In Tom Francis’ thoughtful action games, time is a commodity. Every second of Gunpoint felt important, and Heat Signature is no different. Every attack is followed by a pause, every mission punctuated by careful consideration of your moves. It’s like a game of real-time chess, where one wrong move can spell chaos for the other pieces.
On a fundamental level, Heat Signature isn’t too far removed from something like Hotline Miami; it’s a fast-paced shoot-em-up where a single shot ends your run and knowing your enemy is king. Guards have armour on the next ship? Take explosives. Sentry guns on every corridor? Subverter grenades are your friend.
Each mission brings its own unique modifiers that stave off repetitious contract targets. These modifiers will dictate what equipment you should take, how many guards there are, what those guards are carrying and how fortified their ship is. There aren’t enough to eliminate repeat scenarios, but by the time you’re capturing a target without shedding blood for a second time, you probably won’t remember the first.
Gameplay is tight and responsive, with a focus on experimentation like Hitman and Dishonored. However, the muddled visual style often complicates the experience, making it difficult to distinguish between enemy and environment.
The game takes place in the vast expanses of space, and it uses that setting to contextualise everything you do. Missions are initiated by you physically flying to a location and docking with an enemy ship mid-flight, dodging searchlights and weapons as you go. Unfortunately, the flight controls err on the side of being too floaty, often leaving me circling a ship a few times before a successful docking.
It’s an ever-present entity acting as both a threat and a tool—spend too long in the vacuum and your character will die, but the same goes for your enemies. Popping a window can be used to quickly escape a ship, extract a rescue target in an instant or clear a room full of hostiles. It leads to some interesting emergent gameplay on the higher-tier missions.
The AI is, disappointingly, rather easy to trick. Once alerted, they’ll blindly follow you, stopping only to shoot. This leads to situations where an entire ship’s crew will chase you into a room, only to be blown into space by their own stray gunfire. It’s hilarious, but not especially engaging.
The overall goal of Heat Signature on the meta-level above the missions is wresting control of the galaxy from the various factions that control it. Each sector is owned by a different group, with their own ships and guard loadouts, and these factions and the missions they influence tie into the characters in some cool ways.
Start up the game and you’ll be asked to pick one of four mercenaries each with their own procedural backstories and a personal mission to chase. Lose one, and the person to take their place may want to rescue or avenge them, a system that scratches the same itch as Shadow of War’s nemeses.
I found myself growing attached to the characters and their ridiculous names. Their personal stories became my own, and every mission was a potential breaking point. One of my first characters liberated half the galaxy before being captured; her successor failed to save her, losing his own life after being ejected from an enemy ship. And so it goes, on and on and on until you hit the sweet spot with a particularly great hero.
Eventually, though, it became a grind. I stopped caring about my characters and the universe around them because the personal missions are just too damn hard. Losing someone meant another cyclical ladder-climb through the equipment hierarchy, until I felt ready enough to throw them back into the meatgrinder—only to lose them and start the ladder again. It’s a disappointing feeling to come away with, but by that point I’d probably gotten my money’s worth anyway.
Technically, Heat Signature is simply good enough. It looks a little too close to a flash game for my tastes, and very obviously pushes the limits of the GameMaker engine. However, it mostly manages to keep pace with the frenetic gameplay and large enemy ships. Slowdowns do occur and are annoying, but they’re far from frequent enough to spoil the experience.