I’ve been meaning to try out Wrack for a while. First announced what feels like an age ago, it’s the product of Final Boss Entertainment, a group of old-school, ‘first generation’ Doom modders and mappers getting together to put their own spin on the retro FPS genre. This weekend, to celebrate Quakecon, they’ve updated their preorder demo and dropped their pre-order price to a very palatable $5 for the weekend. I jumped on this deal to see just whether they’re recapturing that old-school magic, or missing the point, and to tell the rest of you whether or not it’s worth taking the plunge as well.
There’s no pretension here – you’re an all-American action hero, and there’s a bunch of alien lizard-men from Arcturus invading the planet, so you’ve got to shoot them and their robot buddies until there’s nothing left to shoot. First off, the game is still way, way off from being complete. Right now, it contains just four levels, and some key visual effects clearly aren’t finished yet – enemies spawning into an arena just unceremoniously pop into existence, rather than being heralded by a teleporter effect and a shower of particles. Other than the small handfull of levels, you’re going to find four weapons and – surprisingly – three boss battles, although one of those is wildly unfinished.
Yep, bosses. Plural. While the game is developed by Doom veterans, they’re billing this one as halfway between Doom-style FPS and Contra-style arcade game. There’s platforming, traps, pattern-based bosses which fire walls of bullets that have to be jumped over or ducked under, points, secret areas, checkpoints and extra lives. Right now those features feel a little shoehorned in, but with a little more focus on them in the HUD (some kind of indication of when you hit a checkpoint would help), I can see it actually being a fairly interesting blend.
The levels themselves are fairly standard early Doom-era stuff, albeit with a lot more coloured lighting (reminiscent of Quake 2 in places, for better or worse) and the occasional floating platform to hop across. It’s fairly forgiving platforming, and doesn’t tend to get tricky unless you’re trying to get access to all the secret areas scattered around, which often offer permanent +5 boosts to your health and armor capacities. Once you’re past the first level, there seems to be a rising focus on throwing you into thunderdome situations with a pile of ammo and waves of enemies in an arena.
Right now, I think the two largest problems with the game are an over-reliance on the scuttling spider-bot melee enemies that seem to be in EVERY room, and are just short and annoying enough to require shifting your aim, yet somehow aren’t easy to jump over despite looking only two feet tall. That, and the lack of sense of impact when fighting the space-lizards themselves. There seem to be no blood or impact effects at all when they’re hit, outside of a few red particles on the biggest type in the current build, and they don’t seem to make enough noise, vocally speaking. Maybe it’s because I’ve played too much Doom, but I like enemies that groan, scream and fall over with a gory thud.
It would seem that there are no enemies with ‘hitscan’ weapons – everything is a visibly moving energy blob that can be dodged, jumped over or ducked. After the spiders, the largest annoyance probably comes from the slightly-too-small ceiling and floor turrets, which fire diagonally up or down at you, and also don’t seem to have quite enough visual presence. If they made a loud noise and flashed a warning light at you before attacking, maybe that would help. There’s quite a few things to be tuned up here.
Still, I grumble, but the overall feel of the gameplay is solid and enjoyable. The larger arenas tend to be pretty satisfying, with you chewing through wave upon wave of fodder enemies. The bosses, as mentioned, are Contra-inspired. We’re talking telegraphed attack patterns, broad sprays of bullets, big health bars and dramatic opening poses/death-animations. You even get a first-person thumbs-down animation played after taking one of them down. It’s something I’d like to see built on in the full version – they made for interesting breaks in the action. The cel-shaded aesthetic works well for the most part, making the graphics clean and easily followed, and the music is very much in the style of the original Duke Nukem – plenty of energy without rushing you.
They’re planning on rolling Wrack out in episodic format. Almost like the old Shareware days, but probably with a smaller demo. Right now, a pre-order covers just that first episode, so your $5 will theoretically get you maybe 8-10 levels. There’s definitely a lot to be done with this one, and the game is clearly far from complete, but there’s a framework here that I can’t help but find compelling. Looking forward to seeing the final version of this once it’s done. You can get a discounted preorder now for $5 and pass your own judgement if you want here on the official site. Keep an eye round these parts for a full review once the final version comes out.