Tactical Troops: Anthracite Shift is finally out. After nearly a year long delay and it’s been released. But was it worth the long wait?
Type: Singleplayer, Multiplayer
Genre: Strategy, Tactics
Developer: QED Games
Publisher: QED Games
Release date: 15 April, 2021
In the year 2120, mankind has expanded beyond the confines of Earth, and settled planets outside of our solar system. Your team has been sent to one of those colonies, but something goes wrong with the landing, and now you need to gather your team of 4 elite soldiers, and fight your way through deadly wildlife, vicious pirates and worse, in order to complete your mission.
Tactical Troops is a turnbased tactics game with some novel ideas. The first thing that will stand out to anyone playing it is that it’s gridless and uses an action point system where you have a larger pool of action points, so with every step a soldier takes drawing from this pool. it also has teleporters littering some of its levels, teleporters that can teleport both people and bullets.
Story & Setting
Tactical Troops is surprisingly sparse with its storytelling, particularly early in the game. You’re pretty much dumped into the world with an intro that tells you that your team got split up as someone was trying to shoot you down as you were interesting orbit, but it’s not really telling you who you are or why you’ve been sent to another planet, or even where you’re from. The store page and later sections of the game does fill you in a bit on the story though.
Your team has been sent to the planet Anthracite, located roughly 600 light years from earth. The planet has been isolated for some time now, but suddenly a change happens, the teleporters that have been dormant for some time suddenly activates. The planet is facing some trouble though and your team of mercenaries get sent to Anthracite to help the people living there.
The landing on the planet does not go as planned as your landing pods get shot at as you enter the planet’s atmosphere. Your team is scattered over a wide area. So before you can even start your mission properly you need to find your squad members, and traverse the dangerous Anthracite wilderness.
At the start of every mission you get a short description of what’s going on, and during them some NPCs, be they friend or foe, and your team members will also talk. This is really the main way that the story is progressed and you find out more about the world and why you’re there from the NPCs.
The graphics in Tactical Troops has both some high highs and some low lows. The environments generally look quite good, particularly the outdoors areas can look great, with a lot of varied objects scattered around the place. Sadly the same can’t be said for many of the enemies. Animals have very jerky animations, and the harsh top-down perspective don’t do them any favours either. The human characters, be it player’s characters or enemies, fare a little bit better, but the perspective makes them look flat.
It’s rare for games with a top-down perspective like this to look great, but what they lose in graphics, they gain in how easy they are to read. It’s easier to see everything you’re meant to see, judge distances and so on, when you see everything from above, than if you see it from an angle. And in a game as lethal as this, where your units die quickly, and knowing the line of sight of your units can mean the difference between shooting down an enemy that tries to sneak up on you, and you losing half your team to a well placed grenade, readability trumps graphics.
Sound design is a mixed bag. You’ve got the standard sound of gunfire, explosions and so on, and it’s for the most part good. The music is not so great though, not as background music at least. There’s nothing wrong with the music in the main menu, but during the levels it can be a bit annoying, and does not work great as background music that’s played on repeat.
In Tactical Troops you control a small squad of highly trained soldiers, who make their way through a hostile planet. The game is split up into 40 distinct missions, most of which have goals like reach a certain point or kill a bunch of enemies, although there’s a good amount of variety in the actual mission design, so even if the objectives are similar, the means to achieving them will differ.
Tactical Troops: Anthracite Shift is an, as the name would imply, a tactics game. The game is turnbased and uses an IGOUGO system (that is you and the enemy alternate your turns, as opposed to a WEGO system where both sides do their turns at the same time). On your turn you get to move each of your soldier individually, and they all have their own pool of action points. Actions include things like moving, shooting, throwing grenades and using the unique abilities that each soldier has.
