Suspicious Developments‘ Heat Signature serves as an incredible example case study into the weird relationship I have with traditional game news. I was entirely on-board when Tom Francis first announced he was working on a new space game, pretty much solely on the strength of Gunpoint, and I followed the associated Twitter account immediately. And then I… never looked into it? In any way? I knew it was in progress, and I had a vague idea of the graphical layout and the problems involved with mapping an enormous procedural (outer) space. But beyond that, I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about Heat Signature right now. I’ve heard from smatterings of other reviews that it involves space ships? And boarding? And plans, and backup plans, and backup-backup plans, and plans marked ‘under no circumstances enact this’? Which you will enact anyway?
I have the amazing ability to be feature-blind to hyped indie games even if I’ve taken explicit steps to stay up-to-date with it. I know, I know, it’s like a superpower. Let’s hope it pays off in this case.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium-high-ish.)
(Game source: Patreon funds.)
I launch Heat Signature. There’s a brief view of outer space, more red than I remember, but definitely star-studded. Then the camera rapidly zooms in on what I think might be a spaceship — then follows a small humanoid figure that’s violently thrown through a window, out into space.
Sader Fiasco, this woman’s name is. She sighs. “This is not how I pictured my retirement.”
LEFT CLICK, Heat Signature symbol-signs to me, so I do, and Fiasco keeps talking. Nobody explodes. LEFT CLICK, LEFT CLICK. Fiasco is resigned, but there’s one last thing she wants to do. LEFT CLI-
The humanoid figure slams into what looks like a fancy space car. After a second, I learn that a) this was intentional, b) it didn’t kill her, and c) I’m in control of the space car now.
LEFT CLICK TO THRUST, Heat Signature says, so I do. The camera zooms out, until the ship is only a small speck in the center. To the left, I see what must be the ship I was ejected from earlier. DOCK HERE, the game says, so I thrust towards it. Left clicking accelerates, right clicking brakes, and the camera auto-zooms to give me an overview matching my speed level.
Before long I’m near the ship, which is a big orange brick. DOCK HERE, the game says, so I do, and the screen seamlessly transitions to show the ship interior, a series of connected square rooms. I’m Fiasco again, now, ready to… do something? Hopefully not get shot into space again.
What follows can best be described as a crash course in Heat Signature operation. WASD moves me through the ship, absolute controls relatively to the top of the ship. YOU NEED THIS KEYCARD, a text box yells while pointing at a transparent key behind the locked door that it opens, then tells me to open the inventory and ‘teleport it to me’, which I can apparently do. ALSO PICK UP THIS WEAPON hovers over something called ‘Fiasco’s Facebreaker’, so I click on it and make it my main attack.
I walk up to a guy with his back to me, then press and hold left click to ‘aim my strike’, shown as a column of promise ending in an orange reticule of violence. I release, and Fiasco dashes forward, smashing the aforementioned guy with such force that he flies into the opposite wall two rooms over.
I pick up a gun and shoot it, drawing the guard one room over to me — setting off the alarm, but also giving me a chance to clock him and steal his keycard. Then I punch the ship captain into the second-to-last room, canceling the alarm again and launching the captain into the last room — and through another one of those handy space-windows. Live by the sword, die by the sword, you know what they say. I take over the ship, set a course towards a place called ‘Coldrock Haven’, and…
Fiasco sails through space again, the camera slowly zooming out as the ship flies off to do whatever it’s supposed to do. And keeps zooming out, and out, and out…
And it’s at this point I realize I’m technically still in the Opening section of the review. How’s that for on-boarding?
It is now five minutes later. Fiasco’s made it back to a space station, don’t ask me how; A space station that she and a guy called Breaker Gemini just now took over, apparently. There’s some talk about this being ‘the start of something greater’, and ‘other stations will want to join’, and ‘we can finally fight off the four established powers’, but none of that is going to be Fiasco’s direct responsibility: My very last action in the tutorial is to have her sit on the bench that says RETIRE.
Instead, I get to be… one of these four nerds.
Four characters. Each has a name, a small set of gear, and an implied backstory, expressed in a ‘personal mission’ in the top right. ‘Avenge my son, who was killed by the Foundry.’ ‘Rescue my husband from the Glitchers.’ ‘Steal the Ossard Mark II to make enough money to retire’. I can tell, without knowing anything about Heat Signature beyond what I’ve seen, that these dudes are procedurally generated. And if I pick one, and they die, a new person will somehow show up, at this derelict space-bar in the middle of nowhere. But that’s an observation, not a complaint; It works fine as a framing device. I select Otillia Kuiper, who hopes her Longblade and Rechargeable Stealth Shield will be enough to steal the Costello Project and keep her family safe.
