What could well have been an entirely successful departure from the droves of underdeveloped strategy games saturating the market instead feels all too familiar despite its striking aesthetic differences.
Turn-based strategy games traditionally do not offer much in the way of good looks, but Incubation smashes the trend with radiant polygonal graphics - enough to make even the finest 3D shooter jealous. You control a brat pack of space marines led by a seasoned sergeant whom you must lead to victory against overwhelming alien odds. All of these, alien and soldier alike, are cleanly texture-mapped and carefully animated, lending each a lifelike appearance pleasantly uncharacteristic of strategy games. Likewise, the future space colony setting looks bleak and believable, though all the missions start to look a little too similar around halfway through the campaign. Of course, the campaign will be over before you know it, which is not to say you won't run into a number of problems while it lasts. Incubation looks like a real winner at first, but it doesn't fulfill its potential.
Incubation supports 3Dfx accelerators out of the box, but it looks fantastic either way. Better yet, it sounds every bit as good. The perfectly paced soundtrack hearkens a real sense of dread and drama and makes the missions that much more enjoyable, though it begins to lose its charm after a while because of its brevity. Each of your soldiers has a unique personality, and the dozen available weapons (from light combat guns to high-energy lasers) sound distinctively devastating.
Once you're knee-deep in the combat zone, a fully customizable camera lets you examine each turn from a bird's-eye view, from your squaddies' perspective, or anywhere in between simply by panning around with the mouse. This is a pretty feature, but it isn't just eye candy - good camera work is necessary to anticipate potential hazards, as missions aren't limited to a flat playing field. At the same time, moving your troops from place to place is a thankfully convenient matter of clicking on a viable destination marked by how many action points that troop will have remaining once it's there. It is fortunate the interface is so intuitive since the game's documentation is lacking everything but color.
Most weapons at your disposal carry limited ammunition and can overheat rather quickly, forcing you to fire only when you must. Likewise, weapons are carefully balanced such that only with a variety of specialists will your squad succeed. Rapid-fire machine guns and double-barreled assault rifles are great all-around weapons but won't do much good against some of the tougher Scay'Ger. You'll need flamethrowers, minelayers, or even a Multi-Target Destroyer to deal with their likes. Such heftier weapons also sport secondary attack modes whose effects are significantly more powerful at the cost of additional ammunition. Guns aside, your troops will be able to purchase armor, jet packs, medical kits, combat drugs, motion sensors, and more - but they'll need to develop the appropriate skill levels before these can be of any use. Your troops get tougher and faster as they survive encounters, and you'll be able to specialize them as you see fit with the skill points they earn in the field.
The campaign game pits you in command of three to six marines (including the sergeant) over the course of around two dozen missions, none of which takes a very long time. A handful of these are enjoyable and intense, requiring you to split your small squad as a couple of troops make a run for the goal while the rest provide covering fire. Other missions are much more constrained, forcing you to find a predetermined solution rather than carry out a strategy. The campaign is linear in all but a handful of instances where you must arbitrarily choose between two available scenarios. One way or another, you'll witness the campaign's disappointing finale after only twenty hours or so. At that point you can settle for the so-called instant action mode where you must custom-pick your squad and equipment before the fight. Assembling a winning squad is certainly one of the more interesting aspects of Incubation, but doing so is nobody's idea of action and far from instantaneous. You can tackle the handful of instant action missions on your own or use them as battlegrounds for a multiplayer deathmatch.
Combat is all you worry about in Incubation. Sometimes you'll pick up some new gear in between missions, but the game offers nothing in the way of research and development or resource management. While there's nothing inherently wrong with a game that strictly emphasizes tactical combat, Incubation is significantly lacking in this all-important aspect. Your troops just walk; they cannot run, crouch, or crawl. Rarely do they miss their mark, and if they do, only with a scarce few weapons can a bad shot injure one of your fellows. Weapons are utterly useless in an overheated state - attempting to squeeze off one more shot will always result in the weapon jamming or fatally exploding. Some chance of success would encourage you to take the risk when faced with a dire situation. Most weapons also sport an overpowering "defense mode," which allows for unlimited opportunity fire during the enemy's turn. A soldier in defense mode will fire on every target that makes a move within his line of sight during the next turn until his weapon overheats, he runs out of ammunition, or he is killed.
There are fewer than a dozen breeds of Scay'Ger to fight against and only around half of these appear at all frequently. None is particularly bright and all are bluntly predictable, always opting to attack the closest target rather than wisely amassing their superior numbers upon the deadliest threat to their existence. But most inexcusable is the fact that the Scay'Ger, unlike your troops, cannot use opportunity fire during your turn, allowing you to barge around corners or into rooms with no fear of retaliation. Incubation may be turn-based, but that doesn't intrinsically make it any more intellectual than those mouse-busting real-time games it tries so hard not to be.
Incubation looks and sounds outstanding, and it controls well. The small-scale, tactical-level combat demands that every soldier play an important role. But in spite of its many skin-deep strengths, Incubation nonetheless stumbles in those same areas that bog down so many other strategy games: The computer opponent is a pushover, gameplay lacks depth, and the campaign is not satisfying. What could well have been an entirely successful departure from the droves of underdeveloped strategy games saturating the market instead feels all too familiar despite its striking aesthetic differences.