When you select a soldier you’ll see two circles around it, one darker inner circle and one lighter outer circle. The darker circle shows how far the solider can move, and still be able to shoot its selected weapon (each soldier has two weapons that you can switch between). The lighter circle shows how far it can move without doing anything else, if it moves there in a straight line. This is a very flexible system, and gives you a lot more freedom than you would get with the more common grid-based one, and also works well with the games use of line of sight.
Speaking of line of sight, this is something that’s important to keep in mind. Every object blocks line of sight, as you would expect, and you never really know what lurks outside of Line of Sight. Using your full move when moving forward into unknown territory is generally not a good idea, as if you run into enemies, your character is likely to be killed. That is, if the enemy does not manage to kill your character with their overwatch. A character can, during its turn, spend all its remaining action points in order to enter overwatch, and if something walks in front of it, the character will open fire. If you walk around a corner, and an enemy is standing there, your character is likely take a lot of damage. Thus you need to manage Line of Sight, and make sure that you don’t walk into situations where you characters risk taking too much damage from overwatch.
The game AI handles its human and animal (and other) enemies quite differently. Animals will try to rush you, they don’t care about line of sight, they’ll get within attack range and then attack, thus giving you plenty of time to react, and set up overwatch of your own. Human enemies on the other hand are smarter, they’ll set ambushes, they’ll try to sneak in behind you and throw their grenades, and they won’t just rush into your line of sight if they know you’re there. So against human enemies you need to play it smart, and try to get in behind them. The AI is of course not flawless, and there are times when it can do silly things, but overall it tends to play pretty smart
To make things even more confusing there are teleported on some levels. Teleporters don’t just teleport people, they teleport almost anything that goes into them, including bullets and grenades. If you shoot through a teleporter, the bullets will emerge from the one on the other side, dealing just as much damage as they would if you just shot someone right in front of you. While you can shoot through teleporters, you can’t see through them, and the AI also knows how to use them. There are a few guns that can’t shoot through teleporters which actually gives them their own special use cases. If you’ve got a plasma weapon and the enemy don’t you can use teleporters as shields.
Despite having 4 unique characters with their own personalities death is not permanent. Unless the mission specifically says that no characters are allowed to die it’s fine if they do. They’ll be back to full health at the start of the next mission, despite looking very much like they died during the last. Characters can go down pretty fast at times, particularly if they go up against an enemy with a machine gun at point blank range, so not having permadeath is probably the better option.
Despite its delay Tactical troops still has a few issues. Enemies can at times get stuck in objects or each others, which makes their turns take a long time, as they keep pushing on the objects and only very slowly expend their action points. The game is also a bit crash prone, it seems like if it ever runs out of memory it just crashes to desktop. Combined with a minor but noticeable memory leak and this can cause some issues (particularly if you have a browser with a lot of tabs open in the background). Luckily loading times are not very long, and neither are the levels, so a crash does not set you back by much, but it’s still annoying.
It’s said that Shigeru Miyamoto once said “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad”, and while that’s no longer true thanks to patches and post release support, an indie game that has a shakey launch is unlikely to recover. I got to the chance to play this game before it was meant to launch last year and even wrote most of the review for it before its delay got announced, and while I would not go so far as to say that the game was bad back then, it was rough and had major issues with its balance. I’m glad to say that the delay seems to have been well worth it, as most of the negatives that I wrote in the old review have been fixed.
We’ve got a bunch of great turnbased tactics games in recent years, it’s a tough market to compete in, but Tactical Troops: Anthracite Shift does enough to differentiate itself from the pack, without being hard to get into. The teleporters are a fun gimmick that add a surprising amount of depth to the levels where they feature prominently in, but even without them Tactical Troops is a just a really solid tactics game. Going from the usual grid structure to a gridless one fundamentally changes how the game is played, and it means that keeping an eye on any dead angles for your line of sight and overwatch becomes all the more important.
This is a game that fans of turnbased tactics games should really check out. It has a lot of tactical depth, but it’s never overwhelming, and it’s just the right amount of different to stand out from its peers.