By Adam Smith on March 20th, 2013 at 3:00 pm.
I just noticed that the spotlights are following me and that arrows flash at the side of the arena right before a power-up twinkles into view, hovering across the screen and leaving trails of excitement. Everything leaves glowing tracks or showers of sparks. Sometimes, naturally, the power-up is a score-spewing giant fruit. Ultratron is arena-based, robot dismantling particle heaven.
I’ve only played the demo. When I reached the end, unhappy emoticons exploded onto the arena floor around my character, who had also exploded. Then the game exploded and I’m sitting here looking at my desktop wondering if it was all some form of fever dream. Did I really just destroy one of the four Robots of the Apocalypse, accompanied by a pet drone, a defence turret and a pulsing soundtrack?
Surely not. I’m supposed to be playing deep and serious strategy games that would lose a race with Timothy Squints, the snail with the ten tonne shell. Could I really have spent half an hour with one hand splayed across the WASD keys and the other strafing the mouse back and forth across its shabby pad, aiming the most neon of laser-death blasts at spawning squads of adorable robot-killers?
It all started when the Hivemind raised a node-brow in the direction of Ultratron’s Steam and demo release. “Jim says it’s great”, I thought, even though I’d never heard Jim mention the game. Then, the usual; a pain like needles behind my eyes, the taste of iron at the back of my throat, glimpsed memories of impossible structures. I downloaded the demo and expected to play for two minutes, make sure it wasn’t obscenely broken, and then mention the release in a hundred word news post.
I just bought the full version. It’s a cracker. If I had spent my youth in arcades, maybe I’d be able to imagine finding an Ultratron cabinet in a dusty corner, shimmering through the grime, providing something pure in the midst of all the movie licenses that have become plastic guns, and the hungry change machines. Sadly, for the sake of this imagined scenario, I’ve never spent a great deal of time in arcades and if I do find myself in one, I immediately attach myself to a pinball or air hockey table.
Ultratron would have been splendid in an arcade, I reckon. It’s certainly splendid on a computer screen. Throwing enough particles around to make the Large Hadron Collider feel inadequate and slightly limp, it’s a prime example of a visual style that looks minimalist on a screenshot but is positively brimming over with effects once in motion.
I was on the second level before I realised that I was supposed to be collecting the glowing robot remnants. I’d thought they were debris at first, sizzling and too hot to handle, so my visit to the between-waves shop was a short one. I did manage to buy a smart bomb though, which distorted the screen and frazzled my eyeballs exactly as I’d hoped it would, and later I upgraded my main weapon and watched it slice through entire bot packs, ricocheting off walls and screaming a searing mechanical lament as it fizzed and burst.
Is my enthusiasm for Ultratron’s tiny explosions clear? It’s a small game, self-contained arenas with a few enemy types and four bosses, but it doesn’t waste a beat of its tiny machine heart. I just loaded it again, after writing that last sentence, and I still see new things. Tiny details that are completely meaningless in the context of the shooting, dodging and circling that forms the futurist idea of progress, but details that are as important as the distant horizon in your favourite RPG, or the accurately modelled dashboard of that sports car you’ll never be able to afford in real life. Byte marks litter the ground at the end of a wave; the shop unfolds electronically when new upgrades are available.
It’s a bit easy though. Maybe I’m supposed to finish the whole thing and then play it again and it’ll be harder – that’s a thing that this sort of game sometimes does, isn’t it? Or maybe I’m just ultra-good at Ultratron, which is extremely unlikely. Either way, I’ve been zipping and zapping through at a fair old pace, and the first boss was so easy that I was a little disappointed. Shoot the weak points (ITS GUNS) and it explodes quickly enough but I’ll quite happily play through again, even if things don’t change a great deal.
A video could make Ultratron seem chaotic but it isn’t at first. Despite the compact arenas, the number of enemies doesn’t become hazardously crowding until later in the game and as you dodge the dripping light-bullets that streak across the screen, you may well realise, as I did, that in an odd way this is a more relaxed form of robot-killing for the discerning aesthete.