I didn’t know anything about Laser Squad Nemesis when I received it, except that it was a tactical strategy game. But then the press release that came with the game proclaimed that it was “developed by brothers Nick and Julian Gollop, of Codo Technologies, the team behind the X-Com games.” Well, I liked the X-Com games, and so this was good news to me. Then I went over to the official Laser Squad Nemesis web site and discovered that although the game has been around for a while (it was independently released by Codo way back in 2003), people seemed to like it. The reviews quoted on the site used words like “brilliant,” “unrivalled,” and “sublime.” So how could the game possibly go wrong?
Well, I don’t know that it really went wrong. I just know that it was disappointing to me, and that I didn’t really like it. You see, Laser Squad Nemesis isn’t a grand game in the style of X-Com: UFO Defense. It doesn’t have an intriguing storyline. You don’t research your enemies. Your units don’t gain experience or learn skills. There isn’t any equipment for your units to use. Laser Squad Nemesis is a small game (it only takes 70 MB on the CD it comes on), and it’s only meant to be a multiplayer skirmish engine. Or, as I kept thinking as I played it, it’s sort of like X-Com, but without most of the things I liked about it.
In Laser Squad Nemesis, you play one of four races: the Laser Marines, who are your typical human group with grunts, medics, and grenade launchers; the Machina, who are made up of robots and machines; the Spawn, a group of organic creatures led by a queen; and the Greys, a noble alien race that relies on energy for its weapons and shields. According to the background story, humans created military robots to fend off the invading Spawn, but then the robots decided they were better off on their own and formed the Machina. The Greys, meanwhile, had been secretly nurturing the human race, but then they decided that humans were too aggressive, and decided to destroy them and everything else inhabiting the planet. As a result there are four races, all fighting each other.
As you might expect, the four races are evenly balanced, and they’re different enough from each other (in a Starcraft kind of way) that they’re unique to play. The Laser Marines and Machina are a fairly standard races, with units that are easily recognizable. For example, the Marines get a grenade launcher unit that can bounce grenades around corners, while the Machina get a rocket launcher unit that can cause huge area-effect explosions. The Greys get shields to protect themselves, and they get “warp” weapons that can shoot through walls, but everything runs on energy, and if you can drain their energy then they’re vulnerable. Finally, the Spawn is the only race that can create units during battle (the others are limited to whatever they can purchase before the battle begins). Their queen can “eat” corpses and then lay eggs, birthing the new units.
Gameplay is a little different than what you might have seen in other tactical strategy games. Battles take place in turns, but Laser Squad Nemesis uses a simultaneous turn mode. That is, you give orders to all of your units, and other players give orders to all of their units, and then the turn takes place to resolve what happened. Each turn lasts for ten seconds of real time, so orders might involve things like telling your units to move to a location and shoot anything they see there, or move to a location but stop and retreat if they see an enemy, or perhaps just stay where they are and shoot anything that dares show its face (or whatever the equivalent of a face is for the race in question).
Battles generally involve lots of units (perhaps 20 or so on each side), but the orders you give are indicated on the playing field -- for example, if you tell a unit to watch a particular direction, you’ll see a yellow line pointing away from the unit in the direction that he is looking -- and so it’s easy to keep track of the orders you’ve given. And if you want to make sure that the orders work, you can “play” your turn in advance, and see that everybody is going where they’re supposed to, and that any grenades you’ve shot really are bouncing around those corners.
Laser Squad Nemesis might sound entertaining enough at this point, but you have to know what you’re getting. The races are very small (only six units each), the terrain is very grid-like, and the graphics are right out of last century. The game comes with “campaigns” for each of the four races, but the campaigns, as much as I played them, appear only to be primers for playing Laser Squad Nemesis in multiplayer. A couple of the missions looked like they might be fun, but the game engine doesn’t differentiate between single player and multiplayer, and so you’re not allowed to save and load during the single player campaigns. And let me tell you, hour-plus missions where you’re always outnumbered, and where damage and accuracy have a lot of randomness, aren’t fun at all if you can’t save and load.
In other words, you should only buy Laser Squad Nemesis if you’re looking for multiplayer skirmishes. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any multiplayer tactical strategy games, and so Laser Squad Nemesis might have its niche, and, judging from the forums on the official web site, there seem to be a lot of people playing it, and so you shouldn’t have too many problems finding matches. But if you’re like me and you want intricate single player games, then you shouldn’t go anywhere near Laser Squad Nemesis, no matter how low the price might be.