Spinning through the vacuum of space in a recently extricated urinal block isn’t a situation we planned for today. It’s the stuff of Douglas Adams-fuelled nightmares and came about as a result of being a little too bold at the helm of what was, until recently, a considerably larger vessel. Luckily, our personal pod can be remotely controlled, so after leaping clear of the space lav, we’re soon back in an oxygenated environment.
Tom Francis’s Heat Signature is about disruption. On a galactic scale, your main concern is disrupting trade routes and helping or hindering the various factions in their occupation of space. On a more intimate level, you’ll be boarding ships, hacking their systems, and scrambling the contents of skulls with a wrench, or the guns that you scavenge.
Despite the distances involved (space is big) and the game’s stealth leanings, play is pacy and spiked with adrenaline. Moving through the procedurally generated corridors of a ship feels like a cerebral spin on Hotline Miami: enemies are much easier to deal with if you get the jump on them, and extremely dangerous if you don’t. A single wallop or bullet is all that’s needed to fell them or you, but you won’t die straight away if you’re the losing party – enemies instead walk you to an airlock and unceremoniously toss you into the darkness, leaving you with 30 seconds to pilot your pod to your position or asphyxiate.
Out in space, things are just as zippy, with your pod hurtling at a lick and an autopilot system enabling lightyears to pass by in moments. “You can go faster when you autopilot because of fictional reasons,” says Francis. “The real reason is I cap your speed with normal flight, otherwise people just keep thrusting in one direction forever and they
don’t realise when you want to stop you now have 15 minutes of [thrusting] in the other direction to slow down. Autopilot judges that and starts stopping in time.”
Each point on the sprawling, procedurally generated galaxy map is a space station that can be visited. In the game’s current build, there’s only a mission computer at each of them, though Francis intends to add shops and other distractions eventually. But the computer is your main destination, doling out jobs such as pilfering items or entire ships, as well as VIPs marked for assassination.
Your target will most likely be making its way along a trade route between stations, and once you’ve caught up with it you’ll have to stay cool enough to sneak past its sensors to get on board. It’s a simple setup, with your ship gradually heating up when the engines are fired, but one that has caused no small amount of frustration.
“It’s been a nightmare getting people to understand that,” Francis tells us. “We’ve yet to come up with a heat system that people intuitively grasp. Everyone thinks it’s to do with speed – like the faster you’re going, the hotter you get. But that’s not it, it’s thrust. So you could be going maximum speed and be totally cold. But no one seems to get that.”
The solution, Francis hopes, is to add in a meter that shows your pod’s temperature increasing in realtime relative to the threshold at which a ship’s sensors can detect you. “I’m fine with [changing things] for the first few iterations, and then you get to a point where it’s like, ‘I’ve just sunk so much time into redesigning that one system and I don’t even care about it that much.’ If I’d known it was going to take that long, I would’ve just scrapped heat completely… I mean, it’s in the title, but as I found out with Gunpoint, you don’t necessarily have to make the game super-relevant to the title!”
Getting past the defensive systems of often heavily armed target ships doesn’t pose much of a challenge yet, a thin membrane between the intimate onboard sneaking and grandiose political machinations of increasing factions’ territorial control. Destroy a ship on a trade route and that path will be shut down by the authorities. Cut off all supply routes to a station and it will trigger an emergency evacuation, which allows you to take on a mission to seize control of the orbital, the process requiring you to scupper a ship left behind to defend its shell while the faction with the title deeds regroups. Succeed and a new trade route will be opened that connects your prize to your employer’s network.
There’s currently no real reward for doing so and, while the core mechanics are in place, there’s little in the way of goals to focus your efforts. Francis has grand plans for character story arcs, persistent perks and complex subterfuge in the finished game, however.
“Right now, you’re always a freelancer and the factions are generic and you can work for anyone at any time,” he says. “But every time you die and start a new life, you’ll be choosing a new character, and I think most of them will belong to a faction. I was thinking it would be cool if you’re doing a mission against, say, the Shiga Corporation and you get spotted aboard their ship. If you complete your mission and get away, you’ll never be able to work for the Shiga faction, because they’ll ban you. But you could work for two opposing sides, but only if you’re stealthy enough that they never find out.”
“We’ve yet to come up with a heat system that people intuitively grasp”
Ships are currently randomly constructed, but Francis is working on algorithms that make interiors feel more deliberate and designed. Turrets left manned after a takeover will still function when you pilot the ship
developer Suspicious Developments Format PC Origin UK Release TBC
Developer Tom Francis
Your suit affords you protection in space, but not from bullets and wrenches. If a guard catches you, they will incapacitate you before carrying you to an airlock and casting you out into space
The elaborate and colourful nebulas that make up the backdrop to Heat Signature’s sprawling galaxies accentuate both the fearsome isolation of deep space as well as its beauty