Premature Evaluation: Epsilon

I wonder: what percentage of hostage taking situations are successfully resolved for the hostage-takers? It’s a hard thing to Google, as the general assumption is, not unreasonably, that “successful” in this context means the hostages are released alive. The hostage-takers, however, need not survive at all. Indeed, while videogames tend to present this situation as one of near mechanical symmetry or at least balance, the forces of the state are, in reality, way OP. Sure, they have the difficulty of not wanting the hostages to expire amid the crossfire, but this is surely countered by the need of the state to confidently extinguish such threats without compromise, lest they be encouraged. The win-condition for the hostage-takers, meanwhile, is assuredly not when they have repulsed or killed an assault force; that is merely a reversion to the starting conditions, but with fewer resources and angrier opponents.

Each week Marsh Davies kicks down the door of Early Access and checks the corners for stories and/or blinds himself with his own flash grenade. But not this week, as flash grenades are not yet a working feature of the pre-alpha Epsilon, a tactical shooter in which you struggle to guide a team of exceptionally inert anti-terrorists using a mixture of pre-planned waypoints and firstperson action.

Epsilon’s bringing the tactical shooter back! As a devotee of a certain era of Tom Clancy games, I’m delighted. Not, you understand, latterday Pulp Someone’s Face With A Piano For The Sake of America Tom Clancy. Not the late-2000’s CGI Fistbump Over The Bodies Of A Thousand Mexican Dead Tom Clancy, either. But early Clancy, with tense, dense, small-scale sieges orchestrated through meticulous pre-mission planning: the tactical shooter as epitomised by Rainbow Six. After many wayward years, Clancy-franchise-owners Ubisoft are overseeing something of a return to their roots too, with the forthcoming Rainbow Six Siege recalling the size if not the pace of those engagements, and Ghost Recon Wildlands bringing back the open environments and varied approaches of the best games of that series, too, before it trammelled itself in grovelling supplication to Call of Duty. (And, while we’re at it, here’s hoping Clint Hocking will give us another Chaos Theory.) But the plucky indie Epsilon, with its waypointed squad commands, perhaps hopes to be even more faithful than these.

Rather than immediately resorting to combat, could a game map the negotiation over demands, over hostage release, and the surrender or escape of the hostage-takers? You might make the stakes higher for the counter-terrorists by personally docking players 20p each time a hostage dies. The hostage-takers, naturally enough, have nothing to lose but their own lives - though their objectives are more complex: perhaps to extort a certain sum of money and escape; to ensure the release of important political prisoners at their own expense; to achieve a phenomenal amount of press coverage across a number of days. Even successfully surrendering is difficult, as history shows us: during the Iranian Embassy siege of 1980, two of the terrorists had been persuaded by their captives to throw their weapons out a window and wave a white flag - events captured on live television. But in the chaos of the ensuing SAS assault, such finer considerations of who had and who had not surrendered were perhaps not possible. These men died - and, the courts later deemed, lawfully. The only terrorist who managed to get out of the building alive did so only by passing himself off as a hostage. He was quickly identified outside, however, and it looked like he might be dragged back into the building and shot. Luckily for him, the watchful lens of an ITN news-crew, who had slipped passed the police cordon, gave the counter-terrorists pause and cooler heads prevailed.

Only, Epsilon’s claim feels rather familiar, doesn’t it? In fact, it was what the developers said of their last game, Takedown: Red Sabre, which was not received with overwhelming warmth by the Steam Community. Since then, an issue with Takedown’s publisher has led the devs to go back to the drawing board to sketch up a new franchise. While I’m eager to give the five-man dev-team a second chance, currently it feels like they’ve barely put pen to paper. Though they clearly caveat the project’s state as a work in progress, their development roadmap pegs the current completion at a generous 30%. I don’t doubt that this is true, but perhaps that 30% has been spread invisibly thin across features that do not yet cohere into a persuasive whole. This is no vertical slice: a brief comic-book introduction serves up a single mission hampered by a host of showstopping bugs and absent of some of its most elementary features, including consistently functional AI. It’s reassuring, maybe, to find so many of the unresponsive parts of the UI labelled “future feature” as it rather ties the developers into fulfilling that promise, but I can’t help but feel this is altogether too early a release to inspire customer confidence.

After the comic-book panels have breezily outlined the terrorist takeover of Unipol HQ, mission planning begins. A 3D tactical map gives you a ghostly schematic view of the three-storey environment, and though you can’t zoom in upon or rotate this, you can hijack the security feeds to get a better view inside, marking terrorists as you do. Currently, the cameras spin by themselves and reset their position every time you use one – which is entirely annoying – and marking enemies is both finicky and of dubious merit: you get to see their movements on the tactical map thereafter, but only during the planning stage, as they aren’t marked when you come to start the mission.

