GhostControl Inc. Impressions for Mac OS X

I spent a good few hours playing GhostControl Inc. I may have barely scratched the surface in that time, meaning it might be drastically different by the end, but one thing’s for sure: I can’t bring myself to play any more. A series of problems got me to the point where I can’t muster enough interest to continue. These were not bugs, but issues with the way the game is presented. Many, many of these can be patched out, and I want to stress that there have been frequent updates in the period since I started playing, but I think my confidence in the game’s ability to entertain me has been broken. As such, don’t treat this as a full review.

GhostControl Inc. is a game that owes a lot to GhostBusters. It takes all the same concepts, driving from place to place, stunning and then trapping ghosts and other supernatural entities, all the while avoiding damage. Everything from the films is present and correct, with a green blob-like ghost that “slimes” you, to the lightning bolt-like weapons, the rays of light when a trap activates, even the containment unit at your gang’s HQ is more or less duplicated in terms of design.

To all of this, the designers added surprisingly few original ideas. The gameplay works like this: you manage the titular company, and the very first screen you’ll see is your headquarters, rendered in pixel art of the sort that’s in vogue in management games on iOS. Here you can hire crew to join your team, sell captured ghosts, save the game, assign team members to active duty (it took me far too long to realise that this is done by clicking on the car), and go to the world map.

Once on the world map (which I particularly enjoyed as it’s a representation of London), you can drive around to different shops to buy new gear, heal up team members, refuel, and go to mission locations. You’re given missions through phone calls that you’ll receive periodically, and then you’ve got a limited amount of time to get to the right place before one of the other GhostBusting companies that roam the map beat you to it.

The missions themselves are grid-based tactical battles of the sort you’ll probably have seen before. Each member of your team gets a set of action points with which to move, shoot, and use equipment. You can also perform some free actions, provided you’re stood in the right spot, such as turning lights on and off, and opening and closing doors. Scattered throughout the levels are a number of supernatural entities that will either try to damage your team or the environment, and have different abilities, such as teleportation or telekinesis.

The objective on every single map is to catch every single ghost by laying down a trap and then getting them to move over it in a weakened state. Succeed and you get paid, but you can fail by having all of your team members knocked out in one way or another (sometimes for good), or if the area sustains too much damage, in which case whatever you would have been paid is used to repay the damage. The worst of both worlds is also possible, whereby you can lose your entire team and also have to foot a damage bill.

Everything I’ve described thus far sounds great (or at least interesting) on paper, but the reality of the end result is that pretty much every one of those things is broken in some way. Getting a mission means waiting for a phone call and then deciding whether you accept it or not. But you’re never given any information about the mission at all, beyond a vague description of the setting (such as “a graveyard”), which has no bearing on any tactical considerations. You don’t know how hard it’s going to be, how much you’ll earn, or even where on the map it is. So you never know if you want to accept a mission or not. But then that’s made irrelevant by the fact that there’s apparently no downside to accepting a mission and then ignoring it. Chances are good that one of the competing AI-driven teams on the world map will get there first, sometimes even if you make a beeline for it. Because fuel is a consideration, another drain on your finances, there’s little point taking a mission that’s on the other side of the map if there are other teams that are closer, because all you’ll do is waste money on having to refuel.

Miserably, every mechanic in the game seems to be designed to simply drain your money. There’s fuel costs, property damage, but also wages for your team members. You’d think this would all add up to time pressure whilst playing, but really what it does is frustrates you thanks to the complete inability you have to actually plan anything. You don’t know how much fuel a given trip will consume, you don’t know how much it costs to refill the tank, and because you’re spending money on wages every so often, you then need to factor time into each of those things. Refuelling therefore means taking multiple hits on your finances: the cost of refuelling, the value of fuel to get there, and the wages incurred in the time it takes you to get there.

This is significantly worse after a mission, when you’ll earn some cash, but then spend some of it on any property damage (regardless of whether it was caused by a ghost or one of your team), then a trip to the hospital (and all associated costs getting to the one spot on the map where you can heal your team) which is usually expensive. To begin with, you can just about turn a profit, but later on it becomes much harder. And this is not “harder” in the sense of “more challenging”, but in the sense of “why bother”.

Then there are the tactical battles with their single redeeming quality, which is that the maps are quite good-looking for what they are. Every battle is an exercise in tedium, with notifications about team member’s stats going up and down (each member of your team has a bunch of stats, which are not explained anywhere, not even in the PDF manual) seemingly at random, taunts that are incoherent for the most part (“Smoke is in your eyes!”), and again, simply not enough feedback for the player to be able to make informed decisions. Targeting a ghost, for example, would tell me the type of ghost, and how many hitpoints it had left, but not the odds of a successful attack or how much damage it would inflict (dependent on the weapon, but all weapons look the same once equipped). You’re supposed to bring a scanner with you into missions to reveal extra information about the different ghosts, but really this is a waste of an equipment slot, as you need to have both a weapon and a trap equipped at all times.

And so it goes on. The interface in general is a total disaster, with many things coming off as not being properly thought out from a usability perspective. There are far too many clicks to do anything, there are things you should be able to do that you can’t (such as manage inventory on the world map), and everything feels cluttered. The one concession that the developers give you is that you can press shift on the tactical map to hide walls and furniture, and that this was even necessary is one thing, but it’s another that it’s hard to get your bearings even with the shift key held down.

There’s also a complete lack of variety. There’s no sense of progression, other than being able to afford a larger HQ (and a larger squad as a result) and incremental upgrades to equipment. There’s no research or crafting that I encountered, and there’s apparently no interaction with the AI-driven teams, whose sole purpose seems to be to make you automatically fail missions. In short, the game never really changes. Even the variety of ghosts doesn’t seem to matter all that much, beyond the number of hitpoints they have. Missions seem to be populated with ghost types at random, and there’s no acknowledgement of encountering a new entity for the first time.

Oh, and also you can’t save at any time other than when you’re at the HQ, which if you’re playing the game correctly, is almost never.

It’s clear to me that GhostControl lacks a fundamental level of polish. There’s so much wrong with it that could have been resolved with some proper testing, from the stilted translation (which I’m told is to be patched soon) to the lack of player feedback. In all of this, I have come to realise that I have been utterly spoiled by XCOM: Enemy UnknownThe thing is, if you’re going to do a tactical strategy game in 2014 (on any platform), the bar has been set very high by XCOM. Granted, not every game is going to have anywhere approaching the development budget of XCOM, but there are plenty of good mechanics to steal from it, and considerations to be aware of. And it’s not like XCOM itself doesn’t have room for improvement.

GhostControl Inc. seems to me to be a game that’s stuck in the 80s, the GhostBusters films still fresh in people’s minds and with few video games of any complexity to compete with. I daresay that the nostalgia factor will be a big enough draw for some; it’s actually amazing how much credit I feel the game deserves simply for tackling an underrepresented theme and running with it. Playing this made me appreciate just how much I do want a GhostBuster take on XCOM, but this definitely isn’t it.

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