Review: Heat Signature

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Let’s imagine for a moment that there’s a spaceship hurtling through the cosmos, and you’ve been hired to kidnap someone on it. There’s a lot of ways you can go about that, if you apply a little imagination. You could sneak through the ship, brain them with a wrench, and drag them away. You could also subvert the security turrets to subdue your target and their guards. You could take over the ship and fly it back to your base. You could smash a window near them and catch them with your pod when they get sucked through the breach. Or maybe, just maybe, you could hijack an entirely different ship, ram it into the first one to crack it like an egg, teleport across the breached sections, drag them into space, and auto-pilot yourself a pickup. That’s Heat Signature, and it’s just as much chaos as you’re imagining.

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The story for this one is little more than window dressing for your absurd hijinks, but it does exist thanks to some very, very solid writing. Relations in the local nebula have degraded into open war between the four ruling factions, and a set of freewheeling infiltrators sees this as a chance to liberate this patch of space once and for all. They’ll do this by doing what they do best, boarding ships and emptying them of valuables and life. Completing missions inspires stations in the nebula to join the cause, eating away at the faction territory and opening the path to crushing them for good. That’s ostensibly the goal of the game, to liberate the entire nebula and then enjoy your retirement from the ship-raiding life.

Much like the story though, that goal almost seems a perfunctory addition. The real goal of Heat Signature is to raid ships as entertainingly as possible, to use every tool you have to recover from the worst mistakes imaginable. Your targets are randomly generated vessels of square rooms and corridors and fuel tanks and extremely breakable windows. The port to dock your space pod at is usually as far away from the goal as can be, which tends to be things like assassinating or kidnapping or rescuing people, stealing items or the entire ship, and so on. There may be guards, turrets, locked doors, or other threats in your way, and the meat of the game is puzzling out how to overcome those challenges with what you have on hand.

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What makes Heat Signature so special is your assortment of nigh-godlike powers that can get you through just about any scrape. Ambling around from a top-down view, you can pause the entire game at any time to plan out your next move. You can also teleport items from around the ship straight to your inventory, and these two together mean you can hit someone with wrench, pause, throw the wrench at a second person, pause, teleport the wrench back, and huck it at a third. And that’s just with a basic melee weapon! This game has swords, hammers, guns of quiet and loud, lethal or concussive capabilities, personal teleporters, remote scramblers and hacking tools, and much, much more.

It took me awhile to figure out what the game expected of me, and it happened during a character’s personal mission. I was facing a ship full of shielded, scanning guards with nothing but a sword and a “visitor”, a teleporter that moves you for about two seconds and then returns you. I couldn’t fathom how I was supposed to do it until I realized that guards could be baited into following you out of position. So with the visitor, I could warp across a room right in front of a gaggle of guards, run around a nearby corner before I got recalled, and then enjoy the chaos as they struggle to search the hall they clearly saw me run down, while I stroll across the newly-depopulated room from my original position.

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This is only the slimmest glimpse of the many, many, many options you have when approaching a mission. And if puzzling out those options sounds good to you, then you’ll get a lot of mileage out of this game. The only thing you need to remember is that anything-goes ship boarding is the entirety of the game. You’ll have bigger ships with more complex enemies as you rise through the ranks, but it’s still the same core challenge expanded. Getting the most out of Heat Signature requires you to challenge yourself constantly. Sure, you can grind away at easy and normal missions and eventually liberate everything. But the real fun happens on audacious or mistake missions, where everything is stacked against you and you must become a deadly flickering shadow with blades and teleporters. Or shear the ship in half and take what you need from the wreckage.

On the bright side, you’ll have a wide variety of missions and unlocks to choose from. There are at least six difficulties, along with special contract conditions like no killing or leaving no witnesses. Complications can also range from special guards that shield others or track you, to the target ship being pounded with missiles. Some of the harder missions really call for more advanced equipment unlocked by working through tons of liberations, but even then you have the option of putting them off or getting very, very creative. You’ve also got a variety of characters, as each has their own gear and stash and reputation, and is dead forever when they die. Captured characters can be rescued by your Steam friends, though, and there are some neat little indirect interactions between your game and theirs to find.

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Make-your-own-fun games can be a tough sell sometimes, but Heat Signature makes up the difference with sheer spectacle. The first time you complete a mission without even entering the target ship will feel like a revelation, and the complex moves you can pull off with pauses and teleports are the stuff of legend. The only sticking point is fatiguing on the game if you keep challenging yourself, but you’re still sure to extract plenty of fun from it in the process. It’s one of those rare games that feels comfortable giving you incredible powers, because it knows how to pose challenges for those powers. The result is a puzzling, chaotic romp that takes some getting used to, but is incredibly rewarding if you can hang with it.

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