The man who killed my mum is floating off into space. Should I feel glad? I was supposed to bring him in alive. I put a trap down in the corridor of his spaceship and the moment he stood on it, he was teleported into the void. That might not sound like the best way to bring somebody in alive, but it was part of the plan. Running to the nearest window and blasting myself out after him? Also part of the plan – my trusty pod would pick us both up before we suffocated. But then it all went wrong and now I am slung over a guard’s shoulders while my target is drifting away, dying.
This spaceship stealth-em-up from the makers of Gunpoint is game designed to generate anecdotes of that kind. The details vary, but usually it goes like this: space rogue enters ship, space rogue gets into a scrape, space rogue miraculously escapes (or perhaps dies a clumsy death). It’s a game of happenstance and techno-wizardy where teleporters and hacking tools act as storytellers. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it makes you feel like a sci-fi action hero, and sometimes – more often than I’d expected – it’s a bit annoying.
But first let’s explain the basics. What you’re looking at here is a top-down, real-time (though with slow-mo) stealth boyo. You pilot a pod and dock with target ships to fulfil violent or pointedly non-violent contracts. Steal an item, assassinate a bad fellow, rescue a captured friend. There’s the smallest hint of Hotline Miami (you hit people with a big metal stick quite a lot) but it’s more roguelike than arcade skullbasher. Each ship you board is a randomised set of rooms and enemies.
Some vessels are small bombers staffed with only a few wrench-wielding crewmen, others are massive barges swarming with heavily armoured, shotgun-toting murder fans. Your own character is also a child of the dice roll, chosen from a set of mercs who sit at the bar of your home space station. Do you want the guy with the grenade launcher? No, you want the lady with the armour-piercing sword.
It’s got the smallest drip of story to it, enough to act as a tutorial and set the galaxy up for conquering. An old mercenary called Sader Fiasco has retired in your space station, and wants to end the war between four conflicting factions. More importantly, she is willing to help you out (for a fee) with intel about a “personal mission”. Your personal mission is as random as the clothes on your back – rescue your lover, avenge your friend, clear a debt, steal technology. You’ll need acid, the galactic currency, to get Sader’s intel. So off you pop to the job listings, where you can pick and choose missions that range from pacifist infiltrations that require doing no harm, to dangerous kill marathons that require no living witnesses.
As for ending the war, that requires some grind. With each successful mission a “liberation” meter increases, and when it levels up you get to claim a new space station on a big map, granting access to new items in the shops, or another passive bonus, like more money for starter characters. Each star system also unlocks a pre-made “defector mission” – a more traditional set of levels with pre-set equipment that can be tried again and again if anything goes wrong.
That the world map doubles as a permanent skill tree is very clever, but that’s not Heat Sig at its smartest. That’d be when you’re actually on board a ship and you need to get past twenty men with a single teleporter charge and a wrench. You’ve set off the alarm, you fool, and now the pilot is going to dock at an enemy station in 20 seconds where you’ll be captured and have to start from scratch. Things look bad. But what if… what if…
At moments of peril, the guns ‘n’ gizmos are such that they become almost puzzle-like. You press spacebar to pause the action, giving yourself time to assess all dangers and priorities. There isn’t always a way out of a bad situation. Often you simply lack a vital tool, or you can’t get a necessary keycard from someone big and scary. Sometimes you just can’t make it to the corner in time to shoot the spoilsport shouting “Intruder!” But when your set of gadgets presents you with a solution, even a sloppy one, where no solution was previously obvious, it feels gooood.
This is what man in charge Tom Francis calls “recoverable catastrophe”. It doesn’t happen anywhere near as often as you might hope, but these possibilities do occur. And if you do pull off whatever series of hops, shots and socks is necessary to wriggle out of the bind you’re in, you feel like Jackie Chan overcoming a trio of swordsmen with nothing but a box of his granny’s plates.
I’ll give you a short example. At one point I thwacked a man in the head, stole his gun and used it to shoot his patrol mate. Because I’m an action hero. But oh dear, a large groups of guards standing in the next room heard the gunshot. And a second group was coming toward me in the corridor. They were all in the middle of yelling “Intruder!” This happens slowly, the space above their heads slowly filling: I N T R U …
I couldn’t let anyone finish this shout, for then the alarm would sing. I needed to kill them all.
I considered the tools at my disposal – a shortblade, a wrench, a gun, a temporary “visitor” teleporter. I bashed one man in the head, sliced another with the short-range blade and quickly picked up his concussion gun, loosing a final shot at the furthest guard in the corridor. Then, without waiting for the round to land, I vanished in a whiff of teleporter smoke. If you had been that last guard, watching the concussion bullet swim slowly toward your face, you probably wouldn’t have heard the sounds of three bodies in the next room being summarily sliced to bits in quick succession. But you might have heard the “fwoop!” of a man re-atomising after his little visit to the next room, feeling very very pleased with himself.
