Incognita Hands-On Preview: Corporate Creepers

With the glorious return of XCOM and the revival of Shadowrun, grid-based tactics games seem to be experiencing a new awakening.

Once a genre only for those willing to devote the time and energy to theorycrafting and careful strategy, new advancements in design and technology have opened the way for the modern gamer to experience the thrill of commanding a squad through an intense firefight. This doesn’t mean that everyone has forgotten the old ways, though. There are people out there making games with old-school tactical sensibilities.

Incognita is one of those games. It serves as a suitable bridge between old and new, and does so with developer Klei Entertainment’s characteristic style.

Incognita tasks you with taking a team through a procedurally-generated corporate tower, stealing data and loot as you move through the floors. However, your intrusion is known, and the corporation in question isn’t exactly rolling out the welcome mat. Guards and cameras are on the lookout for your team, and with each passing turn they get closer to detecting where you are and sending off a counter-espionage team to stop your efforts. It’s a premise reminiscent of FTL, in which you must weigh possibilities such as getting a new crewmember or more loot with the constant pressure of a time limit. You can blow your limit, but the result is a mad dash for the exit as you are hunted by extremely powerful guards, and that’s not exactly conducive toward keeping agents healthy.

Moving your team around is very similar to the mechanics seen in XCOM games. Each turn, you are given a number of action points for each member of your team, and once you’ve expended them all, you end your turn and the enemy team moves. You can only perform one major action per turn, though, such as shooting at another agent or hacking a computer.

It’s a hybrid between the pure action points system of the original X-COM: UFO Defense and the more streamlined system of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and it works well. Moving around, peeking through doors, and other minor actions can be taken freely, but players are forced to make important choices as to whether they execute on something bigger, like attacking a guard. In addition, several actions — such as going into a room blind, without knowing if there is a guard or camera present — can result in an increase to the alarm meter that acts as your timer. If a turn ends with you in sight of a camera, or a guard gets a radio call off, you’re in some serious trouble.

There are a number of ways to deal with a pesky guard, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Knocking a guard out prevents the alarm level being raised by his death, but also means he will get up and start searching for your crew after a few turns. Killing a guard gets rid of him permanently, but increases the alarm level after a few turns due to his thoroughly suspicious death indicating your general position. Weighing which method of dispatch you should use given your current resources and situation is incredibly important.

The most important of those resources is arguably your stock of mainframe points. Given the status of Incognita as a technothriller, it would be silly to not have some sort of computer “sub-reality” to play with. In this case, it’s Mainframe mode, an overlay that highlights things you can hack for various effects. In order to get the points needed to hack, though, you need to convert computers on your current floor to your control, as they produce points each turn.

Actions you can perform with gathered points include hacking a security camera to give you vision of a room (and prevent alarms), disabling the death notifier on a guard so that killing him won’t increase the alarm level, breaking the encryption on electronic safes, and cracking mainframes to highlight all technological items of note on the current floor. It’s a vitally important part of Incognita, especially because hacking can result in the addition of a new member to your team.

Scattered around each floor are cells surrounded by laser walls. Should you use your mainframe points to disable one of the walls, its inhabitant will join your team, adding their expertise to your squad’s. These new crewmates are randomly generated, and include characters that may not fit your playstyle. Doing a stealth run, and thus focusing on just hackers and robots? You might take a moment to really think on if you should free that sharpshooter. After all, his main goal is murder, not subtlety.

All of the character and environment designs are done in Klei’s trademark style. Angular lines, clear use of color and shadow, and detailed backgrounds all work to Incognita’s benefit. While the character designs are a little generic — although very much rooted in the technothriller genre — the environments are incredibly detailed, with a lovely smooth painted style that fits perfectly with the cyberpunk theme of the game.

It’s not the most visually stunning title around, but Klei knows how to build a game in which you forget about the visuals and focus almost entirely on the execution. While there was nothing as iconic as Wilson from Don’t Starve in Incognita, there doesn’t need to be.

Incognita is a fantastic offspring of the sensibilities of games such as XCOM and FTL. It combines resource management, procedural generation, careful squad-based tactics, and engaging cyberpunk themes into a tightly-wrapped package. If you’re looking for your next fix of games like Shadowrun Returns, Incognita will no doubt slake your thirst.

Incognita enters alpha (for pre-orders) sometimes this year, with a predicted PC release date for sometime in 2014.

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