Calibrating My Cyberbrain for Ghost in the Shell: First Assault

Like most anime fans from the 90s, Ghost in the Shell was a special experience for me. Great visuals, solid music, cyberpunk without being a total dystopia, a solid dose of intelligent thought via philosophy, awesome combat, and some people enjoyed the abundance of nudity. Once I learned of the sequel and the series Stand Alone Complex, I began to fanboy immensely and started stalking every bit of news I could.

While my ability to follow the series has faded due to time restrictions, I do love hearing new things going on with the franchise. When I first heard news of Ghost in the Shell: First Assault, I was both optimistic and worried. The first Ghost in the Shell game didn’t really wow me, and the Stand Alone Complex game for the PS2 was intriguing but had many faults (the controls being one of them if I remember correctly), and the less I talk about the PSP port the better…but it’s the idea of being Ghost in the Shell! How could I not want to see it in action?

As of this moment, Ghost in the Shell: First Assault is still in beta, so there is plenty to see changed before the final product is released. I won’t be giving it a rating just yet, but I will tell you what I think of it so far as I play around with it.

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==The Pitch==

Imagine taking control of a member of the squad of Section 9 (minus Aramaki; he makes appearances here and there, though) and being put into various missions in a first person view. You choose to take the role of one of the members from the series (The Major Motoko Kusanagi, Batou, Togusa, Saito, Borma, Ishikawa, and Paz), as well as a new addition (a woman named Maven) and take missions such as Deathmatch, Demolitions, and Terminal Conquest.

Most of the characters. Here I’m highlighting the newest recruit, Maven.

==What You Get==

As it stands, you get the above characters, three gameplay modes, a small number of maps (I have seen three maps), a smattering of weapons, and plenty of things to unlock.

You also get all of the ups and downs of a Freemium game; just enough to catch your interest, but is it enough to hold it and eventually capture your wallet?

The cyborgs won’t build themselves!

==Gameplay==

When you first fire up the game, you will get a chance to see an intro video before being put through a tutorial. The premise is simple: the Major has been given a new body and needs to calibrate it with her cyberbrain.

This is one of the best parts of the game, in my opinion, as you get to try out a little bit of everything without the stresses of taking on everyone around you in a PvP environment.

At first, the game plays like a typical FPS: WASD to move, CTRL to crouch, L-Shift to Sprint, E to interact, R-Click to aim/special attack, etc. This is all well and good until you get to some advanced elements, such as holding CAPS LOCK to sneak (and not make any noise), V to swap weapons (one of the WORST key options in my opinion), and Q to activate your special power (varies from character to character).

Unlike games like Team Fortress 2, the only differences between characters is appearance (which is moot; see “The Bad”) and their special ability. Everyone has the same statistics unless modified by an Implant (a temporary boost that changes the game for you) or some other modifier (gun sights slow down movement speed for some reason). This isn’t entirely good, but it’s not necessarily bad as this means there’s not one “perfect” character.

Each time you enter a stage, you are given a short period of time to run around it in a “digital” format, which only lets you see it in wireframe. While this may seem gimmicky (and it sort of is), it allows you to explore parts of the map to set up your path. It’s one of the good things of the game that not enough games give, as most will leave you in a locked room until the match begins.

==The Good==

I will be the first to admit that the game is graphically beautiful. Whoever worked on the art paid a massive amount of respect to character and weapon details to ensure they were fitting to the source material. I don’t think the characters have looked any better than what we see here.

Seriously, can she look any better?

While playing, I experienced zero lag. Even when hopping into a server that only had 2/3 strength, I didn’t run into a single lag-based issue while playing. This may change when it opens up a bit more and gains more traction (as more players join), but it was great to see zero lag in an FPS.

How my server signal strength was looking during my first login. They’ve been consistently strong since then.

There are a number of ways to customize your characters. As you play, you gain experience points for the weapon you’ve used, which eventually unlocks further attachments for that weapon that you can purchase.

Initial Armory screen to show you unlocking progress. The Shop has more weapons with a similar interface.

Every time you finish a match, you always gain SOMETHING, making matches worthwhile regardless of result. In addition to in-game money to purchase weapon attachments, you gain a random draw (pick one of three blind boxes) that can range from a power up to grant more gold or a power up for your character to make them harder to kill. Granted, the power-ups don’t last too long (my “bullet deflection” power up only lasted into the second game), but it is nice to get something for your work.

