Take control of a six man elite mercenary squad in the jungles of Brazil in Raven Squad, from Evolved Games and Southpeak Interactive. Raven Squad features a seamless blend of RTS and FPS action, but is that enough to overcome its other shortcomings? In short, yes -- but read on!
Welcome To Raven Squad
Raven Squad consists of a twelve mission campaign that will run you about 5-6 hours of play time on the default difficulty setting of Normal. This includes one introductory mission that acts as a tutorial but also gets you right into the story and the action. The protagonist and overall leader of the Raven Squad is a former SAS named Paladin. Paladin heads up the three man Assault team of Raven Squad while Shadow oversees the Infiltrator team. Each team is comprised of six unique characters with their own weapons, appearances, and voices.
The story is set in the year 2011, four days before Christmas. Raven Squad is an elite mercenary unit who take on missions around the world, and the initial mission has them killing drug runners operating out of the Amazon. This was supposed to be the last mission before a restful vacation in Vegas, but Operations Control (OC) offers up a job too good to pass up. The mission is to recover a hard disk with sensitive data on it that a large corporation lost in a plane crash in the jungle. Deciding the pay was too good to pass up, Paladin and crew decide to take the job, with the intention of getting in and getting out in time for a flight to Vegas. When an unexpected SAM takes down their airplane, the team quickly parachutes to safety. Players start off as Paladin and after reconnecting with the rest of your team over the next few minutes, Raven Squad is reunited and the real game begins.
Contact with OC is lost soon after the team is reunited but Xian, a satellite technician working for the enemy, manages to contact them. She realizes this job isn't what she thought it was and wants their help in escaping. She's many miles away, but informs that team that a helicopter is on site and if they can free her, they can also capture the helicopter and escape together. So what began as a simple data retrieval mission turns into a desperate fight for survival and escape.
I thought the story was pretty good, certainly sufficient anyway, to compliment the action. More importantly, Raven Squad is a fun game because it controls wonderfully and the RTS/FPS combo works very nicely. Truthfully, it's not so much of an RTS as it is just another way to control and move your squad around while getting a great view of the map. You won't be building any bases, harvesting any resources, or creating any units. If you've played Pyro Studios' Commando series, i.e., any of them that aren't Strike Force, you'll have a pretty good idea of what the RTS aspect of Raven Squad is about.
In RTS mode, players control both the Assault and Infiltrator teams, and their characters are not interchangeable or individually selectable, except for performing their special action. If you switch to FPS mode, you can choose any other the individual characters to play as, but you cannot break away from your team. While you do have the freedom to move, your team will run right along with you.
So earlier I mentioned that each team is made up of three unique characters. The Assault team has Paladin, who wields an AK47 and a SAW, with his ability being suppressive fire. Thor carries a pump shotgun and a rocket launcher, perfect for taking out enemy vehicles. Oso is the third member of the Assault team and he carries and MP5 and several hand grenades. Shadow heads up the Infiltrator team and carries an Uzi along with a scoped bolt action sniper rifle. With him are Flash and Zombie, who carry automatic weapons along with stun and smoke grenades. The combination of these soldiers is a potent one as you can imagine, and knowing how best to use them to defuse a situation makes for a surprisingly fun and rewarding experience.
No one part of a mission requires that you use one team member or another, but the opportunities are there for using them how you see fit. While that may be the case, ultimately there is just one path to your objective, so the experience isn't as open or free form as you may expect or hope for. You can send either team in any direction, and controlling them in a snap. Obviously splitting the two teams up to cover each other and to flank the enmy is your best strategy. You can't very well make a plan in FPS mode, but that's precisely what the RTS or Tactical Mode is for -- to get a nice satellite overhead view of the area to see what the team has to work with.
RTS/Tactical Mode, HUD
Getting a handle on the controls in Raven Squad only takes a few minutes, and I was impressed at how smoothly they worked. In the RTS mode, you are always in control of either the Assault or Infiltrator groups, and to switch between them, just press down on the d-pad. When you switch, the camera doesn't automatically fly over to where the team is, and I think that's a good design decision. To get the camera centered on your selected team at any time, the player need only tap LB. To initiate a change in position, the left analog stick behaves just like any other RTS game on the 360 in that it moves a cursor around the map. The cursor is colored to represent the team you have currently selected (blue for Assault, yellow for Infiltrator), and I thought that was a nice touch. Should you accidentally issue the wrong command, you can cancel the last command by simply pressing B.
The HUD, which is very compact and centered at the bottom of the screen, also changes color (and the character names change) depending on the team you have selected. The cursor changes to represent non-valid selections, too, and also selections that the team can use for cover. How this is represented reminded me of the Full Spectrum Warrior games -- three circles side by side appear next to the cursor to indicate coverage for three. To execute a command, simply press A. Double-tapping A makes the team run, while a single tap will keep them moving in a crouched manner. While I'm on the topic, coverage is extremely important; more on this and the health system shortly.
