A few days ago, I would not have considered writing this review for Legions of Steel. There would have been a review for the turn-based tactical tabletop conversion, but it would have had considerably more expletives and a short video of me taking a hammer to a toaster.
Time for a confession: whenever I start a new tactics game, I’m just plain rubbish. I need time to cool my jets, to use my decrepit, dusty noggin; time for me to click with the game. In the case of Legions of Steel, it took a little bit longer because of a tutorial campaign that sets up certain expectations that become fatal when the game proper begins.
It did eventually click. After a defeat at the hands of the apparently evil Machines, I restarted the mission and all of a sudden found myself breezing through what had been trying moments before. That’s not to say that the following missions were a walk in the park, however. Legions of Steel can be tricky, but it’s ripe with tools and tactical options to get your squad of human soldiers out of many jams.
The start, though, is a bit wobbly. Before you get into the meat of the game, you’re advised to play through the tutorial campaign. It’s long. Needlessly long. Almost every aspect of controlling your squad gets its own separate mission, complete with secondary objectives. Once you’ve done a few, another mission will pop up, telling you to use everything you’ve learned up to then. This goes on for well over an hour. It’s not that they aren’t informative, they are, but they just go on when all anyone, surely, wants to do is get to the bleeding game.
It’s not just the length, either. The larger issue is that a lot of the randomness that’s an inherent part of the game is left out. There are no initiative rolls before turns, hit percentages are ignored and it implies that every unit can be killed in one hit, which isn’t true.
So it took a wee while for everything to fall into place.
It’s a bit like Space Hulk, but it would be more accurate to say that it’s a lot like Legions of Steel the tabletop game. The broad strokes are pretty similar in both games: you control a squad of blokes in claustrophobic corridors while unpleasant enemies hunt you down, and everyone dies very easily.
Legions of Steel’s enemies are possibly the greatest difference between it and Space Hulk. The Machines and your squad are nearly equal, possessing a similar skill set and ranged weapons. They’re extremely aggressive, but don’t just charge at the squad, instead locking down areas, using cover and throwing smoke grenades to reduce their chance to get shot when moving through the squad’s field of view. Though they are still quite easy to trick and trap.
Each mission is a tactical puzzle peppered with tense standoffs in tight corridors and grueling races to objectives. Between missions, objectives vary widely from defense missions where the squad is pinned down in a room for a set number of turns, to hunts in the dark, where enemy positions are either discovered by accident, which often results in death, or by sacrificing an attack to scan an area.
There are few missions that simply task you with killing the enemy, and a lot of them can be completed without putting a single foe in the ground. What missions mostly require is the ability to control the battlefield. Blocking routes, funnelling enemies down specific paths, finding the fastest, most efficient ways though the corridor mazes – that’s what wins games.
It helps, of course, if you make the most out of your squad’s diverse abilities. You get four classes of soldier: the basic commando who can use grenades and force balls that block corridors, the heavy, who can fire twice the number of times as the commando, and then the Corporal and Sergeant, who can actually level up, increasing their range, mobility, accuracy and so on.
The effectiveness of each soldier is determined by their stance, which affects their movement points and hit chance. Say you’ve got a Machine heading your way, and you can see that he’s right around the corner. Because turning once takes up two movement points and there are a further four squares to traverse, your commando won’t make it if he walks, because that stance only confers 4 movement points. So you make him run, instead, netting him 8 points. Running is a double edged sword, though. Sure, your soldier now has a line of sight to the enemy, but his hit chance will have diminished. Presumably, he’s a bit unsteady after his sprint.
In that scenario, it might be smarter to let the enemy come to you. Ending a soldier’s turn without making him fire automatically puts him into a covering stance, essentially overwatch. There are advanced covering options too, and they are absolute life savers that I am certain I’d miss if I went back to play, say, XCOM. It means that you can have multiple soldiers covering, but focused on different targets. One soldier might target a specific enemy, while another can be set to interrupt a shooter or focus on an area rather than a particular foe.
Some missions are tailored for specific strategies and abilities, imposing new limitations or challenges. One mission saw me racing the Machines to a console at the other side of the map. The machines had to switch it on, my squad had to destroy it. The catch was that the Machines had a more direct route, while my path was blocked by several doors.
