SteamWorld Heist And The Tactics Of Space-Based Thievery

SteamWorld Heist might come under the same umbrella as the popular SteamWorld Dig, but it’s actually a completely different game. It’s set within the same overarching universe and has a familiar steampunk style, but this is a 2D turn-based tactical strategy game, as you board other spaceships and try to steal all of their precious resources.

“We weren’t really prepared for the sales that [SteamWorld Dig] generated,” Image & Form CEO, Brjánn Sigurgeirsson explained to us. “In fact, when we were done with [SteamWorld Dig], we started making two smaller games, because we thought it was suicidal to bet the farm and borrow so much money, as we did with Dig. So we said, ‘That was a nice try, but now let’s make smaller things.'”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rehXsNdXjrg

“And then Dig got released and for us, without perspective, started selling like crazy. So we had to break off those smaller things and make a Steam version of SteamWorld Dig, and then after that, PS4, Vita, Xbox One and Wii U. And I was really happy that we broke off those two smaller games, because at the beginning I was, like, ‘Yeah, that’s the right thing to do,’ but then when Dig was doing so well, I was, ‘Ugh… do we have to make these small games now? What are people going to think? Isn’t it better if we make a grander effort?'”

“We were spending a lot of lunch breaks and… well, it’s a bunch of geeks, so we sit there and talk about games and development while we’re not working. So during lunch, some of the guys were playing XCOM at the time and said it’s so awesome, and then someone said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we made a 2D, side-view turn based combat strategy game?'”

Keeping it in the SteamWorld universe was all down to Brjánn, as well. “I just had two conditions for it,” he explained. “One was that it has to be a SteamWorld game – it wasn’t necessarily that from the beginning – and the other was that it absolutely definitely has to come out before Christmas 2014… It’s going to have taken roughly one more year to make than we thought from the start, but I think we really have a fantastic game.”

That original idea staying consistent throughout. With Captain Piper at the head of a rag-tag band of robots, you go on missions to board unknown spaceships, fighting your way through whatever resistance you come up against, whether it’s other robots or the ship’s security systems, and trying to steal the loot and resources the ship has – water in particular, as the most valuable resource in steampunk outer space.

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As you’d expect, each character has a movement phase, which lets you move a certain distance, and an action phase, in which you can either attack or decide to move a bit further to get into cover, for example. However, someone might seem to be in cover, skill-based attacks and the ability to shoot through certain object and floors mean that you need to analyse the situation more carefully than it at first appears.

Firing a gun actually has a lot in common with Worms, as you manually line up your shot instead of relying on probability and the throw of a digital die. Depending on your character’s skill level or the type of gun they’re using, they might have laser sights, the gun’s aim will wander up and down, or you have to try and calculate how much the gun will kick and spray bullets. It makes getting that all important head shot and dealing an awful lot more damage that much more satisfying, to have had a direct hand and role in taking the shot, and then you’re also thinking about ricochets and looking to target exploding barrels as well.

One thing that Image & Form took on board from the reaction to SteamWorld Dig was that gamers demand a certain longevity to their games. Brjánn said, “The two main gripes that reviewers and players had were that it was on the short side and that it didn’t necessarily have any New Game + that warranted replays. So we promised ourselves that we were going to make a game that is a lot longer, has a lot more content to it that SteamWorld Dig, but without becoming a grind, and to […] have some New Game + features in there, so you will want to try it again.”

They’re targeting something at least 10 hours in length – Bjánn said it takes him, a fairly slow player, at least 15 hours to play through – with four difficulty settings that should provide plenty of challenge. It also has a number of RPG elements to advance your characters and a character roster that need to make full use of, depending on the mission and challenge that’s ahead of you.

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Alas, one feature that has been omitted from Heist that is a favourite amongst certain XCOM fans, is the idea of permadeath. “For the longest time, there was permadeath in this game, because that was one of the things in XCOM that was really valuable in that game, where you upgrade your characters, they get really good and then they get taken out and you get depressed.”

“But the permadeath was just so harsh, because you have this decently upgraded character and he or she walks into a room and it just so happens there’s eight really strong characters. […] It was bordering on unfair and it was just depressing, so we decided to un-harsh it. If all of your characters die during a mission, you have to spend half of your water reassembling at home and if one character dies, the others will carry that guy back in a box and he or she won’t get upgraded for that mission.”

Perhaps because of that lack of permadeath, there’s much more variety in the characters and a push to try out different combinations, “You can’t really use your all-star team the whole time to solve everything,” Brjánn said. “The missions change so that the same characters aren’t going to be useful all over the place. Some of the characters get introduced pretty late in the game and you recruit them as you go along, so there’ll be plenty of room to upgrade, and all of the characters have different abilities and personalities and so on. So there’s definitely going to be a lot of room for going back and playing it again.”

Levels are randomly generated, so that while you have a clear start and end point to the game’s story, each playthrough will be different, or returning to a previous mission that you’ve taken on will present you with a different ship layout, different enemies and different placement, as you try to improve your score or seek to steal more of that ship’s resources.

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And there will be boss battles – though thankfully not randomly generated – and aim to be unique and interesting. “The last boss…” Brjánn said. “How do I describe it? It’s unlike any boss battle I’ve ever seen. It takes me well over an hour to complete that one battle, which I love.”

“I’ve played a lot of games, but I think the best game in the universe is Chess. It’s perfectly balanced, it’s easy to learn, and it’s so deep; you can evolve forever in that game. The best feeling is to play a competitive game with a Chess clock, and you sit and think on this one move and you look up and you’ve spent an hour just inside your head. You’re not talking to anyone, you’re just focussing on the game for an hour.

“Playing [SteamWorld Heist] is that. I think it’s so immersive. […] I’m very proud of this game. If we’d talked before Dig, I would’ve been extremely cautious about anything, because I really didn’t know if that game was up to snuff, but this game, we’re all really, really proud.”

Of course, SteamWorld Heist and Image & Form are blessed by that name and brand association with SteamWorld Dig. People who enjoyed their previous games are much more likely to latch onto the new one just from the name alone.

When I mentioned this, Brjánn agreed, saying “I think so, yeah. It’s scary at the same time though, because they could also say, ‘Those guys made a mining platform game, and that’s my type of game.’ But I there’s something in that, where they’ll think, ‘I trust those guys. The know how to make a decent game.'”

Having not played SteamWorld Dig myself, I stepped into the world of SteamWorld Heist without that association and that presumption of quality from Image & Form. Yet the core idea, the presentation and the obvious care and attention that they’ve been able to take through development mean that even without that connection, Heist is one to watch. Especially for XCOM fans.

2 Comments

  1. I might have to buy this one release.. really does sound like my cup of tea.
    I hope the Vita version doesn’t get delayed!

  2. Great article by the way, really interesting reading about the journey to make this, makes me all the more excited to play it.

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