Thursday, August 02, 2012

Miasma 2 Review

Miasma 2, developed and published by ESP Games.
The Good: Multiple characters to control with varied items and abilities, stationary units can be ordered to engage any nearby enemies, experience upgrades, $5
The Not So Good: Units cannot fire from behind cover, initially limited action points reduce tactical flexibility, very brief campaign, lackluster AI, no difficulty settings, no checkpoints and can't save mid-mission, can't customize controls
What say you? A turn-based tactical strategy game with a solid base that needs better use of cover and more content: 4/8

Rebellions against evil have been a stalwart of media since the dawn of the motion picture: Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Bio-Dome. In the future, it’s just us verses the conglomerates that are bent on world domination. But what are we to do? Assault them in a turn-based format, of course. Miasma 2 is the sequel to…let’s see here…My Little Pony: The Runaway Rainbow. In it, you command an elite team of operatives who defeat the forces of evil by shooting them in the head. Justice has been served!

The graphics of Miasma 2 are pretty decent for a $5 title. The game is in 3-D, and the characters look good, with detailed textures and models. However, they move robotically with canned animations, and are far too expressive during conversation. The level design consists of outdoor environment that have some detail with recycled objects but are mostly too sparse to be a convincing urban landscape. Weapons are disappointing, as their designs don’t hold up next to the characters that are holding them, smoke trails from weapons are jagged, and death sequences are forgettable. The camera angles during turn resolution are terrible: they attempt to show the action from above but are simply spastic. The interface has some highlights: cover is clearly indicated in green and estimated damage is shown when selecting targets. The game shows whether you can still shoot after moving to selected locations, and objective locations are clearly indicated on the minimap. There are some areas that could have been improved: you can’t click on unit portraits or use the number keys to select members of your team (or use any other keyboard method to cycle through units; the game wants you to use a gamepad, apparently), and the game will tell you if there are units without orders, but not who they are or where they are located. Also, idle units should be given the “overwatch” command to automatically defend the area. The sound design is run-of-the-mill, with typical effects, generic background music, and no voice acting for a more convincing story. Overall, the presentation of Miasma 2 surpasses its asking price.

The turn-based action of Miasma 2 takes place over six campaign missions, each of which clock in at around 15-20 minutes. Doing the math, you can see the entire game can be completed in a couple of hours, which is much less content than usual in the strategy genre. You can replay the campaign and keep the upgrades you have earned over time, but since the enemy starting positions are scripted in advance, replay value is pretty low. Most missions have you attacking any enemy units along the way to an end waypoint, although the occasional defend mission does exist. You can choose between two main characters, and the other members of your team are also controllable during the missions. Between missions, the game is in first person as you wander around your base, engaging in conversation and purchasing upgrades for yourself and your teammates. The dialogue isn’t very interesting but you may (spoiler alert!) unlock things for your team (unconscious characters still talk at the end of missions, interestingly…the future is now!). Some of the upgrade locations are difficult to find, as there are no messages showing where things are in your base (I had to e-mail the developer directly to figure it out); I would be easier to navigate in menu format. Those upgrades include health, attack, defense, action points, and ability recharge, using points earned during missions. The game fails to inform you who is going to take part in the next mission, so you have no idea who to upgrade and you are likely to waste upgrade points. Cash earned can be spent on improved armor, fancy bullets, and iron sights to increase accuracy. The campaign mode lacks several needed features: you cannot save your progress during a scenario and there are no checkpoints, so you must replay the entire level if you fail. You are also given only one save game between missions, so you can’t have more than one active campaign or go back and retry previous missions. Miasma 2 is clearly designed with a console in mind, as you cannot alter the control scheme (or even figure out what they are, beyond the on-screen prompts) and the game refers to gamepad conventions on loading screens. Beyond the campaign, there is a survival mode where you eliminate waves of enemies; like the campaign, their placement is pre-scripted, but the large level gives you room to maneuver. To partially compensate for the lack of multiplayer, your best score in the survival mode can be uploaded online to compare your level of tactical awareness against the world.

As with most turn-based games, each unit under your control is given a number of action points that can be spent on various actions. Your options in Miasma 2 are fairly limited: move, attack, or use an item or ability. The interface clearly displays the limit of your movement each turn, so it’s fairly easy to get your bearings. There are no stance settings, and you can’t issue a move order to a place an ally is current standing. The attack order works as you would expect, although you cannot target enemies that are out of range or beyond line of sight at the beginning of the turn (although the might potentially move closer during turn resolution). However, Miasma 2 includes an “overwatch” command that allows stationary units to automatically fire upon any enemy that moves into their engagement range. This is a really handy tool that eliminates units staring at each other as they travel past, and prevents moving right in front of an enemy without any recourse. I’m glad that Miasma 2 figures out how to resolve this artifact of simultaneous turn-based gaming correctly.

Items at your disposal include healing and revival syringes plus grenades (frag, stun, EMP) for a more explosive approach. Each character also has a special ability that can allow themselves or a nearby unit to heal, camouflage, or stun. Sneaking behind an enemy unit allows for a one-shot stealth kill, and you get bonuses for shooting from the side or the back. Miasma 2 does not feature fog of war, so you can see exactly where all spawned enemy units are at all times. The cover system is odd: while you can hide behind the many objects scattered around each map, all of the characters stand when they move or fire. I’m pretty sure that you can both shoot and throw a grenade while still behind the relative safety of a wall. In Miasma 2, your units will receive damage as they slowly stand up, take a shot, and then slowly crouch back down. It looks silly and raises the question of having cover in the first place. The AI doesn’t help matters: it starts in set locations and follows seemingly scripted paths right towards your units, never using cover and usually displaying ignorance until fired upon. Miasma 2 works best when your team is together, using complimentary skills and providing cover fire. But despite some solid mechanics, the predictable AI makes for some bland combat where you just move from enemy to enemy, hoping you have enough health to survive their attacks as your units routinely expose themselves despite supposedly being behind cover.

Miasma 2 is a functional turn-based tactical game with a couple of faults that hold it back. The biggest flaw is the use (or non-use) of cover: units will automatically stand to move or shoot (even if moving to continuous cover right next to them), and nearby enemy units will immediately open fire. What’s the point of being behind cover if you can’t use it? The restricted number of action points available at the beginning of the campaign, before you can afford experienced-based character upgrades, means you can only do one thing per turn, which reduces the tactics you can successfully employ. While the game has a limited number of orders (move, shoot), there are a number of items and abilities that can be triggered, from grenades to healing to camouflage. The overwatch command, where idle units will automatically fire at incoming enemy units that start the turn out of range, saves Miasma 2 from a pitfall common to some turn-based tactical games. The lack of fog of war makes it easy to spot the AI, which usually follows scripted behaviors before you are spotted and makes semi-random decisions afterwards. The game’s features could have been greatly expanded: having only six missions and no multiplayer means you can burn through Miasma 2’s content rather quickly. The survival mode only offers mild additional thrills. Miasma 2 suffers from several forms of consolitis: you can’t save your game, and you can’t change the control scheme. The interface is halfway decent, however. In the end, Miasma 2 offers some nice tactical gameplay that is obscured by some questionable design issues and feature limitations.