I had to shoot a lot of doors.
You see, like turning, opening a door swallows up two movement points. Shooting a door only costs the ability to fire again that round. So I had a couple of runners, and the rest of my squad shot down doors for them so they could just keep on going. As I got closer to the enemy, I harassed them a bit and blocked off a few choice routes with force balls, which they had to either destroy or ignore, finding another way around.
What really won me that mission, however, was initiative. At the start of each turn, both teams roll initiative, and whoever wins can take their turn first. In a close game, getting to go first can allow you to make the winning move. It might, at times, seem a bit unfair to leave such important moments up to the whims of fate, but there are ways to tip the scales in your favour.
Command points, of which you get only a maximum of three per turn, can be spent on wrestling control away from chaos, reducing the random elements of the game. A point can be spent on a shot, increasing hit chance, or on an initiative roll. But they are a fleeting resource, and with so many ways for them to be used, spending one is a big decision. If you throw them all into your initiative roll, you won’t be able to spend them on moving a few extra squares or dodging or increasing the chances of throwing a grenade exactly where you want it to land. They give you this slight, incredibly helpful edge, but when they are gone you’re on your own.
Your squad is blessed with options and you’ve got a rich toolset for fine tuning strategies, including the ability to reverse a move as long as your soldier hasn’t fired or been shot at, so while you’ll often face challenging odds and tricky scenarios, it never feels hopeless. It’s a puzzle that needs solving, and you have all the tools you need right in front of you.
Interesting tactical conundrums is something Legions of Steel has in spades, but elsewhere the game feels pretty scrawny. The main campaign is short – though there is a skirmish mode where you can also play as the Machines and asynchronous multiplayer – made up of 10 missions of varying length. Some can be finished in mere minutes, if your squad is lucky, while others can take up the better part of an hour, but it all goes by quite quickly. Expect to get through it all in less than 8 hours.
Legions of Steel is also, lamentably, devoid of personality. It’s all numbers and mazes with missions that lack cohesion.
The Machines aren’t characters, they are just the red guys that your blue guys are fighting, and the story is paper thin and mostly just told via scenario objectives. “You’ve infiltrated the enemy base, here is what you need to do,” is about all the story you get. So there’s no real sense of place, no stakes, no characters to care about. The missions might as well just be unrelated challenge maps.
An absence of progression is also a disappointment. While the Sergeant and Corporal can level up, the rest of the squad stays exactly the same throughout the game, never learning any new abilities. In fact, the only mechanic the game introduces after the first mission is electronic warfare, which is basically a fog of war. That comes in halfway through the game. The different objective types stop the game from crossing the line into repetitiveness, but that lack of progression does threaten to make the later missions feel a wee bit stale.
I found myself missing the weight of death. What a gloomy thing to say, I know. But there’s a tension and desperation that comes from games like XCOM with its permadeath system. I grow to care about these soldiers, and there’s a terrible cost when I make a mistake. In Legions of Steel, you can finish a mission with only one surviving soldier and there’s no cost whatsoever. The next mission fills up your roster all over again, so it never feels like there are any consequences to your actions. A win is simply a win.
It feels like the developer, Nyx, nailed down the tactical systems and then lost steam. This extends to the presentation, as well. The poor UI looks like a concession to tablets, with its big buttons that spawn more big buttons, the lack of tooltips and the completely broken edge scrolling that instantly knocks the camera right to the edge of the map.
The whole game is rife with spelling and punctuation errors, too. There’s not really enough text to excuse how many mistakes crop up. Even the enemy reinforcements you get, which appear in some missions dozens of times, have these huge, glaring errors, like the misspelling of an enemy unit. It’s off-putting, and if the game actually tried to spin a yarn and used more text, it would have been utterly unbearable. Maybe, in that case, the lack of a narrative is a silver lining.
The core of Legions of Steel – not the tutorial, not the barely present premise, not the shoddy presentation – is strong. The Machines could pose a bit more of a challenge, but the scenarios and the conundrums I needed to solve tickled my brain in all the right places. It’s so spartan, though. It’s missing that spark of personality and something that ties all the scenarios together. And it’s in desperate need of a great deal of polish.