The Lighthouse Customer: Recruits
Each Monday, Chris Livingston visits an early access game and reports back with stories about whatever he finds inside. This week, a tiny war with big stories in top-down action squad-shooter Recruits.
When games don't have their own stories (and sometimes even when they do) I like to invent my own. Recruits, a game featuring tiny soldiers, is perfect for that, because while it gives each soldier a random, meaningless name, it also lets you create your own nicknames. This simple little feature makes all the difference. I mean, if Carl Arnold dies from enemy AK fire and Earl Lawson shreds himself with his own grenade, you don't have much reason to care. But when Carl "Two Days left" Arnold and Earl "Girl Back Home" Lawson die, well, it's tragic... though you totally saw that shit comin'.
The basics of the game: choose a mission and select four randomly-named recruits. If you want, you can type in nicknames for each of them, and you absolutely want to do that. You'll control one soldier personally (and you can swap between them with the number keys), and the others will follow your lead and accept a few simple orders (move, suppress, regroup, etc) via a radial menu. There's a top-down view and no way to zoom in, so the soldiers are teeny tiny little figures running about and getting into heavy combat. As they fight, they gain experience and rank; if they survive, you can carry them over to other missions.
I choose my first group of tiny recruits, and assign them tiny nicknames, which immediately leads me to assign them tiny backstories as well. There's Private Rafael "Riff" Hicks: kids used to torment him by calling him Riff-Raff, but it turned into just "Riff" when his musical talents became known throughout the neighborhood. Anthony "T-Bone" Parker: they called him "Tony Bone" because he scored a lot with the ladies (he said he did, anyway, though he'd later confess he was a virgin). Robert Carter went to film school with dreams of becoming a director, but his first student film was so terrible the other students called him "B-Roll", causing him to drop out and enlist... though he just might make a movie about this when it's all over. And Kevin "Kev-Dawg" Phillips, well, whoever gave him that nickname was a little impatient and just wanted to start shooting things already.
This rag-tag group of misfits have two objectives. Destroy several buildings and kill all the enemies in a thick jungle environment. They're led by Riff. By the way, Riff never asked to be a leader, man! He didn't want that responsibility, he hadn't earned it! What does he even know about war? He's just a musician from, oh, let's say, Brooklyn. But the others would wind up looking to him for direction when the shit got thick. Of that I am certain.
The shit gets thick really quickly, and, uh, well, Riff is killed immediately. Like, practically instantly. By the first enemy we see. That completely ruins the awesome war movie that was playing in my head. I take over as B-Roll, our new hero, who presumably also never asked to be a leader. But he was a director, so maybe leading soldiers isn't that much different from leading a film crew? Nope, he's promptly shot dead. Damn! T-Bone dies a fraction of a second later, so now he'll never learn that it doesn't matter that he's a virgin, it's perfectly okay to wait for the right person. Kev-Dawg manages to take out several enemy soldiers, and advances, blowing up a building with a grenade. Kev-Dawg, the worst nicknamed soldier, maybe he'll be the real hero of this wait no he's dead now too.
While I had expected some of them to die -- that's what happens in war movies in my head -- I thought it would be more, you know, one-by-one over the course of a long campaign. Not all killed within a minute or so of starting the mission. I begin again with four new recruits: Dustin "Buster" Kelly, Andy "Hairy" Harrison, Todd "Cheese Steak" Hernandez, and Walter "Go-Go" Gomez. I'd fill you in on the backstories of their nicknames, but there's not much point because they all die within the first two minutes of the same exact mission.
My next few missions aren't particularly cinematic either. In another mission, in different jungle, this one experiencing a heavy downpour (very cinematic!), Floyd "Stonewall" Stone watches as squadmates "Zeus", "Buckshot", and "Bilbo" quickly succumb to enemy fire. Stonewall himself dies when he stands too close to his own grenade, though it does at least destroy a building. That's pretty heroic, blowing up a small shed. Not exactly a trailer moment, though.
