Genre saturation is a peculiar force in the video game world. At the turn of the millennium, you couldn’t walk into a video game store without knocking over promotional material for the next big World War II shooter (Medal of Honor: Allied Assault), simulation (Il-2 Sturmovik) or strategy game (Commandos).
For armchair operatives, the rise of the blockbuster shooter has largely been a disappointment. The boom in heavily-scripted action roller-coaster rides has presided over the deaths of the thinking man’s tactical game, dominated by tactical shooters like Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon and SWAT.
Tactical shooters have largely devolved into AAA console titles smoothing out the difficulty and intricacy that once made them special. Gone are the planning stages, go-codes and constant attempts at the perfect assault that defined games such as Rainbow Six: Raven Shield (2003) or the original Ghost Recon (2001).
Particularly nuanced attempts like the SWAT series have simply disappeared from our systems all together. There hasn’t been a single game since SWAT 4 (2008) that has forced players to confront and arrest hostile non-player characters rather than simply shoot first or stealthily scoot around them.
Fine control of a small team of operatives, a sandbox approach to tactical entry and consideration of the real-life challenges facing counter-terrorist and SWAT teams — these experiences have been missing from this entire past generation of consoles.
But the market is changing thanks to the rise of indie game distribution through sales platforms such as Steam, GOG and Desura and the crowd-funding possibilities offered by Kickstarter. We live in an age where a game developer can pitch their game directly to their target audience—and that audience will pay upfront for a gaming experience they might never have seen otherwise.
It is this willingness of players to fund games in development that gave Door Kickers the breaching charge it needed to break into the game market. Made by Romanian developer Killhouse Games, Door Kickers is a top-down, real-time tactics game with a lot of depth, all packed into an apparently simple tactical problem: getting a small team through a barricaded entry and clearing a room.
Due to their Romanian roots, the developers were unable to seek funding through the U.S./U.K.-centric Kickstarter and at first had to distribute the game through their Website. With strong word of mouth, the game eventually had a successful run on Steam Greenlight. No fewer than 25,000 copies later, the current version of the game is Alpha 7—with Alpha 8 coming this month.
The tactical puzzle
Door Kickers treats urban combat as a puzzle. It mixes the way-points and go-codes of the Rainbow Six series with the three-star scoring of Angry Birds in a way that is immediately gratifying. Each run at a level is timed and the best runs are recorded for later comparison, encouraging short bursts of play, continual replay and speed run challenges. Recent releases have even given players the tools to create their own scenarios.
Door Kickers’ gameplay feels like a football coach’s whiteboard. Each mission is standalone, and depicts a small area such an apartment floor or building complex. Paths are then drawn over each of your troopers which they will follow in real-time, stacking up at doors and reacting to hostile forces in their fields of fire.
The real-time gameplay distinguishes it from turn-based tactical predecessors like Frozen Synapse, as does the natural and fluid input of paths. Despite being a real-time game, you can pause to get your bearings and issue paths, which is essential when reacting to new threats. Short and intuitive, it’s certainly a game for the mobile generation. An iPad release is planned.
There are a wide range of missions—currently 47 in total—with many types common to the game’s Rainbow Six and SWAT predecessors: kill all the hostiles, rescue hostages and bomb disposal being familiar to anyone who has played any form of counter-terrorism game on a PC or console.
The missions have been inspired by real-life scenarios and buildings, and designer Dan Dimitrescu admits to being an avid reader of military and law-enforcement books and blogs. While the team have plans for an engine upgrade that will allow for larger maps and even vertical levels, the team is currently working small.
Dimitrescu says the team is interested in giving players a sandbox, but one in which they are able to build in particular bottlenecks and tactical challenges, making every mission feel fresh.
The stop-execution scenario is particularly challenging and unique. In a bid to stop the killing of a hostage, whose location you may not even know, your troopers have to act quickly, accurately and, if possible, quietly. Move too slowly or make too much noise before you’re able to reach the hostage and you’ll only reach their corpse. It’s a tough scenario that requires a lot of trial and error.
And trial and error is really where this game excels. Each room-clearing mission functions like a puzzle—and the result feels like a playable map view of Rainbow Six’s old mission-planning screen. Each mission is short, too—particularly when everything goes wrong—so re-playability is a must … and Door Kickers brings it by the bucket-load.
The three-star score system rewards speed and safety and makes the game excellent for playing in short bursts and attempting perfect completion.
Each mission starts with the deployment screen where you can place a limited number of troopers in limited start points with a selection of classes—assaulter, stealth, point man, breacher—and weapons to choose from, each with minor differences in fire-rate, accuracy and stopping power.
From deployment mode, the game begins paused on the planning screen. Your performance is tracked by a timer at the bottom of the screen, so pausing the game allows you to issue a series of paths and commands without wasting precious seconds.
At a door, troopers have several options for entry: fiber-optic snake cameras that show what’s happening in a small field of view beyond the door, flashbangs to stun your enemies and frame-charges to allow quick access while also stunning enemies close by and downing those immediately behind the door. Locked doors have more options—including the very noisy hooligan tool.
Managing two to four troopers simultaneously, including their field of views, is no easy task. The enemy makes it difficult by frequently being on the move, either patrolling or simply investigating what all the gunfire is about.
The AI opponents are quick and brutal, so how you handle each door is important. Make too much noise and the enemy will come and check out what is going on. And if you place breaching charges on a door with hostages behind it, you will be adding another chalk outline to your blood-stained map.
Hostages are also exceptionally easy to kill, so in missions such as the cramped airplane assault with terrorists mingling with hostages, you’ll find it extremely important to get good arcs of fire and enter from multiple approaches simultaneously.
While your troopers are smart enough to react to the enemy presence, and have become increasingly so in recent updates to the game, they are useless on their own.
Despite all its realism, Rainbow Six allowed you to be a one-man army simply because it was a twitch-based first-person shooter—that is, an avatar driven entirely by the player’s own accuracy. In Door Kickers, your troopers are picking their targets themselves and all you can do is tell them where to move and where to look.
Working in collaboration with Blackfoot Studios, Killhouse Games is developing a military and law-enforcement-targeted version of the game called Door Kickers: Simulations & Training.
Although it is early days for the venture, the Door Kickers team will be leveraging the whiteboard-esque nature of the game to allow professionals to plan and—most crucially—review their handling of site navigation and room-clearing flow, and to review how they might improve and apply their knowledge and skills to real-life problems.
The move comes after the developers received feedback from law-enforcement and military users telling them that they played the game “just like they do it in real life.”
Others found the game useful for demonstrating concepts in training, and being able to provide a real-time dynamic outcome will surely beat a static chalked-out stage-by-stage account or an unnecessarily wordy briefing room PowerPoint presentation.
After being nominated for several awards (Best Serious Game, People’s Choice and Best Adaptive Force Award) at the recent 2013 Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference held in Orlando, Florida in early December, it seems likely that this small developer will be looking forward to the year ahead.
The team is trying to finish the game this year, and there’s already talk of add-ons, including Russian OSMN troopers and a multiplayer mode—although it’s unclear how they will handle this when the single-player requires so much pausing.
Even farther down the line, the team is even talking about a sequel with a greater focus on military special operations and a broader strategic campaign to take part in.
Door Kickers is part of a new wave of tactical simulators—Takedown, Ground Branch and Breach & Clear, to name but a few—and most are in development thanks to crowd-funding. After all that time we’ve spent merely fantasizing about breaking down doors and lobbing stun grenades, we’re about to have lots of safe outlets for our door-kicking urges.