The longer I played Confrontation, the less it enamoured itself to me. If you listened to episode 76 of the IncGamers Podcast, you’ll know that I was feeling pretty optimistic about Cyanide’s new title; but that was a few hours in, before the central concept outstayed its welcome.
There seems to be confusion in some quarters about how Confrontation actually works, so let’s employ some well-worn genre phrases to summarise the game. It’s a squad-based tactical combat title in which the pause button can be employed to issue orders, but actions play out in real time. Despite being based on a tabletop miniature skirmish game, this is not a turn-based affair like Cyanide’s version of Blood Bowl (ok, that did have a real-time mode as well, but it was fairly pointless).
If you fancy seeing how that works, take a look at the video below in which I play through the first area outside the tutorial.
Early (and ‘early’ is a relative term in a single player campaign lasting upwards of twenty hours) missions like the footage above leave a good impression. There are obvious indications that this isn’t a title with the highest budget in the world, the animations and spell effects could do with a tune-up and the user interface is functional rather than optimal, but beyond that there are encouraging signs in the implementation of the skirmish-based combat.
In the solo campaign, you can only control the Griffin faction. These guys are human, but not the usual tedious do-gooders of so many high fantasy universes. Instead, they seem to owe more to the Space Marines of Warhammer 40k, using their religious zealotry to justify their actions. It’s no coincidence that one of your characters is an Inquisitor and another is an Executioner.
Across the course of your missions, your heroes will encounter the Scorpion (weirdo Technomancers who dabble in genetics and cyber enhancements), the Jackal (fairly standard Orcish types) and the Wolfen (bipedal wolves who worship the moon). Although you tend to pick a squad of four for each level, the Griffin ranks ultimately swell to a roster twelve. Some of the opening missions see you taking control of a few of these characters at a time, so you get a feel for how each of them plays.
Knowing your squad is crucial if you’re to stand a chance in combat. Most encounters will see your team of four going up against similar numbers, but simply highlighting everyone and charging them in will just lead to failure. You need to make the most of every member’s five or six skills and utilise them in harmony with the abilities of the other squad members. Typically, you’ll learn your team’s vulnerabilities and be able to assess which enemies need to be targeted first (and in what fashion) in order to prevent them ruining your assault. Pausing the combat to issue orders (sometimes two or three steps at a time) is a necessity, both in order to tactically plan your attacks and to stop and re-assess when a strategy has been interrupted.
By the later stages of the solo campaign, my team was solid in melee but still somewhat vulnerable to the ‘control’ category of magic (spells in Confrontation fall into the categories of damage, defense, control, support and debuff). As a result, it was important for me to always go after enemies who were able to use effects like ‘charm’ or ‘fear’ on my team, take them out as swiftly as possible, and then mop up survivors. Of course the AI didn’t make this easy, so that primary strategy often had to be adopted on the fly to account for other, more pressing issues (such as strong, swift units attempting to squish my more fragile Pyromancer).
I’m not familiar with the original tabletop Confrontation, so I’m unable to comment on how well the general feel of the game has been translated across, but the title includes a ‘Codex’ accessible from the main menu which gradually fills you in on the details of its universe. It seems to be a fairly in-depth and novel background, with the Griffin and Scorpion factions in particular being a decent twist on the standard fantasy fare.
Those hoping for a straight turn-based conversion of the game will inevitably be disappointed, but Confrontation’s stop-start approach to tactical squad combat is both well done and an interesting spin on the genre. Aside from Dawn of War 2, there aren’t too many titles of this nature out there (and even that game has a lot more emphasis on real-time actions than this).
However, as you get deeper into the single player campaign the title’s shortcomings are slowly revealed.
Pathfinding is a problem. Even a small piles of twigs between your unit and its target is enough to cause confusion in the ranks. Having to deal with narrow pathways of attack is one thing, but sometimes the heroes will find themselves unable to get around another unit in wide open spaces. Enemies on higher ground are a particular problem, with your ranged attackers often taking the decision to run helplessly into the side of a cliff rather than pulling back slightly and getting a clear line of sight.
It also doesn’t help that the aforementioned Codex is only accessible by clicking out of a mission and getting back to the main menu. This decision makes no sense at all. Knowing the abilities of the foes you’re up against is crucial in this title, so keeping your best reference tool external to the user interface of regular missions is maddening.
But what really holds Confrontation back is its inability to evolve beyond a promising opening. In those first few missions, you’re learning about individual squad members, getting drawn into the world and mastering the combat system. It’s engaging, interesting and (quirks aside) pretty fun. There are stand-alone moments with some variety, like having to play a section of one level with a stealth unit who’s best chance of survival is not attacking the opposition.
Twelve or fifteen hours in, you’ve probably settled on four or five favourite heroes who are now levelled up (characters are improved with stat upgrades, weapon and armour points pillaged from the game world and glyphs which offer further bonuses). You’ll have fought the same battles against the same foes for lengthy stretches, across backdrops that don’t change for several hours of play. It’s possible to mix things up for yourself by taking some different heroes along for the ride, but the problem here is that although your team levels up alongside your ‘main’ characters, you may not have found enough weapon/armour/glyph upgrades to get them up to speed for the later, tougher missions.
A good editor would’ve lopped off several of these sprawling missions, mixed up the enemies you face along the way (instead of having a long clump of Orc missions, followed by a long clump of Wolfen missions) and placed more focus on replay value. As things stand, I have no desire to slog though the solo campaign again with fresh faces. Had it been half the length (but more varied), this could’ve been a much more enticing prospect. The final mission refreshes some interest by making you use every character (in three separate squads), but it’s too little, too late.
This is the point where I’d love to tell you about Confrontation’s multiplayer mode, but even two days after the release of the game it’s tricky to get a match. From what little I’ve experienced, it’s restricted to 1v1 matches with squads of four (drawn from any of the four factions in the game). Unlike single player, this takes place in full real-time. Skills are reduced from five or six to just three per unit (presumably so you have a chance of keeping up), and the problems which afflict the solo campaign are even worse here. Pathfinding, difficulty targeting individual units when they’re blobbing together and the inability to read the Codex without logging out are all twice as annoying in a mode with no pauses in the action.
These should only be treated as initial multiplayer impressions, but the early prognosis is not good. Particularly when the playerbase seems so small.
In its best moments Confrontation is a compelling tactical puzzle, pitting your hardy group of skirmishers against a selection of dangerous foes in an unusual fantasy setting. At its worst, it feels like an over-long slog through endless combat encounters which echo older RPGs like Planescape: Torment, but neglects to include any of the fascinating narrative or dialogue of those previous titles.