Review: Raven Squad

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Simply advancing to the next generation of hardware doesn’t necessarily mean that everything else will improve alongside it. Terrible movies made with megabucks still get out to theaters, anyone without two notes to rub together can still market themselves on MySpace in the hopes of landing a contract, and awful games occasionally land on shelves before the eyes of an unsuspecting audience.

Raven Squad’s ideas sound good on the back of its box in blending both FPS and RTS elements together to create what could be a solid take on mercenary-led firepower in a hot zone. After all, that’s one of the things that made Rainbow Six such fun on the PC for many would-be commanders. Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter would also get into the act with its Cross Com tactical overview and squad command system which made anyone feel like an operator sitting somewhere deep within Langley before switching into the head of one of their own in the field.

With that kind of history already out there, Raven Squad seemed like it would be built atop the shoulders of giants. The bad news is that Raven Squad would manage to break that formula on every level.

Raven Squad’s horrendous voice acting comes across as something that you don’t ever expect to see on the Xbox 360, but reminds us all that such things are still possible. The monotone script-reading that the first character you control, Paladin, never deviates from, along with the embarrassing mispronunciation of simple words, make the awful examples of early CD-ROM based gaming during the nineties seem like Oscar worthy performances. One character, Xian, can’t decide which nationality she is supposed to be and her accent can only be described as potentially offensive to more than one ethnic group.

It’s telling that there are no voice over credits listed…either because the talent they hired aren’t part of any guild, their association does not make it a requirement, or the more likely case in that they were members of the team (or friends and family) who thought it would be a cakewalk. If the latter is true, there’s a reason that professionals get paid. Turning off the voices has the effect of rendering its cut scenes into silent movies, so if I wanted to at least hear what was going on, I had no choice but to hear everything.

Taking the role of the most boring man on the planet, Paladin, I eventually find out that he’s a part of a mercenary group that is hired to go in and do the kind of dirty work that soldiers-of-fortune get to do for a big payday. Predictably enough, in a recent mission into Brazil’s Amazon basin, things go south when a local warlord decides to stir up trouble with a rebellion. Instead of getting paid, Paladin and his crew now find themselves simply trying to survive with the help of an unexpected ally.

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The story wanders aimlessly through the game without anything memorable going on other than in providing some explanation for why anything happens. You have teammates, but they might as well be icons since they all have the personality of rocks, most of it due to the macho cheese dialogue that loses its testosterone as soon as someone starts to talk. There are also massive, unexplained, gaping holes for certain things such as why someone would build a satellite control facility in the middle of nowhere and not be affiliated with Cobra Commander.

Unfortunately, the action isn’t any better. The player can control two teams of three men each, each man having a special “skill” that can be used in lieu of their main weapon. For example, Oso can lob grenades at foes while Thor has a missile launcher for more obstinate targets, these requiring additional ammo to work while their main weapons have an infinite supply to draw from. The odd thing about this supposedly crack mercenary unit is the fact that the player has no voice in picking what kind of gear they should carry so for whatever reason, Paladin will always carry his modified AK-47 wherever he goes making you wonder just what he does with his paychecks.

In another odd twist, none of your enemies will even drop anything that you can pick up. No new guns, additional ammo, or even grenades. Because Oso’s specialty is in tossing grenades, that makes him the only one capable of throwing these things? What kind of second-rate mercenaries are these guys?

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At least the FPS controls work as they should, although none of the sound effects are particularly good and I had to bury my face in my hands when I watched Thor take a rocket and reload his launcher. His animated hand missed the back of his own launcher so the rocket looks like it was loaded off center, sliding along outside the barrel in mid-air before disappearing. No one saw this in testing? And if they did, no one thought to fix it?

Enemies wearing little more than shirts can also soak up buckets of bullets making every firefight feel drawn out and repetitive, leaving you to hope that there’s a headshot somewhere in that spray of lead and there’s plenty of these guys to go around ensuring that you’ll be bored before long. Most of the special effects don’t have enough explosive oomph to be more exciting than in watching a chimney belch smoke and the visuals look as if they had come from the first Xbox, robotic face masks and all. By the time the game had ended five or six hours later, I found myself hating the jungle as much as I hated sewers in any other FPS.

The RTS elements are just as broken. An overhead map gives you a satellite view of the area and allows a little cheating by spotting where the enemy is. You can also order your teams to take up position and fire on targets or use their “skills” to execute their objectives, such as asking your British buddies in the other squad to flashbang an enemy patrol…not that it seems to do any good. Unfortunately, playing the game this way is just as boring as the repetitive FPS mode. Getting enemies caught in a crossfire between two groups injects a little excitement into the game, but that doesn’t happen often enough to make it feel like you’re playing an FPS by remote control.

But the most aggravating thing about the game is that your team is completely helpless forcing you to play the ultimate nanny-for-hire. This is largely due to the awful AI that keeps your own supposedly seasoned team members from taking cover. They’ll stand out in the open and refuse to do something as basic such as crouch behind cover, often going down as a result and forcing you to come over and stand over them for a few seconds with a nanotech injector to resuscitate them. None of them think of going over to help their own teammates leaving you the only one with the brains unless you transfer those brains by switching over to someone else.

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The misery doesn’t end there. Wander too far from the wounded and the game starts to warn you with a countdown before killing them unless you get back to where they had gone down. Forget about maneuvering around to get a better shot at the bad guys that might still be there, or in saving yourself in order to be around to save your idiot teammates. At least the IQ door swings both ways as the enemy often likes to attack by coming up a road right at a belching machine gun. Speaking of guns, did I forget to mention that most of the foliage in the game is bulletproof? If an enemy hides behind a leafy frond or bush, they’re as safe as if they were hiding behind armor plate.

If you’re thinking of co-op’ing through this game or trying out any of the multiplayer functions at all, forget it. There was no one out there playing this when I checked making me feel like the only sucker to force themselves through it. At least I have quite a few Achievements to show for it, but even that feels like a Pyrrhic victory.

If any of the console makers had ever thought that reviving something like Nintendo’s Seal of Approval from the NES days would be a good idea, all they need to do to convince themselves of that argument is to play Raven Squad. The only tactical decision that anyone will need to make with this game is to retreat as far as they can and classify their knowledge of its existence.

Raven Squad: Operation Hidden Dagger
SouthPeak Interactive / Atomic Motion / Evolved Games
PC, Xbox 360
Rated T for Teen