AntiSquad Tactics, a turn-based strategy game created by Russian developers InsGames, is an attempt to combine the cartoon world military aesthetic of Team Fortress 2 with the tactical squad combat of games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown. What’s interesting about it, though, isn’t its similarities to those games, but how it differs from them. The developers’ sensibilities shine through the cel-shaded paint, and the result is a game that’s too complete and polished to be dismissed, but too weird and primitive to join the ranks of the quality squad tactics games that preceded it.
Team Fortress 2 has a very specific look and feel that’s designed to warp team-based combat into a lighthearted cartoon. In trying to replicate this tone, AntiSquad Tactics found a different one: off-key brutality. The characters on your squad are cartoonish, but your missions have you fighting in places like Mexico and North Korea, and the simplified gameplay makes the battles feel weirdly realistic. You control a party of three units, selected out of five possible choices. Each character has a different special ability and different stats, and you can make them better fighters with items and power upgrades attained by looting corpses for the in-game currency. There isn’t much of a cover system, so the best way to take care of a threat is to shoot the enemy forces one unit at a time while you move backwards or hold a chokepoint.
The tactical gameplay is pretty deep for a mobile game, but your squad management skills are only one part of the equation. Advancing through the game’s missions is going to mean heavily spending in-game currency on upgrades and items, and that means grinding for money by playing missions you’ve already beaten. This is a review of the premium version of AntiSquad Tactics, but there’s also a free-to-play version that wants you to buy whatever you need to beat the missions. Even in the premium version, the game puts an unfortunate amount of emphasis on repetitive grinding, and the less patient are liable to get burned out before they’ve accumulated the coins they need to advance.
Presentation-wise, AntiSquad Tactics manages to be smoother and more assured than a lot of its mobile peers, but the game is full of bizarre touches that lend it an uncanny valley effect. The soundtrack has a tendency towards jazzy spy movie music that doesn’t really make sense in a game about mercenaries getting their hands dirty. And while the mission dialogue and menus are done in pretty good English, there are points, especially in cutscenes, where the text breaks down into fascinating broken English that transforms what would be ordinary exposition into crazy turns of phrase like “Sometimes everything becomes solved by accident. One little stone could start an avalanche that changes the lives!” Before I played AntiSquad Tactics, I thought the “Ins” in InsGames was an acronym, but now I’m pretty sure it’s a ridiculous play on the word “insane.”
As tactical strategy games go, AntiSquad Tactics is serviceable. It controls well and manages not to be too complex without being trivially simple, but its reliance on grinding and collecting coins is a totally unnecessary element that doesn’t really have a place in the genre, especially considering that the whole mechanic is the skeleton of its free-to-play structure. It’s good that InsGames developed a microtransaction-free version of their game, but designing a game around spending currency in the shop takes importance away from a player’s actual skill level, even when that currency is entirely within the game. AntiSquad Tactics is a highly commendable effort, but it’s only going to appeal to people who are willing to overlook some design problems and weird localization in their strategy games.
Is it Hardcore?
Simple, solid tactical gameplay and crazy Russian-to-English idiosyncrasy aren’t enough to save AntiSquad Tactics from it’s heavy dependence on grinding for coins.