Cardboard Children – Specter Ops

Hello youse.

As we run up towards the release of what will probably be the greatest video game of all time, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, I thought we should maybe take a look at a recent release that tries to capture that MGS feel. It’s a game called Specter Ops, and it’s about an agent sneaking into a facility to complete some objectives while avoiding a group of bad guy weirdos. Sounds about right, yeah? But is it?

SPECTER OPS

The first thing to make you go “!” will be the look of Specter Ops. It’s a delicious thing, with attractive plastic miniatures for every agent and hunter in the game, and excellent artwork throughout. It has a real MGS1 vibe – all cool blues and gloomy lights, psychic villains and ninjas. The board is a gorgeous illustration of the facility. But hold up. HOLD UP A MINUTE. Essential to the layout of the board is a numbered and lettered grid, where the entirety of the game takes place. These numbers and letters are not visible enough, meaning that if you play anywhere with a little bit of moody lighting you’re going to be constantly checking and double-checking what’s written on the board. It’s a daft decision that puts looks ahead of function, which is very rarely a good idea in a board game.

I mean, seriously. I can’t tell you how many times people were having to get up and peer at the board to see where we were standing. “What position are you at?” “Um, D23. No. Is that – Oh, it’s 24. E24. Is it?” It’s just silly, and I almost didn’t get past it. It was doing my box in.

You want to know what the game actually plays like? Okay.

One player is the stealthy agent, and they don’t move on the board at all. They take a big notepad thing that has the board’s layout printed on it. That’s where they make their moves. They can move four spaces every turn, and they will plot their movement through the facility on one of the notepad’s pages, and no-one else knows where they are. This is why the whole thing is numbered and lettered – so all the movement can be plotted out in secret. The agent’s job is to complete four objectives, which really just means they have to go and “touch” certain areas of the board. Very, very simple.

Meanwhile, on the board, the bad guy hunters are trying to sniff the agent out. If they see the agent, they can make an attack, rolling a die with a better chance of success the closer they are. They’re co-operating to corner the agent, occasionally jumping into a vehicle that can speed them ten spaces up the board, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. They’re also constantly getting out of their seats to check what the numbers on the board actually say.

SPECIAL POWERS

The game would be nothing at all without the special powers that the characters have. One of the baddies is a big doggy thing that can run a bit faster than everybody else, and it can smell agents. Yeah, like, it can actually SMELL the agent. If it moves slowly it can go “I’m sniffing”, and if the agent is within four spaces the agent has to go “You can smell my arse.” One of the other baddies is a psychic guy who can tell where the agent was two turns ago. Another baddie is amazing at shooting, and can set up sniper points. Yet another baddie can control the vehicle without even being in it, and can use the vehicle’s motion sensor from anywhere on the board instea-

Oh yeah. The vehicle has a motion sensor thing. Or a radar or something. Dunno. But if the baddies are in it, they can use it and the agent has to declare what direction they’re hiding in. “I’m North-East,” they say. Honestly, if you’re ever needing to use that thing, you’re not doing too well at this game.

The agents have special abilities too. One has extra toughness, making them harder to kill. One can create holographic decoys. Another can do ninja stuff to stun the baddies. It’s nothing too exciting.

The agent also gets to use equipment cards, like flashbangs and smoke grenades. These are necessary to give the agent a leg-up when they get cornered, because they will. There are also some cards unique to particular agents, like the web-like lines the Spider agent can wrap the baddies up in.

In a five-player game, a traitor element comes in. Because that’s the cool thing these days, right? One of the hunters will secretly be a traitor, and if they ever “see” the agent, the agent doesn’t have to declare it. The agent is kinda invisible to the traitor. And then the traitor can out himself at any time and become a full agent, to help with the completion of the missions. It’s an interesting little wrinkle in a game that, to be quite honest, really needs those wrinkles.

SUMMING UP

I enjoyed Specter Ops, but I’m not quite sure why so many are so excited about the game. It’s a solid hidden movement game, but it comes with all the same issues that dog most games in the genre. It’s sometimes a little bit boring waiting for something you can’t see to do something you can’t see so that you can get a turn at maybe moving closer to a thing you can’t yet see. There are small bursts of excitement, sure, when an agent gets cornered, but even then there’s this strange sense of foreboding. It’s like “Oh, this is fun right now, but if the agent gets out of this mess we’ll have another ten minutes of vaguely interesting catchy-catchy sneaky-sneaks.”

The special abilities are cool, interesting and quite engaging. And the game plays in maybe an hour. But it could go longer, and I think that would maybe be no fun at all. I don’t know. Like I said – I enjoyed the game, but it’s not a home-run by any stretch of the imagination.

If you want a Metal Gear Solid game, I’d still recommend you hunt down the brilliant indie game “Hour Of Glory”. If you want a hidden movement game, I’d put Fury of Dracula miles ahead of this. Letters from Whitechapel too. I actually think I prefer Scotland Yard too. If you want a short hidden movement game, I’d put Escape From The Aliens In Outer Space ahead of it.

So, this is a cautious recommendation. Definitely a good, attractive game in the hidden movement field. But nothing spectacular. There are better options. What do you think yourself?

