Premature Evaluation: Ghost in the Shell Standalone Complex – First Assault Online

Each Monday, Rob Zacny sorts through the complexities of Early Access to see which games are ready to stand alone.

The question I keep coming back to is ‘why this game?’ I understand why someone would want a game based on Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, the sci-fi police procedural version of the classic film. Standalone Complex takes all those tantalizing details from the movie and started building an entire world around them, and lets you get to see the elite cyborg commandos of Section 9 in action. It’s part detective story, part cyberpunk sci-fi, and part military adventure. It’s the sweet-savory-salty of my nerdy palate: put these things together, and I’m helpless to resist.

What I don’t get is why you’d take all of that source material and make Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex – First Assault Online [official site].

While it is jam-packed with references to the TV show, it’s rarely trying to evoke it on any level besides pure aesthetics. First Assault is a team shooter where all the characters from the show are running-and-gunning their way through endless battles, using special abilities that you’ll likely remember from the anime. What exactly is it that developer Neople and publisher Nexon are trying to evoke here?

First Assault is not a bad game, but it’s a deeply unremarkable one at this stage, without many hints that something more ambitious or more intriguing could grow out of it. It’s a game that reminds me a bit of Titanfall and a bit of Team Fortress, if all the characters were made slightly less specialized and replaced with an anime character. You pick from three game modes (a CS:GO-style demolition mode, where one team attempts to plant a bomb and the other attempts to prevent them, a capture-point mode, and team deathmatch) and then you are transported to a sparse, depopulated version of a location from the TV show decorated with a few street signs or advertisements to remind you that you’re in near-future Japan.

if I had to point to one thing that’s missing from this game right now, it’s that not one of the characters feels all that different from any of the others. They all carry similar weapons and equipment, the familiar mix of automatic carbines and submachine guns common to every military shooter from the last nine years. They can use special abilities once every couple minutes, but in-between those moments, the cast of Ghost in the Shell are nothing but generic future soldiers in a shooter-playground.

As Ishikawa, the brooding lumberjack of Section 9, I could deploy defensive turrets anywhere on the map. Players controlling the star of Ghost in the Shell, Major Kusanagi, could activate her iconic “thermoptic camo” which renders her temporarily invisible (though still pretty noticeable if she’s moving). Mercifully, First Assault takes its cue from Standalone Complex and does not require Kusanagi to get naked in order to use her thermoptic camo, though if you’re playing alone at home I guess there’s nothing stopping you from making your own homage to the source material.

There are moments when First Assault almost gets it right. When everyone is firing-off their powers at once, and you have a giant spider-tank getting blasted by turrets and a guy with a rocket-launcher for an arm, while it paints a targeting reticle on the battlefield before launching a guided missile, and meanwhile you’re getting bum-rushed by a trio of invisible commandos, First Assault feels kind of glorious. I loved the “oh shit” moment of being stacked-up outside a doorway with a group of elite cyborgs, only to see a seeker drone come spider-walking toward us, causing everyone to scatter before it locked onto its target and suicide-bombed it.

But most of the time, it’s feathering the trigger on an M4 carbine at someone halfway across the map, or rounding a corner and coming face to face with another player and just jamming SMGs into each other’s faces and hoping for the best. Same as a million other games.

It’s perhaps ironic that my big problem with a Ghost in the Shell shooter is that it doesn’t make me feel special enough. The dark heart of that universe is the growing sense that the self is a replaceable part, that humanity is an inefficient feature in a world that demands everyone be a perfectly-functional part of a greater machine. The troopers of Section 9 are a special elite… but they are also the sanitation-workers of a compromised political order. And here I am, wondering why being a tactical cyborg doesn’t feel cooler.

But of course, that’s because a lot of the subtext of Ghost in the Shell is that giving up your freedom and ethics to become a death-dealing transhuman is kind of awesome. It was thrilling to watch the Major and her team spring into action, each member a key part of a force that could think, analyze, react, and attack faster than their enemies or their counterparts. This is the lure of a lot of cyberpunk fiction: yeah, the future might be an immoral panoptic nightmare ruled by corporate cartels, but it’s also a place where you can transcend your mental and physical limitations and impose order on the chaos.

