2023 has been a wild year for the gaming industry, both good and bad. On one side, we’ve had many great games. This has come at a heavy cost to the gaming industry, with growing concerns regarding layoffs, mass acquisitions and certain developer engines making awful business decisions. Looking at you, Unity.
So while all these amazing games are cool, let us spare some love and care for the souls behind them. I’ve been on both sides of the gaming industry, both as a consumer/reviewer, and on a development team. It’s a challenging time for everybody. It’s likely to get worse before it gets better, unfortunately.
After a long drought, tactical RPGs have come back strongly in 2023, with amazing hits like Octopath Traveller 2 and the monumental Baldur’s Gate 3. It’s amazing how Larian Studios transformed Baldur’s Gate 3 into such a juggernaut, and it almost feels like a foregone conclusion that it will win Game of the Year. It deserves that title, although I’m uncertain how it will rank in my Top 10. Anyhow, onto today’s impressions review with USC Counterforce! Thanks to the folks at Firesquid Games for providing me with a code for the game, as well as the words of support during my summer struggles. It meant the world to me.
USC finally launched this summer on Steam. I got the chance to play the demo during 2022’s TactiCon event and greatly enjoyed myself. Back then we just had the tutorial, but now there are several game modes to dig into, as well as the usual quality-of-life improvements. Despite its early development cycle and lack of a campaign mode, USC: Counterforce boasts incredible depth in its mechanics. It’s already in the running for my ‘Best of Early Access’ award for the year — that should be a testament to how confident I am in it. While it has a couple of issues regarding the interface, and I wish it performed better on the Steam Deck, I cannot help but feel impressed every time I jump into the game.
As with all deep, tactical extraction games, I highly recommend people follow the tutorial. It spans a couple of missions to teach players the ropes, with everything from character customization to battle loadouts. The amount of customization in USC: Counterforce is mind-boggling. Pretty much everything can be tweaked, from stats and perks right down to the equipment and weapons. It’s pretty overwhelming at first, but the tutorial does provide a strong foundation to lean on. There’s also a complete codex in-game for viewing pleasure, a great tool to look up things if you get confused. The game throws a lot of information at the player, but it does a respectable job of teaching them as well. Whenever I got stuck or could not remember what to do, the codex helped my scatterbrain work things out.
In terms of content, the campaign mode is not available yet — that will be for the full release. After the chunky tutorial, there is a swathe of different missions to jump into, from defending a base to hunting through space stations to eliminate big threats. Some modes are multi-layered swings of several missions tied, where your squad will be challenged in a battle of resources. These modes offer plenty of things for players to dig into.
As an Early Access title, I have plenty of recommendations for USC Counterforce’s development. I wish the squad creator allowed players to save and load individual units. We can save entire squads, but there is no current option to load up individual members. I would also love to see a randomizer mechanic implanted. Sometimes I just want to jump into the action with a pre-loaded team, without spending all that time configuring every member to the last hair. It can take a while to work out what squad you want, so these new additions to the creator menu would improve the experience. The Squad Creator menu could do with its separate setting in the main menu, now I think about it. Right now, we can only edit squads while picking a mission, so being able to assemble a squad without picking a mission first would be cool.
As previously mentioned, performance and interface are two points of interest. While there are no glaring issues on either front, the interface has a lot of busywork attached to it. It performs well enough even on modest hardware, but I experienced significant frame drops during intense scenes, and the UI scaling makes the Steam Deck experience a challenging one.
In conclusion, I love what Angry Cat Studios and Firesquid are accomplishing here. We’re a while away from the completed product, but this is a great example of what a good Early Access experience feels like to play. A good chunk of content to work through, with frequent updates and communication from the developers? Provided that the development continues at the same quality as I have witnessed, we’re onto a winner here.
A deep and enthralling strategy game that shows great promise
The interface could use a lot of work
Immense level of customisation for squads and troop members, right down to the items
Early Access, so not a complete experience yet
A solid tutorial and in-game codex means you’ll rarely get stuck on what to do
Some performance problems, especially on the Steam Deck