Special Forces


Title           Special Forces
Game Type	Combat Simulation
Company		MicroProse, 1992
Players		1
Compatibility	All (With Patch)
HD installable  Yes (With Patch)
Submission      Seppo Typpö (groucho@pp.inet.fi) Profiled Reviewer

Review
Imagine a version of the Bitmap Bros' "The Chaos Engine" where you can
choose your four man team from a squadron of eight soldiers, and also add
an option to command them from a strategic map. Add some real time
strategy game features like mission planning, formations, and tactics,
change the game environment from a strange fantasy world setting to an
ultra-realistic modern warfare one, and finally, replace the flashy
graphics with not-so-flashy ones and you get a pretty good picture of what
MicroProse's 'grunt simulation', Special Forces, has on offer.

Coming on three floppy disks and with a thick manual (often found in
MicroProse game boxes) Special Forces follows the path of Airborne
Ranger, which was a big hit on 8-bit computers and also released later for
the Amiga. Whereas the Airborne Ranger offered a single soldier's
action-packed view of modern warfare, Special Forces puts the player in
control of eight soldiers in a mix of strategy, action and team management.

When compared to its predecessor, the gameplay of Special Forces has
changed into a more strategic affair. The player is more like a guiding
spirit for the troops, who move and fight most of the time under computer
control, whilst the player takes command only at crucial moments.
Succeeding in missions depends how well the player adopts this 'mother
hen' attitude and learns to trust the computer AI to handle the trivial
things like actually moving the troops to the target area after the player
has given them marching orders.

A typical Special Forces mission goes like this: First the player selects
the squadron of soldiers, then one of the four difficulty levels and then
the mission. After reading the mission briefing the player selects the
four man team from the squadron and finally their weaponry before entering
the battlefield. The game's mouse driven user interface guides the player
nicely through each of these stages - which will be described in detail in
the following paragraphs.

Before the player can select a squadron he (or she) must create one. This
is done from the squadron roster screen where the player overwrites one of
the eight available slots. The player can rename the squadron but not its
soldiers which is a bit of letdown - for example, it would have been nice
to create a squadron called "The Simpsons" and then rename the soldiers to
Homer, Bart, Barney, Moe etc. for that more personal touch. But since this
would not be possible in real Special Forces, it seems it cannot happen in
a game simulating Special Forces either -  so you fight with the men you
get.

Special Forces offers four difficulty levels - each having their own
effect on several things like the level of weaponry and quality of the
enemy soldiers. The target information given during missions also depends
on the selected difficulty level - for example in the easiest level
(Conscript) the mission objectives are always visible on the strategic
map, while on second easiest level (Regular) the targets are given only as
map grid reference. In general, the higher the difficulty level is, the
poorer is the equipment you have, the smarter the emeny and the more you
need to think (and discover) for yourself during the mission.

There are 16 missions to choose from, including tasks like rescuing
hostages, recovering important objects, sabotage, target designation for
air strikes, full frontal assaults and sneaky assasinations. There are
also additional missions where players get a chance to rescue their team
members that went MIA (Missing In Action) during previously played mission
- a cool additional feature in the gameplay. The missions are equally
spread over four types of terrain (forming four campaigns) - tropical,
arctic, temperate and jungle. In practise the difference this creates is
mainly visual - different terrains offer no notable additional challenge
to the gameplay.

Once the player has chosen the mission, they need to select a suitable
team - each man in the squadron has special skills which could be
beneficial to the completion of that particular operation. For example if
the primary goal is to blow something up it might well be worth taking an
explosive expert with the team. However in the easier difficulty levels,
every men is capable of doing everything, so forming a team is not really
restricted by these personal talents.

Carrying the right equipment is vital for successful missions. Each man
has a weight limit of what he can carry, so some thought is needed to get
all the necessary gear into the correct rucksacks. There's a selection of
firearms on offer, accompanied by LAW rockets, grenades, explosives and
laser target designation systems (the last one is only used for those
tricky 'target painting' missions). The player can select from three
default equipment configurations or create a custom set for each soldier.

Entering the battlefield happens in two ways - the drop zones (where the
soldiers are dropped and later picked up) are either preset or selectable.
Latter options offer players the possibility to drop the team members into
locations they think are best for that particular mission. Either way
the player ends up on the actual game screen and the mission finally
begins.

All missions happen in real time. The game screen offers an overhead view
of one soldier or alternatively the screen can be split into four sections
with a separate view for each team member. The latter is useful only in
those moments when the player wants to quickly check the situation of each
soldier at the same time - usually the one soldier view mode is good
enough for any given situation.

