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Premature Evaluation: Epsilon

Siege mentality

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 on 16/10/2015.

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Marsh Davies