I'm not sure if Heat Signature [official site] will be labelled as a comedy game when it goes on sale, but I haven'y played a funnier game in recent years. Your role in each brief life that you lead is to earn money by completing missions that involve kidnapping, assassination and theft, so that you can use the money to buy information regarding an end-game mission that is personal to your character. Get that job done and your character can retire happy. Fail and you're most likely a popsicle drifting through the void.
Here's how it all works, and how my most recent character died.
She was trying to steal a shipment of food. I assume the theft is for altruistic reasons, hijacking a load of cargo destined for rich and prosperous planets, and diverting it to the hungry and needy in another sector of space. Heat Signature's framing for your adventures is loose enough, stitching together a few random elements, to leave blanks that your own imagination can fill. You get a name and a purpose, and the rest is mystery.
From your home station, you can take missions from a board to earn money or visit shops to spend money. Missions are ranked as easy, medium or hard, with the pay-off matching the peril, though the game sometimes serves up “easy” missions that are trickier than the “medium” ones at present. There are three basic pieces of information to take into account when accepting a job: how big is the target ship, what is the objective, and how many seconds will be on the clock if you're detected on-board.
That last is the factor that can make a mission much trickier than its ranking suggests. It's something that creator Tom Francis reckons will change – when we played the game together at GDC, he queried his own game when a supposedly Easy mission had a four second escape window. Even on a small ship, that's a big ask.
Of course, you could just make sure nobody spots you so that the countdown doesn't become an issue. That's how I raised the cash to take on my personal mission on my last attempt at a good life. You can complete an entire run of the game in less than an hour, gathering resources across a handful of missions before attempting to pass the final hurdle. It'd be smarter to save up a surplus of cash to spend on nifty equipment rather than rushing straight for the finish line as soon as you have the necessary funds, but the option is there.
Francis tells me he'd never planned to make a game about loot-gathering and while gathering new weapons and devices is still far from the heart of the experience, Heat Signature does reward those who crack open its loot crates. There are no +1 modifiers on weapons or gadgets, but equipment can have certain traits, such as rechargeable. Most items are disposable, no better than paperweights once their charges have been spent, but a rechargeable device regains its energy at the end of a mission.
Before tackling the final mission for your character, its sensible to bring a decent teleporter, a good close combat weapon, a suitable gun, and some explosives. It's possible to play without using guns - and it's how I prefer to go about my business, sneaking and stabbing – but it's always best to have options rather than being tied to one playstyle. Heat Signature is a game about scrapping plan A, resorting to plan B, eventually improvising plan Z, and then cackling like a buffoon when the resulting explosion is larger than expected.
That description is accurate but it's also misleading. It makes the game sound messy and chaotic, but it's actually a very precise playground. In part, that's because each mission takes place in a discrete location, the ships that are the playing fields effectively isolated areas in which to muck about. Apart from the equipment and cash you gather, nothing that happens on a ship has any impact on the galaxy outside that ship. They're all tiny Vegases, floating through space. What happens there stays there, which is a very good thing considering the embarrassment of corpses I often leave in my wake.
But this life had been relatively peaceful until the final mission. Sure, I'd conked a few people with a wrench but I hadn't blown any ships to pieces or fired a single bullet. All of that was about to change.
The reason Heat Signature allows such precision rather than descending into chaos is down to the pause system. Hitting space freezes the action at any time, allowing you to scan around an entire ship to see where enemies are waiting or patrolling, and where your target is located. Ships are divided into sectors and those sectors usually have locked doors that serve to divide them from the next sector along. To make your way across a large ship, you'll need to either figure out a way to circumnavigate locked doors, or steal keycards from guards.
In keeping with its ethos of providing information so that players can hatch plans, only to watch those plans disintegrate into farce, Heat Signature marks guards carrying keycards with a big key icon. Brilliantly, because you can see everything, you can plot a route through the ship toward your target, knowing you'll need to take down certain guards to steal their keys, knowing which rooms to avoid because of turrets or clusters of guards, knowing that there is a clear and obvious passage to victory.
My favourite device in the game is a teleportation device that swaps the player with any human in its range. There are a variety of teleporters, including the Snake (can teleport anywhere that has an unblocked route) to the Swapper, and owning one changes the entire way you think about route planning. With the Swapper, guards become waypoints as well as obstacles, and you're likely to spenda lot of time hugging walls, trying to inch close enough to a heartbeat so that you can zero in on it and switch places.
