By Adam Smith on May 14th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.
There aren’t enough games about the First World War and even if there were several thousand released a month, I’d probably rave about the scarcity of Lovecraftian entities shambling around on my hard drive. I’d say there’s a lack of turn-based tactical games as well but this year may be the best for a long time in that regard. Still, to deliver a game of cosmic horror set in the trenches and ruins of the Great War, with squad-based combat and action points to spend…that’s just spoiling me. But can Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land make the transition from touchscreen to your screen? Here’s wot I think.
When I run out of cosmic horror on the computer, I generally delve into a cardboard box and find a green-tinged board that is capable of transporting me to the ill-fated Arkham streets or into the creaking edifice of my nightmares, the cellar floor thick with brackish water, the things that exist in the crawlspaces slithering and rasping. Recently, I’ve been able to poke at some H.P. Horrorsauce as well, with the arrival of Elder Sign: Omens on iOS, along with the squad-based tactical tentacle ‘em up, Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land.
I was a little disparaging when I wrote about the announcement that the latter game would soon be lurking on my PC, but I dusted down the threshold nonetheless. It’s important to provide premium lurking space for those that desire it, as well as just the right amount of dark for those who prefer to haunt. ‘Accommodating the unfathomable since 1873’ – so read the words scorched into the sign above the bar at The Physickal Ailment Inn, of which I am proprietor and landlord.
Dark Corners of the Earth is drinking gin in a dimly lit booth, respected by the other patrons to the extent that it’s considered bad form to point out the imperfections: his habit of repeating himself, stuttering, his tendency to lose the courage of his convictions when a conversation continues for too long. Amnesia and the Penumbra brothers visit on occasion, and although it’s an extremely pleasurable displeasure to see them, lanterns aglow, shivering and glancing over their shoulders, I always reckon they’ve got other places to be. They like to drink in the miasmal atmosphere but this isn’t their true home.
There are others, biliferous and brooding, but where does The Wasted Land sit with this motley crew of mythos imbibers? The closest game I can think of, which throbs with an equally gelatinous collection of horrors and utilises similar mechanics, is Terror From the Deep, although that is mostly due to the fact that I can’t think of a single other meeting of Lovecraft and tactical combat.
There’s none of the strategic game here, no randomness except in rolls for damage and accuracy, and to compare the scope and scale of the two would be akin to forcing Cthulhu and Spongebob Squarepants into a battle of subaquatic domination. The Wasted Land has a short series of missions to play through in a specific order, with no choices during the campaign except levelling up skills, buying equipment, and recruiting soldiers to fill in the gaps left by the dead.
More limiting still, that recruitment process is only available for one or two of your squad because the majority of them can’t die, or at least the game doesn’t continue if they die. There are essential characters, essential in terms of the plot and also their skills, and if they are shot down, clawed down or devoured, it’s game over and back to the beginning of the mission. This has the unenviable effect of actually reducing the sense of mortality that should be lingering around these beleaguered soldiers and investigators, making their survival a necessity rather than a desperate possibility. Being told that you’ve failed and have to go through the half hour or more of a mission again can become a frustration and is a very different proposition to the fear of loss that permeates XCOM.
Having a couple of disposable characters, still named and capable of improvement but with no significance to the story, leads to some of the game’s finest moments. Many was the time I realised the easiest way to help vital personnel to reach safety would be to leave some brave chump out in no man’s land, drawing the cultists away, soaking up their bullets and trying to take a couple of the bastards with him.
Each mini-conflict plays out on a map several screens in size, with just enough room to manoeuvre among its trenches and gas clouds to allow for basic tactical positioning. Objectives unlock one by one, which can lead to a littlee trial and error. Position yourself in what seems like the perfect formation and complete the first object and the rules may suddenly change, forcing a rethink of plans that didn’t come with fair warning.
AS for the combat, it’s mostly about staying in cover and using action points wisely, either saving them for overwatch duties or spending them to dart to the next ditch. The use of trenches obviously fits the setting but it also allows for close range firearm exchanges in which the participants’ pitiful accuracy seems justified by the landscape, rather than being a handicap for the purpose of dragging out the playtime or allowing for dramatic experience gains.
During battle, use of a skill occasionally leads to a slight increase, which encourages specialisation. However, the majority of experience is dished out after each mission, collecting into a pool rather than to each according to their achievements. It’s certainly possible to end the game with super soldiers, although the threats increase more dramatically than your squad’s strengths, and nobody goes from cackhanded to elite marksmen with the application of a few points.
Despite containing the horror of gas attacks, trench warfare, zombies and shoggoths, the story is more camp than creepy, with echoes of Wolfenstein and Hellboy. It’s serviceable enough, if on the short side. I don’t like to mention price but given that there are only nine missions, it’s useful to know that at $4.99 there’s a few hours of entertainment here. It’d be an uncannily lucky fellow who survived the later missions on a first attempt and even if so, the multiple objectives lead to some tough, drawn out defensive knuckling down.
No gasts will be flabbered by The Wasted Land but it’s a stern challenge with a strong set of numbers and rules governing its combat. As is often the case with this sort of turn-based skirmishing, there’s sometimes a puzzle-like precision needed to achieve victory, but in The Wasted Land there’s usually enough leeway for triumph to feel personal and well-earned, which made every minute I spent testing my mettle satisfying at the very least. And that’s in spite of the rough interface, which insists that the mouse button is clicked and then held for the majority of actions leading to the occasional mad slide around the map in an attempt to target a large man with a machine gun.
I talked with Alec, who has touched the trenches with his finger, and we’re both of the opinion that it’s a decent game. I want to add decent little game, which sounds so back-handed, but it is a little game and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a little game I’d like to see grow up, either through a direct sequel or through further application of the Chaosium ruleset. Some actual investigation work to go with the bayonets and bombardment would do wonders for the atmosphere and could offer alternative routes or characters. More could be done with sanity too, which as it stands is more like an extra health bar, with slight complications, rather than a unique device.
I’ll finish with a comment on the Intel AppUp store, where the game is exclusively available. I’d never heard of it before, much less used it. Beyond the mild annoyance of having yet another gateway installed on my machine, I found it painless to use and that’s really all there is to say about that. Do let me know if your experience differs as I’m always eager to know more about these things and one experience doesn’t tell any sort of truth at all.
Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land is available now for $4.99.