Polyversal Kickstarter

GrogHeads Reviews Falling Skies

Andy Mills, 14 November 2014

How does the TV show translate to a game?

Introduction

The TV show Falling Skies tells the story of the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment, a group of rag tag warriors that are fighting an alien race (the Espheni) intent on dominating the Earth. This sci-fi drama is set on the East Coast of the United States after a near-catastrophic alien attack and features a myriad of characters from all walks of life. The majority of the action tends to be focused around the exploits of Tom Mason, a former university history professor, who is now the second in command of the 2nd Mass. Tom and his comrades are having limited success in fighting the Espheni, when a second alien race (the Vohm) lands on the Earth to help the humans with their struggle.

As one can imagine, Falling Skies provides fertile ground for a squad-based, tactical strategy game that would allow players to share in the adventures of the 2nd Mass and their struggle for survival. Creating a successful PC game based on a TV show is no easy task. The gaming landscape is littered with examples of TV shows or movie adaptations that turned into complete train wrecks (insert the name of any Star Trek game ever released here). The key to making a good PC game adaption of a TV show is striking the perfect mix of established content with a solid gaming system – so before starting my review, I found myself asking two things:

  • How will Falling Skies fare in relation to some of the other excellent titles in this genre, such as the most recent XCOM and Xenonauts?
  • Does the game provide the player with an experience similar to that depicted on the Falling Skies TV show?

With these questions in mind, I fired up my Steam account and pulled the trigger on Falling Skies.

Gameplay

The Mechanics

With the exception of subject matter, the mechanics of Falling Skies are almost exactly the same as XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Gameplay conventions are remarkably similar and players must make decisions on both strategic and tactical levels. Like XCOM, the player can decide which research is carried out and what items are produced at the 2nd Mass base camp. Upgrades are available based on the amount of food, metal, and medical supplies the player has amassed. Examples include better body armor, weapon upgrades and painkillers. Players can also make decisions on what type of medical innovations are pursued in the Infirmary, such as improved med kits, painkilling drugs and multi-use defibrillators. Continuous improvements on technical and medical fronts help your team keep pace with the Espheni forces.

This Skitter is in grenade range. The orange dome shows the blast radius.

This Skitter is in grenade range. The orange dome shows the blast radius.

Tactical battles take place in various locales which are shown on a map in the War Room. Some battles are optional (designated as orange icons) while others are mandatory missions which advance the main storyline (red icons) and are led by a main character from the show, such as Tom, Anthony, Pope or Maggie. Once a mission is selected you arrive at the location via the Hummer (with dual 50 cals) that is featured in the TV show. As per most turn-based, squad-based, tactical strategy games the player moves a squad of up to six characters across a map while trying to utilize cover and elevated vantage points. Like XCOM the area around the squad member is represented with two perimeters: one designated by a blue line and another yellow area which extends further away from the character. If the unit is moved within the blue area there is still another move or action available to the player, such as taking a shot, reloading a weapon or using a med kit. If the player moves his unit into the more distant yellow area no further action or movement is possible.

Getting this close to a Skitter is not a good idea.

Getting this close to a Skitter is not a good idea.

Getting Tactical

Upon selecting a mission, the player is provided with a short synopsis of what goal(s) need to be achieved and the enemy units that are in the area. Early in the game the majority of resistance is put up by Skitters and harnessed kids with assault rifles. As the game progresses, more potent enemy units, such as mechs and crusty humans appear. Missions can range from straight “bug hunts,” to rescue ops or searching for supplies. Squad members gain experience from each mission and this can be used to select skills or “perks” from a development “tree” unique to each class. Unlike XCOM, not all unit classes in the game can employ a cover/opportunity fire. In Falling Skies this “perk” is reserved for the Fighter class unit, but all members of the team can select “defend” mode which makes them harder to hit with weapons or melee strikes. Squad size can range from 4 to 6 team members of various classes with a myriad of armaments and abilities. There are four classes of units in Falling Skies, Fighter (basic soldier), Scout (sniper), Spiked Kid (support) and Beserker (heavy weapons).

The 2nd Mass base camp. This where the strategic decisions on battle plans and research are made.

