Ah, Future Tactics … currently a red-headed stepchild of the videogame review world. Saddled with poor cover art and positioned as a budget release, nearly every write-up I've read takes delight in putting it down, many of them aggressively. Not being independently wealthy, I held off on a purchase myself until I saw a demo running. I bought it the same day. After spending time with it and going back to see how my opinion squared with all those negative numbers, I suspect that most of the reviewers gleefully bashing it probably didn't even get a quarter of the way through.
The premise of Future Tactics is that an unearthed artifact has unleashed a race of aliens upon the earth, quickly subjugating it. Highly reminiscent of John Christopher's Tripods books, a ragged band of human rebels roams the countryside searching for a way to overthrow them. The light storytelling is a nice fit, a good mix of straight and comedic elements.
As for the gameplay, throw everything you know about strategy, tactics, and real-time titles out the window. Future Tactics: The Uprising takes a little from each genre and comes up with a blend that's really unlike everything else out there, though it's slightly analogous to a Worms or Hogs of War (the latter having the honor of being the only review I've ever written deemed "too niche" for publication).
The mechanics are quite unorthodox, not what you'd expect from something with the word "tactics" in the title. Each character (out of nine total) is controlled one at a time, free to move anywhere they want and fire as often as they're able in a quasi real-time fashion. For example, a powered-up character can easily jump to a high vantage point, fire, move to a different location, fire again, and then take cover behind a structure all in one turn.
Besides the action-style movement, something else unusual about Future Tactics is that line-of-sight is vitally important, and it's implemented persistently. This means is that if you're spotted moving around during your turn, the enemy will keep that knowledge and act on it when it's their turn. Being aware and taking advantage of cover is also key. In this respect, the game is, again quite apart from traditionally-structured strats since you have to think on a shooting game's terms. Ensuring that you're always hidden away safely is a must because the aliens are crack shots, easily able to put characters down from great distances.
This new way of thinking about tactics has more in common with a first person shooter than it does with other games in the strategic genre, but I have to say that the approach was very fresh and interesting, both big pluses in my book.
Not content to rest there, Future Tactics also breaks from the norm with attacking. Rather than making a choice on a menu and watching the result, there are two active methods to deal damage. The first brings up a crosshair that must be aimed manually (like a sniper rifle) and the second shows an overhead view of the map. Using this birds'-eye view, a ballistic attack is guided through a radar-like interface. I liked this addition since it kept me on my toes, but decent reflexes are needed for accurate shots. People accustomed to the usual slow, menu-based approach may run into problems.
To be honest, Future Tactics is so extremely unconventional that my initial reactions echoed the sentiments of the dismissive reviews I read. I felt outrage at respawning enemies, and frustration at losing an entire battle if even one character died. The Artificial Intelligence seemed ridiculously lethal at times, and I wasn't sure when (if ever) the enjoyment would start coming in. But, after sticking with it and clearing the fourth (of nineteen) missions, the game started addressing all those issues through the storyline, one by one. After getting over this hump, the game only got better with each stage.
For example, an "immortality" device is stolen from the aliens at one point, after which the enemy ceases to respawn and you're no longer forced to restart if a teammate gets taken out. That plot twist took care of my two biggest complaints in one fell swoop, showing awareness of abstract game contrivances and adding a logical explanation of why they were in the game before removing them.
Future Tactics also has a variety of mission objectives which kept my interest high. Of course there were "kill all enemy" missions, but they were in the minority. Also included were a number of levels with a certain person or structure to protect, and sometimes the only goal was to reach a specific location. This sort of changeup in the S.O.P. was much appreciated, giving a fresh, fast-paced feel.
After seeing the credits roll, I had a new respect for the difficulty curve and how it complemented the storyline. It's like the developers were emphasizing the feeling of being the weak underdog at the beginning, and then slowly built your team up bit by bit, echoing through gameplay the progress made in the plot. Quite ingenious on a meta-level really, and something many other games fail to implement. I enjoyed Future Tactics: The Uprising, but despite thinking it was lowballed across the board, it's not flawless.
A big gripe cited by nearly all the reviews is the time you're forced to wait while the enemy moves their soldiers. This is one area where I agree, though it's not even close to being a gamebreaker. It's possible to fast-forward (literally) through the cutscenes, and it would have been nice to do so for enemy movements. The camera also needs a bit of work, too. Though it's generally serviceable, I couldn't ever seem to get it to do exactly what I wanted it to. Sometimes using the overhead "lookaround" feature worked, and other times I'd have to go into a first-person viewpoint to scout ahead. Occasionally I couldn't see where I was trying to look no matter what view I used. A few more tech tweaks with the camera would have been nice. That's really about it, though.
Future Tactics: The Uprising was a breath of fresh air for me, breaking away from genre conventions and striking out in interesting directions. It's not a multi-million dollar blockbuster and it may not have a marquee franchise name behind it, but there's no denying that the game succeeds more than it fails. The fact that a brand-new copy costs just twenty dollars is icing on the cake.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Gamecube version of the game.