Reviewed: June 25, 2004
Released: May 6, 2004
Tactics videogames have been around since the 1980s and let's face it: despite better graphics and more powerful systems, not a whole lot has changed over the years. Tactics games are RPG’s for people who love micromanaging their troops. They stress statistics in battle as well as strategic placement on a battle board, which is usually represented by a map with movement squares on it. There are ratings for everything - attack, defense, jumping and moving distances and so on. Battles are extremely slow and often incorporate large parts of story into them, rather than being separate from story segments as in a traditional RPG.
So what to make of Future Tactics: The Uprising? Developed by Zed Two and published through Crave Entertainment, this game is a tactical RPG unlike anything I've ever seen before. If I were to suggest that tactical gaming was all about stealth and hiding, most of my readers would laugh. By the standard formula, it's impossible to work in such systems. However, Future Tactics is anything but standard.
Future Tactics features:
As I mentioned above, Future Tactics: The Uprising is a tactical role-playing game at its core. There is a story, albeit a simple and only somewhat engaging one. It's an oldie but a goodie: Weird creatures appeared seemingly from nowhere one day and destroyed most of the human race. Now, they maraud about the countryside, terrorizing the few bands of us that are left and generally running amok for no immediately apparent reason. You take control of a very small resistance group and wander around trying to eradicate the invaders. At the outset, you only have two characters, but more will join you along the way.
Brief story sequences play in between battle scenarios, following mostly the thoughts and interactions of the main character, Low, and his utterly useless little sister, Pepper. Story events also unfold during the battles, but there is no world map or equivalent to speak of - your party is whisked from one location to the next with transitional passages in between. Since games like La Pucelle: Tactics really only have a World Map as an afterthought, this is just another example of the fact that tactical gaming is all about the battles, not what comes in between them.
The maps are fully 3-D and they are not gridded off. Future Tactics instead shows an area marked off in green that represents the limit of each active character's movement. After selecting the movement command from a command wheel (the wheel has three options: move, attack and end turn), a character is free to run anywhere up to its limit and back with no penalty. This is the same in principle as moving a character in a traditional tactics game and then canceling the move - it allows a character to scope out potential hiding spots and/or pick up items that have appeared on the map without giving up a more useful action. When all friendly characters have finished their actions, enemy characters get their turn.
Of course, as with any RPG, some characters in Future Tactics do things better than others. For example, while Low has a much more powerful attack and higher defense than his sister, Pepper has a wider range of movement, allowing her to stay out of harm's way. In an odd decision, players are given no way to view or directly alter their stats. I can tell you that Low is stronger than Pepper, for example, but I couldn't say, "Low's attack stat is at 76 while Pepper's is only at 22."
Those of you reading between the lines have probably also realized that this means there are no weapons, armor or items to purchase or equip. Instead, the game opts for the streamlined approach, taking a cue from platformers and scattering weapon upgrades and health packs randomly on each map. An experience meter shows how close each character is to leveling up, and level-ups do have immediate and tangible effects, but there are no numbers to be found here, either. In fact, the only numbers I saw anywhere were in the attack system, and they weren't what most would expect.
Once a character has found a vantage point (jumping up on top of a roof or boulder is usually good), it's time to aim and fire. In another departure from convention, most of the characters in Future Tactics attack by targeting a ballistic weapon through a reticle. Upgrades that allow characters to zoom, fire twice or use heat-vision can be acquired along the way. Damage dealt is based on accuracy, and this is where the aforementioned numbers come in.
The reticle (or sight scope, as you like it) is extremely hard to control (another complaint of mine - it was unnecessarily annoying), and players must attempt to get the "bull’s-eye" over an enemy (there is no auto-target). Once this is done and locked in, a line will scan across the viewfinder, which should be stopped as it crosses the bull’s-eye. Lastly, a perpendicular line crosses, which players also attempt to line up on the bull’s-eye, creating an X over the target. The closer the X is to the center of the reticle, the higher a character's damage percentage will be.... and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the only number you'll see with any regularity in Future Tactics.
All of this is interesting, to be sure. The game comes off feeling like a hybrid of the RTS, tactical RPG and action/adventure genres. A lot of it works very well. For instance, the enemies communicate telepathically with each other, so it's in a character's best interests to not be seen when possible. Future Tactics’ free-roaming system allows for this - I even walked casually by some monsters while they were diligently looking the other way! A character in a good enough hiding spot will be forgotten about as the monsters focus their efforts on those that they can easily see.
