Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.: seen at E3 2014

By Steve Watts, Jun 11, 2014 9:00pm PDT

Nintendo took the lid off of Code Name: STEAM at a special 3DS event tonight, finally satisfying speculation after a trademark filing. It's a turn-based strategy game with third-person shooter elements. From the look Nintendo provided, it seems clearly targeted at making the path forged by Valkyria Chronicles and XCOM: Enemy Unknown more appealing to those put off by traditional strategy games.

In fact, much of the presentation was members of the senior staff going into great detail about design decisions that seem readily obvious to anyone who has played those two games. Creative director Paul Patraschcu and art director Takako Sakai made a point of explaining the evolution of the strategy concept, and how to make it more inviting.

“Perhaps in strategy games there is too much abstraction between the player and the game world," Patraschcu said. "This creates, in my opinion, a bit of an emotional disconnect.”

The solution, he said, was to put the camera on ground level with the units. You might notice that Valkyria Chronicles had a similar solution, but Patraschcu shrugs off such comparisons. He said that while he thinks VC is a "fantastic game," he also called it a "traditional strategy game that masquerades as a shooter." He says this is because it still relies on a 2D map that the player is able to see before the start of each mission. When his own art director suggested a similar solution, he rejected it because he thought people might become too reliant on the map.

“The intention was to make a strategy game, but we really approached it like a shooter. If we’re making a hybrid, we want to make both sides of that equation work together.”

The assessment may not be entirely fair, but Intelligent Systems has certainly followed through without compromising on the map. Instead, they came up with different solutions to guide players toward their goal. Red pipes in a stage are a visual marker leading towards the goal. And in a move that may seem a little too beginner-friendly, stages are scattered with beacons that give tips.

That certainly isn't the only way it's keeping things approachable and simple. Your squads are limited to only four characters, and there's no perma-death. If a character falls in battle, you can revive them at mid-mission save points with medals earned from your kills. Spending those medals will make it harder to buy more powerful weapons later, however. And if you trudge through a mission without reviving your characters, they'll be fine once the battle is over.

“Before you ask, no you cannot buy medals on the eShop," Patraschcu noted.

That's not to say it's lacking complexity completely. One later stage showcased a lot of verticality, and the game will include an overwatch option. The director even referred to "stacked overwatch," wherein he could assure that a character with a high stun chance gets the overwatch damage first, so that subsequent characters would have a better chance at hitting a stunned enemy extra hard.

And for a game coming from Japan and with such heavy Victorian England influence, American icons are are the forefront. In the story, S.T.E.A.M. itself ("Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace," if you were curious) was founded by Abraham Lincoln, and we see his bearded mug barking orders during missions. The pitch that stuck and inspired the idea was apparently just four words: "steam punk Civil War."

Adding to the comedic effect, the primary character is an overtly patriotic, clean-cut American with a giant golden eagle on his gun and whose special move waves a 19th century flag. That's the product of Sakai, who modeled the art after Silver Age American comics. She names Jack Kirby among her chief influences, along with contemporaries like Mike Mignola.

It's an ambitious project, and Nintendo still has plenty left to reveal. Most intriguing was a seemingly contradictory statement that it will feature multiplayer that is online, but not online multiplayer. For the time being, it's a bold step into a new franchise for Nintendo, with the strategy pedigree to back it up. It's coming in 2015.

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