[Correction: as some have helpfully pointed out in the comments, enemies you’ve marked on the pre-mission map *do* then appear marked on the in-mission map (but not marked through walls while in firstperson). Their non-appearance is something I double-checked before asserting, but I checked again this morning, and they are now marked. So, apologies.]

We talk about the “siege mentality” of people under assault, but there is surely something just as interesting going on among the psychology of those attacking. The tense denial of action, of constant repulsion, seems to inevitably lead to the worst possible atrocities at the point at which the defences are broken - a cathartic, and horribly violent, reasserting of equilibrium. There’s such expense - human, monetary and temporal - involved in sieging a city, for example, that its eventual conquest demands payback in blood. The siege of the fortified island-city of Tyre by Alexander the Great is one such example. This was not the first siege Tyre had faced - indeed it’s probably in the running for most besieged city in the world - and on many of these occasions its isolation a kilometre from land and high walls had protected it. Only months before Alexander’s attempt, the Persian fleet had also attempted to claim the vital port, and been denied. Lacking naval power with which to adequately blockade the city, Alexander tried another and yet more audacious tactic: he built a kilometre-long causeway that joins the island to the mainland to this day.

At least you have a vague sense of their numbers and likely patrol patterns. Though, I’m not sure the game as it stands is sophisticated enough to reward that knowledge with any tactical advantage – there aren’t individualised commands for your squadmates, and so it is impossible to set up scenarios in which your AI minions pincer foes from multiple angles, or one draws their fire while another flanks them. You can place waypoints on the map for the rest of your team to follow as a group, moving to each in turn whenever you tap Z, but this itself becomes a rapidly unworkable means of control. The waypoints lack the detailed instruction of something like Frozen Synapse – you can’t even control the way they face, or determine their stance, and they won’t know how to deal with doors or any other obstacles. If they can’t reach the next waypoint, they improvise with unpredictable and often suicidal results. You can’t undo or remove waypoints (that’s a future feature, along with saving and loading plans) and there’s no option to redraw them when in mission, meaning that any snag will force the abandonment of the plan altogether.

It’s easier to order your men about on the fly – or it would be if your instructions to move forward were guaranteed to inspire your men to any noticeable action whatsoever. But, assuming they do respond, there’s a greater range of expression with the in-mission command system than in the planning stage, allowing your crew to stack up on doors, breach them and clear the rooms behind. This is, in fact, the strategy to use, as doing anything else will get you killed. The AI isn’t astute enough to respond to anything that isn’t directly in front of it, so simply kiting your team around with a follow command doesn’t guarantee they’ll pick targets, even if one such target has just shot you through the temple, mere feet away from them. They don’t have much of a sense of self-preservation, either: my first few attempts at the mission were scuppered by my teammates’ resolution to stoically face a wall while a hail of gunfire pummelled them in the back.

The Tyrians scoffed at this from their high walls, but stopped scoffing as, over months and months, the causeway extended ever closer. Over this, Alexander could move his siege towers and ballistas. Even so, he was rebuffed! Flaming arrows did for the siege towers, and the Tyrian navy was able drive his artillery back by assault from sea. It seemed his engineering genius had come to nothing. But by this time Alexander’s conquests of other Phoenician city states had bolstered his naval power, along with further ships, sent by his allies in Cyprus and Ionia. He was able to blockade Tyre and, after removing some of their sea defences by cranes mounted on the back of boats, he could then bring in barges armed with battering rams. With careful coordination he unleashed a terrible bombardment the city, while his soldiers swarmed a breach made by his battering rams, ultimately taking the island. Thousands of Tyrian men died in the fighting, and a further two thousand were crucified on the beach after they’d surrendered: a warning to any who would so insolently resist Alexander’s might.

The enemies are no better – bullets can careen around them without risk of incurring their ire, and their friends collapsing dead in front of them appears to be no cause for alarm. But if they do spot you, they will turn and instantaneously shoot you, personally, with nary an animation to delay them. Although you have a large enough health-pool to survive a momentary blast of gunfire, getting shot causes the screen to strobe orange and green, for some reason, making it hard to tell if you are even returning fire. Since your death ends the mission (rather than, say, reassigning your control to a subordinate), it’s better to send your squad in first: they have all the advantages of instantaneous targeting as the enemy AI, but appear to be more lethal with it.