Even when I lost, I still got something.

The game also includes an RPG element in the form of gaining XP to level up. As you level up, you unlock further equipment, gain additional licenses for characters (great if you don’t want to spend actual money for them all), and open additional sockets for temporary power-ups. This does keep people coming back to unlock things and to see what combinations they can put together, which is a nice touch for an FPS.

Literally, progress.

There is one gameplay option that my friend and I are raving about, and it really helps with team dynamics. Every character has a special ability, and outside of a few specifics (such as Batou’s Arm Cannon or Togusa’s drones), any nearby character can “link” to the power when it is activated. Need to sneak into an area that is heavily guarded so you can drop a bomb? Once the Major activates her power, quickly mash the E button and get it for yourself, and the two of you (and possibly your entire group) are now camouflaged. Want to cover massive amounts of ground quickly? There’s a power for that. Seeing through walls? Covered.

Added bonus: as you kill opponents, your power gauge fills. Once it is filled enough, you can activate the “Tier One” version of your power, but if you wait it out, you’ll get “Tier Two” which makes the power that much stronger. For example, Togusa’s Tier One is a single drone, but Tier Two gives you an additional drone. It’s a nice risk-reward setup, especially since the bar doesn’t vanish until it is used or until the game ends and you are back in the lobby, meaning you can be raking it in during the defensive portion of demolition only to unleash it once it switches to offensive.

Quick synopsis of the Major’s abilities at character selection.

Finally, I love the touches they added to the characters. When you are selecting your operative(s), you have the ability to see a profile which includes background and special ability, as well as viewing outfits. If you hit the “View More” button under the profile, you get a mini-video of some of the character’s activities, as well as more in-depth information on the character. This won’t rival a wiki, but it’s a nice touch.

==The Bad==

As a First-Person Shooter, the game needs work. Weapon accuracy is total garbage, almost as though it was designed with a random number generator to determine hits whenever you fire. A friend of mine and I were playing it during the Free Play Weekend on Steam, and we had drastically different experiences. He picked Saito with a sniper rifle, would line up a headshot on a practice dummy, and would miss EVERY TIME. I would get a headshot while aiming at someone’s chest with a machine gun, and this is before recoil kicks in. At one point, while waiting for a respawn, I was watching through the eyes of a fellow player. They used their iron sights for better accuracy and let loose on a relatively still target and didn’t connect; every shot went at such a wide angle that it felt like the rifle was in the hands of a stormtrooper. This needs to be fixed, fast.

Even in training mode, accuracy isn’t always the best.

Weapon power also felt a bit off. For example, Togusa’s personal Mateba revolver is supposed to be a pretty tough gun, but the weapon is horribly outclassed by the starting pistol you get due to the differences in rate of fire and even accuracy. That’s. . .not very cool. There are REASONS why we loved the deagle in the first Counter Strike, but there’s no reason to buy a secondary weapon in this game, especially since there are currently no ways to upgrade it.

While we do have weapons like a sniper rifle, there’s not a proper setup to use said weapon. The maps are based on a cyberpunk psuedo-dystopian version of Japan, so you are constantly on the streets for most of the levels (while others have you in a specific complex).

I run into situations like this far too often to change to a long range weapon.

On a programming note, I ran into one odd glitch. I was waiting to respawn and watching through the eyes of an ally and they suddenly glitched through the floor and began to fall through the void only to be magically teleported to where they would have been standing with that forward momentum. This isn’t horrible on it’s own, but it did impact a kill as they now appeared in front of someone they saw coming from around the corner (the floor was transparent as they fell). I’m sure the victim may have thought it was lag or something, but it’s not a fun situation to consider.

I’m just going to lie here and think about what I’ve done wrong. . .

The community for this game is small and relatively close knit. On a Friday night, it took over ten minutes to get a small lobby players together for a “Quick Match.” I was informed by a few people that have been playing this that it feels like there are maybe 100-150 players on each server, meaning you have a small pool to play against. One player even mentioned they see the same players every night they are online. That’s a bit of a downer for a game that solely exists for PvP, even if it is in beta (especially since it’s a $5 minimum to enter the “open beta”). Thankfully, once a match started, new players could join in, and you tended to have a large enough group to automatically start the next match after the stage/game mode votes were cast.

Over ten minutes of waiting and we are finally getting a match in.

