Engaging in high-risk behavior.
When you’re a space mercenary, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Heat Signature counts on things going horribly wrong in order to create great moments where your desperate improvisation at least sometimes pays off, against all odds. It happens enough that I’m constantly telling stories about my latest successful – and almost successful – sci-fi heists.
Heat Signature’s simple, sprite-based art style and top-down shooter action bear a passing resemblance to Hotline Miami, and it works for many of the same retro-charming reasons. Enemies are sometimes hard to spot against busy backgrounds, but by and large, it’s easy to spot threats and obstacles at a glance. Of course, when you smoothly zoom from a close-up of a single boxy room on a spaceship all the way out to a view of a small galaxy of stars it becomes clear that this game is more modern than it appears.
The characters you play as are all random people with no personality other than a silly procedurally generated name and few lines of text that explain their quest for revenge against one of the four organizations that have divided up this region of space. Maybe they want to kill the officer who murdered their boyfriend or rescue their mother from captivity. It’s just barely enough to get invested in and become slightly disappointed if they get killed or captured in action, though they’re quickly replaced by someone else. They have no defining stats, only a couple of randomized starting items. The Rogue Legacy-like structure of Heat Signature makes each individual person disposable, though they all contribute toward persistent progress.
You can use weapons and gadgets with what looks like superhero-level speed and agility.
Once you’ve boarded a ship, be it a mission target or one that just happened by and might be carrying loot, the Hotline Miami comparison breaks down almost completely. Rather than fast action, Heat Signature’s encounters are much more about planning and tactics – it automatically slows down time when an enemy spots you or you take aim, and even more importantly you can (and really must) pause at will to consider your next moments carefully, even in the heat of battle. That gives you the fantastic freedom to use weapons and gadgets with what would appear to your victims to be superhero-level speed and agility.
From the earliest moments of a new character’s career, an encounter with a room full of enemies plays out like a Jason Bourne fight in space: you walk in and lunge toward one with a wrench, knocking him cold before he spots you; after pausing to aim and resuming, the next takes a bullet from the pistol in your other hand before he can get off a shot; and the third begins shouting “INTRUD–!” to sound the alarm, but fails to finish before the wrench’s cooldown expires. That just leaves you, a pile of crumpled bodies, and a thick air of satisfaction in the room.
There are plenty of workarounds for problems that initially seem unsolvable.
On higher-difficulty missions, which range from “Hard” to “Audacious” to “Mistake,” the enemies get tougher, not just coming in greater numbers and with nastier weapons like nearly undodgeable shotguns, but also equipped with defenses like armor or invulnerable reflective shields and sensors that can detect you within a radius. Some even explode if you inflict lethal damage. Even with superhuman reflexes, charging in becomes impractical: you have to use your brain and a tantalizing range of specialized weapons and creative gadgets. There are Visitor teleporters, which let you evade bullets that are only inches from your face by blinking to any point in range, but return you to your starting point after two seconds. There are Subverters that reprogram hostile turrets to do your dirty work and cause enemy shields to reflect their own bullet back into their own faces. Given your limited inventory and the finite charges on most items, you can only prepare for so many possible scenarios, but there are plenty of workarounds for problems that initially seem unsolvable without the specific piece of gear that counters them best. (I’m a fan of conflict resolution through explosive decompression, myself.)
But missions themselves are never exactly the same: the layouts of each ship and their crew is procedurally generated, and many missions have extra conditions like restricting you to non-lethal weaponry only, demanding that you leave no living witnesses, or that you should not be seen at all. Some of them come with tight time limits, and racing against a countdown timer on a large enemy ship crowded with armored and shielded guards can get nail-bitingly tough as you pull off an escape at the last second. Others send you onto ships that are in active war zones and being torn up by incoming missiles. Those are “A bad idea, even by your standards,” as the bluntly comedic menu text describes it, though I find them to be among the most exciting.
To reach your objective, whether it’s an item to steal or a person to capture, kill, or rescue, you almost always have to acquire a series of keys that are carried by guards and occasionally left on computer terminals. Figuring out how to reach them without incapacitating every person on the ship (which, of course, is always an option if you’re equipped for that) is usually a good puzzle with multiple solutions. Quietly taking down a guard and moving his body to an isolated corner works, but so does using a Key Cloner gadget to snag their authorization from two rooms away. Or you can bypass a locked door entirely with a Swapper teleporter, which instantly moves you to an unsuspecting guard’s location and plops him, very confused, where you used to be.
Time permitting, you can do something really crazy.
Or – time permitting – you can do something crazy like leave, hijack a nearby ship, use its weapons to blow a hole in the hull of the target ship near to your objective, get back in your pod and use it to dock at said hole, and grab the loot. I’ve beaten assassination missions by ramming one ship into another until I destroyed the room the target crewmember was standing in. That one’s far less subtle and is tough to execute, but knowing that such extreme approaches are an option makes gives Heat Signature a wide-open feel.
Of course, many of these attempts will go very, very wrong, but Heat Signature encourages risk and experimentation (or at least doesn’t discourage it) because there’s very little consequence for failure. If a mission looks too tough, just leave – no one gets mad at you. If you mess up, you’re rarely killed outright – you’re picked up and thrown out an airlock, sure, but your remote-controlled pod can come and pick you up and bring you right back to the action (unless you bleed to death first). And when a character does go down in a blaze of glory, a limitless supply of replacements raise their glasses to the deceased at the bar and send another out to take their place.
On the other hand, even success is artificially limited, preventing you from settling into a groove and riding a set of excellent gear straight to the end. If a character lives long enough to become famous, their victories stop contributing to the cause of liberating the galaxy, and you’re encouraged to “retire” them. Doing so lets you name an item after them which can then be found again in the loot chests (by you or your Steam friends), which is a nice touch as a way to remember them and transfer at least one coveted inventory item to a new character.
Your inventory and cash isn’t shared between characters, so persistent progress is measured by the number of locations you’ve freed from their oppressive governments. Ingeniously, the map you’re flying around and liberating as you progress toward the strongholds at the four corners doubles as a tech tree: freeing a planet often gives you access to buying a specific piece of equipment (such as Stealth Shields or grenade launchers) at stores, allowing you to take on different types of missions without having to scavenge for the gear you need every time.
The disappointing part is that there’s not really any kind of simulation going on on the map. The traffic of ships between planets or which empire controls what territory is apparently random, and even cutting off pieces of an empire by liberating a line of locations through it doesn’t have any effect. None of what happens on the “strategy map” matters at all, which means Heat Signature is purely about its missions. As a result, there’s not much of an endgame to it, and the factions have no real personality.
But each liberated world comes with its own challenge mission with a pre-defined set of tools, so it’s not like Heat Signature is left wanting for things to do even after you free the entire map. And taking down all four strongholds will likely take upwards of 15 hours, especially if you take as long as I did to figure out that equipping two wrenches right away turns you into a skull-bludgeoning tornado of doom.