Blaster Master holds a special place in the hearts of many NES-era gamers. Sadly, I’m British – the land Nintendo largely forgot until the SNES – so I wasn’t exposed to it until years later. Grumbling aside, it was a compelling mix of non-linear (vaguely Metroid-esque) platform shooting in a bright red and remarkably agile tank. You even got to jump out of the tank from time, exploring certain passages on foot.
Helena The 3rd (the unusual title being a reference to the oddly named tank – Sophia the 3rd – in Blaster Master) is all that and then some, and now for Windows, Mac & Linux PCs. A cute cel-shaded look, mouse aiming instead of digital 8-way targeting, and a mix of side-scrolling, third-person and first-person stages. It was originally released quite some time ago, although the developer seems to have been actively supporting it ever since.
A built-in level editor was one of the key post-release selling points, and there was a recent Kickstarter to help fund the latest addition to the game – full online/networked co-op. The Kickstarter failed (and hard), but the co-op got added anyway. To celebrate the release of the new version, the price of the game has been slashed by an enormous 90%, putting it at approximately $1 or your regional equivalent. You can read more about the game on IndieDB, and snag it while it’s on sale this weekend via Desura. There’s a playable demo available if a buck is still outside your ‘impulse buy’ price range, too.
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.
Localized by Capcom-backed indie translation group Nyu Media, the three games cover a pretty broad range of sub-genres, although all are vertically scrolling shooters. The first being heavily inspired by the Touhou franchise, the second is patterned after the bullet-eating Ikaruga, and the third is more its own thing, although it feels like a lot of classic Toaplan and Cave arcade titles.
The art is pretty sharp in the games themselves, although backgrounds tend towards the straightforward and minimalist. It does fall into the trap of every character being a cute young girl, though. The music is solid stuff through the whole trilogy, and the gameplay, while varying quite a bit between games, is pretty solid stuff. The bullet patterns in particular are of the pretty-but-unthreatening variety, for the most part. Spectacular blossoms of death that are more for show than focused aggression. The genre isn’t really so intimidating, once you realize that.
The bundle is of course still available to buy on a variety of other stores, as listed on the official site, but releasing on Steam really should help open up the games to a much wider audience. The eXceed trilogy will also be joining Satazius – the Gradius-esque shmup by Astro Port that Nyu Media previously localized. There’s also demos of the three games available to check out now, if you really can’t wait til’ tomorrow. We’ll have a full review of the trilogy in the near future, so stay tuned if you’re still on the fence.
Walking around, mining rocks is all played out. What we need more of is SPACE! And mining up there, too, but in spaceships! With guns! Miner Wars 2081 has been in alphafunded development for what seems like an eternity, but every time I take a glance at it, it’s grown bigger, better, stronger and more polished. Keen Software seem to be happy with the latest build, as they’ve officially rolled out part of it as a playable public demo, including the first mission from the singleplayer, story-driven campaign mode. Rather than put out a traditional trailer, they just recorded a bunch of real gameplay footage. See how it tickles your fancy:
It’s nice to see them using the terrain deformation in the story missions – kinda reminiscent of Red Faction, spliced with Descent. The full game will have both story-based missions and open sandbox gameplay, with you running a mining operation across a shattered solar system. There’s also an MMO ‘spinoff’ that early adopters of the Alpha version (such as myself) get free access to, although it will be sold separately for most customers later on. It’s been a while since I’ve really dug into this one, and it looks like the game has grown an impressive amount since I last played around with it.
Miner Wars has put out public pre-Alpha demos previously, but this is the first Alpha build, and the first one to feature any scripted content, so head to the download page and grab it if you’re at all interested in a 6-Degrees-Of-Freedom space shooter with a whole lot of fully deformable space-rocks. We’ll be putting nose to the grindstone for a more in-depth hands-on preview of the preorder Alpha build soon.
Shades of Newgrounds’ famous Madness series here. Worlds is a third-person shooter by small French studio Curious Planet. While wrapped in almost pointedly early-2000s style graphics, there’s a little more going on under the hood than you might expect. Putting you in the combat boots of Reyk, an agent tasked with hopping between dimensions and doing whatever it takes to make sure the various linked worlds never discover each other’s existence. This apparently involves a lot of shooting, some sneaking and even a bit of conversation.
Originally released in French only, the English version of the game has just been rolled out via Indievania, or you can buy it direct from the developer if you so wish. The game isn’t complete – only about a quarter of the missions are currently implemented – although the developer estimates that’ll still take you a solid 5-8 hours to chew through. When new builds are released with further missions, the game will auto-update and bring you up to the latest version.
I had a quick poke around the preview build sent my way, and found something pretty interesting. I wasn’t too impressed at first with the tutorial. Too many cutscenes and not enough hands-on action. The gunplay seemed solid enough, and the stealth was interestingly presented as a two-way street, with the end of the tutorial segment ending in a gunfight against a rival agent trainee that can also hide in the shadows and snipe you as you blindly run past. It added an interesting cat-and-mouse element to the gameplay that I hope is explored more later.