13 Comments

  1. dangermouse76 says:

    because I’m happy – clap along – if you feel like happiness is the truth

  2. Archonsod says:

    It’s the tension that puts it ahead of Whitechapel (haven’t played Dracula for over a decade, though since FFG are reprinting it I’ll no doubt be hunting the Count down soon) for me. Not that Whitechapel necessarily lacks for tension as such, however it tends to be momentary rather than long term. In fact I often feel it’s more of a deduction game than a pursuit as such; one player trying to deliberately mislead while the others try to work out which route they have to take.
    Specter Ops on the other hand plays like the last few turns of Whitechapel for the entire game. The hunters are never more than a turn or two behind the agent at best, leading to nerve wracking decisions for both sides. It strips out the deductive element in favour of pure thrill of the chase instead.

    • Josh W says:

      Yeah, exactly, in whitechapel I’m there filling up a whole page of a notepad with possible locations, trying to determine the spread of possible paths, and narrow it down like I’m tracking some tiny quantum particle through all it’s possible loops and divisions.

      In specter ops, there’s a much smaller possible set of movements, and that constant build up of uncertainty, and stress for the person trying to keep up their deception, turns into a rhythm of building and dissolving.

      You try to guess how they think, and you can test your theories much more quickly, and that element of randomness fulfills it’s classic purpose and allows a less skilled player to actually give you an entertaining run for your money, and if you’re on the run, give you hope to try unlikely strategies if you’re otherwise going to loose.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Skabooga says:

    I thought Scotland Yard had its moments, but yeah, it was also a bit dull at times as the chaser because I felt like I was missing out on all the dramatic close calls that I couldn’t be sure were really happening. Specter Ops setting and trappings are a bit more appealing to me, but if you are hesitant about it, Rab, that makes me hesitant too.

  4. RxMxG says:

    I’ve only played 2 hidden movement game, Whitechapel and Specter Ops. IMO, Specter Ops have way better theme than Whitechapel, every hunter is different and have their own pros and cons. But playing as an agent is very very hard (especially if playing 1v3), and after about 5-6 games, no one can win as an agent.

    Specter Ops have 3 major flaws:
    – There’s only 4 type of hunters, and if the agent is Cobra, good luck using The Beast. Need moar.
    – The rulebook is way too thin, there’s a lot of rules that needs to be detailed. Example: can hunter drive the vehicle if the hunter just entered the vehicle? Can The Beast shoot the Agent too?
    – The cards’ description is not clear too. I’m still confused about Blue Jay’s Holo Decoy.

    Overall, it’s a fun game despite some flaws. The kinda-cyberpunk-y theme is cool, the board quality is good, the minis is surprisingly good, but the downtime can be very horrible.

    • Disgruntled Goat says:

      “can hunter drive the vehicle if the hunter just entered the vehicle?”

      No. Once a hunter enters or exits the vehicle, their turn ends.

      “Can The Beast shoot the Agent too?”

      Yes.

  5. McPartyson says:

    I thought this was going to be about 1998’s Spec Ops: Rangers Lead the Way. That game was hyped quite a bit prior to release in PC magazines but was quite poor on release. People preferred Rainbow Six.

  6. ohms says:

    The agent only has to complete 3 of the 4 available objectives.

  7. ShawnMcCool says:

    A good hidden movement game is Nuns on the Run. It supports up to 8 players and the 6 players who are hidden all take their turns at the same time (minus taking turns rolling a single die), so the game plays quickly without downtime.

    The other 2 players are ‘guards’ who walk patrol routes (that they freely choose from a deck of route cards) until they see someone or hear a noise, then they’re free to move about as they’d like.

    So far, it’s the hidden movement game that my group has had the most fun with.

    • thekelvingreen says:

      Nuns on the Run</i. is great, er, fun.

    • Josh W says:

      Ooh that is a good one yeah, I think there’s few games I’ve played that better exhibit the psychology of school than that game; as a teacher (or mother superior or whatever the “finder” character is), you can’t really know everything that’s going on, but you can wander around as a kind of cloud of consequences, scattering people’s rulebreaking as you approach, and only occasionally catch people in the act when they get themselves into a position they can’t escape from.

      Meanwhile, as a pupil, every other pupil’s disobedience is cover for your own actions, if you can get the teacher on them, but so often you will want to be doing something clever and surreptitiously when they will barrel past being obvious, and attract attention to you. You’ll hear them laughing as it becomes obvious that they’ve dropped you in it, but there’s absolutely nothing you can do to get them back, at least not until you get out of trouble yourself.

  8. Josh W says:

    Anyway, back to specter ops, I’m surprised you say that the car is basically unnecesary, because that has been a staple of my tactics; get the mind reader in the car, because they can use the motion detector and the post-cognition together (fast ones get hit by the motion detector, slow ones by their past few moves) and narrow them down so someone like the sniper or the wolf-guy can take them out. Maybe we haven’t developed our tactics yet to find the easy counter for that though..

  9. wahoffelmadenga says:

    This game really shines at 5 player. Once the Agent players start mistrusting each other, as well trying to work out where the Spy is the game becomes really tense.

    At 3 players it falls a little flat.