During a helicopter mission, Herbert "Dune" Dunn pilots a chopper and is killed along with Johnnie "JFK" Kennedy, Mario "It's A Me" Marshall, and Leon "Always Bet On" Black when they're shot down by an AA gun. Another attempt at that same mission goes awry when Arthur "UFO" Bell throws a grenade at a radio tower and is killed by the resulting shrapnel. The others ("Kel-Kel", "Rabbit", and "Noel") perish moments later when their chopper crashes.
By the way! The detail in this game (built on the Unreal Engine) is pretty great. Explosions are gorgeous, the environments are lush, and the carnage, while tiny, is quite gross! Shoot a tiny man and his tiny arm might fly off or his tiny entrails might spill out or a huge tiny gout of blood might spray from his jugular and paint the landscape. I know it seems a bit ghoulish to be like "yay horribly detailed soldier maiming" but I guess I'm just impressed how much detail can be added to itty bitty war-men.
Anyway! I finally enlist four brave recruits who actually make some progress. By this point, I'm naming them all pessimistically: Ray "Dead Man" Woods, Rene "Rest In Pieces" Bell, Terry "The Late" Murphy, and Leonard "Dooooooomed" Johnston. Flying their chopper carefully, they destroy three radio towers with rockets, and do several successful strafing runs on enemy encampments. After taking heavy damage, they even land safely and disembark just before the chopper explodes.
Oddly, though, only Dead Man and R.I.P. climb out of the chopper. After some investigating, the other two are found, for some reason, swimming around near a small island on the other side of the map. Suddenly, Dead Man and R.I.P. are teleported to them, and the four all confusedly paddle around in the clear water for a bit, wondering what the hell happened. Then, R.I.P. suddenly dies and the others are unable to climb out onto land and just paddle around for a bit. The mission has to be scrapped due to the worst thing that can happen in war: an alpha bug.
Another mission, then! In the frozen wastes of Siberia (what the hell war is this anyway?) another squad is not faring much better. Private Erik "Hutton" Fisher has been shot to death and Specialist Clinton "Eastwood" Moore accidentally ran off a cliff to his death, followed loyally by Byron Spencer, who lives up to his nickname "Bye-Bye." This leaves only Tommy "Gun" Wagner. His nickname isn't particularly imaginative, but he is pretty good with a gun, and a moment later he finds a big one. It's attached to a tank. He is pleased to discover he can climb inside it.
Oh, hell yes. The mission is to blow up fuel depots, but Tommy Gun is gonna be blowing up... let me just check my notes here... yes... yes... EVERYTHING. The tank not only fires shells but also has a heavy machine gun of whatever sort are in tanks in whatever war this is, and Tommy "Now The Tank" Wagner rolls through, blowing up every shed he finds, gunning down every enemy soldier and then running them over just because he can. He even learns something no soldier before him knew: he can call in airstrikes! He does. More things are blown up. Tommy yells something, probably something like "That's what I'm talkin' about!" as things explode.
After rolling across a bridge and destroying the final depot, Tommy is lifted out by chopper, a haunted look on his weary face (I assume; his face is too tiny to see). Yes, he successfully completed a mission, and in dramatic, last-man-left-alive fashion, but that won't bring back his friends. Finally, I've got the narrative I was looking for. Now, Sergeant Tommy "Tank" Wagner will have to lead three fresh-faced recruits through a nighttime stealth mission.
After climbing off their boat in the middle of the night, they creep quietly into the dark jungle holding silenced pistols. Along with Tommy Tank, the now-grizzled veteran, is Tyler "Tuberculosis" Bradley, Vernon "Doctor" Freeman, and Gerald oh wait they've spotted us already and the alarms are going off and everyone has been shot dead including Tommy Tank. Oh well!
I'd say this game is kinda hard. Or, maybe I'm just terrible at it. At the same time, it really is a lot of fun. It needs plenty of work -- shooting is quite inaccurate and there are bugs -- but it's a fun way to fight a tiny unspecified war, even if that war goes a bit off-script.
Recruits is available on Steam for $10/£7. For this column I played alpha version 0.5.3 (August 6, 2014).