Developer: Zombie Studios / Publisher: Microprose, Atari / Played On: Xbox 360 [Also on: PC] / Price: $14.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Violence]
Special Forces: Team X is the latest game from Zombie Studios, the team that brought you last year’s shooter Blacklight: Retribution and its prequel, Blacklight: Tango Down. It’s a culmination of the common attributes of modern action game: cover mechanics, team-based objective modes, loadout customization, and of course, leveling up to unlock more equipment. But there’s slightly more to its cell-shaded exterior than meets the eye.
Unlike most shooters these days, SFTX has no story or cooperative mode. It’s all multiplayer, all the time. Just a couple of red and blue-suited guys having at each other. Heck, there’s no explanation of what the game has to do with the name.
Regardless, Special Forces: Team X has plenty of unlocks and levels to attain, but there’s only a handful of features that attempt to separate the game from the crowded pack of online shoot-em-ups begging for your time. But even then, it may not be enough to maintain your interest for long.
SFTX is a third-person cover shooter with a clear focus on team objectives. Between Team Death Match, Hot Zone, High Value Target, Capture the Flag, and Control Point, you’ve got a just-above-essentials-only line-up of modes and environments to play them in. Interestingly enough, the maps are the most interesting portion of the game – because they’re hardly ever the same.
SFTX uses a map tile system that chops the map into three equal sections. At the outset of each match, you vote on what tile segments you’d like for each section. You choose from nine total, resulting in over 100 potential map combos. Sections like Admin building, Irrigation, Construction, Barge, and Container are just a few. Though you’ll see the same sections of maps over and over, their location in accordance with other sections will differ nearly every time you play. It’s a creative accomplishment, but it comes with a simple, potentially nitpicky caveat – no map has a particularly cohesive theme, as it’s made up of randomly voted upon sections. It’s disappointing not to be able to select a favorite map from the server browser and hop in (a la any other multiplayer shooter), but it’s also refreshing to play on a virtually new plane each time.
The gunplay is straightforward, if not basic. You sprint around the map in third-person, taking cover when you can to avoid aggression, and you light up enemies with grenades and guns of all types. It’s comparable to Gears of War or Spec Ops: The Line in that respect, but movement is more rigid and less hulking. You can assign secondary weapons to the right and left bumpers as well, like attack dogs and grenades. Where the uniqueness comes in is through rewarding you for being a team player – multipliers for sticking near your team and the like. Additionally, small HUD enhancements like showing the rate at which your team is capturing a point is super-smart and help in strategizing your way to a win. Other than that, it’s like I said: pretty straightforward, if not basic.
The loadout customization is impressive, but you’re only allowed two slots in total. It’s nowhere near as customizable as the studio’s free-to-play Blacklight: Retribution, oddly, but you can still apply the usual reticles, scopes, and attachments to your weapon of choice, as well as a number of options to help make your character look more distinct. By-and-large though, most characters still look pretty similar.
Some of the passive abilities you can assign each loadout are useful, such as upgrades to make your entire team quicker or more damage-resistant for small periods of time. If used strategically, it can make a difference between a win and a loss. And the fact that these upgrades apply to your squad and not just yourself adds to the game’s focus on team play.
Mechanically, the game is sound and functions to an adequate degree. Unfortunately, I consistently experienced some wonky killcam motions, intense lag (rubber-banding), and finicky hit detection. These problems can and will likely be fixed in a patch, but they’re problems that existed throughout my time with it.
As for sound, the weapon and equipment effects are pretty unexceptional, and largely sound similar. It almost comes off as cheap – there’s no unique or differentiating equipment sounds or satisfying effects that partner with character actions.
SFTX bases its visual inspiration on the aesthetic of cell-shaded games – The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Jet Set Radio, Ni No Kuni, and every Nickelodeon game based on a TV show, just to name a few. It’s a bold style that more and more developers are adopting for their games, and it’s striking at first glance here.
On the other hand, the game suffers occasionally from poor texture loading issues and edge drawing. More often than not, I’ve popped into a multiplayer match to be greeted with wall and ground textures slowly being etched and smoothed in. It’s not very visually appealing and elicits a vibe of incompleteness, like it lacked that last layer of polish. This could be exclusive to the console XBLA version, which has obvious technical limitations when compared to its PC counterpart.
This is a barely adequate multiplayer shooter. It takes creative strides in unique directions with its tile map system and its focus on rewarding you for team work, but it also has many technical issues weighing it down (at least on the XBLA version).
My most concerning issue with Special Forces: Team X, though, is how lost it seems. It lacks personality even though its title and pre-launch trailers exude it; it seems to exist as just another multiplayer shooter with no innovation aside from its map system. And when you have games as impressive as Blacklight Retribution from the same studio just a year before, it starts to feel more and more like an afterthought project.