In a building full of small offices, shuffling behind your team as they open doors to one boxy room after the next becomes a little monotonous. But it’s the only way: stack up, enter and clear; stack up, enter and clear; stack up, enter and clear. When you find a hostage, you walk up to them, hold down a button, and somehow, magically, they are “secured”, though there seems to be little appreciable difference in their circumstances. There are suggestions that nuance will follow, of course. Laser trip wires secure certain entrances, though these don’t seem to do anything when triggered yet. An optional objective allows you to disable security systems and unlock doors. Enemies can be forced to surrender with a leg wound, or tasered, rather than simply killed. A sniper can be called in to provide covering fire at a choice of predetermined locations selected during mission planning. There are currently rudimentary equipment choices and the UI suggests that squadmates will at some stage have individual skills and stats. Promising stuff, no doubt, but only promises as yet.

While we are on the theme of audacious siege strategies - one of the most audacious of all has to be that enacted by the great Persian king Sapor against the city of Nisibis, some 600 years after Alexander’s conquest of Tyre. In fact, this was the third time the increasingly exasperated Sapor had attempted to take the Roman-Mesopotamian city. On each attempt his forces had been rebuffed by the engineering of the three-layered walls and deep surrounding ditch, not to mention the sheer fighting spirit of the city’s occupants, who were under no illusion about their likely fate were they to surrender. The third siege drew on, through the winter and into spring, whereupon Sapor was gifted an unexpected advantage from the land: at this time of year meltwater swelled down the Mygdonius river, bursting its banks and flooding the surrounding country. The Persians stopped up the river and diverted it in a huge channel they had built, enclosing the city itself on all sides with vast banks of earth. The effect was to create an artificial lake around the entire city whose waters rose up to the top of the city’s ramparts. The Persians then launched a fleet against it, breaching a huge section of the wall. Brilliant though this plan was, it turned to complete disaster for the Persians: the water and mud proved lethal to the assaulting forces, almost entirely swallowing the heavily armoured cavalry. Panicked war-elephants trampled their own troops in the thousands. Sapor had to signal a retreat. As dawn rose the next day, he discovered to his dismay that the wall had been entirely rebuilt and was now six-foot higher. Even so, he continued to siege the city, only being drawn away when a major threat reared its head in another part of his kingdom. The citizens of Nisibis could finally breathe a sigh of relief - if their walls had fallen after so long and costly a siege, crucifixion would likely have been the most merciful end they could expect.

The bright and breezy art-style is a welcome change from the genre’s usual line in gunmetal grit. Unipol HQ seems like a rather delightful place to work when it’s not being shot up: all glossy surfaces, open spaces and saturated blues. But this, and the proposed features above, are gilding on a game in which the necessary basics of tactical instruction are not yet apparent, and in which, critically, the AI is not yet sufficient to articulate a single gun battle without calamity. The hallowed land of Clancydom may be a very long way away whichever route they take, but if I was in charge of the roadmap, I know where I’d want to stop over first.

Epsilon is available from Steam for £5.59, but this price will rise as the project completes over the course of the next year to £25.88. I played version 1.0.4.2 on 16/10/2015.

32 Comments

  1. Laini says:

    Takedown was such a letdown for me. It sounded like they were going for that classic Rainbow Six or SWAT 4 type gameplay and in the end you’re only options were one of two entry points, which never really made any difference, and whether your squad followed you or stood still. They still sucked at doing anything regardless.

    What they are saying about Epsilon sounds promising but with their past history I think I’m going to wait a little bit longer, even if it is less than £6 atm.
    Supposedly it was their publisher who caused a lot of the problems on Takedown, I guess in time we’ll see.

    • ZIGS says:

      Isn’t the point of kickstarter to bypass the need of a publisher? One way or the other Takedown failed because of the developers. I have little hope for this one was well

      • Laini says:

        Wasn’t it one of those “Raise some money, make a prototype, sell it to a publisher” type things?

        Even so yeah, I think it’s easy to lay all the blame at 505 and maybe they had a part but the developers aren’t entirely innocent either.

        I still want to believe though >_<

        • HothMonster says:

          Yes it was one of the earlier Kickstarters, I think before Double Fine proved you could gather millions. It was pitched as funding for a prototype and to prove to a publisher that people were willing to buy something like this.

          Publisher ended up pulling the plug early but I agree part of the responsibility falls on the devs for getting in a situation were the publisher had that much power after they had taken peoples money. They are trying to do right though and gave Epsilon away to Takedown’s backers. So they clearly know they fucked up and want to get that goodwill back.

