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RPG Codex Review: Broken Lines

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RPG Codex Review: Broken Lines

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sun 15 March 2020, 17:01:50

Tags: Broken Lines; PortaPlay

The Codex front page can be a pretty weird place. Sometimes there's a game that everybody has played but nobody feels like reviewing (*cough cough* Pathfinder: Kingmaker). Other times, you might have a game that one guy played and found really interesting. Broken Lines is that kind of game - a WW2-themed tactical RPG with Frozen Synapse-style simultaneous turn-based combat, which is something I've personally been wanting to see more of for years. In his comprehensive review, the esteemed Strange Fellow finds Broken Lines to be a fun but somewhat lightweight experience. Here's an excerpt:

One perhaps controversial point that I want to make at this point has to do with the move away from simulationist design which has become fairly common in modern squad tactics, arguably heralded by the rebooted XCOM series. In a nutshell, games that do this will often treat guns, auxiliary items and physical abilities more like D&D spells than their real-life counterparts. This annoys me to no end when it's applied to games with more "realistic" backdrops, because in addition to throwing believability out the window, it also tends to hamper creative play across the board. Gone are the days of tossing a backup weapon from soldier to soldier when your front man’s gun jams in a tight spot, or rushing over to a fallen enemy to pick up the grenade he dropped – sacrificed for the commodification of tactical manoeuvres.

So where does Broken Lines fall on this scale? The answer is somewhere in the middle. Like Firaxis XCOM, grenades and healing items are not singular objects, but abilities of sorts, which are assigned to your units at the start of a mission and which have a set number of uses, replenish for each battle, and cannot be redistributed or dropped in the field. What’s more disappointing is that there is also no looting of any kind, apart from the aforementioned supply caches. Enemies will not drop their items, and you will find no stashes of weapons or auxiliaries in the maps themselves. The only way to gain new stuff is to buy it from the merchant. Your own weapons can’t be dropped or swapped mid-mission either, and all guns have unlimited ammo.

None of this gels at all with the premise of the story nor with the gameplay itself. You’re supposed to be commandeering a small group of soldiers stranded behind enemy lines, scrounging for survival, yet the resource management, which should have been a major concern, is practically non-existent. At no point will you have to think carefully about rationing supplies in the field (by which I mean actual supplies like grenades or healing items, not food), because they don’t really exist, and there are no overarching worries beyond making sure your soldiers don’t die. The best games manage to weave long-term strategic considerations into the moment-to-moment tactical decision-making; Broken Lines, despite the overall structure providing a perfect slate, doesn’t even try.

The actual combat mechanics fare a lot better in this regard, though they haven’t been spared completely. For one, bullets that miss their target will disappear into the ether when the maximum range of the weapon that fired it is reached. Then there are some downright silly abilities, like “Drunken”, which boosts courage at the expense of accuracy for a short while (to top it off, this is also completely useless).

However, there are a couple of cool systems that make up for it. First is the fact that bullets in Broken Lines are real game objects, which means that each one will travel until it hits something (or gets swallowed by the god of Balance if it travels too far), whether that something is an enemy, an ally, or a piece of scenery. This is good because it makes cover work like it should, which is by actually blocking the path of incoming fire rather than just conveying a flat reduction to enemy accuracy.

Another advantage of this is that it feeds into another cool system, which is stress. The stress mechanic is central to the combat of Broken Lines, and it works like this: in addition to HP, each soldier has a stress bar which fills up when bullets pass near them. When it reaches a threshold, the soldier will panic for a few seconds. A panicking soldier will look for an escape route, and if he finds one he’ll run for it, but most of the time he’ll just cower in place. You won’t be able to issue orders to a panicking soldier until he calms down.

Stressing out your enemies is essential to taking them down, which means that automatic weapons are going to be your new best friends. All weapons in this category fall under the "SMG" type, and in addition to the high rate of fire, they have another trick up their sleeve that make their suppressive capabilities even more powerful. Each weapon type in the game, in addition to its native properties, has a distinct special firing mode, and the special firing mode of the SMG consists simply of rattling off at full blast blanketing a specified area with heavy fire. It’s inaccurate, but guaranteed to cause any enemies within it to panic, and you can direct it at will rather than just have it target the closest enemy. This means that the primary usage of the SMG is to pin down enemies in cover and cut off any escape routes, while the rest of the squad moves in and takes them down from the flanks. This can be combined with camouflage from thick vegetation, as well as elevation bonuses, for some properly devastating manoeuvres. It's nice to see that after years of games that either ignore the potential of this mechanic or else half-ass the implementation, a game has finally been made that gets cover fire right.

