Weekly Update: Time Is Running Out

I have nothing to show you from Return of Dr. Destructo this week, since the changes I’ve made are important, but invisible. So let’s talk instead about other people’s games.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been replaying one of the lesser-known, but still much loved turn-based squad tactic games, Blue Byte’s Incubation: Time is running out. I bought it on Good Old Games as a part of Battle Isle pack some time in the past year, but I have already played it before, long ago, and remembered it fondly. Well, let me tell you that replaying it didn’t disappoint me at all! Even though I found graphics ass-ugly and camera just awful.

So, what’s so great about Incubation? First, let’s talk about what it is, and how do you play it. On surface, this is your typical squad tactic game: you control four-to-seven space marines, who battle mutant alien scum in narrow corridors. Action points, shared between firing and movement, limit your options, various weapons enhance them and relatively dumb, but plentiful enemies create obstacles to victory.

My squad at the beginning of the final level.
My squad at the beginning of the final level.

However, Incubation is not like the best-known offerings in this genre, even though it shares much of basic gameplay with X-Com or Jagged Alliance. Chiefly, it lacks any strategic layer that made those two popular. Instead, it offers a linear campaign with a few forks – just a set of missions. Sure, your soldiers gain experience and equipment in between, but there is nothing here like base management of X-Com or sector strategy of JA2. If anything, you can probably compare Incubation to a less popular Jagged Alliance: Deadly Games addon. But where JA:DG provided its players with randomly-generated missions, Incubation’s campaign only has hand-crafted levels, and here lies its strength.

In my opinion, Incubation’s levels are one of the best examples of good level design, up there with test chambers of Portal. It’s not an accident that I mention these two games in the same sentence, because in my opinion, Incubation is to squad tactics what Portal is to shooters. Namely, it has the same control scheme and viewpoint, but beyond that it’s a different game: a puzzle. Now, Incubation certainly isn’t a STRICT puzzle: there isn’t a single correct sequence of choices that needs to be discovered to beat a level. However, you only have to play a few levels and you will see that there is a general, fuzzy sequence that you need to follow in most levels. Sometimes, it’s something simple: do not hesitate here, rest before this door, split your team there. In few levels, you have to get your tactic just right: use a flame thrower to stop advancing monster, then kill it quickly, before the second one gets close etc. In other, it’s just a general idea: use Jetpack to avoid enemies, don’t waste bullets.

Careful level design and variety of weapons and enemies allow for a good number of interesting situations. The campaign of the original game (I haven’t yet tackled the addon, Wilderness Missions) stretches for about 40 missions, but it’s unlikely that you will get bored with it, because every level offers a different challenge. Which also means a good pacing in introduction of new types of enemies and weapons. This is a nice change from X-Com (both original games and recent reboot), where you often find yourself wishing for an “auto-resolve” option later in the game.

Another nice feature of Incubation’s level-design is relative shortness of all levels. I think I haven’t spent more than 20 minutes on a single mission (in a single successful playthrough). This helps with boredom and lessens frustration. Never once was I tempted to stop playing this game, even though sometimes I had to replay the same turn for 5 times, or was forced to reload an earlier save. This also makes this game a viable option for a sequel with a mobile version. If anyone out there is listening, I want be on that team, but only if you also will release it on PC 😉

It is important to notice, that levels are short, but quite intense. This is achieved in several ways. First, the game limits your action points to a small number (3 to 5). Which means that your marines can’t travel fast, and can’t move at all if they want to fire a lot. And do they need to fire! Because the second part is endless stream of enemies. Not all levels have them, but most include spawning points where never-ending mutants appear in twos and threes, threatening to swamp your team unless you move quickly. This balancing act between spending points on movement to get behind the next door (which enemies, fortunately, can’t open) and clearing your way with weapons provides much of the tension. Skipping a turn to wait for one of your soldiers to recover from panic or unjam his weapon is often not an option here. But the pressure does not end here. There are also limits on ammunition for most weapons. While you can replenish it from crates in some levels, you still have to watch this counter, especially with later-game powerful weapons, which only has enough ammo for eight or ten salvoes.

