As we run up towards the release of what will probably be the greatest video game of all time, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, I thought we should maybe take a look at a recent release that tries to capture that MGS feel. It's a game called Specter Ops, and it's about an agent sneaking into a facility to complete some objectives while avoiding a group of bad guy weirdos. Sounds about right, yeah? But is it?
The first thing to make you go “!” will be the look of Specter Ops. It's a delicious thing, with attractive plastic miniatures for every agent and hunter in the game, and excellent artwork throughout. It has a real MGS1 vibe - all cool blues and gloomy lights, psychic villains and ninjas. The board is a gorgeous illustration of the facility. But hold up. HOLD UP A MINUTE. Essential to the layout of the board is a numbered and lettered grid, where the entirety of the game takes place. These numbers and letters are not visible enough, meaning that if you play anywhere with a little bit of moody lighting you're going to be constantly checking and double-checking what's written on the board. It's a daft decision that puts looks ahead of function, which is very rarely a good idea in a board game.
I mean, seriously. I can't tell you how many times people were having to get up and peer at the board to see where we were standing. “What position are you at?” “Um, D23. No. Is that – Oh, it's 24. E24. Is it?” It's just silly, and I almost didn't get past it. It was doing my box in.
You want to know what the game actually plays like? Okay.
One player is the stealthy agent, and they don't move on the board at all. They take a big notepad thing that has the board's layout printed on it. That's where they make their moves. They can move four spaces every turn, and they will plot their movement through the facility on one of the notepad's pages, and no-one else knows where they are. This is why the whole thing is numbered and lettered – so all the movement can be plotted out in secret. The agent's job is to complete four objectives, which really just means they have to go and “touch” certain areas of the board. Very, very simple.
Meanwhile, on the board, the bad guy hunters are trying to sniff the agent out. If they see the agent, they can make an attack, rolling a die with a better chance of success the closer they are. They're co-operating to corner the agent, occasionally jumping into a vehicle that can speed them ten spaces up the board, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. They're also constantly getting out of their seats to check what the numbers on the board actually say.
The game would be nothing at all without the special powers that the characters have. One of the baddies is a big doggy thing that can run a bit faster than everybody else, and it can smell agents. Yeah, like, it can actually SMELL the agent. If it moves slowly it can go “I'm sniffing”, and if the agent is within four spaces the agent has to go “You can smell my arse.” One of the other baddies is a psychic guy who can tell where the agent was two turns ago. Another baddie is amazing at shooting, and can set up sniper points. Yet another baddie can control the vehicle without even being in it, and can use the vehicle's motion sensor from anywhere on the board instea-
Oh yeah. The vehicle has a motion sensor thing. Or a radar or something. Dunno. But if the baddies are in it, they can use it and the agent has to declare what direction they're hiding in. “I'm North-East,” they say. Honestly, if you're ever needing to use that thing, you're not doing too well at this game.
The agents have special abilities too. One has extra toughness, making them harder to kill. One can create holographic decoys. Another can do ninja stuff to stun the baddies. It's nothing too exciting.
The agent also gets to use equipment cards, like flashbangs and smoke grenades. These are necessary to give the agent a leg-up when they get cornered, because they will. There are also some cards unique to particular agents, like the web-like lines the Spider agent can wrap the baddies up in.
In a five-player game, a traitor element comes in. Because that's the cool thing these days, right? One of the hunters will secretly be a traitor, and if they ever “see” the agent, the agent doesn't have to declare it. The agent is kinda invisible to the traitor. And then the traitor can out himself at any time and become a full agent, to help with the completion of the missions. It's an interesting little wrinkle in a game that, to be quite honest, really needs those wrinkles.
I enjoyed Specter Ops, but I'm not quite sure why so many are so excited about the game. It's a solid hidden movement game, but it comes with all the same issues that dog most games in the genre. It's sometimes a little bit boring waiting for something you can't see to do something you can't see so that you can get a turn at maybe moving closer to a thing you can't yet see. There are small bursts of excitement, sure, when an agent gets cornered, but even then there's this strange sense of foreboding. It's like “Oh, this is fun right now, but if the agent gets out of this mess we'll have another ten minutes of vaguely interesting catchy-catchy sneaky-sneaks.”
The special abilities are cool, interesting and quite engaging. And the game plays in maybe an hour. But it could go longer, and I think that would maybe be no fun at all. I don't know. Like I said – I enjoyed the game, but it's not a home-run by any stretch of the imagination.
If you want a Metal Gear Solid game, I'd still recommend you hunt down the brilliant indie game “Hour Of Glory”. If you want a hidden movement game, I'd put Fury of Dracula miles ahead of this. Letters from Whitechapel too. I actually think I prefer Scotland Yard too. If you want a short hidden movement game, I'd put Escape From The Aliens In Outer Space ahead of it.
So, this is a cautious recommendation. Definitely a good, attractive game in the hidden movement field. But nothing spectacular. There are better options. What do you think yourself?