September 21, 2017 // 6 p.m.
Developer: Suspicious Developments
Publisher: Suspicious Developments
In space, no one can hear you scream.
No one can hear you scream after you get shot in the stomach and flushed out of an airlock, desperately trying to pilot your pod on remote control to pick your feeble body up from deep space.
No one can hear you scream after you fire your shotgun, missing the target, hitting the window and dumping the pair of you back into space, another job for the remote-controlled pods.
Heat Signature is a game where you get dumped out into space a lot, through failure and misadventure. Space is the start and end of every mission, side quest, and adventure, whether you're wrapped up in a pod or flailing your way into low orbit, screaming silently into the void.
Heat Signature is a mechanical sandbox, concentrating less on the physics of space and more on using a variety of weapons and gadgets in conjunction with the spaceships you're infiltrating to get the job done.
The entire structure of the game is centred around experimentation, from the wide choice of characters and missions you're given to play with, to the lack of consequences for failure. Play centres around a central hub on a friendly planet, where you can choose your character from a rotating cast of rebels at the bar, shop, and take on missions. The aim of the game is to liberate four strongholds in different parts of a randomly generated galaxy, ending a meat-grinder of a war that's causing too many innocent deaths. How you do that is up to you, but the meat of it is that for each mission you succeed at, the rebels are emboldened, and this allows you to go out and liberate more planets, expanding your zone of influence.
When a character dies or is captured, you move on to the next likely rebel, with a new set of gear, a new personal mission, and a new appearance. You needn't get too attached to your characters; this is a roguelike of sorts where each character will die quickly, with near-miss failures, like being injured and left to bleed out or crashing your pod, getting more severe each time. Worse, as you conduct more and more successful missions, the rebellion can start to think an operator's endless successes are boring, and are less enthusiastic with each victory.
All of this is a smart mechanical concoction that means you have to learn to let go of your character, either because they're ripped from your grasp, or because you have to retire them since they're just not exciting the rebels like they used to.
This means failure is not just encouraged but celebrated, and it's the reason I think the sandbox created by Suspicious Developments is so successful. I think it might be my favourite space game ever, not because it handles space particularly well, but because it understands that being the dashing Han Solo-esque rogue is only exciting if you look cool as hell doing it.
In every single situation in the game, the developers adhere to the rule of cool over the rules of space. There's no way that fragile windows would be on a spaceship or that players could survive 15 seconds of hard vacuum without any ill effects, but who cares; it was the most radical way to escape the ship you were conducting your secret mission on, so here it works.
There is a narrative here, but as the galaxy and all of the ships inside it are procedurally generated, it's pretty light. There's an emergent narrative that starts to weave around your characters, with liberated worlds named after the operator that helped achieve the goal, and captured agents later being the object of a future character's personal mission. In this way, you start to think about some of your finest characters often, and think about their place in the galaxy you've saved. If you're focused, it takes around eight to 10 hours to finish the game once, and while a replay does create a whole new galaxy for you to run around in, I didn't find there was all that much that was new to justify the game.
However, despite the light story, this is a game that's genuinely funny. There's the tragic comedy that sees you raising a glass to a rebel operator that's suffocated in a failed escape pod, but then there's the genuinely funny writing in the game that infests the thing. Go to perform a mission on a skeleton crew and the tooltip will remind you that this means the crew is light, and that the crew are not in fact skeletons. It's a dumb joke, but after 15 hours and 1.5 liberated galaxies, it's still one that makes me smile.
The combat to the game is satisfyingly technical, and you can pause things with the space bar at any time and quickly juggle any number of tools in your inventory, teleporting out of the way of bullets, or slowing things right down to line up the perfect shot. There's a satisfying feeling as a series of actions clears out a room without the alarm being raised, or when you manage to sneak in, gut your assassination target, and get out without the enemy firing a shot.
Space fans could be forgiven for writing the game off because it's a top-down game that makes flying around the infinite void with nothing more than left click to go and right click to stop.
They'd be wrong.
Nothing I've ever played has quite captured the feeling of adventure I feel watching space movies like Heat Signature, and while I'm unsure when I'll be replaying it, I can tell that this is a game that will remain on my hard drive for years, waiting for the urge to liberate a galaxy strikes me and I can lose myself to it all over again.