes
The Not So Good: Rudimentary and dull strategy mode, shooting lacks innovation, lackluster AI needs detailed squad commands, short campaign with linear missions that's not challenging at all, LAN-only multiplayer, generally horrible presentation
What say you? A generic first person shooter and a limited real time strategy game combine very poorly: 3/8

Remember the '80s? You know, full of crappy action movies like Rambo, Commando, and...uh...Commando (and Rambo). Get to the choppa! And all that jazz. It's a wonder nobody has capitalized on using that ever-popular tropical jungle setting for a campy action title. That is until now! Raven Squad lets you lead two groups of commandos (to I guess it should really be called Raven Squads) in to the jungle, possibly involving Jesse Ventura. The game attempts to combine the action of first person shooters and the planning of real time strategy games into a cohesive package of awesomeness. Though we have mostly seen use of role-playing elements in other genres, a FPS-RTS combination is almost unique. How does it all work out?

The graphics of Raven Squad are not so great. I suspect some concessions are made because of the transition between a first person camera and an overhead view, but the closer view really suffers from poorly detailed textures. The jungle environment does not lend itself towards a variety of visuals, and the setting has been done better in games such as Far Cry; each new level looks just like the previous one. The character models also could move more fluidly, as the stiff animations are very apparent during death. Worse off is the sound design, with insufferable voice acting and a musical score that is distressingly reminiscent of Joint Operations. Raven Squad does not impress in any area, graphics and sound included.

Welcome to the jungle. We have fun and games. Although Raven Squad is mostly devoid of both, and here’s why. First off, the twelve-mission campaign is extremely short: each level clocks in at around fifteen minutes long, which makes the entire game about three hours from start to finish. Most people will be able to easily finish Raven Squad in one sitting. The game is also limited to LAN-only cooperative multiplayer, if you have any friends who were silly enough to also purchase this game. This would have been a notable inclusion if true online capabilities were present. As a result of these poor features, Raven Squad has no replay value. At least Raven Squad lets you save your progress anywhere, removing some of the console port stink.

Gameplay in Raven Squad comes in two flavors: first person shooting and real time strategy. The FPS mode is very conventional and offers nothing in the way of innovation. Firing down the scope is just as accurate as shooting from the hip, so the action is certainly on the arcade side of things. The game also has some weird default controls: Q to switch weapons? F keys for commands? Raven Squad was clearly designed for the consoles, as exemplified by the constant use of XBOX controller buttons in the menus. You will be able to control six different characters organized into two squads, each of which as a specific role as determined by their weaponry. They all have cute names: Paladin has a rifle and machine gun, Thor is equipped with a shotgun and rocket launcher, Special Agent Oso (yes, his name is really Oso…he’s o-so special!) has a submachine gun and grenades, Shadow is a sniper, Flash has flashbang grenades (get it? ha!), and Zombie has a scoped M16 with smoke grenades. You can’t customize the loadouts at all, and you must remember which character has which weapons on the fly to fight most effectively; there are icons for each character, but they only display one of the two weapons.

The real time strategy portion of Raven Squad is useful as a minimap, but that’s it. You can easily find ammunition, health, and all enemy locations, which makes the game trivially easy. You are limited to one-button context-sensitive commands: move, attack, or use. A command is issued to the entire squad of three, rendering their different abilities useless. While it is easy to move behind cover (similar to Dawn of War II), the fact that you can’t give individual commands and the AI is too dumb to figure out how to move as a unit with varied abilities really limits your strategic options. Units aren't effective at all killing enemy units, so it's just quicker to jump back into FPS mode to take them down. You also can't box select units, meaning you have to constantly tab back and forth between squads. The RTS elements are very lightweight indeed.

As I alluded to earlier, the AI is both dumb and heavily scripted (which serious cuts down on replay value). In addition, they are some of the most inaccurate highly trained marksmen ever seen: you really need to individually control at least one member in order to eliminate enemy units in a timely manner. The levels are very linear, offering nothing in the form of varied approaches in strategy. There is a lot of conveniently placed rocks and crates for cover and invisible walls you can’t pass. Yes, highly trained operatives are blocked by crates. Squads always stick together, two feet from each other, at all times; having some sort of individual command structure would allieviate some of the stupidity of Raven Squad, but you can’t ignore the completely useless nature of your AI teammates.

Raven Squad is one of those games that could have been innovative and great, but falls way short of the mark. The combination of real time strategy and first person shooting works well…in theory, but Raven Squad lacks the execution to make it a good game. The FPS half of Raven Squad is generic action we’ve seen in any shooter; add in an obtuse default control scheme (Q to switch weapons? really?) meant for a console controller, and nothing there impresses. The strategy portion of Raven Squad is severely underdeveloped: the fact that you are restricted to context-sensitive, one-button commands says a lot. The AI is so incompetent that you simply cannot play the entire game from the overhead view: units will rarely engage enemy units unless specifically told to do so. Really, the RTS mode is only for scouting enemy locations (and, since the view shows everything, it makes the game extraordinarily easy). The linear level designs leave nothing to the imagination. Controlling two squads effectively is impossible, as nobody can be left on their own. Constantly switching back and forth between squads is annoying and not fun. The graphics are sub par, and Raven Squad is also laughably short: three hours and that’s it. Cooperative multiplayer can only be done over a LAN, so there’s no reason to play this game after you’ve finished it, assuming you ignored my advice and played it in the first place. Raven Squad clearly shows what happens when good ideas go terribly, terribly wrong.