There’s a brief second tutorial before I’m allowed to go anywhere: It’s called ‘practice being cool’, on what’s essentially a holodeck. In a small set of missions I learn how to shoot a gun, throw a weapon instead of attacking with it, carry bodies out of sight, and pause the game at any moment. That last one is important: I can hit Spacebar whenever I want to freeze whenever I want, allowing me to plan my actions, access my inventory, teleport items on the ship to me, and aim attacks. EVERYTHING COOL REQUIRES PAUSING, as Heat Signature eloquently puts it.
And then I’m off! Which means, then I have access to the mission selector. Like the characters, these missions seem obviously procedurally generated: ‘Steal this item’, ‘rescue this character’, ‘capture that character’, you get the idea. The missions are sorted along difficulty levels, with Heat Signature suggesting I start out on an easy one. I can look at the details of each mission: Stealing the Kastner Object getting on a Glitchers ship (I don’t know what this means) with no alarm response and only few guards, where normal guards have wrenches and ‘bosses’ have guns. Seems like that should be within my skill set.
I get on-board my small space car (‘pod’), and fly it in the direction of the big arrow that’s now on-screen, until I get close to the ship I am to hit. Braking with right-click doesn’t just stop me dead, but actually matches my speed to the closest object I’m targeting, making it easier (i.e. actually possible) to navigate to their one open airlock. Then I’m on-board.
The mission, goes, er, very smoothly. In fact, it goes so smoothly that I forget to take any screenshots. There are guards, and one does spot me, time slowing to a crawl as their alert meter fills up. I-N-T-R-U-D-E-R, they start to yell, but before they finish that shout my longblade is through their torso. False alarm, doesn’t count. I tear my way through the ship with ease, grab the Kastner Object, and bail before the captain is even the wiser.
On my way back ‘home’, I actually run into a random ship, just flying around. I decide to dock that one for fun… Which turns out to be less fun than I’d hoped, because this ship is in a state of alarm as soon as I set foot in the door. Thirty-nine, thirty-eight, thirty-seven… I don’t know what this countdown does but intuit that it probably won’t be good, so all I do is slice a single guard in half and steal a Quiet Concussive Shotgun from a nearby box.
But who cares about that, am I right? The important thing is that I make it home with the Kastner Object, and that I get paid for my efforts. There’s also some bar called ‘Liberation Progress’, but as long as that doesn’t translate into tangible gains for me I can’t pretend to be interested in it.
With some cash-equivalent in pocket, Heat Signature directs me to go talk to Fiasco, who’s still hanging out. She can make my personal mission happen! For… two hundred cash equivalent. That seems like a lot of cash equivalent. Particularly since I can also use it to buy items in these shops here: Guns and blades and tools, all for a dozen or so cash. Better take on some more missions, and hold up some more random ships; This might take a while.
‘Steal the Salt Mark II’? Hah, easy: I move through the ship without being detected, only stopping to lift the item and retreat. GHOST, the game calls me. ‘Steal the Necessity Experiment’? A little trickier, this one: The large Glitcher ship carries auto-targeting sentry guns, which I carefully have to side-step. Not that I don’t manage, obviously. ‘Capture Lemma Bader’? I don’t care that the guards on this ship have heat sensors: If I pelt them in the face with a concussive shotgun before they sound the alarm, I’m good, with no accidental chance of killing the target before I get them.
And then I attempt to rescue Cristo Sagitta. It seems so good at first: Sure, the mission is hard, and the ship has serious guards. But the payout’s good! What’s more, Fiasco tells me that there’s a terminal on the ship with information about my personal goal, and she’ll knock a chunk off the price if I get that. Which I feel good about! Explosive vests and emergency shields don’t have nothing on Otillia Kuiper.
Except, they sort of do: Guards patrol this ship in groups of four, with emergency force fields when things get hairy, putting them… somewhat out of my league. I avoid the first group and scatter the second, but a straggler from the third tags me with their pistol. It doesn’t kill me, but does knock me unconscious. The guard picks me up and starts carrying me… somewhere. I wonder what the goal is here, but never find out: As the guard slowly carries my body somewhere, the alarm timer hits the single digits, then runs out. The ship docks at an enemy space station, and Otillia Kuiper is captured by the Foundry.
Ah well. First characters, am I right? Everyone makes mistakes. Would’ve loved to see Otillia Kuiper’s story through, but she’s in a Foundry jail now and I’ll probably never see her again. Let’s see, what other characters do I have? All four of them are new. This one has a shotgun and seeks revenge. This one has a key cloner and wants to support her family. This one has a ‘crashbeam’, and a desire to kill someone who killed one of theirs. And this last one has a stealth shield, and…
Antilla Columba has a Longblade, a Stealth Shield, and the personal mission to rescue Otillia Kuiper from the Foundry.
I am currently playing Heat Signature on October 2nd, forty minutes after midnight: Sunday night, way past work bedtime. I have an important meeting tomorrow afternoon. I am suddenly sharply aware of how bad an idea it was to see this incredible mission.
There’s a non-zero chance this game might eat the next few days of my life.