So how do missions actually play out? Well, most of the time you’ll pick out a route at the beginning that takes you to the finish point, ideally via any supply caches that may be present, and then advance along it, engaging in the suppress-and-flank dance whenever you encounter groups of hostiles. That’s pretty much it.

And you know what? It’s a lot of fun. There are a few key things that make it work. First of all, there’s the fact that the onus is generally on you to advance while enemies wait for you to approach, meaning that there’s almost never an occasion to pull out the old “line up the firing squad and wait for the enemy to file into a bottleneck like lemmings” trick. The score system also helps here, since if you want to get a perfect score you can’t dawdle. This is thrown into relief during the few missions where you’re tasked with defending yourself against an enemy counterattack or ambush, at which point the game turns into a tower defence of sorts, which isn't nearly as much fun.

Moreover, battles also encourage you to stay mobile as much as possible. A lot of cover is destructible and will be decimated by machine gun volleys within a single turn, and grenades and heavier artillery, should the enemy have it, will wreck your soldiers no matter what sort of cover they're hiding behind, not to mention that enemy soldiers aren’t afraid to move to better positions if you let them.

This all combines to make battles very dynamic affairs. I’ve thought about why I’ve had more fun with this game than it feels like I should, given how basic it is. It boils down, I think, to the simple recipe of a few interlocking systems pulling in the same direction. The game wants to constantly keep you moving and moving around and behind enemies, and every facet of gameplay serves to reinforce this idea. It does this with very little variation throughout, since you'll mostly be fighting the same enemies from beginning to end, and you'll have access to all the weapon types from the get-go. And yet it works. If I might make another return to my XCOM vendetta, there’s a marked contrast here in that the tactical layer of Broken Lines seems to encourage you to explore its workings and get familiar with it, instead of covering a pedestrian foundation with an ever-increasing load of fancy toys.
Read the full article: RPG Codex Review: Broken Lines



[Review by Strange Fellow]

Any RPG Codex reader worth his salt knows that the term RPG is simply a short-hand for combat simulators that aren’t good enough to ascend to the hallowed halls of the squad tactics genre. This is a genre which hasn’t done too badly in recent years in terms of number of releases, with games such as Battle Brothers, Mordheim: City of the Damned and of course the rebooted X-Com series having been reasonably well received around these parts.

Now there’s another one, from a Danish studio called PortaPlay. Its credentials amount to – you guessed it – a bunch of mobile games, in addition to some weird-looking real time strategy game with a mixed review score on Steam. For their sophomore effort on PC, they’ve tried their hand at phase-based World War II tactics with Broken Lines. Sounds promising, doesn't it?

Cast Away

In the store page blurb, Broken Lines dubs itself a “story-driven turn-based tactical RPG”, so let’s start with the story. The premise is this: the year is 1944, and two Allied planes are heading deep into Eastern Europe on a top secret mission so secret that even the soldiers on board don’t know what it is. Suddenly, the engines fail and the planes go down. Only eight soldiers survive. As they regroup, they discover that something fishy is going on – they’re attacked by strange masked soldiers, and a sinister fog is seeping over the land…

It should already be obvious that this game is far from an attempt at historical realism. However, the pulpy themes work well enough for what it tries to do, and uncovering the mystery of the strange fog and the masked “faceless” who produce it is a decently engaging hook, though it’s not what you’d call original. The real stars of the show are the eight surviving soldiers, and their interactions with each other around the campsite and in the field represent the meat of the writing. I’m a sucker for wartime camaraderie stories, and although the writing here won’t win any awards, it serves to give each soldier some decent characterisation and rarely devolves into mawkishness (with a notable exception in the cliché-factory that is the voiced narrator), which is probably about as much as you can reasonably expect.