What seems to be a fairly clean-cut, low-fi shooter with some stealth elements expands impressively after the tutorial ends. From there, you’re given an equipment budget, and tasked with investigating a missing agent on an icy world, meaning that you first have to buy yourself some cold-weather gear. The mission is just equipment recovery – the agent is dead, but he had some sensitive gear on his body – but rather than shooting everyone in my path, I found myself talking to the locals and slowly piecing together clues as to who killed the agent, and where I might find his stolen equipment. Stumbling into a random house got me a torrent of verbal abuse from the surprised inhabitant, too – a cute detail.
It seems that there’s quite a bit to the game beyond sneaking and shooting. If the trailer above is to be believed, then things keep getting bigger and weirder as the game goes on, with special powers, gravity-flipping, more abstract dimensions and the occasional bit of low-res brutality. Shooting a guy in the feet and stomping on him as he tries to crawl away is probably not kosher under Queensbury rules. I guess that’s another element that it’s carrying over from the Madness animations and games – if abstract, grey pseudo-people dying violently offends you, this might not be the game for you.
The translation is workmanlike for the most part, although a couple of French words seem to slip through the cracks here and there. Nothing that makes it hard to understand, but it doesn’t feel like a final version yet. Understandable, really – it isn’t. The work-in-progress price tag of 5 Euros (or $6) seems quite reasonable, especially if you consider that if the missions continue to be as long as the ones included in the current build, the final game should be 15-20 hours long.
While I can’t really recommend it or not until I’ve played a bit more, you can (and should) grab a demo over on the official site, and if that tickles your fancy, then the full game is only a few bucks direct or on Indievania.
Before Rare were known as Rare, they were called Ultimate: Play The Game, and they were one of the UK’s more prolific developers during the earliest eras of home computing. Along with their more famous releases such as Jetpac and Knight Lore was Atic Atac. While it was before my time (released in the year I was born, to be precise!), it was a favourite among gamers of the era. Yesterday, a Windows remake of the game was released. Naturally, it’s freeware.
A comparatively simple game by modern standards, Atic Atac is a maze-puzzle game with some shooter elements. Playing as one of three generic fantasy sorts, you’ve got to explore a ~200 room complex in search of the Golden Key Of A.C.G, which will open the exit and secure you a place on the high score board. By modern standards, it’s pretty baffling at first – any attempt to just jump in and figure stuff out is likely going to be met with death, confusion, and more death. Eurogamer have a retro review here that might help explain it, but it’s best seen in action, so check the authentic Speccy gameplay video below, colour-clash and all.
In short, it’s a game of inventory and resource management. The various items scattered around the rooms are required to access new areas, but you can only carry three items at any given time, meaning some careful planning on where to stash your gear and mentally mapping out exactly the safest route to backtrack. Enemies constantly spawn and bounce randomly around the rooms, and will chew away at your health (represented by a tasty roast chicken) for every moment they’re in contact with you. It’s tricky and old-school in a way that most gamers won’t even comprehend these days, but it’s well worth a look, especially if you want to get an idea of what videogames were like almost 30 years ago.
A lot of people out there own clever block-based shooter Voxatron, due to it featuring as a standalone ‘debut’ Humble Bundle not that too long ago. Although it sold a whole boatload of alphafunding copies at pay-what-you-want prices, development of it has been notably unhurried. While it may not be a huge numerical leap, the latest update brings a variety of tweaks, improvements and better support for fan-made content. Oh, and the dreaded Bullet Hell Elephant (aka the ‘Hellephant’), as pictured above.
You can get the latest build of the game off the Humble Store. Just log into your Humble Bundle account and download the new build. You can also see the full change-log for this update here, although developer Lexaloffle recommends you just check out the new BBS level (accessible in-game) ‘Twisty’s Castle’, which showcases most of the new features, and is a pretty creative and interesting bit of fun in its own right.
Those who didn’t pounce on Voxatron during the pay-what-you-want debut event can grab it direct from the official site for $15. It’s not the cheapest bit of retro shooting on the market, but there’s already a ton of quite creative fan-made levels, as seen in the video above, and potential for far more in the future.
Explosions, more explosions, tanks, and then some explosions on top for good measure. That’s what the teaser videos for Commotion Games’ upcoming Recruits tell me the game is all about. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Running With Rifles and perhaps the Men of War franchise, Recruits is a rather lovely-looking UDK-based isometric shooter in development. It’s still early days yet, but you can buy in now for one third of the planned release price and get access to the current playable Alpha build, which includes three levels. Here’s the developer’s official Alpha pitch video:
And here’s a less talky video of a tank blowing a great many things up, as tanks do:
Good-looking stuff. Although I do hope that in later builds, the tank turret rotates a little slower. That, and perhaps the sound of battle might drown out the tropical wildlife, rather than birds calling louder than the sound of exploding tank shells. You can read more about Recruits on the official site here, track development progress on IndieDB here, or put your money down on the public Alpha build on Desura here. We’ll be trying to wrangle an official preview copy from the developer’s dusty, blood-stained hands soon, and give it an official IGM shakedown. Until then, just imagine a tank shooting a man in the face. Forever. That’s Recruits. Allegedly.