The first thing to do when starting a mission is to check the map screen -
from there the player can check the location of the targets, the map grid
coordinates and also get satellite intelligence information of the latest
known location of enemy troops. The map screen can also be used to move
the team - the player can define waypoints which allow him (or her) to
guide the troops around enemy defences. The team then tries (under
computer control) to reach these waypoints, engaging the enemy
automatically if necessary.

There are three different rules of engagement situations - stealth,
limited and conventional. Depending on which apply, the player must select
a suitable mode and tactics for the team. The soldiers can move in stealth
mode (where they engage the enemy only if needed) or in attack mode (where
the team engages the enemy whenever possible). There are three tactics
(formations) to choose from - moving as one team, as two pairs or in
single soldier mode.

In a typical mission the player spends most of the time controlling the
team remotely from the map screen. The computer AI takes care of each
soldier and tries to obey the rules set by the player. The player can take
control of each soldier at any given time - still, the best option is to
concentrate on strategy and only take control when absolutely necessary.
The AI is strong enough to allow this, and the whole system works
surprisingly well once learnt. The player has the freedom of choice
though - the more action oriented person might want to control troops
directly most of the time. This is possible but very difficult  - jumping
between each soldier while looking after the big picture on map screen
requires quick thinking, fast reflexes  and a highly strategic mind.

In the battlefield, the combat is pretty realistic in a sense that enemy
troops react to player's actions intelligently. The weapons behave
realistically too - for example the LAW rockets must be fired far enough
from target so that they have enough time to arm their warheads. Each
weapon creates different level of noise - so even that has to be taken
into account on more stealthy missions.

In order to reach the target zone, the player has to plan a route through
the defence lines and also usually create some sort of diversion to lure
the enemy troops away from the target area. The tactics and the formations
play an important part in this - sometimes it is better to stick together
as one team while the more covert missions require the separation of team
members into pairs or even to individual soldiers, each acting their own
crucial part in the plan the player has created.

After the mission is over the team is recovered from the drop zone, and
the evaluation of their work is conducted automatically. The final score
is calculated based on team performance and the rules of engagement, and
of course whether the mission goals were met or not. Promotions and
decorations are achieved in successful missions, while failed operations
lower the  morale and fitness of each individual soldier who participated
in those unfortunate events, making later missions somewhat harder. It is
up to the player to choose who to promote and who to decorate - here the
game enters a simple 'team management simulation' mode as the player's
actions can influence the team performance (which then can either enhance
or endanger the success of future missions of that squadron).

So how does this all work - is Special Forces a classic game or a complete
turkey? After the player gets over the shock that he cannot control
everything everytime the game becomes a rather enjoyable light-hearted mix
of action and real time strategy game. However, there are some minor
problems in the gameplay which became apparent while playing through the
missions.

For simulation and strategy fans the mission planning phase is a bit too
shallow to allow proper planning - the map in the mission briefing is
useless, and the actual planning has to be done when troops are already
deployed to the battlefield. Another not so clever point is that there is
not enough information to plan the exact weaponry of each soldier. It is
quite easy to pack less than enough specific equipment for certain
missions as the player doesn't know how many of each installation type
there really are in the war zone until the team has been transferred there
and the player has access to the more detailed strategic map. It is also
not possible to send additional equipment to the troops which means
missions can fail just because of silly things like missing (or having the
wrong) weaponry.

It would have been nice to see more mobile enemies (other than soldiers)
like tanks, patrol boats on rivers, airborne enemies like helicopters and
such like. Despite being a simulation of modern warfare, the equipment
used in Special Forces is strangely limited. Also, it would have been
great to see the terrain playing a more important part in the missions.
There are no real elevations or depressions like hills or deep valleys,
which makes the strategic options the player has quite limited. Finally,
I would have liked it more if there were some surprises tucked into the
missions, like some unidentified enemy forces that would sometimes pop up
and force the player to rethink strategies.

The presentation side of the game also leaves a lot to be desired - the
graphics and sound can be described only as 'functional'. The color
palette is very limited, and the 3D effect of the battleground is quite
poor, since the viewpoint is strictly top-down and everything is drawn in
bitmaps. A vector-based approach a la Payback would have been better - and
closer to the 'simulation' atmosphere the game tries to achieve.

In conclusion, Special Forces is a good game which offers some short term
fun to players who like to think before they shoot and are willing to
invest some time to play the game properly - pure action fans and other
short-tempered people should propably look elsewhere. The game has some
nice original features and good attention to detail. If only there could
have been more missions (16 is really not enough) and if some of the
simulation aspects mentioned above had been better designed it could have
been a huge hit like the aforementioned "The Chaos Engine" and many of
those real time strategy games that came out much, much later. Finally,
however, top points for MicroProse for creating once again an original and
interesting game - a shame it never got the recognition it deserved.






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