STEAM-POWERED GENRE BLENDER
Take XCOM and mix in some Valkyria Chronicles. Add a pinch of Gears of War, then throw in a host of references to classic American literature. Serve up the result with a comic book/steampunk aesthetic, and you have Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., the latest 3DS game from Intelligent Systems. Nintendo’s latest IP certainly draws inspiration from a great variety of sources, but does the result measure up to the sum of its parts?
S.T.E.A.M., short for “Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace,” is a team of specialized field agents formed by none other than President Abraham Lincoln himself. Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre was a ruse to let Lincoln go off the grid and recruit the nation’s best and brightest in secrecy. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. follows the eponymous strike team as they try to save the world by repelling a sudden invasion from an advanced alien army. The aliens first appear in England, laying siege to Buckingham Palace, but their ambition is soon revealed to be global in scope.
The twist, besides the chunky steampunk art style, is that the heroes are pulled from the pages of classic American literature and folklore, and the aliens are inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Seeing the likes of John Henry, Peter Pan’s Tiger Lily, and the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz go up against a horde of tentacled beasts is an absolute treat in its own right, and the story rewards prior knowledge of these characters with plenty of subtle references to their source works. Every new recruit was a nice surprise, and I really looked forward to seeing which classic character would appear next.
Unfortunately, if you aren’t familiar with these works, you’ll probably find the plot as a whole rather thin – it relies a lot on the fact that these are already established characters, not leaving much room for character development. That said, there’s not much room for such things to begin with – the story moves very quickly from skirmish to skirmish, leaving the cutscenes with barely enough time to establish the location and motive of the forthcoming battle. Its brevity works out pretty well, in hindsight — the most appealing part of the plot is its wacky mismatch of pop culture icons, after all. But if you were expecting to play this game for the story, I suspect you might leave a little disappointed.
As for the graphics, well, it’s really a love-it-or-hate-it thing. I’ve never been a fan of the comic book aesthetic in video games, simply because I don’t like looking at it. I’ve heard other people express complete and total adoration when it comes to the game’s motif, and that’s fine. One thing I can say is that everything is totally functional – the aliens are clad in blue or purple hues that stand out nicely from the muted tones of the environment, and their glowing pink weak points are never lost even on the more complicated enemy designs. The guidelines showing your movement range and projectile trajectory are easy to see, and are effectively color-coded to easily convey the results of an action before you commit to it. I may think it looks ugly, but there’s no denying that the graphical choices serve the gameplay well.
The soundtrack is, to put it plainly, pretty bland. It feels like someone took the excellent music from Advance Wars: Days of Ruin and sucked all the life out of it, leaving nothing but an uninspired slog of forgettable rock music. Some of the dubstep-ish music that plays during the enemy turns can be pretty fun, but it’s still nothing I’ll remember after I’m done with the game.
Thankfully, all those flaws are nowhere near being on my mind when playing the game, because I was just too absorbed to care. This is a turn-based strategy game where everything runs on steam. Each of your four agents are allotted a certain amount of steam each turn, and it’s your job to decide how to spend it. Walking from one grid space to another uses up one unit of steam, while firing your weapon can use up between one and four units, depending on which gun you’re holding. This means that you have the option of walking up to an enemy, shooting them in the face, then immediately retreating to avoid retaliation – provided you have enough steam to do it all.
And you might not even want to spend your entire turn’s worth of steam, because it can be saved up (to a certain point) and used in future turns. Not only that, but ending an agent’s turn with sufficient steam left in their tank will put them into “overwatch” mode, which will have them automatically fire on any enemy that enters their line of sight. All these choices make steam an interesting resource to manage, and those decisions can easily determine your success or failure. It may sound really fiddly, but steps are taken to make the game very player-friendly. In particular, when you use steam for movement, you don’t actually commit to using the steam until you fire a weapon or are fired upon, meaning you can change your mind and head straight back to where you were. This mechanic can be exploited to scout around and get the lay of the land – very important, because you have no overhead map. You only have the information you gain with your eyes and ears to go on, which is interesting and unusual for the genre.
Combat, like in XCOM or Valkyria Chronicles, is conducted in the style of a third-person shooter. This means that cover and line-of-sight are very important, and both you and your enemies know it. Indeed, your enemy can and will pull all the same tricks you do, including hiding around corners and waiting in overwatch mode. If you’re sloppy about movement and information-gathering, you’ll turn a blind corner and quickly find yourself on the wrong end of an alien rifle. I don’t think a strategy game has ever made me feel paranoid before, but this one sure did. And that isn’t a bad thing.
Another major benefit to the game is the amount of customization available. Each mission lets you pick your team from a cast of 12 different characters that all play distinctly, thanks to their widely varying skills and signature weapons. You can customize your team further by equipping general-use sub-weapons and boilers (i.e. armor), which are gradually unlocked by finding hidden collectibles on the map. I spent a lot of time thinking up effective combinations of characters and equipment, and was rewarded by finding out some non-obvious synergies that really helped me deal with the game’s quickly-increasing challenge. I got really excited every time I unlocked a new character, weapon, or boiler, because each one increased the number of possible combinations and further deepened the game.
There are some elements that seem negative at first, but actually serve to enrich the game once you’re used to them. First, the lack of an overhead map: I touched on this a bit earlier, but I really think the addition of an overhead map would only cheapen the game. A huge part of playing the game effectively is information gathering, so much so that you may want to remove an agent from the main battlefield in order to climb a structure to get a good vantage point. It may feel a little frustrating at first, but it won’t be long before you’re incorporating it into your strategy.
Second, the length of enemy turns can, indeed, take a while to pass. Further, the enemies are often on the other side of a wall, and you can’t see what they’re doing. I, however, think that if you’re doing nothing but waiting on the enemy turn, you’re wasting an important strategic opportunity for more intel. You should be switching the camera between the vantage points of your four characters and listening for nearby footsteps, trying to figure out what the enemy is planning. Certainly, if you don’t want to be that careful, a “speed up” button would be nice (there is one, kind of, but the effect is miniscule.) But I found it pretty clear that you were expected to pay close attention during the enemy’s turn, and I was never bothered by how long it took.
The Verdict: 8.7 out of 10
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is another well-designed and excellently tuned strategy game from Intelligent Systems. It’s fast-paced for a strategy game and unusually cerebral for a third-person shooter. Everything works well, and perfectly nails the balance of being accessible yet challenging. The story is dull and the presentation could use some work, but it’s hard to be too unhappy about that when you’re carefully planning how to blow up the next group of alien horrors. This quirky little title quickly became one of my favorite 3DS games — here’s hoping this new IP picks up enough steam to see a sequel!
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Aaron Dobbe is an Associate Writer at MONG specializing in Nintendo but playing a bit of everything else too. Follow him on Facebook and pester him to get a Twitter.