These are the moments when Heat Signature shines. But for every six-second-long sequence of heroism, there’s also an instance of frustration. The static artwork of the top-down world often makes it hard to determine what is scenery and what is a raised wall. It can be cluttered and difficult to decipher, imagine ordering soldiers to take cover on one of those children’s maps made out of carpet. Some of the objects in the rooms can also be used or, more significantly, exploded. But they just look like red… stuff?
Gunmen, likewise, can be shifty. Enemies glow to reveal their position but even that sometimes gets lost in the artwork, or in the midst of a melee. The distinction between normal badmen and enemies with explosives strapped to them is that the latter glow a bit harder. These small signifiers sometimes aren’t enough of a signal and I feel like if the game has any major problem, it’s one of readability. When your screen is zooming in and out and scanning all about, both details in the environment and enemies can become lost, especially when paused.
White keycard symbols vanish on white backgrounds, turrets switch their laser off mid-turn and become obscured among a room’s cluttered artwork, that one guard with no heat sensor “aura” becomes unnoticeable next to all his obvious mates. In critical moments, this can kill you or lead to a mission’s failure all because you haven’t noticed something quite important that is about to shoot you. That’s annoying.
In a way, you’re not supposed to care when the mission fails. It’s a short trip back to HQ and there are plenty more procedural pursuits where the last one came from. Even in the worst case scenario, if you die or get captured, the punishment is light. There are lots of other characters sitting at the bar, and getting new weapons or gadgets is as simple as doing a few missions and looting the containers on board.
When you mess up, the game welcomes you to shrug (you can even do a follow-up mission to get your old character back if they’ve been captured). But I can’t help but become irritated when a rescue attempt or some corporate espionage gets cocked up because of a small hiccup. It still feels like a waste of time and resources, especially when failure is the result of some unseen guard, some unseen distinction in the particular glow of a guard.
By design, the pain of failure isn’t too strong. When you are shot or downed by a foe, they carry you to an airlock and chuck you out into space. At this point, you can control your pod, scoop yourself up and re-board the vessel – a most tenacious fool. Yet I don’t think this “get back on the ship” thing really works as a light punishment, because the alarm timer on most vessels means that far too much time is lost to flying your pod and rescuing yourself, often making the effort to return to the crime scene pointless.
When I’m forcibly removed by a ship’s bouncers for being a bit lairy, I often just fly away, knowing there’s little chance of me getting through the entire boat in the scant seconds given to me, unless I have some ridiculous long-range teleportation gear. It’s a better use of my time to go back to base and find a new level. This happened often enough that a sense of fruitlessness seeped into future missions any time something went wrong. I found myself getting more and more annoyed by small mistakes which led to an early ejection.
And they are my mistakes. I should make that clear. I’m a stupid man, and sometimes things happen so fast I don’t get time to understand why they’ve happened the way they have (and in the game etc). Other players might overcome harder missions with the most basic of tools and an unnatural competence. But that’s not me, reader! That’s not me. When I spend ages tiptoeing through a big ship, swapping and jumping and boshing and zapping, only to fail at the last minute because of an item mix-up, or because I simply started moving down the wrong corridor, I can’t help but grind my teeth. It doesn’t feel like a wacky story I’ll tell someone about later. It feels like I pressed a single wrong button and lost the last 10 minutes of progress.
That’s my problem: most of the time when mistakes happen, they aren’t “oh no, how do I get out of this one” japes. They are critical errors that lead to near-instant unconsciousness, a state of being which, more often than not, ends in a mission failure.
Equally unpalatable are the time-limited missions which, depending on their restrictions, can be overwhelming. These missions don’t start their timers from the moment of boarding, but from the moment of accepting the contract. It’s irritating to lose a big chunk of time just flying your pod to the mission’s location, and it got to the point where I just started refusing both these missions and those with a short alarm time. A pity, since they pay higher.
It might feel like I’m picking nits out of a big mane of luscious hair here, but it’s only because the clever playfulness of the game’s design made me expect something a little less stressful. Even with the ability to pause the game at will, I still find it paralysing when faced with a gargantuan ship that I have to traverse in 45 seconds.
If you like toying with contraptions, though, Heat Signature is a great box of treats. The feeling of pulling off a heist in a whirlwind of gunfire, sword slashes, grenades and body-swaps, is a sensation usually reserved for blockbusters like Dishonored and Prey. But Suspicious Developments have distilled that chaotic kinaesthesia into something much smaller, smarter and spacier, which is absolutely to be praised. Even if I found myself feeling like an aggravated villain as often as I felt like the fleet-footed hero. Even if I’m still sour about the man who killed my mum.
Heat Signature is out now for Windows and is available via Steam for £10.99.
Disclosure: Some people at RPS know Tom Francis because he used to be a journalist too, but he makes the games now so we don’t like him anymore.