While most strategy titles ask for Mensa levels of thinking and concentration, I tend to get the most enjoyment out of the simpler games in the genre like Cannon Fodder. Special Forces (1992, Sleepless Knights) looks like it could have been one of these simpler titles, but to actually play it is anything but.
Ultimately, this game should play like Cannon Fodder. You control a troop of soldiers who enter a variety of locations to complete missions that usually require killing everyone. The additions such as multiple weaponry and a team where each member has different specialities shouldn't be too hard to add in. So why is this game so complicated to control?
It took me ages before I understood how to play it, and I'm not even sure I totally get it. But before we get into that headache, let's talk about the good stuff: the menu before you enter the actual game. There are some interesting mechanics teased here. To start with you can choose your difficulty level from a selection of four. The fact that it goes beyond health bars and damage points to include enemy intelligence and their availability to weapons among other attributes is commendable. It doesn't change the controls though...
What merits as difficulty commendably differs from the norm (left)
while the four levels in each distinct land can be played in any order (right)
After that, you're treated to three screens that will set up your troop and their destination. All 16 levels are open to you outright, but it's best to play them in order to get an idea of the plot. Once a mission has been completed, you cannot re-play them, but if a member goes MIA during battle, you can go back and attempt a rescue mission. It's a neat idea that gives you some responsibility over the otherwise characterless soldiers. I never wanted to go back to the battlefield anyway for fear of wrestling with the controls again...
There are eight soldiers in total. Each has a speciality, such as the explosive expert or camoflage guru, but I've not seen them play any differently in-game. The only stat that matters is weight load which determines how many weapons they can hold. They each carry a backpack with six pouches allowing for up to six weapons, but you can leave some empty if you want multiples of the same weapons. If you can't be bothered with that, there are three default configurations that may or may not burden him to capacity. For some characters, the lowest weighted option is the only one. The more weapons you have access to will only make the controls more complex...
Choosing your team (left) is important in deciding what weapons you can carry (right)
Once you've done all of this it's time to ship out and the trouble truly begins. With a game that looks like it could play the same as Cannon Fodder, it's surprising that you do not control the action with the mouse. At first, you may believe you cannot control anything at all. The arrow keys don't move anyone, nor does any of the other staples in retro controls. It took me forever to realise you need to select your soldier first (and even longer to realise I had a reference card). To do that you need to press their corresponding F-key. But even now you can't control him, he's just been selected. You have to press that same F-key a second time to bring up a reticle a few feet in front of him. Now you can move.
But moving is not that simple either. The camera-relative movements are hindered as the crosshair slowly rotates around you. While this may allow for shooting in more directions than the usual eight, it also makes you incredibly vulnerable in a gun fight. It's hard to aim, impossible to effectively dodge incoming fire and it's tediously slow to get anywhere to boot. Perhaps a character-relative control scheme would've been better.
The DOS version (left) plays smoother but the Amiga version (right) looks nicer
This is also one of those games where the whole gamut of the keyboard is used for a number of actions. From selecting a formation so you can move as one, selecting weapons to calling a helicopter that will 'rescue' you (on the easily pressed Enter key no less), there are over 40 keys used to play. Keep your Quick Reference Card handy folks.
Beyond the controls, the levels themselves look nice both on Amiga and DOS, though the Amiga gets the edge by having a snazzy intro and a wider colour palette. It suffers for it in speed, though. Their design also keeps things interesting by offering up a variety of terrain and landmarks. Some enemy encounters would be quite memorable too if it didn't screw up the one thing a game shouldn't ever do. The controls just let down all of the good work put in.
In retrospect, I'd probably put faults down to age. The influential Cannon Fodder was a year away and the number of keys used in the game was not unusual for the time. The problem is that it's trying to be in between the super complex stat-heavy strategy titles and the super simple ones.
There are some nice ideas in there, with odd flashes of good game design but I don't think the developers knew how to implement them well. As a result, Special Forces has aged far worse than it could or should have. If you can look past all that age it, I'm sure you - like the reviewers at the time - will enjoy it greatly. For me, I'll stick with Cannon Fodder.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox to bring the PC version to modern systems and FS-UAE to emulate the Amiga version. Manual, Quick Reference Card and Tech Notes included for both systems. Tested on Windows 10.
File Size: 80 Mb. Install Size: 159 Mb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
Special Forces is © Sleepless Knights, MicroProse
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me