A military real-time tactical shooter in the vein of Cannon Fodder and Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines? Hoo-rah! There was no way I was going to dodge the draft on this one. From the Amiga through to the PC, the strategy of taking on a cartel with a band of brothers has absolutely been my jam. And hey, if developers Zanardi and Liza can wrestle the genre into the modern day as well as Two Point Studios did with Two Point Hospital, then the aging 12-year-old me was going to be in a state of bliss.
Dog Duty wastes no time in getting into the meat of it. You bust out of jail in a POW camp, and conscript the other two members of your team in a matter of minutes. Then it’s all explosive barrels, Molotov cocktails and miniguns, as the enemies cuddle up to things that are going to make them explode. Yeah, I was in my element.
Then the game blossoms out, and you realise it has ambitions. Jumping into an APC that’s the size of a small village, you get to complete the breakout and explore something of an open world. There are roaming convoys of enemies, scattered towers and – most importantly – outposts of enemies that form the core tissue of the gameplay. Hop into these, clear them out, and your faction will take control, applying a debuff to the other outposts in the region. It’s reminiscent of modern Far Cry titles, and it works well. The pattern of downing an outpost and then hunting for the next, before deciding whether you’ve smuggled enough debuffs to take on the main hideout (and its super-vehicle boss) is one that just works.
If you’re not versed in the ways of the Fodder and Commandos, the action itself is pretty simple. You’ll have the standard real-time strategy reticule, point-and-clicking in the direction you want your team to go. Enemies are hunkered down in their bases, often littered with explosives, walls and turrets, and you’ll choose one or all of your characters to find the best way round. High ground and sandbagged cover will give you the advantage.
Dog Duty remixes things nicely with character types, from hulking commandos to Dynamo-like lightning troopers. You’ll only ever have three characters in your troop, so it means hokey-cokeying them in and out according to the hazard. Then there’s the shop system, which offers you some of the usual – weapons, Kevlar and grenades – alongside some of the unusual, like turrets for your mega-vehicles. A construction mode chops up your vehicle into squares and allows you to dump those turrets anywhere you fancy, which in turn makes it easier to take down the convoys that pump out the cash.
The challenge is nicely pitched too. Unlike a lot of its peers, Dog Duty doesn’t go for the whole perma-death thing. Characters get downed in the Gears-like manner, waiting for their comrades to medic them up, and a complete loss of your team will just reset you back to the last outpost you visited. It means the developers can dial up the difficulty a touch, and the convoys and outposts are a real challenge. Particularly on latter stages, you’ll be tinkering with your team and slapping down cash for grenades to make bottleneck turrets a little easier to pass.
Writing about all of these features, it becomes all the more confusing that I didn’t love-love Dog Duty. I was definitely enjoying chunks of the campaign, and it’s got an armoury of ideas that I’m definitely on board with. It ticks a lot of my Cannon Fodder boxes, and the open world drags it into new areas. It just didn’t come together super satisfyingly, and there’s a few core reasons for it.
One is the Xbox One itself. The first bar any real-time strategy game is going to have to clear is console controls, and Dog Duty looks like it’s going to manage it but then trips and slams a forehead into it. You need precision and maximum control if you’re going to be as frantic as Dog Duty wants to be, and it can’t quite manage it. Turrets are a good example: Dog Duty is littered with them, and there’s the tiniest window of time for you to kill surrounding enemies before they jump into them, or you might make a run for the turret and see if you can dive into the seat and mow them down yourself. The problem is that actions are context sensitive, so you’ll find your commando running for the turret when you meant to fire at it, or vice versa.
Margins for error are minuscule, and you’ll be blaming the game more often than yourself. Misclick a tiny enemy (and the viewpoint is more zoomed out than most, making it a regular feature), and all of your characters will wade into the killing fields, ditching the cover and any turrets they’re barricaded into. Character swapping on the d-pad also feels erratic, which couples with odd rules for character-targeting (you’ll switch to single-character control when highlighting a turret, for example) to mean that you’re occasionally taking on an army with one man. As with most console RTS’s, it feels clumsy separating your team into two or more fronts.
The blame can’t only be put at the console’s door, as some of the other controls are downright bemusing. The vehicles are giant shopping trolleys that feel terrible to control. That’s a killer, as the placement of the turrets on the vehicle are vital, so suddenly blundering into a convoy with your naked, poorly weaponised butt showing is less than thrilling. Good driving is Xbox’s bread and butter – it should be better than this.
The level design needs a power-up too. I wanted to flex my brain matter, but too often the levels were oriented to favour brute force. Here’s a throttle point with a turret; here’s an open area with an armoured grunt. I don’t expect every level to be Deus Ex, but I’d love the chance to flank and outmanoeuvre every so often. They get repetitious as a result.
A few other things niggle but don’t explode in the hand. I could have done with a touch more story and ‘moments’ to paper over the repetition. The bosses would have done the job if they didn’t require you to micro-manage the positions of each team member, which is exactly what the controls fumble at doing. I had to back-pedal to shops more than I would have liked.
I don’t want to over-egg the negatives as there’s a lot to like here. It just feels a bit like going to a buffet and then being given a toothpick to eat with. You know that there’s a lot of awesome stuff here, but it can be a pain to get through it all.
The end result is a game that gets the adrenaline going at the start, but dumps landmines of imprecision and repetition in the way. By the end, you might have the thousand-yard stare of a war veteran. It’s certainly good value, and there’s challenge and length to the game, but your mileage may differ about whether the mission is worth taking. Dare we say it, Dog Duty on Xbox One might be a better proposition on PC.