By John Walker on November 15th, 2012 at 5:00 pm.
After the disappointment of a failed Kickstarter in July this year, Retrovirus developers Cadenza fought on regardless. Instead they found funding through Gamestop, in exchange for their launch being via the US store’s digital download service. They got a pretty sweet deal, the sort that usually only goes to AAA games, with in-store promotion and a lot of exposure. Other release platforms will come later, with the full game due early next year, and it’s all DRM-free from the off. Right now buying it for $18 gets you into the game’s alpha. Meanwhile, I’ve had my hands on the about-to-be-launched beta version, written about below, along with the latest trailer.
When you first read that Retrovirus is a six-axis shooter, your brain obviously first thinks of Descent. (If you’re old enough.) The classic shooter should obviously have heralded the way for ever-increasingly excellent floaty ship corridor games, but as is so often the case only spawned its own decreasingly good sequels and not much else. But as soon as you begin playing Cadenza’s take on the genre, it’s obvious this has more in common with Tron 2.0 than it does Parallax’s original.
Things begin with your floating behind a monitor screen, clearly inside the monitor. A large purple worm virus busts in, and burrows a hole (a wormhole, geddit?) into the guts of the machine, and as an anti-virus programme after it you must follow. Making absolutely no sense in any meaningful way, the concept has you flying through the chambers of an elaborately imagined computer interior, where programs, data and viruses have architectural or robotic form, all to be taken out by you (why exactly would a computer be filled with concrete rubble and twisted rebar?).
However, rather than Descent’s frantic action and panicked escape flights, this is a far more sedate affair. There’s combat, but it only occasionally overwhelms, instead being more about discovering routes and meticulously clearing out viral infections. The internet may not be made up of tubes, but Retrovirus’s computer certainly is, with long, twisting tunnels linking larger chambers to be cleared. Along the way you’re given tasks, some optional, to deal with threats, find new routes, and explore for the many secrets. All the way you’ll collect fragments of data, which act as XP, allowing you to make upgrades to yourself.
Each 5MB of memory gathered is a new upgrade, which include things like improving weapons, health, bonuses, and the like. At the moment you’ve access to all 40 in three categories from the start, despite many enhancing items you’ll not have received yet – presumably by release these will be gradually unlocked as they become relevant. As it is the choice is a little overwhelming and under-explained. But right now I’m dual-wielding miniguns, with a big health boost, an improved energy well, and a special scan trick. All rather useful.
Scanning plays an important role here, but is currently a touch clumsy. The idea is you can tap F to scan anything you see, but at this point labels aren’t in so it doesn’t achieve results. Or you can hold down F for a big scan, that highlights hidden enemies nearby. But scanning is also used to open doors, and more significantly, it’s the source of your secondary fire. When you fire weapons they give a little glow as they hit objects, a blast pattern. Tap to scan that and it’ll trigger something new. For the initial pistol-like weapon, that causes a minor explosion, useful for blasting walls and taking out smaller enemies. The shotgun secondary creates an energy well with a gravitational pull, dragging enemies and objects toward it. And the minigun, already useful for bumping floating objects out of the way, releases a blast that scatters things all over. It’s a neat trick, and something I’ve not seen done in any other game.
The connections to Monolith’s wonderful Tron 2.0 go further than the setting. The whole vibe feels inspired by it, despite obviously not being a straight FPS. Those upgrades, while nowhere near as complicated (and thus, frankly, as good) as Tron’s, still seem a familiar idea, and along the way you’ll also be collecting errant emails that explain the backstory.
The story is, currently, the weakest aspect. The emails just now simply aren’t worth reading, and while the main narrative guiding voice is fine, others are – I presume – the developers trying their best. (“I’ll do my old man voice – wheeze, wheeze.”) They sound terrible, and it’s a real shame, because while this is always obviously an indie project, it’s an impressive one that feels cheapened by this touch of amateurism.
The other issue I’m having is clearly because this is a game that’s just entered beta – it’s not quite as smooth as I’d like. Occasionally movement can be juddery, but a six-axis shooter needs to be floaty-smooth perfection. There need to be some performance improvements before next year. And what I think the game is crying out for is a map. Remember Descent’s beautiful maps? Without them, it’s pretty easy to get lost, to forget which tube you came in through. I believe there’s supposed to be a waypoint guide thing as part of a scan, but that’s not working in the code I have. And if people don’t mind my becoming a consultant for a moment, I’d suggest having the floaty little robot guys you decorrupt, who currently just hang out doing nothing, hovering toward your next objective might be the cutest way to go about it. As it is right now, the game will say, “Enter the web browser” and you’ll say, “What web browser?”, and it won’t answer and you drift about confused.
What will be interesting to see is whether a game as surprisingly sedate as this will satisfy the masses. It’s a calming experience, rather than a hectic frenzy, and while I was looking forward to the latter, I’m so far rather enamoured with the former. There are busier battles, but there’s nothing that’s going to see you wearing out the reload button, certainly in the first half. And it’s a good sized game too. So put aside thoughts of a Descent for the 2010s – it’s not that, and it isn’t supposed to be. It’s its own thing, which is usually the more interesting route to take.