Posted: September 23, 2014
Breach & Clear is an interesting marriage of Frozen Synapse's hybrid turn-based/real-time style of tactics gameplay with XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s customizable class-based soldiers and carefully-constructed mission levels, then given a Counter-Strike terrorists-vs.-special-forces makeover - right down to the almighty flashbang grenade.
Upon first starting up the game, the player will be greeted by a series of screens to set up their first squad. They can choose from a variety of different special forces outfits from around the world, from the American Navy SEALS to the German Kommando Spezialkräfte, among others.
The player can choose the faces, names, and soldier classes for each member of their 4-man squad. Each of the six classes has a unique role to play with their special abilities and passive traits, and having to choose which to bring and which to forego should be carefully considered, as it will significantly affect how you approach different situations from that point on.
Every mission starts by selecting which entry points to place the soldiers at before they storm the room, or otherwise enter the combat area. Enemies inside rooms that have no open doors cannot be seen (conversely, every enemy in an outdoor area can be seen), meaning you will sometimes be storming a building blind. As such, the player has to carefully survey the map layout, note cover near to every door, and account for every angle an enemy might be waiting at before breaching the entrance. Sometimes it might even be favorable to split your team into two groups of two as opposed to keeping all four together.
At the start of each turn, the player will issue orders to all four of their soldiers during a “planning phase” - where to move (and along what path - an option XCOM sorely neglected), what direction to face, what inventory equipment or special abilities to use. When everything is set, all four men will simultaneously execute your orders in real-time during an “action phase”, as will the enemies act. Some of the enemies’ actions are proactive, and some are reactionary - especially in response to any grenades you throw. This is unlike Frozen Synapse, where the enemy soldiers will follow their turn’s orders to a T regardless of what yours do.
This also leads to an important interesting factor introduced in Breach & Clear that XCOM notably fails to consider: noise. Guns are loud, and if you hear a bunch going off in the next room, most militiamen would go check out what’s going on. Every gun you give your soldiers and some modifications you can apply to said guns have a “noise” trait which affects how loud the weapon is. The louder the guns in your squad, the more likely an unseen enemy in another room will come and investigate. This can lead to some real “Oh shi-” panic moments if your men are caught flanked or out of cover when this happens, especially in areas with many closed doors and little cover - such as the living quarters on a cargo ship. To account for this, the player must carefully position their soldiers to cover the squad’s flanks at all times, or trade in some lethality for low-profile, silenced guns.
There is a half cover/full cover system similar to the one in XCOM: different objects in the environment will either provide moderate or significant protection to the soldier behind it, depending on the object’s size. There is one notable difference to XCOM’s implementation, especially on the higher difficulties: barring sniper rifles, soldiers shooting at each other from cover to cover will often have a very hard time actually scoring hits. This forces the player to use all of the tools at their disposal to outmaneuver the enemy and gain flanking shots, rather than simply relying on a boosted aim stat. This really strengthens the tactical depth of an otherwise relatively simple set of mechanics, which is great - it makes the fundamentals easy to grasp, but achieving victory is a very deliberate process that rewards planning and smart execution.
The soldier progression and customization system adds that XCOM-like personal attachment to your men. As the player completes missions, they will unlock items for your men to use. These items range from weapons and attachments to body armor and helmets to cosmetic-only elements like camouflage and sunglasses. Each man can also be kitted out with two inventory items - typically a grenade of some kind or a medkit, or a revival defibrillator if your squad lacks a medic.
Completing missions will also earn each soldier XP. As they level up, they will unlock new class-specific passive bonuses and, eventually, a powerful special ability that can only be used once per mission (for example, a Fireteam Leader can provide a “morale boost” that grants a large stat bonus to the entire squad for one turn).
Leveling up soldiers also allows the player to choose what stats to upgrade on a given soldier, whether it be how fast they can acquire targets, how far they can run in a turn, the effectiveness of their class bonus, etc. This lets the player choose whether they want to make a squad of jacks-of-all-trades, or to specialize their soldiers to excel at certain things at the expense of others. For example, Breachers (the grenade-tossing class that often leads the charge) might find specializing in health and target acquisition useful so that he can more effectively fight as he crosses open ground.
With the variety of mission environments offered by the game’s numerous mini-campaigns, collecting a range of gear - sniper rifles, machine guns, loud and silenced weapons, fast-but-light and slow-but-sturdy body armor, etc. - is important to maintaining a flexible force, especially considering that every level can be played in three different scenarios with varying levels of enemy numbers and emphasis on speed. Overall, the persistent soldier system and surprising amount of content offers a considerable amount of gameplay for such a small title.
Despite all these features, Breach & Clear is not without its flaws. The relative simplicity of the movement system compared to the one in Frozen Synapse - mainly the lack of an option to tell a soldier to wait a couple seconds before moving - can sometimes make synchronizing your soldiers’ actions difficult. This is especially noticeable when attempting to follow a flashbang grenade into a room; it won’t stun your own soldiers, but it will give the enemy a moment to pepper your men with bullets as they enter before the grenade goes off.
Additionally (and this was an enormous gripe that I had with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, too), all the voiceovers are in a standard American English dialect, regardless of which international commando outfit your soldiers belong to. Not only, but the vast majority of weapons in the game are ones used by the United States and Canada, despite the wide international breadth of options for the men themselves. This can likely be attributed to the game originally launching with only American and Canadian task groups, with the others being added only later. Given the size of the team making the game (spoiler alert: it’s pretty small), this is somewhat understandable, but it's still disappointing that I can't arm my Spetsnaz team with the latest Kalash AK-12s and have them bark responses in their native tongue - or at least in a cheesy Russian accent.
These blemishes, however, are relatively minor stumbles on what is, at its core, a very satisfying experience. While the soldier progression system isn't quite as fleshed out as XCOM's, and the unit movement system not quite as intricate as Frozen Synapse's, the two fused together with the game’s own handful of unique features make a very fun and surprisingly deep tactics game that is both easy to pick up and complex to conquer. For only $15, I would consider Breach & Clear worth checking out for any fan of tactics or small-scale strategy.