The game is a chiefly linear mission-based affair, and for each mission there are typically two or three different maps to choose from depending on which leads you want to follow up on, the overarching goal being to call in an evac and return home safely. Along the way you can pursue various sub-plots, such as searching for explosives to blow up enemy strongholds, commandeering a vehicle and getting hold of fuel to run it, or assisting the inhabitants of local villages against their military oppressors. In-between missions you’ll rest, resupply and trigger random encounters from the campsite screen. These encounters take the form of Choose Your Own Adventure vignettes typically involving two characters, where you’ll have to decide to support one over the other. They’re mostly set up as moral dilemmas along the lines of “will you share your food with the wandering refugees”, and depending on what you decide, soldiers might gain or lose morale, you might gain or lose food or money, and so on. They’re generally not bad, and do a good enough job of breaking up the mission loop, on top of fleshing out the setting and giving the soldiers some personality.

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Soldiers' portraits change to reflect their mood, kind of like Fallout. Here the EXTREME ANGER snarl.

Band of Brothers

Apart from scripted story events, the squad management of Broken Lines is fairly basic, and there’s very little to it beyond outfitting your soldiers for the next mission. There’s a tiny bit of resource management in that they all require supplies ("food") every day, which can be bought from the local merchant with salvage ("money"), but it’s not a particularly punishing mechanic, and in practice it works more like a small salvage tax than something you actually need to worry about. In addition to food, there’s also a variety of weapons, grenades, healing items and stims available for purchase, the selection of which improves as the game goes on.

The way that soldiers are differentiated in terms of gameplay mechanics isn't much to write home about either. Each has a combination of native traits and assigned abilities, as well as a morale level along with positive and negative feelings towards other squad members, which affect their composure when near each other on the battlefield. Apart from that, they all perform identically, and there are no levels, stats, or anything of the sort. Even though some soldiers are identified as recruits and others as veterans, the distinction is made purely for story reasons.

It’s not a total dud, though, because traits and abilities can potentially have a significant impact on a soldier’s capabilities. Traits also tend to reflect each soldier's personality, which is always a cool thing. For example, Sherman the timid recruit has “Duck and Cover” as his native trait, which improves cover defence by 50%, making him all but impregnable while behind a sandbag, while grizzled veteran Morgan has “Take Them Down”, an active skill that lets him mark a specific enemy and have the squad focus their fire on them for a short time. What’s more, as the campaign progresses soldiers will gain new traits through random encounters. One such encounter has Morgan gain the “Bullseye” trait from throwing rocks at birds, which improves his base accuracy. Not all traits are necessarily positive, however, and it’s a blow when your gung-ho shotgunner suddenly gains a trait that makes him panic under fire twice as easily as he used to. The semi-random nature of perk progression generally strikes a good balance between differentiating soldiers enough so that you’ll get a sense of who best fills each role in your team, while at the same time not forcing a restart even if your favourite dude kicks the bucket.

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Looks like someone forgot to take his flu medicine.

In addition to native traits, there are also abilities that you can assign yourself from a shared pool. You typically gain an ability for each mission you complete, and you may also gain abilities from random encounters. This is the only form of active character development you get to take part in, and although they’re a far cry from “builds” per se, it’s enough to let you feel like you have a hand in what roles the characters are best suited for. Give Avery an ability which increases his attack speed while stressed, for instance, and together with his native bonus to suppressive fire he becomes a reliable spray-and-pray machine. Give someone the “Sneaky” and “Eagle Eye” abilities, which reduces enemies’ chances of spotting them and improves their chances of spotting enemies, respectively, and you’ve got a designated scout. Each character can have up to three assigned abilities at the same time, so there is some room for customisation. However, it is nowhere near enough, in my expert opinion, to make this game an RPG, despite what the developers would have you believe. Not that anyone cares about that, right?

