There’s something perfect about the eco-terrorist baddies of Mark Thomas and Pete Ruth’s SEAL Team Flix. Maybe it’s because they’re a throwback to Rainbow Six, a reminder of the tactical shooter’s spy thriller roots. Or maybe it’s because they’re threatening and preposterous in equal measure, a tightrope act between deadly serious and clowning silliness. Much like SEAL Team Flix itself, come to think of it.
Either way, ring the wedding bells and fetch the preacher, because I’m in love.
The beauty of SEAL Team Flix is found in how masterfully it straddles that line. There have been tactical shooter games, and hall-crawler games without number, and dexterity games aplenty. But a game that smashes them together? And more than that, slides the pieces into arrangement as though they always belonged within this particular mosaic of concepts and systems and, dare I say it, setting? That’s a rare thing.
Let me clarify what I’m talking about.
As a unit of elite SEALs — no option for running the baddies, this is strictly a cooperative affair — it’s up to you to plunge into hostile territory in order to disarm bioweapons, rescue hostages, take out high-value targets, and whatever else the higher-ups need done, generally in violation of law both international and domestic. And for the most part, there’s a deliberateness to the process. You’ll suit up with weapons and equipment. You’ll creep into the office park / airport / apartment building, careful not to make too much noise lest you alert your prey. Or worse, alert your prey’s buddies in the warehouse next door. Cover the corners, snake-cam the doors, keep in tight formation.
Then, when the shit hits the fan, whether conducting a take-down or scrambling to react to an unexpected patrol, this is how you do:
Okay, that’s an easy one. Here’s a shot that requires a scooch more skill:
These two halves might seem at odds. The part where you’re moving your soldiers is fully tactical. It’s about ducking between cover, selecting your engagements, and avoiding terrorist reaction fire. Before you ask, no, the terrorists don’t flick back. They roll dice based on whichever dummy found themselves stumbling around within line-of-sight.
The second half, though, is what all that tactical stuff lives for. Pick a target, slap some noise tokens into your current zone, and flick discs of varying calibers across the map. Not that this isn’t tactical in its own right. Different guns generate different levels of noise, for one thing. For another, certain weapons will let you flick larger discs, which the laws of physics have bestowed with greater stability. Each shot plays out as a decision of its own. Can you take out that sentry with a pistol shot, or will it take a burst from your submachine gun? If an enemy is lurking behind cover, neither will do a thing unless you can score a tricky ricochet kill. Instead, break out the heavy hardware: battle rifles for crumbling cover, sniper rifles for long-range headshots, shotguns for busting through closed doors. Special emphasis on the shotguns for letting you stack all your discs in a pillar before you flick them. Just be careful not to take out a nearby hostage or trigger a bioweapon in the process.
And that’s just the decision tree before you start deploying equipment.
Each mission opens with some of the game’s toughest decisions. Courtesy of spotty satellite intel, you can see a few things. Tangos in the hallways, some probable locations where they might have stashed their evidence, stuff like that. But whether you’ll round a corner to discover a hostage or a stray tango is anybody’s guess.
That’s where equipment comes in. Snake-cams for checking under doors, breaching charges for rendering doors obsolete, silencers and flashbangs and body armor… everything has a purpose, but not everything is equally useful in every mission. Fortunately, SEAL Team Flix is as wary of information overload as a veteran CIA analyst. Rather than dumping every decision onto your head right from the start, these tools are slowly doled out as your operators unlock new ranks. The more missions you wrap up, the more technical the stuff you’ll be able to haul into the line of fire. At first it’s grenades and medkits. Simple kit. By the time the campaign is done, you’ll be rocking stealth suits and homing bullets and dart pistols.
Good thing, too, because the opposition can be brutal. Getting caught in the open when a pair of homicidal tree-huggers moseys into view may well be lethal, their bullets punching through your body armor and actual body distressingly quickly. It pays to be alert at all times, focusing on both the enemies on the map and the ones that might show up as reinforcements because you made too much noise.
The terrorists are broken into two camps. Sentries huddle in cover at the slightest noise. Worse, they stay there, planting their feet with guns at the ready. Incidentally, this makes them smarter than most video game sentries, who forget the difference between a gunshot and a scurrying rat after about twenty seconds. Patrols, meanwhile, are the hapless goofs who’ll gleefully blunder straight in the direction of the latest and loudest noise. This makes it possible to mount distractions, luring them into kill-zones or away from your main SEALs, but take care that you don’t dismiss their idiotic routines too completely. A single forgotten set of reinforcements might be enough to tank your mission.
In fact, one of the game’s significant downsides is the difficulty of managing its baddies — though rather than their stoutness, I’m talking about the fiddliness of their activation. At any given time, sentries and patrols will be shrinking into cover, patrolling, seeking out your position, attacking, and/or moving onto the map. These steps are crucial, but dense enough that it’s easy to forget one or two. When the entire challenge relies on having them act properly, it’s best to go in aware that this is far more rules-heavy than your average dexterity game.
Heavier, yes, but also totally engrossing. And it all returns back to those discs.
One of my complaints with dungeon crawlers has always been their over-reliance on dice rolls as your only means of interacting with their game worlds. And I’m saying this as someone who loves the calculation of odds integral to dice games. Here, rolls only come into play as the result of missteps or cold hard risk-reward calculations. Three terrorists are shooting at your guy — and therefore rolling three dice — but only because you lingered in the open, or because you elected to charge into fire, or because you forgot to evaluate the possibility of reinforcements after you chucked a grenade. Dice will be rolled, but it’s your fault whenever they are.
Most of the time, however, dice don’t even enter into the equation. Your shots are your shots, landed or missed, based on the strength of your finger and the keenness of your eye. A tricky shot is a literal tricky shot, not a -2 modifier on a d6. The positioning of your troopers matters because you want to keep them out of sight, and therefore away from dangerous reaction dice. But it also matters because it lets you get an eye on the same terrorists you’re so studiously avoiding. Victory vs. Survival — that’s fantastic tension between two needs. And when you disarm a bomb, or re-wire a locked door’s keypad, or risk a long-range sniper shot, out come the side-boards, little puzzles that demand precision or speed.
This emphasis on dexterity even allows for actions that wouldn’t be possible in any other tactical game. Once I threw a grenade out of my room and down a long hallway, where the disc then flipped onto its side and rolled in a circle until it came to rest against two enemies in cover. Bang. Just like that, a miss was transformed into something greater; it was a miss ordained by the universe to prove that good will always triumph over evil. At least until that same SEAL needed to snipe a tango between two allied buddies and shot both of them instead. Operators down. Thanks a bunch, universe.
There I go again, blaming someone else for my bad flicks. Maybe I should go back to dice-based dungeon crawlers after all.
SEAL Team Flix is a rare beast, a chimera of genres that manages to be both tactical and tactile, both serious and silly, rewarding of both planning and snap shots. Within the same table session — the same mission, even — it’s had me laughing over a missed shot and bellyaching about our crew’s lack of preparation. It’s occasionally fiddly, and yes it took forever to punch out its six maps and mount all those walls. But it’s also the slickest tactical shooter corridor-crawling dexterity game I’ve ever played. And that isn’t a veiled insult just because it’s the only one.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. Like a team of SEALS closing in on a cell of eco-warriors, we’re closing in on our next funding goal.)