StorylineBeing a post apocalyptic game, things obviously aren't particularly happy. Enough time has passed since humanity glassed itself to near extinction, and now, only a few humans and mutants exist in the Ark for survival. The Ark is led by a strange old man who is perpetually hooked up to medical devices, and is carefully maintained by a character that immediately goes missing. Surrounding the Ark's area is a snaking maze of individual maps overrun with marauders and a mutant army called Nova Sect. There's word that things are falling from the sky, and announcing news that there's some safe and wonderful haven called Eden. Obviously, it's a race for you and your stalkers to find it and annihilate Nova Sect on the way before they do. We all know how these stories tend to end, however. Throughout the game, you'll find notes that give you a real description of the timeline and goings on, as well as new characters to join your ranks with their own little stories to follow.
GameplayThe game starts off with just the two poster characters out in the wild, trying to return some scrap to the Ark. The first map serves as a fairly small and semi-linear tutorial on how you get to grips with the most basic systems, but maps get significantly larger and more complex as you expand far beyond the Ark. Exploration is definitely the name of the game here, but it's mostly done in stealth. The gameplay is split into two very simple sections: Free-roam sneaking for scrap and equipment and turn-based combat (sometimes in stealth!) across literally the entire map. The first part is probably the most interesting since all the maps are extremely varied, and you spend a lot of time learning enemy patrols and sneaking between them to get to the good stuff. Some map sections are locked off until you've found items that provide access or found another way around, but they almost always mean good loot. The main map is cut off into separate sections, each part labeled according to whether it's high level or a main quest hub. One thing the tutorial doesn't mention is that you can travel back to the Ark at any time via the main map.
Character customization goes as far as armor and weapons, as well as a small pair of skill trees for each character. You'll eventually unlock more characters as you progress through the map, each of them with very carefully defined roles and some unique skills in their skill trees. The passive tree each of them get is largely similar, offering increased base health, but it also mixes in a couple of extra passives that improve that character's specific skill set. Armour and grenades are on offer but can't be upgraded; however, every weapon has a scope and loader slot. Weapons can have their stats increased by spending weapon parts, one of the game's two main currencies alongside scrap. They can also have a scope added for increased range or crit chance, and a loader add-on which will increase crit damage and provide a percentage chance to inflict a certain status, like immolating or disabling enemies. It's a simple upgrade system but works exceptionally well given its simplicity. There is a third currency in rare artifacts (basically long-lost items nobody understands the use of anymore, like an iPod) that can be used to provide party-wide passives, the most important of which provides a discount at stores. Customization exists in all manners, but isn't overly complex or rife with hundreds of parts. It's a very well-rounded, easily accessible system.
Combat itself can also be split in two, with the first part almost being the most important aspect that sets this game apart from the rest of the TBS scene. Provided you haven't been seen, you can go for an ambush. This means you have the chance to either shoot first in the ensuing battle or kill a few enemies off (provided you have silenced weapons equipped) before quietly going about your business and then meeting the rest of the force head on. Obviously, you can't snipe enemies off silently if they're right next to another enemy, and if you fail to kill them within a single shooting phase, they'll alert other enemies to join the battle, and even cause more enemies to spawn after the alarm is raised. As such, the game requires quite a skillful approach to succeed, and one bad decision can lead to complete and utter defeat. The game is also quite fair in that you can revive squad members during a bleedout timer, but so can the enemy. This makes medic bots public enemy number one for me because you don't want them reviving a tank that took you three turns to kill. So once you've finished sneaking around, collecting scrap, and picking off the weaklings, you can either sneak around the troublesome large pack of challengers and head for the exit or face their thinned out numbers head on. You still get to ambush them if you've gone undetected, which means you can make some important setup decisions.
Weapons have ammo and as such need to be reloaded. Also, unlike Warhammer 40K: Mechanicus, you do have action priorities - shooting or using grenades will automatically end that character's turn even if you didn't use both of their action points. Each character has two action points, so similar to XCOM, you can spend these to move, sprint, reload, shoot, heal, overwatch, or use special mutation. Unsurprisingly, there is in fact a Run 'n' Gun ability, so you can shoot even after using both action points. There's a simple 50% and 100% cover system, a height advantage system, as well as range system, all of which will affect your chances to hit. Height improves things while range only makes things harder. Interestingly, there's a critical hit system that can be modified either with mutations, weapon upgrades, or special abilities that increase your chances depending on various possibilities. Some weapons will also have abilities, like knocking a character back or destroying cover. However, remember everything you have access to, the enemy does too.
Mutations are part of your skill tree and cover things like Run 'n' Gun, as well as abilities that cause your character to fly, charge into enemies and knock them down for a few turns, or (thankfully) disable robots, among dozens of others. Most of them are passive, like improving crit chance while still in stealth or increasing grenade throw range, but each character gets two or three mutations to unlock and use in combat. Interestingly, the mutations are recharged by scoring kills in combat, but some of them will use your action points. You'll also notice enemies have their own mutations too, like the weird onion-headed enemies being able to buff their friendlies until they die, destroying cover, casting what I can only describe as chain-lightning, and even mind control. Equipment and armor can all counter this, however, as some armor offers invulnerability to critical hits, while others make mind control impossible. The whole game has this subtle undertone of the art of war, constantly attacking and countering enemies and being prepared at all times. Even different types of grenades can turn the tide in your favor. In one case, my bacon was saved by a patrolling Polis-Bot who mind controlled a tank and then proceeded to pick off enemy marauders one by one while I dealt with the rest of the force. I was quite impressed by how organic they managed to make a turn-based strategy game.