          • USER47 says:

            At that point they probably didn’t have much of a choice. I think they lost their original investor at some point during the development, which pushed them into deal with 505 as the only alternative to finish it somehow.

            But yeah, the question is if they couldn’t insure them against that risk somehow contractually, which we don’t know. The blame for Takedown’s failure probably lies at both dev and publisher, but without the detailed knowledge of the contracts and the development it’s impossible to know more.

  2. Zach Fett says:

    I’m sorry but all interest went down the drain as soon as you mentioned this is by the Takedown developers. They’ve lost all trust from me and I won’t even consider buying this unless I see tons of reviews come in down the road claiming this is actually a good game.

    Even then I’d feel weird supporting these guys.

    • Agnosticus says:

      And you shouldn’t! I’ve kickstarted (T.T) Takedown, thus I got an Epsilon key for free. And the game is gargbage as of now. About the same quality as Takedown put into another shell…

      BTW. As of now, most steam reviews seem to be bought…

      • Boozebeard says:

        Oh, well, it’s at least good to hear they are giving it to you for free.

      • USER47 says:

        Yeah, they have pretty much no budget, even most of their testing is done by selected community members for free, but they certainly have money to buy steam reviews. Just lol.

        Maybe those people writing them actually understand what pre-alpha means. That’s another possibility, you know.

        • Agnosticus says:

          Granted, “bought” is probably the wrong word “biased” is what I meant.

          Sure, it’s pre-alpha, but the basic mechanics should already be in place, i.e. you should be able to play tactically, at least to a certain degree, but you can’t!

          I think Serellan must get their priorities in order and focus on AI.

          Also, why do people still put so much trust in Serellan? Yeah, sure “Takedown” was entirely the publishers fault…I think they’ve just reached to high and it seems likely that they will again, unfortunately.

          • USER47 says:

            “…Sure, it’s pre-alpha, but the basic mechanics should already be in place…”

            No. It would not be pre-alpha then. They are implementing new features including capabilities of AI gradually. In one of the next updates there are planned upgrades for friendly AI for instance, allowing them to react on the fire from behind and such. According to their overview on steam page, squad AI is at 40% completion, enemy AI is at 20% completion.

            They need to spread the time among all the features, they could hardly sell the game in early access if it was just AI code and no map or no weapons for instance.

            Regarding trust in Serellan, I don’t really need to trust them all that much. If they manage to make it good, that’s great, almost nobody else is even trying nowadays. If they don’t manage to make it good, well, it’s 8 bucks, I won’t starve to death.

            It also takes rare amount of dedication to get back from failure like Takedown and pitch another game in same genre. After 505 cut them off Takedown, they had to drastically scale down (to 5 people), probably find some other jobs to stay affloat (Ch. Allen worked on Shadow of Mordor for instance), but still, they came back trying to do tactical shooter again, this time as indie, which takes balls.

            I don’T think comparing it to Takedown is very accurate. It already has more features than Takedown did in final state. Sure, the AI is stupid enough to not require you to use most of it, and the difficulty overall is deliberately tuned to easy, but stuff like camera surveillence, incremental door opening, setting up waypoints, snakecam, squad orders, different vision modes etc. are quite beyond of what Takedown did.

          • Agnosticus says:

            Yeah, I think it’s great that they are trying to revitalise the genre! But you know, once bitten twice shy.

            Also in Early Access I’m judging the things I see and not the things I’m promised.

            But in the end only time will tell…

          • Premium User Badge

            DelrueOfDetroit says:

            “Can I help you?”
            “Yes, I would like to bias this couch.”
            “…”
            “SHIT! I mean buy this couch!”

            link to instantrimshot.com

  3. Pulstar says:

    Shooty shooty bangy bangy samey samey.

    • Unclepauly says:

      Same as what exactly?

      • Pulstar says:

        Actually I take that back.. just watched an Italian stream, game is almost the same as Takedown with a few added gadgets. Robotic team AI, drone-like foes, stiff animation, zero simulation of the shooty bits. SWAT4 and R6:RS are over a decade old and still look far better than this tosh.

        • USER47 says:

          Well, it’s an actual pre-alpha, not the modern “let’s release the demo and call it alpha”. The features are still in early state of development, as is the content. But more is added and polished on weekly basis.

          You can look at the progress here:
          link to trello.com

          Keep in mind it’s 5 man independent team with pretty much no budget, so going into early access this early is probably their only chance they have unless they would want to make a deal with a publisher (which they probably don’t after 505 screwed them up on Takedown).