Mission Impossible

You can typically bring along either 4 or 5 soldiers on a mission, the number depending on whether the mission is framed as a stealth op or a head-on assault on an enemy encampment. In practical terms, however, the only difference is the size of your squad, and you can choose to play each mission as stealthily or assault-ily as you want. That is because most missions in Broken Lines only have one objective: to get to the finish line. When a soldier reaches the target area, typically on the opposite extreme of the map from where you begin, the mission is complete. Although there are a few set piece-related exceptions to the rule along the way, the end goal remains the same for every single map. This might sound primitive, but in return this mission structure is sufficiently open to allow you to decide for yourself how to approach them. It helps that most of the maps are quite large, and the layouts decently varied, with a good balance between more open arenas and claustrophobic clusters of houses, though with a slight overload of forest mazes and, on the visual side, a lot of reused assets. Serving to spice things up a little are optional supply caches scattered across the maps that if opened provide bonus salvage at mission end, which is worth taking into consideration when choosing where to go.

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There is no requirement to wipe out all the enemies, and since there isn’t any XP to be gained, combing the map for every last foe is never productive. There is, however, a score system, with points awarded for time spent, enemies killed and casualties taken, with a bronze, silver or gold medal awarded based on the points total. It’s worthwhile to get a high score not just for bragging rights, but because the score acts as a multiplier to the amount of salvage you receive from each mission. Do well, and you’ll be making frequent trips to the merchant for better guns and grenades. Barely scrape by, and you’ll be stuck with sub-par equipment for most of the game. Unfortunately, the target scores are too lenient (past the second mission I never failed to get the gold medal), and not affected by difficulty level, which seems like a strange oversight.

Aside from the scoresheet, you’re also given the option of retrying each mission at the cost of squad composure, which if it runs too low will cause your soldiers to desert. The problem with this is that even on Hard, the difficulty is rarely punishing enough to require alleviating, and knowing the enemy numbers and positions beforehand damn near breaks the game. As if that weren’t enough, the composure hit is negligible, and even when I played badly on purpose this mechanic never came into play. I can only recommend that you never make use of this option, unless you screw up royally and sustain multiple casualties in a single mission.

This brings me on to the difficulty settings. You can pick one of Easy, Medium and Hard, or you can fiddle with sliders for individual settings. One thing to keep in mind is that the default Hard setting will buff enemy damage and debuff your own, which has always been a monumentally stupid way of making things harder – fortunately it can be disabled. Other settings alter the game in more significant ways. “Revivals allowed”, for instance, governs how punishing the death mechanic should be. On above Easy difficulty, a soldier who goes down in combat, though he won’t die outright, will receive the “wounded” status. If a wounded character goes down again, he’s down for good, and on Hard, wounds are permanent, meaning that as the campaign progresses, more and more wounds will accumulate in your squad. The permanent death of a soldier carries a global composure hit, and if more than three soldiers die or desert the squad, the campaign ends. If even Hard isn’t hardcore enough for you, there is an even more punishing option where characters die immediately, but since wounds are a cool mechanic, you should steer clear of this one.

Phase/Off

It’s high time I got into the real reason for playing this game, which is the tactical combat. Combat in Broken Lines is phase-based with simultaneous resolution, inspired by 2011’s Frozen Synapse. Basically, you give each of your soldiers orders for the next few seconds, click play, and watch as the commands unfold in real time. Unfortunately I haven’t played Frozen Synapse, so I can’t tell you how they compare. I can, however, tell you if it’s fun.

The controls are simple enough, and you won’t find anything like Frozen Synapse’s rewind or turn prediction mechanics here – for the most part, all you do is move and shoot. You have a range of movement options going from walk (slow, but stealthy) to run (fast, but noisy). One convenience feature for which I am thankful is that you’re given control immediately upon spotting an enemy for the first time, which means there’s no need for the slow turtling that often plagues the initial stages of map traversal in purely turn-based titles.

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Look Ma, I’m a third person shooter!

When bullets do start to fly, you have a variety of attack options, some which trigger automatically – if able, soldiers will always fire on the closest enemy – and some that track specific enemies or are applied to a particular area. These latter ones naturally involve an element of prediction (also known as guesswork) in order to be applied successfully. This is the primary draw of the system: the likelihood of success hinges on being able to predict (guess) where enemies will go, or else being proactive about it by herding them into ambushes. This can often be difficult, and the element of chaos inherent to the simultaneous turn resolution means that Broken Lines can’t boast the pin-point precision of, say, Silent Storm or other turn-based or real-time-with-pause classics of the genre. But given the added challenge of not knowing where enemies will move while also being unable to react on the fly, the feeling of satisfaction when a daring plan is executed to perfection will rival any of them.