Sometimes, something huge slips under my radar. I’m officially late to the party on this one, but pleasantly surprised to find people still partying anyway. StarShatter: The Gathering Storm was an ambitious, semi-sandbox space combat game developed by Destroyer Studios published by niche wargame-centric outlet Matrix Games back in the mid/late 2000s. The big thing setting it apart from the competition was that the entire military theatre of the game was procedurally managed, so that you could play as anything from a lone fighter ace to a fleet commander and make a real impact on the universe. It never really found any degree of success. Partially due to the lack of interest in the genre, partially due to the heavy learning curve of the game, which forced the player to learn everything from fleet command tactics to atmospheric dogfighting techniques.
The game was discontinued a long time ago, but about six months ago (I told you I was late to the party), the source-code and full content of the game was released to the public for free. While this hasn’t exactly resulted in a grand bounty of new content and features released, there have been a couple of fan-patches aimed at bringing the game up to modern spec and ironing out some of the older, outstanding issues. While the community site that used to host the game has apparently imploded, you can find the latest game client and updates on this Freespace 2 forum thread here. You can also find a variety of other files (including the highly recommended Vox.7z, which adds a lot of immersive battle chatter) on SpaceSimCentral’s database here.
There’s a pretty intense learning curve here, and the tutorial campaign ‘Live Fire’ is pretty sparse. Thankfully, you can also find the full documentation in the Manuals folder of the game. The default flight model in the game is far more realistic than most in the genre, offering full Newtonian flight physics, and even an atmospheric model for when you’re fighting planetside. Flight sim fans should feel right at home, and those wanting something a bit more substantial than X-Wing or Freespace might well find it here. The real depth is in the strategy elements, though – players work their way up from mere fighter pilots to fleet commanders, and the entire scale of the game changes over time. It’s impressive stuff, even if the game is a bit aged, graphically speaking.
Due to the nature of the dynamic campaign structure, things might feel a little dry and repetitive if you’re used to the rousing and escalating cinematic battles of X-Wing, or the oppressive atmosphere and drama of Freespace. There’s none of this here. It feels almost like a huge strategic simulation played between two massive AI forces, with the commander of one side giving you access to a small portion of its fleet in order to help swing the battle through a bit of human ‘X-factor’. What it lacks in personality, it makes up for in replay value and player agency, though. Not many space sims have the nerve to let you fly around in a flagship, or decide exactly how many wings of fighters to launch into an engagement.
There’s also multiplayer offered, although the semi-realistic scales of the engagements means that there’s really not much room for two players to go head to head against each other in anything but a close dogfight, as navigation in singleplayer is almost always done through time-accelerated autopilot. This is a fairly solitary experience, aimed at those who can see themselves at the helm of an enormous starship, commanding a battle from the back lines. It’s good to see it still being supported, albeit in limited fashion by the fans. There’s not been much in the way of real space sim quality released these past few years, so why not have a look at what you might have missed? Download Starshatter and give it a spin.
We first reported on M.A.V. – Modular Assault Vehicle a while back. Even in its earliest Alpha stages of development, it was looking remarkably solid, and an interesting fan-led attempt to revive the gameplay of FromSoftware’s niche heavyweight mech-sim Chrome Hounds. Since that initial article, the game has gotten several major updates (all free and publicly downloadable), and the developers are asking for solid feedback on their changes, especially to the heavily revised physics and movement. You can download the latest build of the game from IndieDB, and try your hand against either bots, or other players online.
Personally, I think this latest build is a lot closer to recapturing the spirit of Chrome Hounds. I still think the movement is a little too fast and accurate, considering the nature of the mechs in CH (petrol-driven terrestrial battleships, in esssence), but there’s a lot more weight and power now. The weapons have been heavily tuned as well, with different gun types having vastly different muzzle velocities, and there being a maximum of three guns you can assign to each firing group, meaning you have to mix up your gear. The bot AI has also been given an overhaul to make it simultaneously capable and flawed – they no longer rush straight at you firing with perfect accuracy, making fighting them a little more enjoyable.
The developers have announced that until the game feels a little more complete and stable, all alpha builds are going to be free for public consumption. Once they’re happy with how things are shaping up, the game will likely go the alphafunding route via Desura and other similar stores. Personally, I think there’s a lot of people that would lap this up on Kickstarter, but maybe I’m just being optimistic. Either way, keep an eye on Bombdog Studios from now on. This one could be big.