I am a huge fan of all things “stealth game” related, so when we received a review code for Signal Ops from Space Bullet Dynamics Corporation, I was somewhat excited. Having come down from the high of Dishonored’s marvelous downloadable content (The Knife of Dunwall) and still pining for some downloadable content for Hitman: Absolution, I’m always looking for the next great stealth action experience.
Signal Ops is not it.
The Dark Father is Watching You
The story I was able to get out of Signal Ops is bloody fantastic: you play as a surveillance officer for some fictitious 1950s-era “Big Brother” style secret police agency whose job is to go in and conduct subversion operations against “enemies of the State”. That means your operatives are being sent out to plant evidence in the houses of rabblerousers and suspected insurgents to make sure the real police find evidence to put them in prison. The stealth aspect is that you can’t be seen doing any of these nefarious deeds, whether by local police or the targets themselves. Again, brilliant idea for a game, and you can bet your last dollar that things are likely to go poorly for your agent as the story unfolds, but I was unable to proceed through Signal Ops before I gave up trying.
Gave Up Trying?
The control scheme seems like it would benefit from one of those old cardboard layout overlays you would put over your keyboard, and there’s no way to configure your control scheme in the options. I literally had to write to the developer and ask them how to open the door to the tutorial area (spoiler alert: you roll the mousewheel to open/close the doors). Then, after learning how to open doors, I got through the second mission in the tutorial only to have the game crash on me in the same location twice. I eventually installed the game on a second computer in a last ditch attempt to get to the bottom of Signal Ops, and it did end up working. Hooray.
Picture In Picture Mode
Again, a really clever idea behind Signal Ops: you play as a surveillance officer in charge of a team of expendable field agents. Back in the comfort of the control room at headquarters, you sit in front of a series of television sets that control your team. Each agent is controlled by rotating through the 1-6 numbers on your keypad, with each agent having their own gear and specializations. The “Wrench” can pick locks and has a shotgun, while your “Bolt” carries around the team’s radio transmitter. You can give orders through the agent you’re controlling as long as he can see one of the other agents; your “Bolt” can tell your “Wrench” to come over and unlock a door. Again, it takes a little bit to get the hang of the control scheme in Signal Ops, but this is the least of the game’s problems. The team’s radio transmitter plays a key role in keeping visibility on your team; the team can only transmit a picture back to headquarters within the range of the radio transmitter, so it’s critical to keep the team within the radius. That means you have to regularly pick up the radio transmitter, find a power source, and plug it in, then as your team moves to the next objective, you run your radio man back, grab the radio, and move it forward. While a clever idea, the radius of the transmitter is terribly small and ends up more of a pain in the ass than anything else. Meanwhile, pulling up the map to find the eight objectives for the first mission shows an “X” over each building you’re supposed to plant a piece of evidence in. However, there is usually only 1-2 ways in a building, and many of the windows and doors are just painted into the environment and unusable.
The Graphics Hurt My Eyeballs
Signal Ops was built to look like a game from the late 80s, early 90s. The menus all look like old CRT monitors from the 1980s, much like something you’d see in Fallout 3. The real problem is that the graphics are so retro that it gets difficult to draw the line between “retro” and “bad”. The character models are drawn like giant uncomfortable-looking pedophile Muppets that hop around the screen with oversized heads, stick arms, and little to no difference between one another. One civilian looks like the next civilian, one police officer model is reused over and over again. When the “wrench” character pulls out his shotgun to shoot an approaching police officer, there’s a giant red flash to signify that you fired your weapon. I could go on and on, but Signal Ops is tough to watch. And for a game that expects you to spend hours and hours on each mission, perfecting your team’s completion of objectives, you’re going to be staring at them for a long, long time.
Why People Hate Stealth Games
Signal Ops is a perfect example of how not to do a stealth game. Hitman: Absolution, Dishonored, Splinter Cell, Mark of the Ninja, any game with any kind of stealth sequence ever, it is critical that you have three parts: 1) the ability to see enemies before they are alerted, 2) the ability to tell if you’re hidden from sight and not making noise, and 3) the ability to do something about it if you get caught. Signal Ops gives you none of those things. There’s no handy dandy radar to show you where police and civilians are on the map. Even when you know where the security forces are, you cant tell if they’re looking your way or away from you because the character models are so poorly put together, at any kind of range, they just look like stick figures moving around. Are they looking my way? Is he turned around? Will he hear me creeping up? There’s no way to tell unless you run up close enough to check, which of course, means you’re exposing yourself to possible alarm. Then, when you are spotted (and oh, yes, you will be spotted), there’s not much you can do about it. Sure, you’ve got a pistol or a shotgun, but there’s just a point where your minion will just put his hands up and surrender, leaving you to watch him just stand there, forcing you to reload your save. Oh, you were manually saving, correct? There’s no autosave here, bub, so save early, save often.
The idea behind Signal Ops is amazing, and one I truly would have liked to have gone through fully I’m usually someone that will slog through a really bad game if the story is interesting enough, and I caught enough of a whiff of what Signal Ops was bringing that I really would have enjoyed going through it. For the sake of the review, I fought through the control scheme, the nauseating retro graphics and the broken stealth mechanics in the hopes of “getting it”, but Signal Ops defied me to enjoy it. I could hear myself sighing as I reloaded after getting caught again, determined to give it just one more try, even though any hope of finding enjoyment was long past.