Special, in a short-bus kind of way
At its core, Special Forces: Team X is a shameless Gears of War rip-off. More accurately, it comes off like something created by an art student and a game-design undergrad who paired up after playing Epic’s chainsaw-laden opus and watching A Scanner Darkly. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I can’t fault developer Zombie Studios for being heavily inspired by something with as big a footprint as Gears. But, then, I could also just play Gears, right? There’s just a bit too much of it in Special Forces to begin with, whether it’s the position of the camera, the feel of the roadie run, or the heavy emphasis on cover-based firefights.
And, yes, I realize that Gears of War doesn’t have a monopoly on cover mechanics, but Special Forces very much feels like the developers just copy-and-pasted its digital DNA, then sped up the movement and action a little and slapped a Photoshop filter over everything for good measure.
To its credit, the game does try to stand apart from its Locust-infested inspiration by way of an RPG-like leveling system that opens up loadout customization. As your character gains experience each match and levels up, more and more equipment becomes available. This applies to every facet of character customization—body type, head accessories, shirt, pants, and clothing color. Even taunts can be tweaked more and more at later levels.
The choices that matter most, however, are Gear and Skills. Gear includes things like stun grenades, flash grenades, and the immediately available attack dog (I kid you not). Skills, meanwhile, play into the game’s emphasis on team cooperation. Skills are only active when a team is formed (that is, when you’re around the other Blues or Reds, as opposed to separating from the pack as a lone wolf). These perks can improve squad accuracy or damage resistance, making it much more advisable to stick by your fellow fighters than to become a one-man army.
Unfortunately, all this level-based restriction makes for a very rinse, wash, repeat experience when first starting out. Players are expected to pony up 15 bucks and a lengthy time investment before they can truly shake things up a bit gun- and gear-wise.
The only real variety here is the game types, but even those are the usual rigmarole—Capture the Flag, Team Deathmatch, Capture Point, Hot Zone, and High-Value Target. Nothing you wouldn’t expect to find in any other online shooter—and, as is common with the genre, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag are much more prevalent (and more often in play) than the rest.
The most original aspect of Special Forces is how it handles map voting. Instead of choosing one prebuilt level, players help build the map each match by voting among several options for three modular sections—the left, middle, and right side—that come together to form the full arena. Conceptually, this would seem to deliver much-needed variety, but in truth, the few options to choose from—six for the left side, three for the middle, and the same six as before mirrored for the right—are, like so much about this game, almost indistinguishable. Every area sports some manner of industrial-site aesthetic. Sometimes they’re enclosed, indoor spaces. Sometimes they’re more open, outdoor ones. All are wholly forgettable.
Special Forces usually plays well enough, but there’s a looseness to the shooting mechanics—they don’t quite feel tight or refined—that makes the entire experience feel bland and indistinguishable, save for its Photoshop-filter veneer. The only lasting impression is when the match begins and the guns don’t seem to actually fire bullets. Or discharge in any noticeable way beyond aurally.
Or the pre-spawn loadout menu stays on the screen and doesn’t leave until you throw yourself in front of enemy fire.
Or when the “I’m behind cover” code stays with you long after you leave cover, and your character moves like he has a garden wall still attached to his leg.
And then a dude named Vagician headshots you, and you wonder: “Why don’t I just play Gears of War?”
SUMMARY: It’s hard to find something as generic as Special Forces: Team X appealing when online multiplayer shooters are a dime a dozen—and that’s all there is to this game.
- THE GOOD: The emphasis playing as a team and sticking with your crew instead of trying to be the Big Action Hero who “wins” because you have the highest kill count.
- THE BAD: That, ultimately, I couldn’t care less about my team. No in-game voice chat, so no camaraderie.
- THE UGLY: Never feeling confident that when you transition out of cover, it won’t come along for the ride in spirit.
Special Forces: Team X is available on Xbox 360 (XBLA) and PC (Steam). Primary version reviewed was for PC.