Being given the chance to review video games is a pretty cushy gig, if I’m honest with myself. Having to play games is not really too much of a chore, and whilst it’s a privilege to play the latest and greatest, there’s a certain amount of pleasure in playing a bad game, coming up with new and inventive ways to explain why a certain gaming experience is not worthy of your time. And boy oh boy am I ready for the challenge with Robot Squad Simulator X, a game that was made back in 2016 and released on Steam, now appearing on the Xbox One. Made by developers Bit Golem, the premise of the game is an intriguing one – you are the man tasked with controlling various robots to defuse bombs and find things. With all the possibilities for tense missions, for the saving of people and so on, how does the game play?
Now, here is where the first conundrum of this review strikes me. Normally, I’d lead into the review with a synopsis of the story, but that doesn’t seem possible here as, well, there isn’t one. You have a robot, and there are some completely unrelated missions that you have to achieve. That’s it. No overarching narrative, no story, just a set of missions which you either finish or you don’t.
The next thing I’d normally chat about though are the visuals, and luckily I can say a lot more about those. Sadly, none of the words that I am about to use are good ones.
The visuals look as though they are from a game that was made at least five years ago for the Xbox 360. There are two camera views in the game: you can see the whole robot from behind, much like the behind-the-car view in a racing game, or you can look through the camera mounted to the front of your robot, like the front bumper view in the same racing game. The problems are manifold, and pretty disappointing to behold.
In the rear view, the robot seems to float over the ground, looking like it is badly superimposed over some ropy-looking ground graphics. Yet when you drive the robot, things get worse, if you can believe it. The motion is jerky and blurry, and frankly looking at this view for any length of time has made me queasy a few times. That’s a real shame, as attempting to drive the robot in the front camera view is literally impossible, as any contact with scenery, trees, the ground, walls, or whatever will destroy the robot. Without a word of a lie, I drove up to a plastic bottle that was on the ground, expecting an EOD robot to roll right over it. Instead, my robot stopped like I’d hit a brick wall and exploded, causing me to fail the mission. The urge to put down the controller and walk away was very strong, but as it was only in the second mission I forced myself to carry on.
And that wasn’t an easy decision.
While I’ve explained that looking at the screen is no picnic, actually driving the robot is also ridiculously difficult. Going forward is okay, but if you try to go around a bend while driving forward, the robot slows to a crawl until you remove the steering input. It seems to go backwards faster than it goes forwards as well, unless of course you try to steer. It was only by accident that I discovered that the robot can pivot on the ground, as that particular control method isn’t mentioned in the tutorials anywhere. In one mission, I had to drive my robot through a park and find a bomb. “No problem!”, I thought, “Surely all I have to do is drive around and activate my bomb scanner to find the thing?”. So I set off, left the path, drove over a smooth grass field, and reached the end of it with my robot basically destroyed. Yes, driving over some grass destroyed the robot.
So, after spending a lot of time driving on the paths around the park, I managed to find the bomb and had to drive to another location. And here all pretence at real life was thrown out of the window. In a locked down area, with a police helicopter circling overhead, there were three snipers who had nothing better to do than to take potshots at my robot. Where did these mysterious snipers come from? Why did the police not apprehend them? These and other questions went unanswered, and Robot Squad Simulator X just descended into even more of a farce.
We’ve established that driving a robot is rubbish in Robot Squad Simulator X. How about when you need to use the arm to manipulate objects, defuse bombs and so on? Is that any better? Well, no is the short answer. The slightly longer answer is that the arm controls are confusing, the camera view is awful, there’s no sense of depth when trying to pick things up with the claw, and quite often it just seems impossible to grab anything.
Take the park mission as an example. After getting past the snipers, I had to manoeuvre into a shed, with a bomb placed on end, between two other objects. I parked my bot in front of the gap and tried to use the arm to pick the bomb up, as I had been instructed. Now, let’s examine the controls – up, down, in and out are all controlled by the left stick, with left on the stick being used to extend the arm, for some reason. But it doesn’t just extend; it also goes either up or down. It was the work of an hour or so to finally get to grips with this frankly bizarre control scheme, and here I discovered another problem. Get the arm close to the bomb, or any other object, and you will morph into it. As you can imagine, this makes picking things up quite tricky when the claws are near the bomb but the camera is inside it, showing just a black screen. And even though the camera is in the bomb, the claws don’t grip it. With no sense of where the claws are in relation to the bomb until you’ve actually knocked it over, picking things up is a complete pain.
Being a determined type, I picked the bomb up and set off to take the explosive to the designated place. Here, the stupid driving and arm mechanics conspired to make me fail again: as I drove up the ramp to the bomb disposal box (I’m fairly sure that the real bomb disposal guys don’t have to drive through an obstacle course), the robot got stuck and wouldn’t move. I backed off, took a run up and the robot seemed to fly, banging the bomb into the edge of the box, with, as you would expect, negative results. I re-positioned the arm on the restart, drove up to the box and then extended the arm to drop the bomb off. On my screen, it looked good, it looked in the box, so I dropped the bomb. It exploded and wrecked the robot again. I gave up.
Luckily, you aren’t limited to just the one type of robot to drive around in. There are a grand total of four to choose from in fact; two that traverse the land, one that takes to the skies and another that whizzes across the water. The second land type is called the “Spy”, and this is much more like a radio controlled car than a serious robot. It is a lot easier to drive than the first robot, but then that really isn’t saying much!
The air and water robots also add in another axis of movement, namely on the vertical. This again adds its own problems, as it is difficult to judge where your robot is in relation to where the game wants it to be. In addition to this variety in robot type, there are a number of different attachments that can be purchased with the proceeds of the missions you complete. These range from torches to light up dark areas and cameras to take photos of objectives, right up to more specialised pieces of kit, like the Spy having an antenna that can interact with buttons, opening doors on the levels where it has to be used. There isn’t any choice as to which robot you use on which mission though; if you try to use a different robot than the one the game wants you to use, you are sent to the garage to think about what you have done.
Further, there are a variety of missions to partake in, including training and story missions, and this is the one area where it feels like the developers haven’t skimped, as there are a good number to have a right old go at. Sadly, at no point have I enjoyed partaking in any of them, as seemingly arbitrary robot damage and dodgy controls rob the missions of any sense of fun. In fact, everything just seems to degenerate into a random series of trial and error moments, and these ensure you will rarely wish to finish the level you are on, never mind replay any of them.
In conclusion, Robot Squad Simulator X on Xbox One is not a game I can recommend to anyone. It seems a shame that a potentially good idea, with genuinely tense gameplay to be recreated, has been squandered like this. The driving of the robots is awful, the arm mechanics really suck, and the rest of the game is simply shoddy and badly designed. Even the menus are ropy, and other than with the variety in mission type I’m struggling to find anything good to say about this game. It is a great idea wasted.