However, unlike those, Broken Lines wasn’t made back when games were good, and stemming from this unfortunate fact there are some issues.

One perhaps controversial point that I want to make at this point has to do with the move away from simulationist design which has become fairly common in modern squad tactics, arguably heralded by the rebooted XCOM series. In a nutshell, games that do this will often treat guns, auxiliary items and physical abilities more like D&D spells than their real-life counterparts. This annoys me to no end when it's applied to games with more "realistic" backdrops, because in addition to throwing believability out the window, it also tends to hamper creative play across the board. Gone are the days of tossing a backup weapon from soldier to soldier when your front man’s gun jams in a tight spot, or rushing over to a fallen enemy to pick up the grenade he dropped – sacrificed for the commodification of tactical manoeuvres.

So where does Broken Lines fall on this scale? The answer is somewhere in the middle. Like Firaxis XCOM, grenades and healing items are not singular objects, but abilities of sorts, which are assigned to your units at the start of a mission and which have a set number of uses, replenish for each battle, and cannot be redistributed or dropped in the field. What’s more disappointing is that there is also no looting of any kind, apart from the aforementioned supply caches. Enemies will not drop their items, and you will find no stashes of weapons or auxiliaries in the maps themselves. The only way to gain new stuff is to buy it from the merchant. Your own weapons can’t be dropped or swapped mid-mission either, and all guns have unlimited ammo.

None of this gels at all with the premise of the story nor with the gameplay itself. You’re supposed to be commandeering a small group of soldiers stranded behind enemy lines, scrounging for survival, yet the resource management, which should have been a major concern, is practically non-existent. At no point will you have to think carefully about rationing supplies in the field (by which I mean actual supplies like grenades or healing items, not food), because they don’t really exist, and there are no overarching worries beyond making sure your soldiers don’t die. The best games manage to weave long-term strategic considerations into the moment-to-moment tactical decision-making; Broken Lines, despite the overall structure providing a perfect slate, doesn’t even try.

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I can only assume this dude arrives on the battlefield after I'm done killing the enemies, grabs their weapons, and then sells them to me. What a grift.

The actual combat mechanics fare a lot better in this regard, though they haven’t been spared completely. For one, bullets that miss their target will disappear into the ether when the maximum range of the weapon that fired it is reached. Then there are some downright silly abilities, like “Drunken”, which boosts courage at the expense of accuracy for a short while (to top it off, this is also completely useless).

However, there are a couple of cool systems that make up for it. First is the fact that bullets in Broken Lines are real game objects, which means that each one will travel until it hits something (or gets swallowed by the god of Balance if it travels too far), whether that something is an enemy, an ally, or a piece of scenery. This is good because it makes cover work like it should, which is by actually blocking the path of incoming fire rather than just conveying a flat reduction to enemy accuracy.

[​IMG]
Well well well, what have we here. Cover mechanics are still partly abstracted, in that accuracy maluses go away for soldiers standing right next to it.

Another advantage of this is that it feeds into another cool system, which is stress. The stress mechanic is central to the combat of Broken Lines, and it works like this: in addition to HP, each soldier has a stress bar which fills up when bullets pass near them. When it reaches a threshold, the soldier will panic for a few seconds. A panicking soldier will look for an escape route, and if he finds one he’ll run for it, but most of the time he’ll just cower in place. You won’t be able to issue orders to a panicking soldier until he calms down.

Stressing out your enemies is essential to taking them down, which means that automatic weapons are going to be your new best friends. All weapons in this category fall under the "SMG" type, and in addition to the high rate of fire, they have another trick up their sleeve that make their suppressive capabilities even more powerful. Each weapon type in the game, in addition to its native properties, has a distinct special firing mode, and the special firing mode of the SMG consists simply of rattling off at full blast blanketing a specified area with heavy fire. It’s inaccurate, but guaranteed to cause any enemies within it to panic, and you can direct it at will rather than just have it target the closest enemy. This means that the primary usage of the SMG is to pin down enemies in cover and cut off any escape routes, while the rest of the squad moves in and takes them down from the flanks. This can be combined with camouflage from thick vegetation, as well as elevation bonuses, for some properly devastating manoeuvres. It's nice to see that after years of games that either ignore the potential of this mechanic or else half-ass the implementation, a game has finally been made that gets cover fire right.

