Getting past the seemingly endless game title, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – First Assault Online is an ambitious game to make, trying to adapt the futuristic world of the popular anime series into an online multiplayer shooter. It’s been quite some time since I first played it, exploring the different characters, their combined abilities and the solid gunplay, but as the game heads into Open Beta and a fully free to play moel, Neople have added something very different in the form of Ghost Assault.
Boiled down to its essentials, Ghost Assault is a game of hide and seek. However, it’s not as simple a game as you remember from your childhood, when you turn and count to 100 while your brother goes to try and hide in any number of little nooks and crannies in your house. Here you throw guns, blades, camouflage and a few other abilities into the mix.
The key trick is that the Section 9 side are hidden by camouflage the entire time, able to stand in the middle of a room and be completely invisible to the naked eye. The cyborgs hunting them, however, get a regular ping that points them in the right direction to any Section 9 operatives nearby. The clock ticks down from two minutes, with the tension ratcheting up significantly over the course of the round, as your teammates die or you desperately search for that last survivor.
In the interests of balance and of keeping this more about hide and seek than the rest of the game’s varied gunplay, guns have been largely taken out of the equation. You have just 20 bullets in your pistol on the Section 9 side of things, and it takes more than half of these to take out a cyborg, though it does sap their energy and slow them down, potentially letting you make good an escape. The cyborgs, on the other hand, have just 5 bullets, making their guns only really useful to tag a player and break their camoflague, before trying to get close and swing with a wrist mounted blade for a quick kill.
That’s easier said than done when you can’t see the enemy, and it often felt like I was trying to catch my own shadow, except that they’re even less visible. As a camouflaged player, you can often kite around the swinging arms of the cyborgs coming at you, but this is an act of last resort as you wait and wait to see if you’ve truly been discovered. Downed Section 9 operatives can be hacked as well, either to restore them to life if by a teammate, or to grant the cyborgs the advantage by disrupting camo abilities, for example.
The final 30 seconds of a round are also marked by the introduction of a drone that heads toward hidden operatives and highlights them for the cyborgs, exploding in a flashbang to disrupt and disorientate, while Section 9 players are given a single assault rifle to pick up, to briefly turn the tide while its magazine lasts.
It all adds up to a rather fun game mode, but it’s easy to spot a few flaws in it. For one thing, it’s too easy for players to use their momentum to get up on top of objects, potentially into places that could easily be deemed unfair, even if cyborgs can pinpoint them with their regular pings. At the same time, it feels just a little too vague when playing as a cyborg, and like too much of an uphill struggle to not just find a hiding player, but then manage to even land a blow and get the kill. Perhaps more fundamentally, this would be a party mode in other games, as it ditches the varied characters and abilities of the main modes in favour of something so specific.
That leads me to feel that First Assault Online is a game that’s trying to find itself and looking for a reason to feature the Ghost in the Shell name. There’s some good ideas at play, and yet you have to wonder if it’s the best use of the license. So much of what made the anime so well received, its characterisation, its overarching story, the blurred lines between man and machine and what that means for humanity, all of this is lost in making a multiplayer first person shooter.
That’s not to say that First Assault Online is a bad game. I actually rather enjoyed this hide and seek game mode, with its mismatched abilities, the trickery and the deception. The rest of the game is also growing with regular updates – the Open Beta release adds new maps, weapons, daily missions and more – it’s just that what the original Ghost in the Shell anime is crying out for is for a game that can also explore the world and all of the nuanced stories that serve as its inspiration.