          • Pulstar says:

            I’m not wishing them ill, in fact if they can pull it off and bring back the tactical FPS they ought to be heralded as heroes. But I’m highly skeptical.. Still, going to keep an eye on the progress. Loads of unfinished EA games as things stand.

        • Don_T_Shoot says:

          And SWAT3 is older than that and was still more sophisticated than R6 OR SWAT4.

          Tactical games just get shittier as time goes on for some reason.

  4. Premium User Badge

    FailX says:

    Loving the captions of the images, fascinating thoughts and history facts!

  5. USER47 says:

    “…marking enemies is both finicky and of dubious merit: you get to see their movements on the tactical map thereafter, but only during the planning stage, as they aren’t marked when you come to start the mission…”

    They do, actually.

    “…Laser trip wires secure certain entrances, though these don’t seem to do anything when triggered yet…”

    It’s a bug in current build, the feature is there (was functional in previous builds and I guess they are fixing it for the update), it alarms the enemies in vicinity to your location if you trigger it. Other than that, both the enemy and friendly AI is still quite barebones, the social context is still not implemented yet (which is why they don’t react if they see others dying etc) and their awareness overall is still lacking.

    • USER47 says:

      I meant “they are”, not “they do” – damn lack of edit button.

      They stay marked even after you start the mission.

    • USER47 says:

      Also…

      “…Currently, the cameras spin by themselves and reset their position every time you use one – which is entirely annoying…”

      There is an update which adds a slider allowing you to control the direction and the speed of the camera. It’s currently in closed testing.

  6. Archangel says:

    (Re: The alt-text)

    To say nothing of the Roman siege of Masada, where the attackers spent months constructing a circumscribing wall and an enormous stone-and-earthen ramp to reach the eponymous mountaintop fortress. They eventually breached the walls only to discover that the rebels had set the entire place ablaze and committed mass suicide. Siege mentality indeed!

  7. Chubzdoomer says:

    A couple things I noticed and wanted to correct/address:

    “. . . marking enemies is both finicky and of dubious merit: you get to see their movements on the tactical map thereafter, but only during the planning stage, as they aren’t marked when you come to start the mission.”

    They actually are marked when you start the mission, at least in the current build.

    “Laser trip wires secure certain entrances, though these don’t seem to do anything when triggered yet.”

    The trip wires are tied to certain guards and will alert them if tripped. If the guards in question are killed, though, tripping the wires will do nothing other than reduce your score at the end of the mission. I’m assuming this will be re-worked into a more elaborate setup in which tripping a wire will alert the entire floor, perhaps even the entire facility, rather than just a guard or two.

  8. KDR_11k says:

    Inert or inept?

  9. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    I’m usually quite confident in my Google abilities, but I cannot find a good page talking about those battles from the alt-text.

    Can someone help pretty please.

    • Marsh Davies says:

      The siege of Nisibis is described in Gibbon’s seminal “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. Alexander’s siege of Tyre is all over the internet, but the main source for the description is Arrian’s “Anabasis of Alexander”. Admittedly, he wrote this some centuries after the battle, but he did have access to contemporary accounts now lost to us.

  10. sfury says:

    Holy alt-text, Batman!

  11. SuddenSight says:

    I also want to talk about the alt-text, but mostly the first two. I feel like hostage situations are fundamentally different from other sieges because there is the threat of killing hostages involved.

    I disagree somewhat with the asymmetry you noted. The state has enormous resources, but the crisis is typically planned out by the hostage takers. The state is then required to respond quickly, with little information, at the location of the hostage takers choosing.

    From a video game perspective, many of the more complex hostage ramifications are difficult to simulate. For example, it actually isn’t that bad for the state to just give the criminals whatever they want in exchange for the hostages. Modern states are very good at tracking people down, so it is hard to hide forever, even if they escape the scene.

    Along those lines, the downsides to killing a hostage for the criminals is very complicated. Often times the criminals involved are ideological and they might have political reasons why they don’t want to kill the hostages. Plus, killing the hostages represents an escalation that probably ends in killing the criminals, or definitely ends in turning public opinion against them.

    A good example of this progression is airplane hijacking. These days it is mostly associated with terrorists, but early on hijackers mostly wanted money are to go somewhere the planes didn’t fly (such as Cuba). Initially, airlines just gave in to demands as it was easier and cheaper than the pre-emptive prevention we have today. Tougher screening measures came about in part because some hijackers eventually did threaten to crash the plane.