[​IMG]
Pictured: Veteran William Morgan. Time of death, T minus five seconds.

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RIP in pieces.

So how do missions actually play out? Well, most of the time you’ll pick out a route at the beginning that takes you to the finish point, ideally via any supply caches that may be present, and then advance along it, engaging in the suppress-and-flank dance whenever you encounter groups of hostiles. That’s pretty much it.

And you know what? It’s a lot of fun. There are a few key things that make it work. First of all, there’s the fact that the onus is generally on you to advance while enemies wait for you to approach, meaning that there’s almost never an occasion to pull out the old “line up the firing squad and wait for the enemy to file into a bottleneck like lemmings” trick. The score system also helps here, since if you want to get a perfect score you can’t dawdle. This is thrown into relief during the few missions where you’re tasked with defending yourself against an enemy counterattack or ambush, at which point the game turns into a tower defence of sorts, which isn't nearly as much fun.

Moreover, battles also encourage you to stay mobile as much as possible. A lot of cover is destructible and will be decimated by machine gun volleys within a single turn, and grenades and heavier artillery, should the enemy have it, will wreck your soldiers no matter what sort of cover they're hiding behind, not to mention that enemy soldiers aren’t afraid to move to better positions if you let them.

This all combines to make battles very dynamic affairs. I’ve thought about why I’ve had more fun with this game than it feels like I should, given how basic it is. It boils down, I think, to the simple recipe of a few interlocking systems pulling in the same direction. The game wants to constantly keep you moving and moving around and behind enemies, and every facet of gameplay serves to reinforce this idea. It does this with very little variation throughout, since you'll mostly be fighting the same enemies from beginning to end, and you'll have access to all the weapon types from the get-go. And yet it works. If I might make another return to my XCOM vendetta, there’s a marked contrast here in that the tactical layer of Broken Lines seems to encourage you to explore its workings and get familiar with it, instead of covering a pedestrian foundation with an ever-increasing load of fancy toys.

Don’t get me wrong, some more features would certainly be welcome, because as it is, there’s only just enough material to sustain the 20 to 30 hours of content on offer. This might sound like I’m contradicting myself, because a decent tactics engine shouldn’t grow stale after so little time. However, most all the aspects that bring it down stem from things besides the combat itself – the lack of any sort of progression curve, be it for weapons and armour or in the form of a levelling mechanic; the aforementioned lack of looting or a dynamic resource economy; no non-combat gameplay, and so on. Instead of strengthening the primal satisfaction of blowing the heads off enemies, which is what these things do when they’re developed properly, in this game, if anything, they dilute it. The way to improve the system, in other words, would be to have it be supported by a more expansive strategy layer to tie the battles together, because the combat mechanics in isolation hold their own well enough.

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It's a tank!

Top Gun

Next, let’s talk about weapons. There is a grand total of three types of guns available to your squad, so there’s room to cover them all individually. In addition to the SMG, there are also rifles and shotguns. In brief, the SMG is king, the rifle is situationally useful, and the shotgun is terrible.

The SMG, for the reasons outlined above, is an invaluable tool, and you’ll never launch a mission without bringing at least one of them along. In addition to its suppression ability, it also has decent range, damage and accuracy, and does quite a good job of building up enemy stress even when firing normally.

The rifle does exactly what you’d expect: it has a lower rate of fire but can’t be beat for range. Unfortunately, in comparison to the enormous utility of suppressive fire, the special firing mode of the rifle feels rather lacklustre. It has the ability to aim at a specific target, increasing the chance to hit but decreasing rate of fire. This can be useful for taking out enemies in fortified positions, but since the ability requires that you select an individual target, you will often find yourself having spent your rifleman’s turn setting up an aimed shot on an enemy which, by the time the shot goes off, is either dead, out of sight or out of range.

