By Craig Pearson on September 6th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.
Screenshots are such liars. I loaded up Door Kickers with the assumption that I was about to play Frozen Synapse in riot gear. It is not that. It’s more mobile and (currently) not quite as tactical than the obvious touchstone, but closer to a fuzzy, top-down reinterpretation of SWAT 4. Somewhere in between those two tactical titan’s crossfire is where Door Kickers cowers. It’s just popped up on Steam’s Early Access and I’ve spent a few hours with it.
Like the former, it’s a game built for brief breaches and tiny territorial tête-à-têtes. Like the latter, you’re in a squad of SWAT team members, limited here to four in the field. There are currently only two choices of troopers: the pistol trooper and the carbine trooper. The pistoleer is slightly more agile and able than the other, but gives up a lot of firepower. You get the option of how many SWAT members you have control of, what team member to pick, and where to place them in the map. That’s the fun bit. The bit right before everything goes splendidly/to shit. Shit happens in a number of locations: warehouses, training rooms, family homes, beach front properties, garages. All told there are currently 35 locations, with pre-baked missions where you wipe out terrorists, rescue hostages, and defuse bombs. Each level is a self-contained scenario with you vs the AI, where you can only see the outline of the level and what your team’s line of sight can pick up.
It doesn’t look like it, but it’s actually real-time and not turn-based. You can just engage a planning pause whenever you want to, which allows you to plan out motions before kicking off. It’s a powerful toy, and enables you to plot a lengthy tactical trail through the kill-houses. Like FS, you can select where individual members move and what direction they face when they do, trying to give the best coverage possible in the spaces you squeeze through. Tougher decisions are helped with a few gadgets. Locked doors present a terrifying barrier, but you can poke a camera underneath and sweep the room, you can gently open it, or breach it with C4. You can even time those moments, tying team members to ‘go codes’ so you can set up a plan and have everyone perform their part at precise moments.
That’s kind of all there is just now, but I played it for hours this week and never felt short-changed. That’s because there’s not only a pile of missions, but the random placement of enemies and their responses to your presence means missions can be replayed a few times, and if you’re a perfectionist then you’ll find this a fiddly sandbox of joy.
Here’s one that’s on my monitor right now: I have four SWAT jammed into a corridor in the bottom left of the map, and I have to kill everyone on it (no nonlethal options). I poke a camera out and see two men using a sofa as cover and looking right at the door. We’ll be fired on the second we open the door. My solution this is something I’ve been calling the “Uberflank”: I left two SWATs behind that door and sent the other two to kill everyone but the sofa pair. This is where the ‘go-codes’ work wonders: I can set out at three pre-planned moves for each player, tied to A,B, and C. It allows me to send the two off through a series of rooms at the same time. I just need to drag, point, and click. They move at one speed (I’d like to be able to change that), pointing at pre-selected points along the route: you’ll find enemies either standing in corners, patrolling the corridors, or taking a last stand behind some furniture. When one is uncovered, there’s a tense moment as fire is exchanged. All that control you had was leading up to the moment when it all kicks off, then you just have to hope you put the right man in the right place.
I was pretty lucky in this instance: most of the enemies were patrolling, so whenever they passed the open doorway one of my guys would snap off a shot. Quite a pile started to build up, which wasn’t unusual. I’ve seen one SWAT member take out four enemies without a problem, and eight people dying in seconds on a beach. I carried on, always keeping the two in the corner. This probably wasn’t tactically smart, but I just really wanted to do it. The most ridiculous flank in the history of all SWAT team. Ten people would die just so I could squeeze those two out of their cosy little corridor of death.
It was an interesting exercise in tension and dealing with the AI, both enemy and player-controlled. They’re a nice mix of dumb and smart, occasionally not spotting people in corners who also don’t notice them, but you can also trust them to not walk through a door that’s being flashbanged. Planning with those quirks means sometimes it goes wonderfully right and it’s incredibly satisfying, other times there’s a need to alter plans, fudge movements, or even panic and cry. But with each level being a short, single-screen battle, winning quickly or failing miserably is never a problem.
The current Steam version is 0.46, so there’s a long way still to go. It’s missing persistence, so you can’t create proper load-outs or save previously used plans. You can’t just delete a waypoint, all I was able to do was remove all instructions for that player and start over. It also needs a lot more tactical options: it’s crying out for a speed modifier and stealth options that allow for silent takedowns, which would change how I approached most of the missions. Right now there’s very little nuance in what you can do, and it’s mostly about when you can do it. There’s also currently no multiplayer. Finally, the lack of this is sort of thing is hugely upsetting:
But that might be a tall order. If it just sticks to the basics and adds some more variety in weapon choice, player actions, and enemy responses, it’ll be a neat, welcoming, tactical treat.