by Murray Lewis
reviewed on PC
Cops & Robbers is one of the all-time classic games of make-believe; the eternal battle between good and evil, played out in every playground for generations. And it doesn't stop there we grow up, but the primal attraction of that conflict never leaves us, and we replace pointed fingers and 'pew pew' noises with films, books, and video games.
Door Kickers is one of those video games. Developed by KillHouse Games, its top-down tactics and emphasis on planning invite comparisons to those games that have best captured the sense of modern day Cops & Robbers; the SWAT series, and Rainbow Six, before Vegas went and ruined everything. It's been in Early Access for quite a while, but has seen a great deal of community feedback and development as a result. Now that it's finally reached full release status, how does it hold up against its peers?
BREACH, BANG, AND CLEAR
Be under no illusions this is no arcade-style run & gun. Door Kickers lets you plan an entire mission in advance and, once the action gets going, you have free use of the pause feature to adjust things on-the-fly. Don't think this makes things easy though this is a brutally difficult game from the very start, and will not tolerate the impatient or imprecise. You may be in command of a highly-trained squad of police officers, but you're never more than one forgotten corner, or one misplaced order away from an abrupt, messy death, and a mission restart. This is a game that teaches the player with quick but violent lessons; assume there are enemies everywhere, move cautiously using cover, and always, always check those corners.
Things aren't helped by the often questionable AI of your officers. I often found them spotting an enemy, but then ignoring them sometimes turning their backs on them entirely, and necessitating my manual intervention to force them to engage. This isn't a novel problem; in Frozen Synapse, if you want a unit to forget about enemies and just hustle, you must specifically order that unit to ignore threats. Here, though, you must specify if you want an officer to wait until there are no living enemies. When gun-toting criminals can ruin your day in seconds, it just feels like the wrong way around.
When it does go right, though, it's a fantastic experience; an orgy of meticulously-executed violence, taking place in mere seconds. I rarely make use of replay features in games, but here I found myself re-watching successful missions just to bask in the glory of the perfect plan.
Rather than giving you a random bunch of men for each mission, Door Kickers gives you a permanent squad, with each officer earning their own experience points. Customisation is surprisingly comprehensive, allowing you to change the name, appearance, and loadout of each member of the team. Initially, the selection of equipment is limited, but you can unlock more by playing through missions and earning points. Many of the missions, especially later ones, are simply too difficult without equipment upgrades, so there's a strong incentive to perfect the early scenarios and gear up as much as possible. Successful missions also earn 'doctrine points,' which you can spend on skill upgrades which apply to everyone in your team these cover things like accuracy improvements, and new tactics. Sadly, while doctrine points can be re-specced, there's no way to 'buy back' points spent on equipment. This is especially frustrating given that grinding missions does not earn you more points there are a maximum of 3 points to be earned, total, in any scenario. If you buy some gear and then realise you need something else for a later mission, you're stuffed.
PLANNING IS EVERYTHING
Missions are split into three campaigns and a huge selection of standalone scenarios. In practice, the campaigns are little more than several missions strung together, offering no real plot, but with the added difficulty of dead officers staying dead for the duration of the campaign, so you'll want to play it safe with your best troopers.
The missions themselves vary from basic room-to-room clearing, through hostage-rescue or bomb-defusal scenarios, to the excellent drug busts, in which you must collect evidence while enemies scramble to destroy it. There's also a competent random mission generator, and a robust level editor with Steam Workshop support, in case you exhaust the 100+ levels on offer, so replayability is a big draw.
Once you get into a mission, the big draw of Door Kickers is the planning interface. A much-loved feature of classic tactical games, it allows you to plan in theory an entire mission in advance. Then it's just a matter of hitting play and watching your squad do the dirty work. In practice, once you're past the first two or three missions, it's almost impossible to do the whole thing in one go if you want to prevent the wholesale slaughter of your hapless officers. In particular, it's impossible to use the 'magic wand' (a camera on a stick) in an automated plan, since it requires manual control to scan a room never mind the fact that you inexplicably can't use it to peek around corners.
Complex plans quickly become unwieldy messes, with no way to hide waypoints that you're happy with. A recent patch introduced the option to colour waypoints for each officer, which makes a big difference, but any sort of complex entry plan still has a tendency to end up looking like rainbow-spaghetti.
It's also worth noting that, at the time of writing, there's no playable tutorial only a series of non-interactive screens that really aren't very helpful. It doesn't take too long to figure out the controls, but you will spend several frustrating minutes trying to do so, and I hope this gets looked into.
SITUATION IN PROGRESS
Taking a look at the official forums, you will see the developers are very active, taking suggestions from the community and patching in new features, like the aforementioned coloured paths. But it begs the question of whether Door Kickers is really ready to be a full release or not. There are a huge number of features which one might reasonably expect from a tactical strategy game the ability to crouch, for example, or to shoot through thin surfaces like doors which just aren't present yet. Multiplayer is nowhere to be found, but is on the 'to do' list, and there isn't even a way to step over or move obstacles, so you end up with highly-trained officers stuck impotently behind a stack of pizza boxes on the floor.
Non-violence is also shunned, with every mission an exercise in mass-murder; there's no option to shout down opponents and cuff them. You don't even get access to officers who don't shoot on sight until much later in the game. All of these omissions, major and minor, add up to a sense that perhaps Door Kickers could've done with another few months in beta before proclaiming that it's ready to face the world.
Between the enjoyable gameplay, appealing visuals, and the return of mission planning, it's difficult not to recommend Door Kickers to anyone with enough patience to tolerate the difficulty curve. Even so, wary consumers or those looking for a more comprehensive tactical experience should treat this game as though it was still in Early Access. There are plenty of missing features that may or may not be coming at a later date, but take it for what it is for the time being a flawed experience, but one that's hugely rewarding when everything goes just right.
Fun tactical experience. The return of pre-planning. Huge replayability.
Lots of missing features. Cluttered planning interface. AI lacks self-preservation instinct.