I’m really not sure about the name “Door Kickers”. I think it was chosen on the basis that you’re going to spend a lot of time in this game kicking in doors, and a lot of doors do indeed get kicked since as a matter of policy SWAT teams apparently never use the doorknob. If they really wanted a name that best represented your in-game activities, though, they could have gone with “Get Shot In The Back By A Terrorist You Missed”. I admit it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue — but then neither does Door Kickers.
Aside from kicking in doors, though, what is Door Kickers actually about? It’s a top-down 2D strategy game that bears more than a passing resemblance to the planning stages of the first three Rainbow Six titles. On one side there’s anywhere between two and eight members of your SWAT team. On the other, anywhere between six and thirty criminals/terrorists, all of whom will shoot your SWAT troopers on sight. Each mission is split into a planning stage and a mission stage. During the planning stage you tell your troopers where to go by drawing paths on the map. You can control their facing, set waypoints for them to hold until they can’t see any more live terrorists, use go-codes to coordinate assaults on areas where you think a particularly large concentration of enemies is going to be hiding, command them to flashbang rooms before entering, and in general do most of the things you’d expect a SWAT team to be able to do. Everything is paused while you come up with an elaborate plan worthy of Napoleon himself; once you’re happy with it you press play… only to watch all hell break loose.
You see, most of your SWAT troopers are utterly incapable of doing anything stealthily. They are huge lumbering burly men (and the occasional woman) encased in heavy armour and carting around dozens of pounds of equipment and weaponry. Anything they do that isn’t just walking from point A to point B will make a very loud noise that will alert nearby enemies, who will then converge on your location to investigate. So everyone else will be stacked up behind one trooper who is trying to pick the lock on the front door, only for it to suddenly open to reveal an angry terrorist. He’s holding an automatic weapon and your trooper takes several seconds to drop the lockpick and ready his gun, which almost always results in their being riddled with bullets as they scramble for their sidearm. Breaking down the door obviously creates even more noise, and takes just as long as picking the thing. Gunfire attracts bad guys like locusts – even silenced weapons will alert them to your presence, although they won’t know exactly where you are. Your squad will be advancing down a corridor only to suddenly get shot in the back by someone who heard them coming and circled around behind them. While your troopers are extremely good at shooting enemies who are in their field of vision they’re also extremely vulnerable if they get shot in the back or side, both because their body armour is thinner there and because it takes them a second or two to turn and engage a target behind them. And a second or two is all it takes to make a SWAT trooper very, very dead.
This means that the first plan will very rarely work. No matter how intricate or coordinated the assault, the unpredictability of the terrorists and the sheer amount of noise your troopers generate will almost always trip you up and lead to one or more deaths on your side. Depending on how perfectionist you are this may or may not lead to a mission restart, and Door Kickers is very forgiving in this regard; it knows you’ll inevitably want to tinker with your approach, and so you’ll restart with your previous failed plan already in place. It’s pretty easy to modify, too, with a right click anywhere along a trooper’s path bringing up a menu that either adds a waypoint where they do something (throw a flashbang, wait for a go code etc.) or else trashes their entire path back to that point, allowing you to plot a new one. Since you spend the majority of your time in the planning stages Door Kickers wants to make the process of actually sketching out the plan as quick and painless as possible, and — some odd quirks of the system aside — it mostly delivers, especially since it allows you to pause a mission in progress at any time to adjust your plan on the fly. All in all the planning segment is very slick, allowing you to quickly step through multiple iterations of your plan until you come up with a winning solution.
In this Door Kickers has somewhat more in common with puzzle games than it does with strategy — it’s far more freeform than a puzzle game, but you’re still trying to find a correct “solution” to your terrorist problem. And just like a good puzzle game it gradually layers on the complexity, starting out with a simple two-man squad on a mission to clear a two-room building of baddies, and slowly ramping up to bigger squads, more opposition, larger maps with more nooks and crannies, and complications like bombs you have to defuse and hostages you have to keep alive. You eventually learn the best ways to minimise the all those risks I described earlier; for example, it might sound obvious but your positioning when opening a door is very important, since your trooper will stand exactly where you tell them to. Standing in front of the door when opening it is therefore not a very good idea; standing to one side of it and throwing in a flashbang before you go in is immensely preferable, and if you have to unlock it or smash it down it pays to have someone covering it with a readied weapon in case it gets opened mid-lockpick by one of those curious criminals. You also learn to leave one or two squad members in covering positions to the rear of your squad as they advance to catch anyone circling around behind them. And when entering a room full of gun-toting bad guys, you try to sequence your plan so that the guy carrying the giant bulletproof riot shield goes through the door first.
