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.