Unfinished Business is NME’s new column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access Games. This week, Rick Lane breaches the windows of tactical-planning game No Plan B.
No Plan B is a small-scale tactics game all about planning, where you dictate with atomic precision the movements and actions of cute little SWAT teams, FBI agents, gangsters and bank robbers in high-stakes tactical scenarios. You tell them exactly where (and when) to move and aim in the hope of outwitting your AI foe. When your plan is complete, you hit the ‘execute’ button, and watch the outcome of your choices play out. Victory or defeat is secured in a matter of seconds, with your team either sweeping the map of enemies or having their bodies ventilated by bullets.
It’s essentially a cross between Mode 7’s Frozen Synapse series and the planning phases of the early Rainbow Six games. Which puts me in something of a dilemma. I hate the early Rainbow Six games. They’re clunky, confusing, absurdly hard, and simply not much fun. That said, I love Frozen Synapse, which took many of Rainbow Six‘s ideas and spun them out into something more accessible and interesting.
Fortunately, No Plan B leans mostly toward the feel of the latter, although it occasionally exhibits the awkwardness of the former. Each “mission” in No Plan B presents you with a tactical siege situation, where your squad must infiltrate warehouses, offices, and other real-world locations and complete one of several objectives, such as defusing bombs, extracting VIPs, or simply eliminating all the enemies in a level.
As I mentioned, you achieve this by planning out your team’s movements in advance, then resolving the scenario once your plan is complete. This is done in a similar fashion to Frozen Synapse, with you plotting out movement and action instructions for each member of your squad, using a timeline represented at the bottom of the screen to coordinate your team’s orders. If you want two squad members to open different sets of doors at the same time, you need to set that action for each of them at the same point on the timeline.
Having played a fair amount of Frozen Synapse, I understood what No Plan B wanted me to do, but I nonetheless found the game finicky at first. Rather than clicking on the map to set waypoints for your squad members, you instead click and hold the characters themselves to drag them through rooms. I found this method of laying out instruction to be awkward and imprecise, leading to a lot of errors in the plan that I had to rectify. What doesn’t help is that, while clicking and holding lets you drag a character around, simply clicking on them will select them and set the timeline to their current position, which is an easy and frustrating mistake to make. Moreover, unlike Frozen Synapse, which plays out in tiny, 5-second increments, letting you adjust to your opponent’s countermoves, No Plan B requires you to plan the entire encounter in one go, which means you need to think much farther ahead.
Once I was familiar with the control scheme’s idiosyncrasies, however, an entertaining game of forward-thinking puzzling emerged. Squad members will generally win in a straight gunfight, but are vulnerable to being outnumbered and attacked from behind. Hence, you need to ensure that every angle is covered by at least two squad members at any one time, using exterior windows and different points of entry to get the jump on potential foes lurking inside.
This is straightforward enough in smaller levels, but much trickier in larger maps, especially when you add in No Plan B‘s broader strategic elements. Your squad is large, comprising eight individuals, but each time you deploy a squad member, they incur fatigue. This stacks across a campaign, slowing their reaction times and making them more vulnerable to injury, which also persists across a campaign. Consequently, it’s important that you deploy an appropriate number of squad members into a mission, balancing the short-term safety of your squad with their longer-term ability to function.
There’s a lot to like about No Plan B. The deceptively lo-fi visuals keep things clean and simple in the planning phase, but come to life during the execution phase, with smartly implemented lighting and sound-effects lending the right amount of spectacle to its bursts of action. There’s also plenty of game here even at this early stage, with three branching campaigns for every one of its four playable factions. Indeed, the only clues to No Plan B‘s Early Access nature are its perfunctory menus and UI, which do the job they’re supposed to, but are visually incongruous with the rest of the game.
For the price of a takeaway curry, No Plan B offers an impressive chunk of cerebral tactical fun, with a clear, focused premise and strong foundations upon which to build. With a slicker UI and perhaps some refinement to how the game controls, No Plan B could evolve into something quite special.
No Plan B is currently available in Stream in Early Access.