Then there's the shotgun, which I found to be universally inferior overall. In a game as chaotic and unpredictable as this can be, a weapon with the effective range of a polearm is always going to be a liability, and the utility simply doesn’t make up for it. Even at very close range they aren't significantly more damaging than SMGs for most of the game, and since a burst from one of those incapacitates the enemy just as well as the shotgun’s special firing mode, the knockdown blast, it’s hard to see the point. The shotgun was a dud in most missions I brought it to, and you’re better off substituting it for something else.

Grenades, on the other hand, are a double-edged sword. There’s a good variety of grenades available for purchase, including regular high explosives, concussion grenades, smoke grenades, rifle-mounted long-range grenade launchers and even bazookas (which to my chagrin are still just replenishing per-mission abilities). Grenades are versatile tools, and when used properly can be devastating. But, and this is a big but, the targeting graphics don’t know how to handle them. Where the targeting reticule says a grenade will go, and where it actually goes, often have nothing to do with each other. It’s so bad that I never let soldiers with less than full HP try to throw grenades at all, because half the time they would just drop them at their feet. I know I just praised the tangible nature of bullets and cover in the previous section, but as it turns out this is only actually a positive if it works, and when grenades are involved it simply doesn’t. Hopefully this is something that can be improved with future patches.

Ex Machina

I mentioned the AI in passing in the gameplay section, and I’d like to say some more about it. Overall it's mostly competent, its primary concern typically being to get everyone behind cover as soon as possible and then fire at your soldiers with impunity, which is about as much as it really needs to do. You won’t see it performing elaborate flanking moves or anything of that calibre, but it’s not completely braindead either, and did manage to catch me out a few times. On higher difficulties it will also make use of all the grenades and special firing modes available to your own soldiers, though I wish it were quicker to use suppressive fire, considering how much of a gamechanger it can be. What’s weirder is the inexplicable decision to have the UI display the targeting reticule of enemy grenades before they’re thrown, which makes them trivial to evade. They should’ve let you turn this off from the difficulty menu.

However, the biggest problem with enemy tactics isn’t the AI itself, but rather that enemy soldiers seem to be almost universally deaf, and will be oblivious to a frontal assault going on just a few metres from their position. They won’t react to stray gunfire as long as they’re not the ones being targeted, and a fellow soldier being shot dead right next to them won’t faze them either. They won’t even mind taking a smoke grenade to the face. This might have been an acceptable contrivance in a more stealth-focussed game, but when you’re controlling a squad of 5 soldiers, the fact that you almost never need to cover your rear or flanks, and that spreading out is generally a mistake, is disappointing. It also makes the encounters a bit too formulaic once you realise that unless you’re advancing, you only ever need to worry about the enemies you’ve got right in front of you. There’s another niggle as well: although fog of war is present in the game, and the UI will indicate that an enemy is no longer in sight, he will never actually disappear again, and from the moment you first spot him you’ll always know his position, which means that no enemy will ever sneak up on you.

I should note that these are not things that detract significantly from the gameplay, but rather further examples of simplification that keep Broken Lines from reaching the highest strata of tacticool prestige.

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Hot dam. Last one across is a rotten egg!

No Time to Die

Before I can round off, there’s some more miscellaneous stuff to address. First and worst of all is the save system. The game is supposed to use a continuous saving system, presumably to prevent savescumming. However, in practice the game appears to save only when it feels like it, and never on exit, with the result that until you load up the game again for a new session, you have no idea how much of your progress has actually been saved. The only thing you can rely on is that if you did anything from the campsite menu as the last thing before quitting, it’ll be undone when you start the game up again. What’s worse, if you quit early on in a mission, the resumption is sometimes treated like a replay of the entire thing, meaning you’ll lose squad composure. Then again, sometimes it isn’t and you’ll get to resume exactly where you left off. Roll the dice, baby, and curse the Danes. One wonders why they even bothered to make the effort for something that ended up as annoying as this, when normal saving would probably have been a better fit anyway.

Secondly: the visuals. The post-processing effects are terrible. The fact that the 3D models aren’t triple-A quality clearly couldn’t be obscured by smearing digital Vaseline all over the screen, but by God, that didn’t stop PortaPlay from trying. It’s no coincidence that the best-looking maps by far are those that limit the amount of particle effects and let the lighting and textures do their job. Fortunately, turning off the bloom helps, but unfortunately, this will not improve the woeful performance. Beware – unless you have a beefy computer you won’t be able to run this at max settings without framerate issues, and with an older machine or a laptop you might struggle to run it at all.