Enemies that have been swapped get question marks over their heads and run around trying to convince their colleagues that something very strange has happened. Like the vague character descriptions at the beginning of a run, the AI actions aren't detailed – there are no conversations or interactions beyond detect, pursue and assault – but the game encourages the player to fill in the blanks. You can infer a lot from the exclamation and question marks, and the way people scatter and scramble.
For the final mission, I'd taken a Swapper with four charges, a shotgun, an armour-piercing longsword, a Frazzler that fried electronics in the vicinity, and a few grenades.
Melee combat is supremely satisfying. Pause with space when an enemy is within range, then click to restart and murder in one action. Then pause again, while the weapon is on its cool-down, and switch to a shotgun to clear the room. Everything is tightly controlled. Until it isn't.
I still don't know how I died. I'd been teleporting through the ship, leaving a trail of confused enemies and corpses in my wake, and I was about halfway across the gargantuan ship. I needed to capture the whole thing, which meant getting rid of everyone on board, taking out the pilots (who are unaware of their surroundings, locked in navigation chairs), and then plant myself in one of their control pods to conquer the ship and bring it and its cargo home.
Being shot or bludgeoned knocks you down, but you're not instakilled. Instead, a guard will drag you to the airlock by which you entered and lob you into space. From there you can remote control your ship, collect your hurtling body, and then re-enter. Like a burglar who is defenestrated and then comes straight back in through the front door, you're a persistent little so-and-so. Unfortunately, space takes its toll and every time you're ejected, the length of time you can survive one of these forced void-plunges is reduced.
I hadn't been caught a single time, so I could drift through space unconscious for ages, but remember the countdown I mentioned earlier? Once you're detected the ship you're infiltrating heads for the nearest station and if it docks there, you're finished. Caught and imprisoned. Game over.
The structure of the game is such that you can abandon a mission if the going gets tough, provided you're either close enough to your docked ship to get on board, or have an item that can breach the hull and allow an asphyxiating escape into space. I had 15 seconds on the clock when I was finally detected, which occurred as I was closing in on the last conscious pilot.
Using my penultimate swap, I'd switched places with a guard just as he peeled off from four buddies. I thought I was just out of their line of sight, but one noticed my appearance. Rather than screaming in terror, he ran straight for me, wrench in hand. I shot him, alerting the other guards, who wheeled around and opened fire. Panicking, I used my final swap to escape into the next sector of the ship. That seemed smart, until I realised that everyone in that sector was running to the aid of the group I'd just startled. They pegged it through a door, which locked behind them, sealing me in a sector without any living people.
The key was with one of the guards on the other side of that door. I had no way of opening the door, no Swaps left, and my gun wasn't capable of punching a hole through the wall. I considered waiting, in the hope that everyone would come back to their initial positions, but with less than ten seconds left before capture, I had to take desperate measures. In this case, that meant throwing explosives at the door.
There was a loud explosion, somebody started shooting, then another explosion, and then I was in space, propelled through what I assume was a breach in the ship at a startling velocity. My shock was so great and my failure so complete that I didn't bother to take control of my ship for a rescue. I died a few hundred miles away, confused and alarmed.
I love Heat Signature because it's all about emergent disasters but they are threaded through systems of total control. The planning, the pausing, the rule-breaking devices. Everything is geared to give you the ability to perfect your little plots, from one second to the next. When you find yourself drifting through space, your ship parked somewhere one system over, you're likely to spend the last seconds of your life reverse-engineering the process that led to such a bizarre scenario. And you can.
It was the wrong grenade in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not by chance, but by design. Your design. The guards are only ever reacting to your presence and your actions, and the layout of the procedural ships is knowable if not entirely predictable. By removing the dark spaces in which dungeons, office buildings and caverns are often generated in other emergent procedural games of this sort, Francis has created chaotic precision.
My only concern relates to the isolated nature of the missions. I wish there were more interplay between my actions and the shape of the galaxy and its factions. There are late-game objectives involving fleet gathering to liberate areas, but they open up new options in the shops rather than actually changing the shape of the world. It's my greediness that wants something of Space Rangers 2's dynamic galaxy tied to these brilliant little systemic scenarios, but I cannot deny it.
As it stands, right now, Heat Signature is hilarious and surprisingly skill-based. True, most of the skill is in your ability to plan and think on your feet rather than in twitchy responses (the pausing ensures you don't need the ability to pull of ludicrous reflex shots), but there's a very solid stealth action game behind the farce. I'm just about ready to start a new life, just so I can create a new death.
Disclosure: Tom Francis was a writer at cheery RPS fanzine PC Gamer for many years, where some of our writers encountered him as a colleague in a previous life. Having never set foot inside a PC Gamer, I met him for the first time at GDC this year.