Code Name S.T.E.A.M.

Battling Aliens At Buckingham Palace
by Matthew Stolpe on Nov 20, 2014 at 10:40 AM
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Rating: Teen
Platform: 3DS

Even for Nintendo, the company that brought us oddities like Pikmin and Earthbound, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a bizarre offering. The game’s premise is basically Independence Day set in a steampunk world. When aliens attack Earth, President Abraham Lincoln assembles an elite team of folkloric heroes and 19th and 20th century literary characters to combat the invaders. Here, S.T.E.A.M. both refers to the energy that powers everything in this alternate Earth and the acronym for Lincoln’s squad: Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace.

If you think any of the above sounds like it could be from a comic book, you’re not wrong. Developer Intelligent Systems (of Fire Emblem and Advance Wars fame) drew inspiration from classic comic artists like Jack Kirby, Bruce Timm, and Mike Mignola. But with so many disparate influences, is it possible for Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. to function as a cohesive strategy game? From what I gleamed from my preview of the game, the answer is yes.

The demo took me on a tour through three stages at Buckingham Palace: a courtyard, an entrance hall, and the palace’s dining room and studies. My mission? Extract the Queen of England from the palace and exterminate alien foes along the way. While most stages have you managing squads of four, I only controlled two characters in the first environment: Henry Fleming, the Civil War hero from Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and American folklore’s steel-driving man John Henry. True to his myth, John Henry’s a bruiser; he carries around a hefty grenade launcher that is great for taking out clusters of enemies. Henry Fleming, on the other hand, is a more precise combatant; he comes equipped with a carbine ideal for targeting enemy weak points.

From the second John and Henry set foot in Buckingham Palace’s courtyard, I could tell that Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. was going to be different. For starters, it strays from the isometric perspective found in most entries in the genre and places the camera squarely behind its characters. This ‘boots-on-the-ground’ view gives combat a visceral flavor. Even though I was still on a grid, guiding my party through the courtyard felt less like moving chess pieces on a board and more like making combat actions in real-time.

Since Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. has a more restrictive camera, it lets players retrieve the action points they spend while moving. When you move from your starting position you’ll burn up AP, but you’ll replenish it by returning to that point, as long as you don’t fire your weapon.  This mechanic allows you to explore the battlefield and get a feel for where enemies are hiding (and they do like to hide). There is considerable risk in doing so though; the aforementioned hiding enemies are often on overwatch, meaning they’ll fire on you during your turn if you’re in their range.

Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.’s combat is all about finding the strategy that works for you. According to the Nintendo reps I spoke with, Buckingham Palace is only chapter two, and already I found myself overwhelmed. In the courtyard, I attempted to employing flanking tactics, only to get battered by the aliens’ overwatch attacks and sheer number. While this difficulty may have stemmed from having a reduced squad (I’m told you can replay levels with a full team of your choosing), it caused me to step back and think critically about my encounters. As I progressed through the hedges, I improvised a back-to-back maneuver for John and Henry that I found much more successful.

I had to throw that strategy out the window for the latter two levels. In the entrance hall, Henry and John, along with a new character Lion, had to fight their way through a straight hall and then up a staircase. Fighting through the studies was also a challenge, with enemies tucked away around tight corners. Lion, a character from Oz, doesn’t control quite the same as his human companions; he eschews ranged combat in favor of an attack that launches him into enemies, onto high ledges, and across gaps in the floor. I never quite mastered this maneuver. I consistently launched Lion into an ill-advised location, only for him to be bombarded by enemy grenades. But my blunders with these new environments and mechanics never discouraged me; each one was a learning experience molding me into a better player. If anything, they made me eager to see how Intelligent Systems mixes up combat in the later chapters.

I admit I was skeptical of Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. at first. The game’s absurd cast and tongue-in-cheek premise were hard to swallow in the beginning but I was quickly won over by its easy-to-learn, hard-to-master gameplay, and even learned to love its wacky style. I’m eager to see more of it when it releases in spring 2015.

If you’re hungry for more information on Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., check out our Test Chamber where Ben Reeves and I get our butts handed to us by alien scum. The media gallery below is chock-full of images to give you a good feel for the game's style.