It takes about ten minutes to get close to securing this enemy-infested biotech research lab. It takes about thirty seconds for it all to go wrong.
Which is as it should be. Takedown is a throwback, both in appearance and style, to the all-too-brief golden age of the tactical shooter. You might complete an entire mission without expending a full clip of ammunition. You might spend five minutes just trying to make it out of a doorway into a hallway. You can’t relax or hurry, because the action happens in split-second increments separated by long minutes of drawn-out tension.
It’s everything modern shooters aren’t, for better and for worse. It straddles a line between boredom and excitement, taking aim only at people for whom slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
Takedown is a multiplayer game. You can play single-player, but compared to the experience with a squad at your back, it’s a more like training for the real-thing. AI allies are great shots and have quick reflexes, but they can’t coordinate. They follow along behind like armed ducklings, picking off targets you might miss, but mostly waiting to see what you’ll do next.
They’re also less likely to ventilate your spleen with a 9mm SMG burst. One of the first things I learned to do with my squad of human allies, all developers at Serellen, was to be very careful about sneaking up on people, crossing in front of their field of fire, and entering a new room to reassemble. Everyone is on a hair-trigger, because even the AI enemies will drop you dead within one second of spotting you, so they have to be dead before that.
So teamspeak resounds with constant, terse chatter. “Clear left.”
“Crossing. …Hallway clear.”
“We’re coming out.”
“All right, falling in behind you.”
I love this feeling. I remember it from my best runs in Left 4 Dead, and from daring missions behind enemy lines in Ghost Recon. Playing with a small team of near-strangers, or even dear friends, is an incredible thing when shooters give you reasons enough to draw close. It’s not an easy thing to pull off. Military shooters always fight to make players work together, knowing that the game is exponentially better when coupled with this kind of collaboration and deliberate pacing. And yet, in most games, players function as free agents, only cooperating in the loosest sense according the rules of their character class and mission objectives.
Takedown doesn’t really offer you a choice. You either speak up and step up, or you’re going to take a friendly round from a teammate who wasn’t expecting you to come running in from flanking position, or you’ll hesitate a split second in combat as your mind processes the uniform a target is wearing because you have no idea where your buddies are. And just as your mind starts to scream, “HOSTILE” you hear a thud from your body army and suddenly you’re watching other people play for the duration of the mission. Not having fun? That’s okay, there’s a lot of other games with military-grade hardware and guys in balaclavas. This one simply asks that you function as part of a team.
Takedown requires a lot of buy-in, because it absolutely will not attempt to seduce you. It is unadorned by lavish textures and sophisticated graphical effects. I wrote at some length about its presentation after E3, and rather like its emphasis on bold colors and clean lines. But I also admit that I was at times put-off by its spartan values and quirks. Some of the rooms looked more appropriate to System Shock 2 than a modern game, and more open areas feel like standing inside a geometry diagram than a space used by humans.
It’s also stubborn about sound effects. Don’t come to Takedown expecting to hear automatic weapons cracking and blasting like the heist sequence in Heat. Most gun will be suppressed, meaning that entire firefights will play out with subdued, apologetic pops, the rhythmic clicking of bolts, and the muffled thunk of rounds hitting walls and armor.
But all of this is first-impressions stuff, and I quickly got used to it. The more daring choice Takedown makes is that it is more than happy to let you sit there, doing nothing, for extended periods of time. If your team is clearing a building and you get sniped in the first minute of the mission, you will remain dead. The mission might take fifteen minutes of slow, cautious play and the most you’ll be able to do is change cameras. In practice, I never had more than a few minutes of idleness, but it’s still a choice that guarantees players the odd lousy game now and then. For people more accustomed to the pacing of Counter-Strike or Battlefield, this might be a deal-breaker.
The payoff, however, is that every session is for keeps. Nobody wants to spend the rest of the mission as a ghost, watching your former comrades breach-and-clear their way to victory or defeat. So you draw closer, work harder, and play smarter. You don’t just “slice the pie”, you slowly shave it down to nothing, and then lean out for that final glance into the corner’s blind spot. Every choice takes on more importance. You have nine rounds left in your primary weapon’s magazine, but you’re also momentarily exposed on a landing. Do you reload, and risk getting caught out? Do you switch to the less-powerful but fully-loaded pistol? Do you simply trust that you can make those nine rounds count, and then get your pistol out in time to deal with any more trouble that shows up?