First Assault is mostly just chaos. Deathmatch is predictably hectic, while the bomb-planting Demolition mode is probably the most organized but also the most prone to snowballing. Domination falls somewhere in between them, but its twist is that after a team captures a control point, an adorable and deadly “Think-Tank” deploys to the battlefield and charges toward the next objective. The push-and-pull feel of matches, with the added momentum generated by the tank, makes for dramatic finishes more often than not. But it’s still very rare to encounter moments of true teamwork and synergy via the skill-sync feature, where characters can share their special ability with nearby allies. In practice, this usually just means one player grants a speed or invisibility buff to a few friends for a few seconds.

In between missions, you do the usual progression stuff. You get experience and money which you use to buy more operatives and weapons. Despite the fact that most characters in Ghost in the Shell are cybernetically enhanced, they apparently all benefit from cool optics and custom grips on their guns. You can also give them computer chips that enhance different aspects of their performance, though the differences all feel kind of marginal.

Which is First Assault’s issue all over. Superpowered cyborgs should feel super. Titanfall did something clever by putting plodding regular troops and drones to serve as spectators and victims to the pilots’ antics. It also gave players a variety of special abilities and single-use buffs to employ, which again made your character feel unique on the battlefield. You were using the loadout you’d chosen, with the special ability that made you especially deadly compared to everyone else around you. First Assault doesn’t let you create that context for yourself, so its setting and characters are unrealized potential. Even allowing for the fact that they’re all trapped inside a conventional multiplayer shooter.

Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex – First Assault Online (PHEW) is available on Steam and for £3.49 / $4.99. My impressions are based on build 960373 on 14 February 2016, on the Western European server because North America was a ghost-town.

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  1. coppernaut says:

    At first glance, the title screen shot looked like a next gen Tron 2.0. I can dream.

  2. Gormongous says:

    Well, at the very least, that was an excellent summation of the thematic appeal of Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex as a series about humanity and futurism. Shame about the game, though…

  3. TheAngriestHobo says:

    “if I had to point to one thing that’s missing from this game right now, it’s that not one of the characters feels all that different from any of the others.”

    That’s by design – it’s anime.


    • Metalfish says:

      Hey, this is the good one. Well, Cowboy Beebop was the good one. This is the other good one.

    • Don Reba says:

      It’s like being dismissive of paintings or books. Anime is a medium.

      • Gormongous says:

        I’m sure it’s all tongue-in-cheek anyway, but I’ve always had a perverse fondness for people who bash anime on sites about video games, of all things.

        Boring, samey characters, really? Surely you’re talking about the game with the space marine who’s good at his job but misses his dead/absent wife, or the game with the badass trickster who’s on the run from his dark/tragic past? Which game, you ask? All the games.

      • Flatley says:

        “Animation” is a medium. “Anime” (the Japanese word for “animation”) is a genre. If Anime was a medium we would use the English word, rather than the Japanese, to refer to it. (What’s Japanese for “watercolor?”)

        • Aerothorn says:

          I don’t think “anime” is a genre. The genre of GITS:SAC is science-fiction, cyberpunk, police procedural – all narrative genres. Anime doesn’t really sit comfortably alongside those, because it refers to the visual style rather than to any innate narrative trappings. I think the best word for it is “a form” or “a style.”

          • Flatley says:

            I thought of this after I posted so yes, maybe “style” is better than “genre.” But that style encompasses more than just the artwork. I can’t be more specific than that since all I know of it are the influences that have leaked through to other media, but we all know it when we see it.

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          hemmer says:

          Even if it was a genre (which I’m not entirely sure it is, though your argument does certainly have merits!), that still says nothing about the quality.

          There’s shit action movies and there’s great ones. There’s usually a lot more shit, but that’s really not limited to any genre, medium or even just art. :P

          • Geebs says:

            “There’s shit action movies and there’s great ones”

            In very much the same way, there’s Cowboy Bebop, and then there’s all of the other animes.

