As our five man team huddled around the base of a large street lamp, the emotionless voice of our on-board computer told us bio signatures were moving in our direction. We couldn’t see anything beyond the nimbus of the light we were standing in; the rest of the landscape lay steeped in shadow. Our recon trooper designated a drop point for some supplies as the team’s heavy weapons specialist built a make-shift barricade; the lone demolitionist placed the last of his satchel explosives as our remaining member reloaded his assault weapon.
The mini-map lit up with movement on all sides but it was the teaming mass approaching from the south that had our attention. Firing into the dark was a waste of ammunition, so I stepped forward and flipped a flare onto the street between us and the oncoming mob. The large area of reddish light it created, gave us the visibility we would need for our bullets to land true. As the team’s medic, I then retreated behind the heavy and planted my mobile medic station in a spot that ensured that everyone was standing in its radius. Now it was just a waiting game.
A few seconds later, the horde was on us. They came in waves, each successive one crashing against a wall of bullets that roared out of the heavy’s mini-gun. Eventually he had to reload and it was during that time that the enemy breached our defenses making my work that much more difficult. It looked as though we had weathered the onslaught- that is until a behemoth of a creature rounded the corner, his feet obscured by another wave of smaller, scuttling monstrosities. I was out of ammo, but I could still heal… well, that’s what I thought until the giant began to swing his ball and chain into our midst…
A tad melodramatic, I admit, but that is precisely what happened the second time I played The Red Solstice, the new squad-based co-op shooter from Croatian developer, Ironward. I joined a mission with four other gamers and we spent fifteen minutes clearing contaminated material, looting lockers and initializing turret defensive systems- all the while being harried by hungry critters of various sizes and shapes. The game session to that point had been wholly unremarkable, equal parts mild enjoyment and annoyance. That final showdown, however- that full party wipe that faded to black on the image of our corpses pulverized into blood sausage- that was a signature moment and it left all of us chattering in the lobby, energized to give it one more go.
As an anecdote, this aptly encapsulates what it is like when you first play The Red Solstice. You spend a lot of time fumbling around with soldier abilities while trying to keep up with your squad as the more experienced members raid all of the ammo lockers. You end up using auto-fire mode so that you can split your attention between puzzling out how to effectively use your character and keeping enemies at bay. This leads to a less-than-satisfying play experience that will cause you to question why you are playing the game at all. Then The Signature Moment happens and you are jolted out of your fugue state, battling to survive what seem like impossible odds against some scary looking creepozoids. Suddenly your tepid response to the first part of the mission is forgotten and you are eager to hop into another game. Maybe this time you can get to some of those lockers before the others…
The term “real-time XCOM” has been used when describing The Red Solstice but that is misleading. A more accurate description would be to say that it resembles a highly strategic version of the 2010 Steam title, Alien Swarm. While that title may be more polished and accessible than Solstice, it lacks the depth of the latter and this is where comparisons must cease.
As I have alluded to, this is a game about strategy. That strategy starts with your soldier. When you begin, you are given the option to select one of four classes- Assault, Medic, Heavy Support and Recon. As you play, you gain experience and level up. Every few ranks (there are 25 in total) you unlock new classes and equipment. Some of the experience is class specific, so even though you may reach the rank of Captain, if you haven’t yet played as a medic, you will not have gained the necessary experience to unlock medic-specific upgrades. In all, there are eight soldier types, ten primary weapons, 11 class-specific components and 12 universal upgrades. A smaller assortment of secondary weapons and ammo types add to the variety and ensure that every player can customize their soldier to fit their needs.
The Red Solstice is a multi-player game and that is the backbone of the second level of strategy. Much like one of the Battlefield titles, how a team of players is composed and operates will ultimately dictate success or failure. Even on easy difficulty you will succumb to a party wipe unless you work together and have a balanced team. The most insignificant enemies in game can trigger a wipe if it DOTs you with poison or bleeding and you don’t have a medic to heal it. Likewise, a foolish player can kill his entire squad if he accidentally detonates explosives with friendlies in the vicinity. The game also manages to avoid one of Battlefield’s biggest frustrations- the dreaded “all recon” team- by instituting caps for soldier types; for most soldier types, only two are allowed, per mission.
There are other aspects of the multiplayer that must be mentioned. For one, your squad can have up to eight soldiers, which gives greater strategic flexibility, in-mission. Split up into smaller squads for multi-objective completion; bunker down and secure choke points while members of the team foray out into the surrounding area; even position your squad(s) for more tactical responses to enemy assaults- A classic pincer maneuver anyone?
Another big plus is the variety in mission set-up. There are nine game options, as well as multiple difficulty settings and random map generation. With every mission you run, you can tailor it to play style, difficulty and game mode.
Like many games coming out on Steam now, The Red Solstice is an “early access” title, so expect to play a beta. Thankfully, the game itself is very stable and seemingly bug free. The most unstable element of the game is the lobby, where you will have issues crashing and getting kicked prior to launch. Ironward are hard at work adding and polishing so it can be safely assumed that these issues will be squashed while they add more content.
The Red Solstice is another one of those games that gets better the more you play it. The fog of frustration and confusion will slowly dissipate with every mission you run, revealing a challenging and engaging gaming experience that ultimately rewards in that way every good game should- the urge to give it one more go. This is especially important here because in The Red Solstice you are going to die… a lot.