A developer really has to have some confidence in its product to call it Abomination, a title just begging to be exploited for a cheap joke if the game stinks. Lucky for Abomination's developer Hothouse Creations, the squad combat game, while flawed, isn't bad enough to warrant much name-calling.
References to the classic turn-based strategy game X-COM appear several times in Abomination's box text and press kit. In fact, the game's lead designer worked on the X-COM sequel, Terror from the Deep. Pedigree and hype aside, Abomination has more in common with Bullfrog's acclaimed action-strategy hybrid Syndicate than it does with X-COM. Abomination's a real-time tactical action game with very little underlying strategy.
The game's premise is that a plague has swept through the United States causing widespread death and panic in the streets. The physical result of this virulent disease will not surprise anyone familiar with fictional plagues: mass zombification. Tossed in with the zombies are some hideous mutants and a religious sect called the Faithful, whose purposes are vague but absolutely diabolical. Eight healthy agents, each with a superpower such as telekinesis or toughened skin, are released from an isolation ward in the headquarters of Project Nemesis. They are accompanied by eight normal agents, and your mission is to help them find a solution to both the plague and the Faithful.
The game is presented through a strategic interface that leads you into a series of tactical battles. Though such a structure makes it seem otherwise, Abomination has virtually no underlying strategy or resource management. Within the strategic interface you can monitor your 16 characters, manage your equipment supplies, and read detailed documents covering virtually every item, personality, and concept in the game. As in X-COM, time passes while in the strategic overview, and missions appear as hot spots on a scrolling city map.
The problem with the entire process is that it contains very little strategic decision-making on your part. Most of the activity involves routine busywork, such as reequipping characters. Often, there is only one eligible mission at a time. On higher difficulty levels and toward the end of the game, you'll have multiple simultaneous missions available, but it's generally very clear which one needs to be dealt with first. While there is a research and development component to Abomination, it is essentially out of your control; specimen requests automatically appear, you fetch the specimen within a mission, and are then simply informed when the research is finished.Abomination's tactical missions are played out on 3D isometric-perspective maps. Each mission and its corresponding map is randomly generated. The missions have various goals ranging from brute-force assaults to various covert ops, such as theft and assassination. According to the manual, more than 1.2 million different combinations are possible. Although random content generators can't compete with a specifically designed level, the developers have done an excellent job with the one used in Abomination. It's the game's best feature, and it adds significant replay value.
The tactical battles occur in real time and generally devolve into feverish mouse-clicking reminiscent of Diablo. The game offers a large number of behavioral settings for your agents, but in practice it's difficult to tell what effect these have on the events taking place. Even set to his most aggressive stance, a character will frequently fail to respond to an attack on a comrade just several feet away. Left to their own devices, agents will run for cover when under fire, sometimes right by a group of enemies. When actively selected, an agent's artificial intelligence completely switches off. He'll calmly stand in place while undead soldiers riddle him with bullets. Remembering to deselect a character once you've issued his orders is one of the game's key challenges.
However, once you accept the fact that Abomination's battles are really more about barely-controlled chaos than about advanced tactics, they become somewhat enjoyable and even a little addictive. The game's many frustrating issues are eased by the satisfaction of a well-executed grenade attack or the pleasure of actually managing to lure a group of the Faithful into a successful ambush. The unpredictability and short length of the missions actually make you want to keep playing once you start.
Abomination also includes a very complete set of multiplayer options. The game supports direct modem and serial links, IPX, and TCP/IP. The manual even states that there is a "play by e-mail" option, though it's somewhat disingenuous since it really amounts to nothing more than the exchanging of saved games so that several people can individually experience the same randomly created campaign. Up to four people can play cooperatively through the standard game, and as many as eight players can compete in multiplayer-only modes, such as capture the flag, deathmatch, hold position, and a few other variations. A collection of canned speech clips is included to facilitate communication between players, and the multiplayer gameplay is generally stable. There's even a free matchup service offered by Eidos. But even so, multiplayer Abomination just isn't very fun. The confusion inherent to the game does not lend itself particularly well to cooperative or competitive play. It simply becomes more of a chore to coordinate actions with your teammates.
Abomination's tag line is "Action Strategy Mayhem." It should be subtitled "not in that order." Mayhem is Abomination's dominant component, while strategy is a distant, distant third. Yet there's something compelling in the game's particular brand of mayhem, and as such, you may find yourself enjoying it against your better judgment.