Door Kickers’ class system adds a fair amount of additional depth and flexibility to the game, although there are certain elements I’m really not sure about. There are five classes: the Pointman, who is stuck with a pistol but has insane reaction times to make up for it; the classic Assault trooper with an SMG or rifle; Shield troopers who carry the aforementioned riot shields that can deflect the vast majority of fire coming in from the front; Shotgunners, who exist for opening doors quickly and little else; and finally the frankly overpowered Stealth class. Three of these five classes get used regularly depending on the map, the mission and the likely opposition, so the class system at least partially succeeds in promoting some diversity in your assault teams. The equipment system I was less impressed with — there’s dozens of weapons but the difference between one type of pistol and another is so small I don’t think it matters what you use. There’s several types of armour, with the tradeoff for jamming the heavier stuff on your troops being that they have reduced mobility, but I never ran into a situation where having a trooper that could move fast was better than having one that could take a few bullets in-mission.
The upshot of this was that I unlocked the guns and armour that I perceived to be best-in-class (this took about an hour) and then used that for the entire rest of the game, and at no point have I run into a mission that made me think this was the wrong approach to take. The class system avoids this problem both through having three out of the five classes be genuinely useful, and by locking all but the Pointman behind a minimum squad level requirement; even here, though, once you unlock the Stealth class it renders the Assault and Shotgunner utterly redundant, and even the Pointman and Shield are only used when the environment demands it. The reason for this is that the Stealth class is the only class who is actually trained to use the doorknob instead of kicking the thing down in a shower of splinters, and they also get silenced weapons that don’t immediately give their exact position away to every terrorist on the map. This gives Stealth troopers an incalculable advantage since the enemy AI really isn’t that sophisticated and is very easy to catch unawares if they haven’t heard you coming. It also helps that the default silenced SMG is one of the most overpowered weapons in the game, being able to instantly kill all but the armoured enemy type out to medium range. The Stealth class is a late unlock at squad level 16 (out of 21) but once you’ve got it it becomes your default trooper type, which I felt sabotaged the effort that had been put into the class system somewhat.
Still, even a squad with four assault troopers allows for some rich tactical decisions in how you approach a level. This is Door Kickers’ big strength: the classes are a nice addition, but I think the basic setup on its own is strong enough to support the game over dozens of missions. Which is good, because there are dozens of missions in the game, plus three campaigns, plus a random map generator. The campaigns differ from the single missions in that anyone who dies stays dead (and weirdly not just for that campaign either – they get replaced by a rookie when the campaign is over) and they have some interesting special objectives like protecting VIPs and preventing the destruction of evidence, but otherwise they’re just a set of connected missions with an achievement at the end for finishing them.
This means there’s little sense of long-term progression in Door Kickers, but that’s fine because even the single missions are varied enough to keep you playing for hours — I’ve been at it for ten so far, and have polished off just over three quarters of them. Some of them were brutally difficult (the airplane assault one was a nightmare cramped space full of hostages blocking firing lines), some of them were very poorly thought-out (any mission with multiple building levels is horrible because progressing from one level to the next is really weird and buggy), and some of them have frustrated me to the point where I’ve had to skip them, but one nice gesture the game makes is that all 78 of the single missions are available to play from the very beginning in any order you like. If you come across a mission that annoys you, or that you don’t think is very well-designed, you can just ignore it and go to the next one. Each mission being its own isolated problem accentuates the feeling that Door Kickers is more of a puzzle game than anything else, but even if it is it’s still a really good one that provides interesting and engaging challenges in ten-minute bitesize chunks. And even if the non-mission parts of the game feel fairly uneven, the core gameplay of the mission planning and execution is good enough for Door Kickers to rank as one of the better games I’ve played this year.