What exactly is Signal Ops?
Signal Ops from Space Bullet Dynamics Cooperation is a game with an odd mix of strategy and action combat. Players take on the role of an officer in a secret, shadowy organization that carries out missions to preserve the Dark Father's government. This officer never leaves the bunker to lead the many dangerous missions their operatives go on in however. So how does he take part in missions?
By assuming direct control of his troops of course! Signal Ops takes place entirely from the perspective of this seasoned officer, hook hand included, who sits back in the safety of his bunker commanding the troops from a command center. This has all the usual lights and baubles one would expect to see inside a command center and it even has a support staff that keeps the systems running. The real work is done by the player however. They walk up to one of the three command consoles available in the command center and take direct control of their troops.
Why do I say direct control? Well that's because your troops don't actually do anything on their own. The player has to manually position their different specialists, point them in the general direction they want them to face and even pull the trigger for them. This, to me, was the most curious and also the most annoying part of the about gameplay. I assumed that this shadowy organization just had the technology to set up their troopers as completely obedient drones with no fear or lack of dedication to their cause. However, if you don't assume direct control of one of your troopers when a guard decides to get real friendly with them they'll be held up or dead.
This hand holding was frustrating early on when I didn't know this was going on. I'd just focus on one thing at a time with one of my units, totally ignoring the other monitors while one of my other troops was held up or killed because they can't take care of themselves. It is something that you get used to playing this game and it is something that you have to learn quickly, since eventually you will have four rather than two screens to worry about.
Another interesting thing about the way Signal Ops plays is that your squad will always have a radio operator with them. The range of their signal dictates how far your other troops can go without their screen just turning into a mess of static. Radio packs don't exactly have a lot of staying power with Signal Ops' tech level, but luckily there are plenty of power sources around the game world to plug them into. Not only does plugging them in give them a nice, constant stream of power, it also greatly increases their signal range and frees up your radio operator to join your other units in combat or act as an extra pair of eyes. This adds puzzle elements to the game, as you try to move all of your troops within signal range while at the same time sneaking around or setting up an ambush for enemies. Unfortunately having to take direct control of each individual unit does make these a little clunky. You can order your other units to do things, but their pathing, specialities and actual effectiveness at their assigned tasks varies so radically that it's really best just to do it all yourself.
If running this operation solo isn't doing it for you, two friends can join you on your adventures. This speeds up missions greatly and cuts down on a lot of the mishaps that can occur when trying to order the AI to do anything on its own. Unfortunately there's no matchmaking at all, so you're going to have to gather some friends or random people who also happen to own Signal Ops and get the host's IP address in order to take part in these clandestine operations as a group.
Missions can be completed in a variety of ways. Each map is open enough to offer multiple different paths. Stealth is actually a pretty viable means of completing the different missions, although staying in signal range adds a substantial challenge to this style of play. Players can even decide to slow their mission down and shoot their way through town. Just bear in mind that sometimes the NPCs are civilians and police officers just going about their lives, while at other times they are rebels opposing the Dark Father's rule.
Combat is pretty straight forward. All weapons have infinite ammo so there's no need to worry about firing everywhere. You still have to reload, but you'll never run out of bullets to reload with. Accuracy goes from, "What's aiming?", when firing from the hip to, "I think I can scratch the broadside of a barn!", when aiming down sights if you're trying to use anything but a sniper rifle at range. The Enemy AI isn't exactly tough, but since you have to worry about your squad, which can't take care of itself, this is a good thing. As for lethality, neither your units nor the enemy are exactly durable. A few rounds to the body and units on the field will go down, plus enemy NPCs can occasionally get head shots on your units, which will ruin their day. Luckily your secret organization has plenty of spare fodder to throw into the field, just not equipment for them. So whenever one of your troops dies you're going to have to find weapons laying around the map or take them from your recently deceased unit's body along with its equipment. You only ever fail if your entire squad dies, so it is fairly forgiving.
Is there a good story here?
Well there is and there isn't. As I played through the game there was enough story to let me know what was going on for each mission in the bunker. There are even scattered intelligence reports and reports on the status of the bunker to keep you interested if you are at all curious as to what exactly is going on. The real star of the show however is the scripting and voice acting for the different NPCs. The things some of these NPCs say and the way they say them cracked me up, like when you have a spy distracting an NPC who's just talking about their life. I think I spent more time listening to conversations between my spy and the random NPCs I'd have him distract than doing the actual missions. It's especially hilarious when you spy on a through a briefing and the janitor walks in and shows that he is far more knowledgeable about what's going on than the guy giving the briefing.
Is it worth serving the Dark Father?
Are you looking for a new amazing tactical shooter to play? Then no, Signal Ops is not the game you're looking for. Honestly it felt more like a puzzle game than a tactical shooter. Solo players are going to need a lot of patience and critical thinking to get around some of the later missions. The puzzle is in positioning each unit on the map and moving them into position while keeping them within signal range so you can actually see what they're looking at. Group play makes life a lot easier, and really throws the need for patience out the window while making team work essential. It also provides a great opportunity to mess around with your friends if you just happen to control the radio operator.
It's a solid game but it feels like it's only going to appeal to a very niche audience.