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Bohemia's new RTS FPS hybrid struggles to marry its two genres, but you do get to be a rad crab

I'm not sure whether Silica gels

RTS-FPS hybrids aren't a new thing, but they also haven't been the most historically successful ventures. Well, Arma 3 developers Bohemia Interactive are taking a punt at blending the two genres with Silica, in the hopes that you can both shoot and command things with equal levels of good. It's the first project to hatch from Bohemia's incubator program, which helps indie devs make cool games.

Silica is largely the work of one developer, Martin "Dram" Malicharek, who was previously the lead on Bohemia's Take On Mars. Having given Silica a whirl for over an hour, I struggle to see whether the RTS, FPS hybrid can truly offer the best of both worlds. It does, however, make being a crab extremely good.

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It's hard to formulate thoughts on Silica, because the build I played seemed like an extremely early one, and a lot of things weren't fully formed, or formed at all. That's not a criticism per se, it's just a forewarning for a series of thoughts which may or may not have much bearing on the final product. My thoughts at this time are mainly crab-related ones.

Silica's model as an RTS-FPS hybrid allows players to either hop into the cockpit as a commander who gives direction from an aerial perspective, or spawn on the ground as a soldier/gangly alien to join the fight on the ground. Having taken part in an hour-long online session with a bunch of other journos, I'm unsure if it lives up to its lofty ambitions.

The servers were set up for us by the PRs, but essentially it was a three-way fight between two human teams (who seemed identical, really) and an alien team. We could assign ourselves to any of them, with one person on each team able to jump into the commander role. If no-one opted for commander, an AI would take over. Otherwise, everyone else was a boot on the ground, with each team's starting base allocated randomly on a large desert map.

A soldier - having activated night vision - runs along a barren desert as the sun sets in Silica.
Maps have a day/night cycle, which meant I ran by myself through a barren desert as the sun rose. And you know what? It was rather lovely.

I never got the chance to try out the commander role in the online session… but I did play as an alien crab. Being a crab was excellent, as I could nip at people with my little mandibles or I could bound at them from cliff tops like a jet-propelled headcrab. Others got to play as larger scorpion things by finding them and pressing a button to warp into their bodies whenever a commander spawned one in. I couldn't figure this out, which is to say the game could use far more tutorials, especially for players like me who aren't familiar with RTS bits.

Still, being a crab offered a great many benefits. One of the best assets of the crab is the ability to hop into first-person mode and, while it's a bit disorienting, pretend you're a rally car with a taste for jabbing human flesh. You're also able to cling to and scuttle around surfaces like a spider, which genuinely gives you a sense of being a deadly critter as opposed to a slightly dull dude with a gun. The moment you switch over to a non-crab entity, you realise that humans are a bit naff, honestly. You just control a generic sci-fi guy who shot hollow sci-fi weaponry.

Admittedly, a crab-based society meant being absolutely minced by much stronger two-legged forces. Crabs might be a laugh, but they aren't strong. The developer Dram did mention he'd work on balancing the aliens a bit better, given human troops could just pepper us with bullets from afar which not only damaged us, but slowed our approach. With a touch more power, I could see the aliens finally being a threat to the humans, and perhaps a much more viable choice as well as a fun one.

An alien crab jumps at an enemy soldier in Silica.

Sadly, my time as a crab felt quite directionless, too. Yes, I could pretend I was a hardshell rally car and yes, there was a time I struck out on my own, infiltrated a base, then nibbled on a huge Harvester (massive enemy vehicle that helps them gather resources) until the humans discovered me going full goblin mode. But after these adventures, I entered a permanent state of confusion. I got the sense the game - or the commander - was trying to give us direction by pointing us towards mini-objectives, like "take out the scout" or "shoot the harvester" but they'd fluctuate constantly as we moved across the map, almost as if they auto-switched depending on distance. As of now, I didn't really feel the impact of the commander as a lowly ground troop, at all. Perhaps this will change over time.

It seemed like most fights were decided over wars of attrition, where one team would overwhelm the other with more manpower. In the end, the battles felt more like rams butting horns, as opposed to rams who, as they butted horns, had given their ram mates the signal to pincer maneuver their ram enemies' barns and burn down their hay deposits. Silica in its current state didn't make me feel like I was part of a full blown conflict between two, or three, enormous factions. It felt more like a few scattered skirmishes in the middle of a barren land. I suppose I'll keep saying it: with enough time, perhaps this will change.

After crabbing about, I set up my own offline game with bots and hopped into the commander role, just to give it some sort of whirl. It was, unfortunately, mightily confusing. There are zero tooltips or tutorials to help you out, so I clicked everywhere and pressed lots of buttons on my keyboard to see if they did anything. From what I could gather, you're able to select AI units and send them places. You can harvest crystals scattered across the map which act as your resource, then use them to build barracks and other things. I'm sure it will all see a huge number of improvements and tweaks, but it was pretty confusing and pretty barebones.

Taking command of some alien units in Silica.

If you're the commander of the alien team, the setup is fairly similar, except that you're able to place nodes. Now, in the online preview I remember Dram mentioning something about these being a unique way for the aliens to infest the map. Again, I couldn't figure out how they worked, no matter how hard I tried. What was neat was being able to hop into the body of a soldier or an alien if you swapped out of the commander role.

If Silica wants to marry FPS with RTS, to put it bluntly, it needs a lot more time. And, to be fair, Dram didn't shy away from that fact. The game's set to arrive on Steam early access for around one year, with no further plans just yet. While it's a bit worrisome the version of the game I played seemed quite barebones, at least he's constructed the skeleton, which is a feat in itself. The ability to swap between ground units and the commander is relatively smooth, and there's something pretty special about the two working together in some - any - capacity.

My biggest worry is whether the hybrid is too ambitious. The commander role doesn't feel all that significant, and playing as a ground troop doesn't feel all that impactful. The RTS and FPS halves might be harmonious in that they slot together nicely, but each half lacks depth, so the strategy side is a bit shallow, and the shooting side rings a bit hollow. Given time, I hope Dram can prove me wrong when it launches into early access.

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