        • Mrice says:

          “Anime” in japan is just an abbreviation of animation and refers to all animated artwork. “Anime” in the rest of the world is used specifically to refer to Japanese animation and the aspects of that art associated with it. (Aesthetic mainly, arguably dialogue/theme/story? I dunno)

          I think going from that you would be best to define Anime as an art style. To me that makes the most sense.

          There are distinct differences between European animation (for example asterix and obelix) when compared to say, American animation (I suppose adventure time?) and Japanese animation (GITS), that i think you could compare to the differences between any two significant art movements.

          Now i feel like a massive weeb. Im UNCLEAN.

          • Flatley says:

            Let’s go further down the weeb hole. I agree on style. What’s interesting about anime is it features certain techniques that have leaked through to other media, which you probably couldn’t say about any other form of animation. The two examples I can think of, which stuck out to me even as a non-anime-watcher, are

            1) The final cinematic of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne (search “Arthas vs Illidan”). This sticks in my mind primarily because I didn’t like it. Anyway, probably not that significant that a Blizzard RTS throws in some of this stuff, but

            2) The fight between Obi-Wan Kenobi and General Grievous in “Revenge of the Sith” has a quick, but very pointed, “eye-camera” on both characters. This would’ve been a good effect if the rest of the movie wasn’t so damn stupid – “General Grievous,” after all. But it stuck out to me that anime could reach out and touch Star Wars, of all things.

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        Harlander says:

        While I agree with you in broad terms, Sturgeon’s Law hits anime particularly hard.

        • Pohjanmaalainen says:

          That is because anime is Japanese art style and thus deeply connected to Japanese culture in which different tastes exist. Art style includes themes, common tropes and such things beyond simple aesthetics when we (or at least I) talk about art styles in animation.

          So, while I do agree with that Sturgeon hits anime pretty bad, it is because we are bunch of westerners talking about very culturally specific art style (anime) of universal medium (animation).

    • gunny1993 says:

      I choose to take this comment as a witty and erudite lambasting of current animie trends to pander to various groups of fans without taking risks to experiment with the medium, and not a statement on par with saying “I hate things written in pencil”.

  4. internisus says:

    I despise this game for existing. Doesn’t matter whether or not it’s any good. What a waste of a good IP.

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      gritz says:

      Just wait for the live action Hollywood movie!

      • MithrilWomble says:

        C’mon, it’s Monday. Don’t say things like that. It frightens us.

        • gunny1993 says:

          link to

          Don;t worry, Scarlett Johannason is going to bring the character to life with her …. acting talent … just like in lucy.

          • Muzman says:

            While that casting decision is rather terrible, Johansson is a thoroughly decent actress.

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            gritz says:

            I’m sure it will be a terrible adaptation, but out of any big-name actress, I could see Johansen getting it right- based almost entirely on her performance in Under the Skin.

          • IonTichy says:

            I think I puked a little…

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      phuzz says:

      There was a Playstation game loosely based on the original Manga where you control a Fuchikoma. I remember playing a demo and enjoying it back then. I have no idea how it holds up now though.

      • internisus says:

        Yeah, the Playstation game is cool. There’s also a PS2 Stand-Alone Complex game that’s really not bad. IIRC, it has an original story that has the right tech/political/social complexity to fit in with the SAC series.

        What Ghost in the Shell really needs though is a game that plays like Deus Ex.

        • Muzman says:

          Yep, very much that. And/or with a team component of some sort.

          Stand Alone Complex is about the best thing to carry the GitS name, but it’d probably be the hardest to adapt. Decent police procedural type plotting tends to elude gaming. Human Revolution isn’t too bad for most of its length though, I suppose.

        • Raoul Duke says:

          Some would say that what Deus Ex needs these days is a game that plays like Deus Ex.

          A GITS game with the relative freedom of approach of the original DX but the graphics of the new DX would be an utterly magnificent creation.

          In fact, why aren’t there any good cyberpunk open world games? Unlike many other genres, having a huge, sprawling, anonymous urban area to mostly form the backdrop for the player’s actions is perfect for cyberpunk. Imagine a game with the gameplay philosophy of Deus Ex, the open world-ness of Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed, and the setting of GITS…

          • internisus says:

            “In fact, why aren’t there any good cyberpunk open world games?”

