Heat Signature, the Bounty-Hunters-In-Space follow-up to Suspicious Developments' Cyborg-Jumpy-Spy-er Gunpoint, is about making a bet on yourself and seeing whether it pays off. How good are you, despite the obstacles? Against the odds? With the limited tools at your disposal? Heat Signature is about Just Going For It, hoping you'll succeed and earn a story to dine out on for years.
Developer Tom Francis, in a video playing through just one of the infinite procedurally- generated missions, describes success here as "kind of about finding cheats, almost exploits." I remember once playing Demon's Souls and shooting a massive spider with a bow an arrow over-and-over just outside of its counterattack range. I don't look back on that memory fondly. I think I disagree with Tom. Heat Signature doesn't feel like cheating; it feels like being creative.
Any new playable character is outfitted with two items of uncertain quality or adequacy. Every mission has varied objectives, stakes and failure conditions. Each success is leading toward one final goal, and the rewards will help accrue more tools for successive tougher challenges. Hopefully every single item which presents itself will be unequivocally good and always useful.
This is not guaranteed.
As long as the mission objectives are abided by, exactly how it gets done is completely free-form. To help show this off I set myself a small challenge: One of the achievements is called "Outside The Box," in order to obtain it you must "Complete an Assassinate mission without entering the ship." I want to have done this. I want my name in lights. I want to go down in the history of this galaxy as the lad who made it happen. This is my Kessel Run.
I have a few ideas on how to do it: I could take any assassinate mission and just hope the target's ship sails into dangerous territory, where they'd be barraged with missiles. It might take all week, so I'll call this the "Metal Gear Solid 3 method." Instead I could try and somehow get sucked out into the vacuum of space, hope the prey is standing near a window, then shoot them with a shotgun, but there's no guarantee they'd be in the right place at the right time. I decided on another option:
First we need a mark. The first available target on the board is "Rigel Lacayo". They're never going to know me, but they're going to make me famous.
They're in a small ship Space East from my current position. I cannot stress enough. Doing this mission with these limitations is unnecessarily complicated in comparison to just… having a wander and doing 'em in . I could fly over, enter the ship and shoot everyone on the way. There's nothing stopping me from doing that. Not even the armed guards that are supposed to stop me from doing that. I am so good at this video game (which has been carefully designed to make me feel so good at this video game).
After a zoom through the black I am outside the target ship, just to scout it out and get my bearings. That little green arrow is pointing to exactly where Rigel is standing. The route to them would be easy enough, I'd enter in through the port indicated by the white arrow and follow a simple path. Since I can't do that, I have a scout around space. I'm looking for an entirely different ship, any will do, just something larger than my docking-vessel.
I find a small and scarcely inhabited brick of a spacecraft. I'm going to attempt to hijack it, but that's impossible until all of the guards are incapacitated. This ship isn't particularly well-guarded because it's not transporting anything of exquisite value. After only a couple seconds of Cool Cool Murder I'm in the Captain's chair and charting a course back to Rigel.
It's hard to control these ships. They're stiffer compared to the precise and zippy transport pod I showed up in. Changing direction means stopping completely, otherwise the ship is just going to cruise around in an arc. Also, the button which speeds-up game-time is mapped to the same key as "Set course for nearest friendly station", meaning I can't do it. So this takes ages.
Just because I can do this doesn't mean I was ever really supposed to.
I line up the two ships with some effort and I blow open a few rooms with missiles. I only discovered this was possible on-accident, without the game ever spelling it out. Rigel is ejected and launched out into space. A few seconds later they run out of air and continue to drift further into the uncaring void, probably forever. When I return to base I'm awarded my fee and a shiny digital token of my effort.
This free-form, pick-your-own-method design of games is my favorite. I love this feeling, knowing anything which happens has been largely authored by my action and decisions rather than rote adherence to step-by-step instructions. Often my first reaction to a few hours with new games is to wonder if the creators have picked the correct medium, whether any interactivity is actually necessary if it's barely different from the same anyone else might provide, straying hardly far away from what had been intended or optimal.
I love feeling like, rather than do a job, I've just put on a performance. I have this feeling playing Heat Signature that I am playing in my Style. Like I am solving problems the way only I could. Heat Signature makes me feel like my actions matter. Heat Signature makes me feel like I'd make a really good Space Bounty Hunter.