Short range of movement also means smaller, compact levels, which is a blessing, unless it hurts the gameplay (here, it does not).

In the first few levels, a correct choice between movement, firing and Defense Mode (which costs 2 AP) is a choice of life and death.
In the first few levels, a correct choice between movement, firing and Defense Mode (which costs 2 AP) is a choice of life and death.

In an interesting twist on X-Com formula, Defense Mode (local version of Overwatch) allows your soldiers to fire an unlimited number of shots on advancing enemies. The only limiting factor here is weapon’s overheating. And the heat level is carried from turn to turn, which adds another layer of tactic.

With such number of things to take care of, Incubation could have been an intimidating monster of a tactic game, but its UI is well-designed and provides all necessary information for you to make decisions.

However, Incubation’s developers did make some mistakes, or maybe trade-offs. I have already mentioned awful camera, which never shows you what you need to see, because it is often placed too close to battlefield (fortunately, you can switch to a top-down view when you really need to take a good look on your surroundings). But there are some flaws, or perceived flaws in design, too. Experienced players notice, that this game suffers heavily from a case of “always and nevers” in equipment. It makes no sense to use some of the weapons, and others are too good to pass up unless you’re specifically want to handicap yourself. Just yesterday, an article by Josh Sawyer detailed how this is a bad thing for RPG. For tactic game, this is an even worse sin.

I can’t really defend Incubation developers on this one, since it’s a fact. However, I must notice that if you play for the first time without looking for guides on Internet, you probably wouldn’t come up with an ideal squad on the first try. And to my opinion, like most puzzle games Incubation is not really made to be replayed very much. Sure, you can have a second play-through to try different forks and maybe other weapons, but it’s not a game that you will (or should) return to again and again. The same, however, could be said about Portal, unless you’re a speedrun freak. So, this flaw, while present, does not really spoil the game.

Another bad spot I should mention in somewhat confusing character development and shopping system. In between levels, you can use your accumulated Equipment Points (which you get for completing the mission, but also for opening up various crates lying in side corridors) to buy your marines new weapons and gear. But to use a particular piece of equipment, a marine should have necessary skills. If he lacks them, you can spend his earned Skill Points to upgrade them. However, it is not very obvious from UI which weapon requires which skills. Also, you don’t assign Skill Points to marine’s skills directly, like you would in most RPGs and strategy games. Instead, they are spend automatically when you buy a weapon. Combination of this two factors means that it’s not very easy to keep your eye on specialization of your marines. So you saw this nice new gun, and bought it! Unfortunately, it required Heavy Arms skill, and so now you have spent two precious Skill Points on it that you were planning to stockpile for Leadership upgrade…

Shop screen is an example of not very clear UI design.
Shop screen is an example of not very clear UI design.

Beside personal Skill Points, your squad is sometimes awarded a Commendation. A Commendation allows you to give a marine a signle bonus Skill Point, which is nice in a pinch. But sometimes, the option to “Commend unit” is absent from menu, and there isn’t any indication as to WHY. I only know you can’t commend a single unit two times in a row and you can’t commend novice units (even though you’d want do that very badly!).

Still, Incubation is on of the best-designed games out there, in my opinion, and I recommend every squad tactics fan to take a look at it if you missed it in 1997, because it has much to offer. Be aware, though, that the game is somewhat unstable on modern computers. For me, it always crashed on the first run (after booting into Windows), but then ran just fine, even surviving Alt-tabbing for the most part.

I'm a video games programmer from Moscow, Russia. I have worked in game industry since 2008 on MMOs and mobile games, but I really want to make niche old-school RPGs instead :) In my free time, I like to play rock'n'roll on my guitar and travel.

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