Heat Signature’s clock is ticking. Ten seconds until I get detected in an enemy spaceship, and I haven’t even assassinated my target. Finally, I find them. It’s over in one cruel slice of my long blade, but the timer is still counting down, and the ship is a labyrinthine hulk. I run. I see a hull or a space window or something—it’s all so frantic—and I leap for it. Puny and impotent, I soar out into the vastness of space. I have seconds to pilot my own spacecraft to catch me before I suffocate. I pull it off, but just barely. It’s only then that I realise I’m out of breath in real life, too.
Heat Signature, a new PC game from the makers of beloved indie stealth game Gunpoint, is a galaxy-sized sandbox in which you fly around in a tiny ship, board procedurally generated, multi-roomed mega-ships, and complete missions that range from rescues to assassinations, leading up to special personal missions that vary from character to character and usually involve rescuing close friends, family, or playable characters who’ve gotten captured. Completing missions allows you to liberate a series of space stations at which you can get more missions, purchase special items to aid in your breaking and entering (followed by more breaking), and meet NPCs. You can’t be a miner or a politician or a professional EVE Online arsehole. You break into ships. That’s your Whole Thing.
It’s a fairly straightforward setup, one that, for my first hour and a half with the game, left me asking, “Is this all?” As I unlocked more gadgets and started taking harder missions, Heat Signature’s slick, streamlined formula grew on me. It’s a game that thrives in moments when missions go awry, when you’re sneaking through the guts of some massive junker only to accidentally draw a bunch of guards’ attention, giving you mere seconds to complete your mission and escape or risk losing your character (and all their precious items, as well as their personal mission progress) permanently. Or at least until you can rescue them by completing another character’s personal mission.
A couple of Heat Signature’s unique elements help make these moments especially memorable. Foremost is your ability to pause the action at any given moment, giving the game’s Hotline-Miami-inspired die-in-the-blink-of-an-eye combat an almost turn-based feeling. If you accidentally bumble your way into, say, four guards at once, you’ve got a fighting chance despite the fact that getting hit even once will likely end your run. The clock may say you’ve got only 20 seconds to slice those guards into space sashimi, assassinate your target, and get out, but as long as you make judicious use of your pause powers, you’ve got all the time in the universe to figure out how you’ll do it.
Pause. Breathe. Consider your options. Perhaps you KO the first guard with a lunging blow from your trusty Big Ol’ Wrench before immediately pausing again. Then, with your wrench on a brief cooldown, you whirl around and line up a shotgun blast on two other guards. Boom. They hit the floor in a heap. Pause again. Finally, you dispatch the last guard by tossing down a mine that, when he trips it, teleports him into the vacuum of space. He tries to shoot you, but you narrowly dodge and then look on, grim satisfaction spreading across your face, as he suffocates in the void. These encounters feel like those scenes in action movies where the hero obliterates a small army of nameless baddies in seconds while barely breaking a sweat. In Heat Signature, you get to orchestrate them.
The act of boarding ships is also really neat, a stealth appetizer that you have to pull off while moving through space at millions of miles per hour. You bring your ship up next to much larger enemy ships, taking care to avoid vision cones lest you get caught red-handed before you’re even aboard the ship. Then you’ve got to meticulously align your ship with a point of entry and quietly dock. Again, you’re doing this while hurtling through space at mind-boggling speeds. I can’t stress that enough. It never stops feeling cool when you pull it off.
Heat Signature also does a great job of playing with scale. At any given moment, no matter what you’re doing, you can scroll the mouse wheel to zoom all the way in on your character/ship, or all the way out to see the entire galaxy. This is useful because it lets you take stock of ships you’re infiltrating and strategise, but it also adds to the effect of moments like being hurled out an airlock. One second, you’re Captain SpacePunch McBadass, and the next, you’re an ant on the universe’s countertop, helplessly absorbed into the enormity of something far greater than you.
Taken together, these elements make for a uniquely to-the-point experience. Occasionally, a mission will go off without a hitch, but if you just take easy/medium difficulty missions in pursuit of risk-free perfection, it quickly becomes boring. Heat Signature is a game about salvaging the moments when shit hits the fan and the “holy shit, I can’t believe I pulled that off” stories that arise from that. You’re always outnumbered and outgunned, but you’re rarely outsmarted.
Heat Signature is available now on Steam.