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PC Review - 'Laser Squad Nemesis'

by Katarani on Aug. 11, 2005 @ 1:25 a.m. PDT

Laser Squad Nemesis is a tactical warfare game which combines a unique and innovative turn-based combat system with the action of real-time strategy games. The North American retail version includes 20+ missions in 4 single campaigns, and a complimentary 3-month subscription to additional online campaigns and updates.

Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Publisher: Got Game Entertainment
Developer: Codo Games
Release Date: April 26, 2005


Recently, we've seen an influx of online-only games coming to the offline foray, as well as an influx of sci-fi games. Alien Hominid is the most recent well-known example of such, but that doesn't mean there aren't others. For example, Laser Squad Nemesis, originally an online download-only game by the creators of X-Com: UFO Defense and its many sequels, which played less like the original X-Com and more like the play-by-e-mail game that Hasbro released in 1999, has come to the retail market. In order to make the port to printed CD, the creators of Laser Squad had to do several things, most notably the addition of a single player mode.

There's not much of a story, nor does there really need to be. All you need to know is such: the human Marines are at war with the typical Robots-Gone-Kill-happy, better known as the Machina, and with the all-too-Zerglike-for-their-own-good Spawn. Everyone hates everyone else, and much blood is being shed. With the commercial release of the game, however, come a new race, the Grays (who will seem rather familiar to anyone who's played X-Com, or, indeed, seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind), who witness the fighting, realize their experiments with the human race need to be stopped, and go out on a mission to, as expected, totally destroy anything in their path.

People going into this game expecting another X-Com are going to be somewhat disappointed. The lack of harvesting technology or saving civilians makes this much more similar to Starcraft in a lot of fundamental ways. At the beginning of each match/sortie/battle, you are given a set number of Force Points with which to assemble, naturally, your force. Units range anywhere from one to four points, depending on usefulness, as do ally headquarters, which are used for resupplying ammunition to units, which in this game is, almost tragically, quite limited. Units range from the cheap, plain-Jane Marine Grunts and Machina Exterminators to specialized units like the grenade-lobbing Marine Grenadiers and Spawn Goo Spitters, and further.

The game is turn-based at its core, with orders for your entire army issued at the beginning of each new turn. The amount of orders you can carry out, however, are limited like in a real-time strategy game; each turn is 10 seconds long, and anything you can perform within that timeframe will be executed to the best of your units' abilities, including movement. A faster unit, for example, might be able to cover half the map in a 10-second span, but a heavier unit akin to the tank-like Machina AI would manage a few hundred feet at best. Likewise, a slower unit would take several seconds to fire, whereas the typical grunt will shoot off six or seven shots in the allotted 10-second period.

The game plays much closer to a game of chess than anything currently out for the computer, mostly due to an aspect that fully utilizes its play-by-e-mail nature. Each turn, you can test your movements, change them, and test again, for as long as you wish until you actually finalize the order. Of course, those new to the game will often end up frustrated by this feature instead of helped. Due to the nature of the game, anything in the strategy-game-staple fog of war will be treated as if it simply doesn't exist, making movement through unknown areas seem infinitely easier than it actually is.

In addition, enemy units don't return fire or even move in the Test Order mode; what a player might think is a perfect setup to take down a small force of Marines will oftentimes end up in drastic and possibly dismal failure when the enemy gets their proprietary upgrade from brainless targets to AI or human-controlled units. Luck also plays a factor; each shot has a random chance of hitting, and certain actions, such as Spawn eggs hatching into new units, are determined by a random number generator as well, meaning what happens in the test phase will probably not happen in the actual next turn.

What this leads to is in fact a game that is far more cerebral than it first looks. Every squad, even the Spawn, with their powers to create new units on the fly from the corpses of enemies and allies alike, needs to approach the game from a slow, overly cautious mindset. Every turn could be the most influential move in the game, the turning point which leads to a quick slope of easy victory for one side or the other. The result is like playing a game of chess where you can't see the other player's pieces until they're about to capture one of your own. It makes the game very, well, war-like – a feeling which will possibly alienate many strategy gamers who were weaned on RTS games instead of the more meticulous, in-depth games like Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

In turn, the single-player seems as thrown-together as it actually is. There's a brief tutorial on basic control, but past that, very little help comes your way as to what you actually need to do. Without having to wait for a new turn by e-mail, an uninitiated player will reflexively try to blitzkrieg like they would in a game like Civilization or any real-time strategy game, in turn getting torn to shreds by even the least competent AI. The difficulty curve is extremely sharp because of this, so expect to see the Game Over screen a good 15 to 20 times before you start working out the intricacies of the game. The maps are fairly non-intuitive at first, as well. I spent a dozen retries on the first Spawn mission before realizing I had to break down a wall and destroy a power conduit before the force fields containing my deployed units were dropped, then another 10 trying to figure out how to leave the first room... only to get wiped out fairly summarily.

The game isn't meant to be a powerhouse graphically, but what is there is rather pretty. Looking very much like Starcraft's kid sister, Laser Squad Nemesis is sprite-based and top-down, with each rendered sprite looking quite detailed. Zooming in is not friendly to the game though; move too close to the action, and the graphics become large blocks, much like the zoomed shots of Diablo or any of the Craft games. Laser shots and explosions are fairly generic but serve the purpose well. You're aware that shots are being fired and things are exploding, and that's all you really need in a game like this.

If I had one major complaint about the graphics, aside from the zooming, it would be that each individual sprite has very little personality. Animation is cookie-cutter, from movement to firing to falling over dead. In addition, some of the units are very hard to tell apart from one another, a problem most notable when playing as the human Marines or as the Grays. Sounds, likewise, are there only to get the job done; music is nonexistent, and sound effects consist of only the most obvious sci-fi pows and zaps.

Overall, this game is what it is: a play-by-e-mail game trying to reach a wider audience which may or may not be truly ready for it. Don't get me wrong, Laser Squad Nemesis is a good game, but the graphics and sound aren't going to win over any gamers, and the gameplay may seem quite slow and unforgiving for those people just getting off their last game of Zerg-rushing people in Starcraft.

I will say this quite simply. Laser Squad Nemesis is NOT a game for everyone. If you're a strategist at heart, someone who reads through books of chess matches and plays Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the like for a warm-up, give Laser Squad Nemesis a try. You'll probably love it, and that it has been around as an online-only game for several years already means that you'll have a large, devoted fan base nearby willing to give you a match pretty much any time.

Anyone who is reading this review and expects Laser Squad Nemesis to be another Starcraft or X-Com should think good and hard about making this purchase. If you choose to go down this road, it's by your own volition; LSN won't be nice to you because you're just starting out, but if you don't mind enduring the brutal difficulty curve, you'll find for your trouble quite a wellspring of turn-based strategy.

Score: 7.0/10

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