Another issue is the story. . .or lack thereof. This is a Ghost in the Shell game with nothing else but the name (and character names). You are working against terrorists and attempting to defeat them, and that’s it. Outside of a few minor things, it’s like you are playing Counter Strike with a cyberpunk feel, which is a sad thing to see with such a wonderful franchise.

This doesn’t exactly scream “Ghost int he Shell” to me.

On that note: you only see the members of Section 9 when your team is around you (see above with the image of the Major running ahead of me). The opponents are technically playing Section 9 characters, but there are skins that override your character (and those costumes you pay real money for) when your opponent sees you. In fact, everyone you are against is a default generic man (and your opponents see you as such), so you can’t even rely on character design to pinpoint who killed you.

THEY ALL LOOK THE SAME!

And again, since you can’t see the characters from the series unless they are on your team, you’re not getting a good Ghost in the Shell vibe. If there was a 3rd person method to see your character (and the costumes you dumped money into), or if the storyline stated that your opponents are all using holographic projectors to look like Section 9 members (so you can show off), that’d be AWESOME. . .but again, the ball was dropped and now we get this FPS.

And even genders are ignored. I was playing the Major herself and still got the same guy I had while playing Togusa. The only thing I get to keep is the custom weapon skin.

The game also falls flat as it is entirely PvP with no PvE out there. While some games do well with this, they tend to have more maps and more things going for them overall instead of a random map associated with one of three gameplay options. I would LOVE to see a PvE element similar to hit game Splatoon; play the main game, unlock specific weapons/skins by doing so, and enjoy the PvP with your new gear. Not sure if it’ll happen, but a guy can dream of playing that again.

If you want me to buy points, then give me worthwhile content to buy!

One the note of lack of PvE: you have a button that allows you to walk silently. Yes, it has uses in PvP if you opponent is listening and paying attention to footsteps, but you can get nearly the same silence by crouching. From my games, most people don’t bother with it, so the stealth button becomes a moot point and nearly useless. If we see some PvE elements that involve sneaking, or some traps triggered by sound (like in a fortification-style game with pre-set or player selected traps), this would be a great touch, but as it stands it feels like it was added for a greater cause and then fell to the wayside.

I’m a bit bitter about this being a Ghost in the Shell game. I was expecting cyber warfare (including brain hacking), espionage, epic gunfights, awesome weapons, and even a tank or three. . .but instead it plays as a generic FPS with one level granting a temporary Tachikoma for your team and bios of the characters. That’s it.

==The Verdict==

All in all, I feel like the game is not living up to the potential of the franchise. Sure, it LOOKS beautiful, but the gameplay just isn’t there. Outside of grinding for the necessary currencies for weapons or gaining the XP to unlock new attachments (which you then need a type currency to purchase), there’s not much here. Even as a freemium game, there’s not really a lot to want to drop money on besides cosmetic changes (which can only be seen by your allies) or by buying the “starter packs” when you buy into the beta (which include some temporary boosts and skins).

“Pay money for cosmetic perks that you can’t earn otherwise” isn’t exactly a way to get money out of me.

Even as an FPS, the game falls a bit flat. Outside of the difference in range (and in the shotgun’s case: raw power close up), the weapons really don’t offer much variety, and the modifications are almost more detriment than boon. With damage not feeling consistent and accuracy seeming to be random, the main elements of a solid, competitive FPS are gone. Even the idea of the characters being different from each other outside of appearance and special would have been nice (like Batou having better recoil control, Saitou having better zoom, Togusa automatically having his revolver, the Major being faster, etc), but instead everyone works the same way outside of one special power (and they all get the same weapon loadout). Even the guy who is an “expert” with a knife doesn’t get a bonus to sneaking around or for killing via melee, which really puts a damper on things for me.

At the moment, I wouldn’t put money toward the game, and if I were to grade it, it would barely be getting 2 buns (and that’s being generous). Beautiful graphics sadly do not make up for shoddy mechanics. If a number of these issues are remedied, and/or we see more to the game (PvE, story mode, or even more maps), I’d consider raising the score and suggesting it, but for now, wait it out unless you are a die-hard Ghost in the Shell fan that loves a beautiful FPS. For now, if I want a PvP FPS fix that won’t cost any money, I’ll stick with Team Fortress.

Ghost in the Shell: First Assault is available on Steam as a pay to opt-in open beta. The packages begin at $4.99 and climb from there (up to $29.99 as to this writing) based on what you want to gain in-game.

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