The 2nd Mass base camp. This is where the strategic decisions on battle plans and research are made.

The Good

Falling Skies is based on a tried-and-true gaming model and from the press materials I reviewed the title appears to be aimed more at the casual gamer than the diehard grognard. For some, it will be a gateway game that will introduce current PC gamers to the world of turn-based, tactical warfare. The genre may also benefit from the release of Falling Skies as it provides a more accessible and less challenging product than XCOM for the masses of console users.

Pope gets ready to take on an Espheni Mech with an RPG.

Pope gets ready to take on an Espheni Mech with an RPG.

 

The game does sport some nice little touches that can get add to the immersion factor. The voice acting for the main characters in the game is done by the corresponding actors from the series while sound effects for the Skitters and Mechs also sound true to their TV show counterparts. Another nice touch: if units that possess the ability to use opportunity fire run out of ammunition, they will automatically switch to their alternate weapon to continue firing. There are many different weapons for each class of warriors to choose from, including assault rifles, heavy machine guns, handguns and of course the pump shotgun!

Technically, the game installed and ran perfectly on a very modest gaming PC that sported an AMD FX-6300 (3.5 GHz) CPU, 8 GB RAM and a lowly GeForce GT 610 (1GB RAM). During 40 hours of gameplay, I didn’t experience any freezing, crashes or other PC performance problems.

The Sky is Falling

While the game is based upon a tried and true formula, it has some significant issues that will speed it along to the bargain bin. The Falling Skies graphics engine is rather dated and leaves the player envious of mainstream games with even basic 3D lighting effects. Cut scenes can’t be bypassed and the dialogue is not well synced with the video, which destroys any suspension of disbelief these brief montages manage to create. Character models are almost caricatures and RPG explosions are woefully underwhelming. Enemy units, such as Skitters and Mechs, are the most credible visual translations from the TV show to the PC screen.

The enemy AI and gameplay balancing is less than challenging even at high difficulty settings. Harnessed Kids, Skitters, and Crusty Humans attacks follow the same approach-attack-and-hide sequence throughout the game. Crusty Humans carry shotguns, but for some reason they often choose to hurl flashbangs and then close in for melee attacks. Some missions are long and tedious and it feels like you are just going through the motions to gain XP and extra resources. Certain sections of map have few, if any, enemies to fight and this highlights the rather “sterile” nature of the mission environments. The concept of using cover also seems to absent as both sides seem able to fire through crates, cars and other solid objects.

The most disappointing part of the whole experience was the lack of immersion in the Falling Skies universe. Players rarely get to go on missions with recognizable characters and when they do, the tactics used don’t correspond with those depicted in the TV show. During one operation, I gunned down a slew of Harnessed Kids and set numerous Crusty Humans on fire with Molotov cocktails – definitely not Tom Mason approved tactics!

In the end Falling Skies may be a decent romp for the casual gamer, but the $43.00 (CDN) price is rather hard to justify.

Sneaking up on a harnessed kid or other units isn't terribly difficult in this game.

Sneaking up on a harnessed kid or other units isn’t terribly difficult in this game.

The Future

While Falling Skies was released for a variety of platforms (PC, Xbox 1, PS4, Wii U), there is no multiplayer component on any of the systems to offset the weaknesses found in the single player experience. I did do some web searching and found cheat codes, but no DLC, mods, hacks or conversions which points to a lack of community support, hence probably a limited lifespan on players hard drives..

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, Falling Skies is not a PC game that will garner much interest among fans of turn-based strategy. It may serve to introduce casual gamers to this genre, but it holds little promise for the seasoned player. Poor pacing, lackluster enemy AI, no multiplayer, ineffective cover and dated graphics keeps the game from succeeding as a true tactical gaming experience like XCOM or Xenonauts.   No-name team members and the use of tactics that do not jibe with those depicted on the TV show provide a generic strategy gaming experience that doesn’t capitalize on the richness of the Falling Skies universe.

Falling Skies may be an interesting casual gaming experience for true fans of the TV show, but more serious gamers won’t want to get rid of their copies of XCOM or Xenonauts anytime soon.


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