In 2011, 2K boss Christoph Hartmann defended the studio's decision to try and turn XCOM into a first-person shooter with the immortal words, "Every studio we had wanted to do it and each one had its own spin on [XCOM]. But the problem was that turn-based strategy games were no longer the hottest thing on planet Earth. But this is not just a commercial thing – strategy games are just not contemporary."
Four years later, the first-person spinoff is long gone, the subsequent XCOM remake is getting a sequel, and developers like Double Fine are borrowing its strategy concepts for themselves. Steamworld Heist is yet one more example of a strategy game appropriating XCOM's tactical mechanics; in this case, bolting them on to a 2D strategy game starring the robots from Steamworld Dig. Set in a world not so different from Star Wars or Firefly, the captain robot Piper Faraday scavenges the galaxy for loot, battling pirate bots along the way.
"She started being a he, until someone asked why," Brjann Sigurgeirsson, one of the game's creators, told me as we sat down to catch up at EGX. "But why does a robot have gender in the first place?" The team decided that they had copied old records, with humans having more or less gone extinct."
Captain Piper's adventures are very different from those found in Steamworld Dig - a platformer set in a steampunk variation of the Wild West in which you spend the majority of your time mining for ore and other resources. In Heist, the combat is turn-based, with Piper able to move forward to a certain point and fire; or alternatively, press further a bit more at the expense of being able to attack.
Being rendered in 2D rather than an isometric point of view naturally has a few disdvantages for Steamworld Heist. It makes the levels feel more linear, and as a consequence, a bit less expansive. But Heist makes up for it with the way it uses the space above and below the party, allowing you to shoot up through certain platforms or climb ladders to flank foes from behind.
Success is contingent on manipulating the different levels as the story progresses. In the beginning, the maps are relatively tame; but as the game continues, enemies begin to flood the platforms, swiftly overwhelming your relatively small party. One particularly nasty foe wields a massive shield and strikes with a melee attack that does a tremendous amount of damage, forcing you to either try and flank him or richochet bullets off the ceiling to get him in the head. Unfortunately for me, I hadn't had enough time to build up a proper party with strong weapons, so I was pretty much no match for the wave of enemies coming my way. I was buried in relatively short order.
From what I'm able to gather, I was a bit further along than I should have been. Ideally, I would have had a larger robot crew with more abilities unlocked - each unit has an upgrade path that is unlocked with experience - and better weapons. In this instance, playing on a debug unit that could skip forward at will wasn't such a great idea. In a nomal setting, many missions are unlocked by earning reputation - represented by stars - with certain areas requiring a certain number of stars. Others open up as the map slowly but surely expands after each mission, creating a more natural progression.
Interestingly, Sigurgeirsson says that the team originally conceived of a free-roaming map for Steamworld Heist, and also had permanent death for characters, but ended up changing it to the current format. "For the longest time you could travel around and take on missions as you saw fit, and the trip would also cost water, since the [pirate flagship] Deja Vu is also steam-driven. But since we decided to integrate an overarching story and forward that story through Captain Piper's interaction with the other cowbots, we had to "linearize" it quite a bit - or it wouldn't have made sense."
Another Win for Strategy
Steamworld Heist was originally slated to be released in the spring, but has since been pushed back to the fall. Nintendo should count themselves lucky, because it stands to bolster an otherwise fairly average Nintendo 3DS lineup for this fall, joining the The Legend of Zelda: Tri-Force Heroes and possibly Yo-Kai Watch and Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon as games worth keeping an eye for the holiday season.
In addition to upgrading the 3DS's fall lineup, it will also presumably stand out as one of the better strategy games among a lineup that already includes Fire Emblem Awakening, the underrated Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, and the Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor remakes. It's also apt to prove more popular than the divisive Code Name STEAM, released earlier this year, if only because most people are likely to prefer Steamworld Heist's rather charming robot aesthetic to Code Name STEAM's appropriation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
I really like the moment to moment strategy that comes with maneuvering your robot into position, taking aim, and trying to get a headshot; and I'm particularly fond of the humor, which is loaded with pun-filled names like "Sea Brass" and memorably weird looking robots. My only concern is that it might end up being a tad repetitive, particularly given the rather samey backgrounds that come part and parcel with a game set in space. On that front we'll just have to see. Sigurgeirsson has promised a diverse cast - and there's good reason to expect that will be the case given that the bulk of the gameplay will involve recruiting robots from various cantinas. A large cast of allies and enemies, plus a lot of really good weapons, will go a long way toward pushing Steamworld Heist to the top of the 3DS's strategy game heap.
In any case, the Steamworld games have a good track record, so I have high expectations for Heist. It rests on a firm foundation of solid strategy and good art design, wihch will go a long way toward it ultimately being a good game. In the meantime, Steamworld Heist is looking like another win for the decidedly contemporary strategy genre.