            I hate to say this, because it’s not what you (or I) have in mind and just isn’t good at being cyberpunk, but nonetheless that’s basically what Watch_Dogs is.

        • Unruly says:

          I think that GITS lends itself to a classic Rainbow Six style game. You’re given a scenario, you get a building layout, and you have a planning stage. Once you set a plan, you go to the actual execution, where you can either watch it or take control of a character. With the way that the characters have cyborg bodies and all the tricks that brings along, you’ve got a bunch of neat things you could do. Hostiles on the third floor with bombs on the ground entrances and roof? Well, those cyborg legs let you jump through a second story window. Cameras? Thermoptic camo. Make the maps entire city blocks rather than just a few buildings, and things could get really interesting.

          Or some kind of mix between Frozen Synapse and Rainbow Six. Have a turn timer, and you take control over each character in first person and you set their movement and ability use that way. As you move you see ghosts of your other characters that you’ve already moved if people cross paths, so you can see where you all are in relation to each other. Then when you have everyone planned, you hit play, the AI handles the shooting if an enemy pops up, and once it all plays out you start the next turn.

          • Raoul Duke says:

            Oh my god. That would be magnificent. I think more like Rainbow 6, with a planning and execution phase.

            You could link together such scenarios with a less rigid open world (within which the personal concerns of the characters and political intrigue could be fleshed out) to make something incredible.

          • TechnicalBen says:

            Please. Someone send a letter out to the internet.

            GitS XCOM2 mod!

        • Frosty_2.0 says:

          And the Deus Ex – Ghost in the Shell influence circle would be complete :)

  5. Renegade says:

    Never expected it to be anything other than average. The mod Neotokyo for half-life 2 still remains as the best ‘GITS’ shooter for me.

    • hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

      Yeah, I have to agree. NT really sold the theme, every inch of every map really oozed cyberpunk Japan. The soundtrack was great, and the gameplay was good. It did have the same issue as the Nexon game has now to some degree that you can’t really do the amazing badass things that the characters can in fiction- but because NT is not a licensed property, you’re not a named character with expectations, so it does sidestep that a bit. It also had a much faster pace of gameplay and took after CS more than COD, both of which were positives in my opinion.

    • Taihus says:

      I was hoping someone would bring up NT. I personally love the interplay you get between motion vision and thermoptic camo and smoke grenades and thermal vision. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shooter put quite so much emphasis on ways of seeing your opponent, the environment, and how to mess both of those up before or after

  6. Aerothorn says:

    I’m confused as to why they decided that “standalone” is now one word.

  7. Kaeoschassis says:

    Well, we’ll always have Oni.

    Seriously, aside from being a lot of fun, Oni’s sci-fi world-building, while kind of sparse in places, is effing brilliant. It’s to my mind the closest thing we’ve got to the great GITS game that never was.

    • Geebs says:

      Oni was the sort of game where you could, in the middle of a combo, kick the guy sneaking up behind you in the nuts and then carry on hitting the guy in front of you. In other words, Oni was fantastic.

      It’s a real shame that the only other games I know of which attempted the same thing were that thing with anthropomorphic rabbits with terribly janky controls, and the other thing with anthropomorphic rabbits that never got finished and never will.

    • Frosty_2.0 says:

      Yeah, very GITS-esque down to the Aramaki look-alike Commander. Konoko’s VA was also a VA lead on the Evangelion english dub IIRC.

      The quality of the fight animations still stands out in my memory today, the group combat wasn’t so great though.

      Oni seemed like it did well critically & sales at the time, too bad Halo took over before Oni 2 could get rolling.

    • baozi says:

      Why is it still not on GOG

      Regardless, there should be more games with Oni-like combat.

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    Harlander says:

    So, is this better than Dystopia?

  9. Unsheep says:

    I think the author managed to describe every multiplayer FPS:
    ‘deeply unremarkable’
    ‘all carry similar weapons and equipment’
    ‘Same as a million other games’
    ‘it’s still very rare to encounter moments of true teamwork’
    ‘the usual progression stuff’
    ‘conventional multiplayer shooter’