[​IMG]
This is why you don't wipe down camera lenses with your thumb.

Lastly, there’s the length of the game. On the face of it, it's ridiculously short. Single digit hours kind of short. About the time I would want to be entering the mid-game, it informed me that the end was near. The endgame is suitably climactic, and the final few missions are probably the best the game has to offer, but they come too soon, because the gameplay of Broken Lines can sustain more than a measly 10 hours.

However, the game heavily encourages a second playthrough, and you should heed its advice. I mentioned earlier that you usually get to choose between two or three different maps for your next mission. The maps that are passed over then get locked out for the remainder of the campaign, meaning that for every mission you play, there’s about one and a quarter maps on average that you won’t see unless you replay the game. A second playthrough, then, is not only a chance to test out a new squad configuration and explore different outcomes of random encounters, but can to some extent be considered a whole new campaign, since you’ll only have to repeat a total of three maps out of nine.

What’s more, on a second playthrough you’ll start to notice all the neat pieces of choice and consequence the game offers. Decide to raid the docks, for instance, and you’ll be given the option to use the explosives you find to blow up an enemy structure some five odd missions later, which among other things plays a major part in which ending you get. Opt to forego the docks in favour of looting the old distillery, like I did in my first campaign, and the future holds no blowing things up and instead you’ll be treated to some retching. Not all choices are impactful, but you’ll find that the second campaign plays out differently from the first beyond just the maps themselves (although it will always end in the same place). This reactivity caught me by surprise, as during my first campaign it didn’t look like the choice of missions would matter for anything beyond immediate rewards. It’s well done, and it’s also a gutsy move to lock a solid half of the content off from any one playthrough. Credit to the developers for pulling it off.

[​IMG]
There are also special events that you only get if one of your soldiers has been killed.

Considering the short length of the campaign, however, even if you do run through the game several times, you’ll see every mission on offer in not much more than 20 hours, during which time you’ll also have seen both sides of the choices that determine which ending you get. After that, there’s little point in continuing. If you want to see all the endings you’ll have to complete the game a minimum of 5 times, but that’s reserved for completionists only, since the map repeats will start to grate on you long before you get there.

It’s a tricky one to assess. Would I want the developers to have put less effort into the existing content in order to make the game longer? Of course not. In principle I even applaud developers who have enough sense to make the amount of content in their game complement the staying power of its gameplay, something that RPG devs in particular are often terrible at. It’s also unfair to level complaints about length at a small indie studio like this one. I’ll content myself with some pure consumer advice: if you’re all about quality over quantity, the game still offers enough to be worth the price of admission, but if a low playtime is a dealbreaker, you should probably think twice before getting this.

Final Verdict

Broken Lines is a game with few serious flaws, but a lot of compromises. It’s short, it’s a bit ugly, it’s a bit too easy, a bit too contrived and gamey here and there, its soldiers are deaf and dumb, and there’s not a lot of customisation or weapon variety to be found. In short, it’s a bit too small in every way, mostly by design. As a result, there’s just a whiff of flavour-of-the-month about it, like all those XCOM-lookalikes that no one remembers even though they came out two weeks ago. Even though I did three back-to-back playthroughs, I’ve seen most of what there is to see and enjoyed most of it, now that I’m done, the questions that linger aren’t so positive. Who will remember this game? Where is the wow factor? Many CRPG fans love to dote upon borderline broken, overambitious projects, and I’m often with them – hell, I love X-COM Apocalypse, and everyone agrees that that game is a mess. Here we have exactly the opposite. Broken Lines won’t frustrate you as you’re playing it, but it might frustrate you when you’re done. It’s well prepared tactics finger food; good enough that I can recommend it, but it probably won’t fill you up.

In the end, if nothing else, you should play it to experience one of the few rare cases of well executed phase-based tactical combat, which I really hope to see more of in the future. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see if Frozen Synapse can scratch this newfound itch more thoroughly.

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