Laser Squad Nemesis has finally found its way to retail shelves. The game was designed and developed by Julian Gollop and Nick Gollop, the brain trust behind the classic turn-based strategy game, X-COM: UFO Defense. Though it's new to retail outlets, Laser Squad was actually released a couple of years ago as a play-by-e-mail-only strategy game. After a couple years of additions and tweaks, the Gollop brothers and Codo Games finally added campaign missions for single-player action. The package also includes a three-month subscription to the game, which gives you the right to both play online against human opponents in leagues and obtain future downloadable missions and other content. While the game will probably appeal to fans of old-school PC strategy games, the relatively primitive presentation and slow pacing will likely turn off others who have come to expect more pizzazz from their strategy.
Though it's often compared to X-COM, Laser Squad Nemesis differs a great deal from its forebear. The primary difference is that there is no base-building or resource-gathering to worry about. Instead, the game focuses entirely on turn-based tactical battles on a gridlike field that should look familiar to fans of the original X-COM. At the outset of each match, you're given a set number of points that you spend on deploying your army on the map. The more powerful units, such as vehicles, cost more than regular foot soldiers.
You've got a choice of four different races, each of which is completely unique from the others, meaning the races are balanced asymmetrically, like in Starcraft. The marines are what you'd expect them to be: foot soldiers who carry weapons such as laser rifles and grenade launchers. They also have a medic unit that can heal any infantry. The machina are a race of sentient robots that have very powerful but expensive military units, including missile and plasma tanks. The greys look like your stereotypical X-Files aliens. Their units include powerful flying saucers and troops that can mind-control enemies. They also have a tank that can put up a shield barrier for infantry to hide behind. The spawn are an insectlike race with fast-moving units that attack primarily through melee. The spawn queen can eat corpses on the battlefield and then lay eggs to create additional units. Each of the four races is fun to play and attacks with a very unique style. The only unfortunate thing is there are only six different units within each race to choose from.
Once you've got your army chosen and deployed, you click on your units and move them about the battlefield in turns that last 10 seconds. Laser Squad Nemesis includes a fog of war and line of sight, meaning you can never be too sure where the enemy is until one of your units spots him or her. The command interface is fairly flexible, allowing you to give each unit special orders, such as fire at will, pursue any enemies spotted, or retreat when enemies are spotted. Once you've given each of your units orders, you end your turn, and all your units (including those of the artificial intelligence or human opponent) move and act simultaneously during that 10-second turn. The developer has thoughtfully included a preview mode that lets you see how your units will move and act during that turn, so you can make sure they're not running into one another or shooting their buddies. Of course, this preview assumes your opponent does nothing during this time. After a turn is taken, you can see the results using a VCR-like interface that lets you play, pause, rewind to previous turns, and fast-forward.
Unexpected things can happen, though, and it takes some practice to ensure your units are always doing something productive, even when the unexpected occurs. Since you'll be controlling sometimes more than 20 units in a given turn, it can be frustrating when some of your troops sit there idly because the enemy you've ordered them to fire at has run behind a blind corner or because you've accidentally caused a traffic jam in a narrow doorway. To prevent these things from happening, players need to be very meticulous about the orders they give. This aspect of the game, and the fact that action happens only 10 seconds at a time, makes Laser Squad a very slow-paced affair. If you have the attention span for it, the game is quite fun, and it's very rewarding to finish a mission, whether it's a head-to-head match or one of the 20 campaign offerings.
The plodding pace of Laser Squad Nemesis is probably why the only options for multiplayer are play-by-e-mail or hotseat head-to-head. If you play a match with another player via e-mail, you can set the number of turns the game is limited to, as well as other options, such as a time limit for play. Playing by e-mail might be an antiquated way to play a game, but the good thing is that you can take just about as much time as you need to plan your turn before e-mailing the data back to your opponent. The bad thing is, of course, that your opponent will also be taking his or her time. It's not out of the question for a single online match to take several days, if not weeks, depending on how you've set up the match.
The primary knock on Laser Squad is that its presentation is rather dated. The game engine is 2D, with rough animations for the different troops. It can also be difficult to tell one unit type from another, at a glance, especially if you're playing as the marines. There's a decent variety in the environmental tilesets, but everything feels flat, and there doesn't seem to be any elevation to worry about, such as multistory buildings. Certain aspects of the environments are destructible, though, and this factors into the gameplay when you create your own entrances and exits, or when you blow up units from behind walls with explosives. As far as sound goes, the weapon effects and explosions are pretty cheesy, and there's no music or speech to speak of. But that's also somewhat expected of a $20 game.
If you're a huge fan of the original X-COM and you're looking for a true follow-up to the game, Laser Squad Nemesis isn't quite it. The tactical battles definitely capture the spirit of X-COM, but the whole package doesn't come together in quite the same way. On its own merits, Laser Squad Nemesis is a still a worthwhile turn-based strategy...if you don't mind its rough look and feel and don't have too short of an attention span.