You can also move the cursor and select A on other things in the game world besides where you want your team to move to. Normally, the team is capable of taking out enemies any time they're in sight, although for best results you definitely want to drop into FPS mode and do the dirty work yourself. However, if you want, you can hover over an enemy or group of enemies and press A, and your team will get up and storm into them, foregoing coverage. Other times, you need to interact or use an object in the world, and this is done in the same method.
The other major control mechanic available to you in RTS mode is using each character's special abilities. Say for example you want to toss a smoke grenade before crossing over a road, but you don't want to zip into FPS mode, switch to Zombie, and throw the smoke grenade. This is something best done with RTS mode and is accomplished by holding the Left Trigger and pressing Up, Left, or Right on the d-pad, the direction corresponding to which character's special ability you want to use. When you do this, the cursor changes and you select where, for example, you want to toss that smoke grenade. It works very well, and it's a lot more accurate than trying to throw it yourself in FPS mode.
I thought the game did a nice job of balancing RTS and FPS play; on most of my missions, my ratio, which it shows you during the after mission report, was always within a 70/30 range, and often much closer to 50/50. What makes this aspect so cool is that the switch is instant -- not a second of delay. To switch between modes, you just tap Y and you are immediately in direct control of one of the team members. Switching control between team members while in FPS mode is instant too, and done with the d-pad. You'll want to switch to FPS mode to get a better view of the action at ground level -- while your guys will do okay for themselves in RTS mode, especially if you've got them flanking the enemy and behind cover, there's no substitute for controlling the FPS action yourself. I found this switching mode to be especially handy when using Shadow and his sniper rifle. It's just really fun and rewarding to go from a satellite view of the action to a first person view, and to be able to do instantly.
A few other important elements to Raven Squad would include the health system, ammo, and saving. Each member of your team has a meter to indicate health. The HUD shows the currently selected team's health as well as the other team's, too, which is cool. Whenever a character loses all his health, he is incapacitated and another member of the team, or the entire squad, will have to revive him. This takes about ten uninterrupted seconds to do from either RTS or FPS mode. When an entire team goes down, the other team has sixty seconds to get over there to start reviving one of them, or the mission fails. Whenever a player is revived, their health is still very low, but a team can revive all members' health by finding a medkit whose location is indicated in Tactical mode with a red cross.
Mission failure generally only occurs whenever one of your teams is incapacitated and the other team was unable to revive them in time. Rarely will a mission parameter require that you complete it within a certain time frame to prevent mission failure, so in that regard, Raven Squad is a casually paced game. When a mission does fail, the last checkpoint loads up after several seconds, and normally that won't put you too far back. You can also save your progress at any time, which is nice, but honestly I never even used this option -- the game flows well and is honestly comfortably easy, at least on Normal.
As far as ammo, players have unlimited ammo for their default or primary weapons, while their secondary arms are limited to ten sniper rounds for Shadow and three grenades, rockets, or suppression fires for the other members. Players can restock ammo at team-marked crates around the map, and sometimes players will need to go slightly out of their way to get to these ammo crates.
Final Points And Conclusion
That about covers it for the nuts and bolts of Raven Squad's gameplay, and frankly the sum of the parts makes for a short, but darn fun game. I don't know that I would play through this a second time, although a two player co-op mode is supported where each player controls one of the teams of the Squad. Some additional Achievements are available in multiplayer, too. During single player, you can earn at least 200 Achievement points in under six hours, and lots more if you manage to pull off a few other very-doable feats. As this game hasn't received a lot of press, and some sites seem hell bent on thrashing this game, it's not likely that much of an online following will ever take place, but there is two player System Link support as well.
Now in terms of presentation quality, Raven Squad is a mixed offering. I had no problem with the graphics. No, they aren't Unreal 3 engine or anything high end like that, but whether in RTS or FPS mode, the visuals are more than fine. I had a few instances of clipping, but nothing that caused the game to break or hang. Cutscene animations are rather stiff, but they work. The voice overs are the worst part of the package though, and you can tell from the first spoken words of Paladin not five minutes into the game. Paladin's voice acting and script are at least far better than that of Xian, who's Asian accent seems artificially slanted in a very unpleasant and grating manner. At least the sound effects are cool and the music, whenever it plays, compliments the action very well.
Ultimately, Raven Squad has its share of problems, there is no denying that. On the same token, I can't say I didn't have a great time playing through it, even though it only took one sitting of about 5-6 hours. It's hard to recommend this for purchase given its low replay appeal and taking into account it will probably never receive any DLC or create much of an online community. That said, I strongly urge you to give this one a chance with a rental -- you may be pleasantly surprised as I was.