Turn-based strategy multiplayer can be exceptionally tricky to design. Just ask Intelligent Systems, who have attempted to implement it in both Advance Wars and Fire Emblem, with limited success.
Being games that focus more on intellect and less on action, strategy game multiplayer burdened with not just the problem of balance, but of pace. I still remember being stuck in an interminable standoff with a friend in Advance Wars, with one side of the map belonging to me, and the other side belong to her. It felt like hours before the deadlock was broken.
With their latest strategy game, though, Intelligent Systems takes a novel approach to this problem, turning Codename: STEAM's squad-based strategy into something akin to speed chess. With only 60 seconds to scout the enemy, formulate a strategy, and position your squad members, there's never a question of boredom. If anything, it can get a little overwhelming at times.
In Codename: STEAM, you control a four-person party comprised of characters from American lore. Both the Scarecrow and the Lion from the Wizard of Oz make appearances, as do Queequeg (Moby Dick), John Henry, Tiger Lily (Peter Pan), and Randolph (H.P. Lovecraft), with the leader of this League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Ladies being (who else?) Abraham Lincoln. Each can be equipped with up to two weapons, and all have their own strengths and weaknesses, whether they be greater movement or higher health.
Multiplayer is broken into three modes: Deathmatch, Medals, and a third mode that Intelligent Systems isn't discussing yet. Deathmatch, of course, is self-explanatory. The medal chase, however, is interesting because defeating the other team is secondary to collecting as many medals as possible, which requires smart scouting and defense. With movement limited to steam points—a gauge that also dictates how many shots a character can take—there are times when your character is stopped literally a step away from a medal, at which point an enemy character shows up and goes "Yoink! before shooting you in the face.
In the early going though, time and movement are less of a concern than smart scouting. Without knowing where your enemy is, you have to move your team carefully around the map, perhaps splitting into two groups so that one character isn't isolated and killed. The tension of scouting is compounded by the lack of a mini-map, meaning that it's not always clear where your own teammates stand in relation to one another, forcing you to draw a crude map in your head. Interestingly, scouting doesn't end when your turn is over. When your opponent is moving, you can hear their footsteps and track them with the camera.
Once you get a fix on your enemy—a process that takes a maximum of a couple turns—movement and timing become paramount, as does the overwatch ability. With certain guns, it's possible to have a character fire on an approaching enemy if they enter a certain radius, making them think twice about simply charging in and firing at point blank range. The only catch is that it needs steam to activate, so you need to have some left over when your turn ends. The overwatch ability is the keystone to any good strategy in Codename: STEAM, and I found myself abusing it almost constantly when battling GamesRadar's Henry Gilbert.
Taken together, Codename: STEAM crams an impressive amount of strategy into relatively compact matches, most of which take little more than 15 minutes to complete. With only 60 seconds with which to plan out your moves, there's very little margin for error, and you have to be exceptionally quick on your feet. More than once, I screwed up my positioning or simply ran out of time, leaving me open to enemy attack. But that only added to the tension as Henry and I engaged in a fraught game of cat and mouse, each of us trying to get into position for the killing blow in the minimal time allotted.
Given some time to practice, I expect the best players will quickly master the handful of maps that are available, effortlessly setting up killing zones and knocking out enemy squads before they know what hit them. What will be interesting to see is whether a real competitive community in fact springs out of Codename: STEAM. With online multiplayer and the promise of official tournaments, the possibility certainly exists. Its acceptance, I think, will hinge on whether the Intelligent Systems community responds to the shift from anime to Americana, and whether the strategy holds up in a competitive environment.
The latter, at least, seems like a good possibility. Veteran strategy developer that they are, Intelligent Systems has built up a very nice foundation for its online multiplayer, and I really like the mix of skill and quick thinking that it requires. There's quite a lot to chew on here; enough that when Codename: STEAM drops in a couple months, I wouldn't be surprised if Intelligent Systems' particular brand of speed chess became its biggest strength.