Or do you trust to your team? “Hey, need relief up here. Gotta reload.”
“‘Kay, coming up behind you.”
The graphics are not cutting edge, but the spaces are more tactically demanding than I’m used to seeing in shooters. Part of it is a virtue of Takedown’s unforgiving nature, because you can’t simply backpedal out of a bad situation and hope for a medic to heal you or for your hitpoints to recharge.
But the real difference is that Takedown’s levels, particularly its interiors, do feel more chaotic and more challenging than other shooters’. For instance, after our team clears out the garage level and maintenance area of a bio lab, we go up the fire stairway into the second-story labs and offices.
The main hallway has the IT department off the left side, and then a series of labs and offices honeycombed along the righthand side. Behind us, heading down the hall in the other direction, there is a door that accesses the main lobby.
Controlling the space is almost, but not quite, impossible. The hallway itself is a shooting gallery, blind to any shooters who waiting in the doorways. But it has to be controlled while the rest of the team fans out and starts working its way through each of the labs and server rooms. Most of them will be empty. Some won’t.
It starts off well. I’m controlling the corridor with my MP5 while I hear flashbangs and soft gunshots coming from either side as the team sweeps through the rooms. I catch guards trying to come through the airlock at the far side and try to massacre them between the two doors. My MP5 can’t seem to penetrate the glass, though.
“What’s going on?” asks artist Deane McGahan.
“Guards in the airlock. I think I have them. But if anyone has a higher-velocity weapon, it might be useful out here.”
“OK, I’m coming back.” Another black-clad commando steps into the hall and takes my position. Loud rifle cracks spell the end of the guys in the airlock. I move up to support the clearing teams.
“Outside the lab, coming in from the hallway door,” I announce. As I step into the next room, however, a flurry of shots drops one of the two commandos inside.
“Shit, I’m down, I’m down.”
“Got one in the chemistry lab,” studio director Christian Allen says, his voice tight. The gunfire picks up and I take position alongside him. The enemy is in the next room, and we are both separated from one each other by two long work tables. Allen starts reloading as I blast away at where I think the tango is.
“What’s going on? We’re coming up to flank.”
“Okay, he’s in the last room—” A flurry of shots.
“FUCK, we’re down. We musta missed someone on the other side. It’s you guys now.”
Allen resumes firing and I head back into the hall. The bodies of our two comrades are in front of a doorway on the righthand side of the hall. Somehow a shooter survived our sweep. It might even be my fault: did I distract them when I shot those guys in the airlock?
I lean around the corner and spot the the guy who got our buddies. I put him down. Simultaneously, Allen says, “I’m hit. It’s just you.”
I get a grenade out. Screw subtlety. But just as I prepare to throw it, the gunman comes storming out of the lab and unloads a burst at point-blank range.
Try, try again
The entire debacle played out across maybe thirty feet of a single hallway, These won’t just be deathmatch arenas, these are going to be the stages of repeated tactical dramas and tragedies like the one that killed my entire team.
Things play out differently in the attack / defend mode, in which one team attempts to defend a bomb location while the other either wipes them out or disarms the bomb before time expires. It’s a slow-motion Counter-Strike battle, and its dynamics are completely different the missions.
Where the missions are all about close-knit cooperation, there’s more incentive to try risky splits in competitive multiplayer. A single well-placed sniper can tilt the match heavily… or spend the entire match looking in vain for targets while the rest of the team is wiped out. Likewise, it’s easy to set a trap for the attackers, like positioning a crossfire at the bomb site, but it’s just as easy for the attackers to use breaching charges to blast doors open and let the explosions do the messy work.
It’s an awfully generous package for a $15 speciality shooter, and it will probably make its intended audience of Rainbow Six and SWAT nostalgics very happy. It remains to be seen how many new converts it can win to the cause of the tactical FPS, but the Takedown team may not care. This is a game that will let the hasty or inattentive sit out a round doing nothing but watching their teammates. When you join Takedown’s titular Red Sabre team, you agree to play by their unforgiving rules.