The deformable terrain has many uses, as well: blow a mine cart into the air to roll it on top of an enemy that's out of Low's line of sight, or blast a climbable grade into the side of a cliff to help Pepper reach the high ground. Fully 3-D terrain and characters that can actually jump up onto a rock in real-time are certainly refreshing touches. And the absence of any micromanagement is a surprisingly fun, leaving a lot of time to just plan out a route of attack and order troops around a battlefield. In many ways, those concepts lie at the heart of tactical role-playing.
However, there is a big flip side to all this innovation: it's very unpolished. I mentioned that there is no way to directly play around with character stats. I believe this omission was a big mistake on Zed Two's part, mostly because of the character Pepper. I also mentioned something about her uselessness. The reason for this is that after the third map, Pepper is so weak that even shielded (a defensive state that can be taken at the end of a character's turn), a single hit will most likely kill her.
This leads me to another grave complaint: If even a single character dies, it's game over. This is ridiculous and makes the game a lot harder than it should be. Because of this, I ended up just having Pepper hide behind a rock on one map until all the enemies were cleared. In every other tactics game I've played, a few characters were expected to be KO'd during the course of a battle. Add to this the fact that there is no way to keep items for times of need (players have to depend on randomly placed health packs for those), and what's left is a game with such a punishing difficulty curve that even low-level maps may take new players four or five tries.
The visual quality of Future Tactics: The Uprising is, to be kind, outdated. It isn't that care didn't go into their execution, but despite good character and enemy designs, this game looks like an A-lister from three or four years ago. The level of quality is in the same ballpark as MDK2, though perhaps not as eye-popping or memorable. There are no cutscenes, but the characters' faces and movements are clear enough on their own. Honestly, given the stylized look of everything, cutscenes would have looked kind of weird anyway.
The object damage mapping (terrain is deformable, remember) is pretty generic but it does the job. Most boulders and so on have fairly low polygon counts, and there isn't much in the way of shrapnel after Low blows one up, just a big crater. Physical models look lifelike, if a bit on the cartoony side (which is kind of the point). The fact remains, however, that nothing was really outstanding in any way about Future Tactics' graphics package.
There isn't a lot of music in Future Tactics, but what music there is has been done well and is memorable (though they don't approach Final Fantasy or Metroid-level themes, of course). It's used well, too: The "good guys" get a song (which varies from stage to stage), and the "bad guys" get a different one (which is usually almost the same between stages). The music ranges from theatrical to almost ambient, but never sounds too serious. Sound effects are almost unnoticeable and were neither impressive nor exactly lacking.
Voice acting is generally good, but spotty. In particular, there are a few voices that are just poorly acted. The majority, though, are fine to listen to. Most also have British accents, which is fun for those of us here stateside. Depending on the situation in battle, characters will say different things, but most of the dialogue is acted out in the sequences between them. This is fine, though more voice acting is almost always better, and there isn't really all that much of it in Future Tactics.
Owing simply to the up-front difficulty of Future Tactics: The Uprising, it should take most players quite a few hours to finish the one-player mode. There is also an expansive two-player mode with various different play styles and unlockable maps. This mode adds a nearly unlimited amount of replay value, provided you have a friend who's willing to wage hour-long battles with you on a regular basis.
This game is one that strikes me as an "either/or" title - you'll either enjoy it a lot, or not at all. I personally enjoyed playing it, which means that I would probably get some enjoyment out of playing it again. However, on the other end of the spectrum, those for whom constant game over’s are a bigger nuisance than the rest of the game is rewarding may never even bother finishing it. Curse that Pepper and her weakness!
In some ways, Future Tactics' simplicity helps it a great deal. In others, more attention to detail (especially weapons and armor systems) is sorely needed. Regardless of the good and the bad, though, there's no question that this is an innovative and unique title. It lays an exciting foundation for later titles with its refreshing gameplay and lack of restrictive elements like movement squares.
This is a game that is not afraid to try a lot of things that, taken as a whole, have not been tried before. I respect that a lot, especially in today's world of sequels, series and spin-offs. It could certainly use work, but Future Tactics: The Uprising is an admirable achievement and a fine game in its own right.