By Alec Meer on June 5th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.
Gunpoint is an action-puzzle game about speed-hacking electrical systems and leaping over (or through) tall buildings in a single bound. This high-tech detective saga-ette comes primarily from Tom Francis, best known for his long stint on cheery RPS tribute magazine PC Gamer, and it’s his first game. Has he successfully crossed the Rubicon? Let’s find out.
Important Disclaimer: I used to sometimes hang around with Gunpoint lead creator Tom Francis back when I lived in the oddly yellow city of Bath some five years ago. I consider him to be A Good Egg. Additionally, he used to commission me for work on PC Gamer when I was a freelancer. But I’ve barely seen him since I left Bath, I don’t work for Future Publishing any more and the only communication we’ve had about Gunpoint was the exchange of playable code. I consider my judgement unaffected, but please do seek an opinion on this game from elsewhere if you’re worried.
Gunpoint’s a funny name for a game about being a guerilla electrician, isn’t it? I can’t think of even a single reason why it’s not called Powerpoint. A lack of imagination, I call it.
In fairness, there are guns in Gunpoint, but if you want to get anywhere you’ll be steadfastly avoiding said guns. What you should – and will – be doing most of the time is hurling yourself off the top of buildings, or through plate-glass windows into buildings. Once inside, you rewire doors, security cameras, motion detectors and powerpoints to trigger things they’re not supposed to trigger. You’re a malevolent cowboy builder, able to turn a building’s wiring to your optionally muderous advantage, and without having to actual touch any wires in the process. A remote gizmo does that hard work for you, able to affect any relevant device anywhere in the building, regardless of where you and your oversized trenchcoat are lurking.
Flick your mouse scrollwheel up and you enter hacking mode, from where a simple Drag Line From Thing To Other Thing system enables you to arrange for lightswitches to open doors, security cameras to activate lifts and lifts to activate a sort of taser effect from power sockets. All the lines and colours in screenshots might make it look complicated, but it’s exceptionally, smartly simple in practice. Do you want a motion scanner to turn off a light in a guarded room you’re trying to sneak into? Drag a line from the motion scanner to the light. Walk into the motion scanner. Job done.
By the end of the game this straightforward mechanic starts to move towards complexity, as doors operate on a timer, hackable electrics are split into colours (so a green switch can only open a green door, for instance) and you need to quickly chain a few actions together while evading enemies. When it comes down to it you’re pretty much making things open doors though, because doors are the essential nemesis of a guy whose job is to break into places and steal information. Said guy is you, and you – he – get to wear a sweet hat and a trench coat with a particularly high collar as you attempt to earn a living from corporate espionage.
As well as the devious rewiring aspect, your other key ability is to jump huge distances and fall even huger ones without being harmed, at least presuming your arc of travel doesn’t pass the eyeline of an enemy, whose guns kill with a single shot and are accurate enough to take you out mid-flight, in the manner of someone shooting a bow and arrow at a passing seagull. The speed and fluidity of this super-jumping (something to do with techno-trousers, apparently) is excellent – I wouldn’t really have expected such responsiveness from something so comparatively lo-fi-looking. That’s not the only way in which Gunpoint evokes a more genteel Hotline Miami. And, on the other side of these elegant, window-smashing superheroics, the glorious pratfalls of landing from a great height: usually on your face, often in front of an unimpressed dude with a gun. It’s like an overclocked Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em simulator.
Controls are, as with the hacking, brilliantly simple and rapidly intuitive – click and hold left mouse, drag a line where you want to go, release, and you’ll stick like Spider-Man to any surface you hit. Unless it’s glass, in which case you’ll smash noisily through it. Unless you’ve bought the upgrade which muffles that tell-tale shatter-tinkle sound. Leaping can also be used to jump enemies from behind, and then knock ‘em unconscious or, if you so wish it, beat them into a bloody pulp (again, summoning the proud ghost of Hotline Miami). This contributes towards post-mission assessments of your lethality and stealth, and speaks to another of Gunpoint’s clear, and smart, inspirations, Hitman. You can be a noisy psycho if you wish, a ghost, or something in between. While there are plot affects, really it’s about scratching your own itches, and it’s done so subtly, without browbeating or judgement.
Again, the reason for all this leaping, rewiring and optional man-punching is that you’re performing generously-paid jobs for a string of amoral CEOs, hardbitten police officers and terrified stitch-up victims. I must confess that I found the text-based tale of the warring, weapon-making megacorps responsible for hiring you, framing their own staff and double-triple-quadruple-I-lost-count-crossing everyone involved a little over-involved and even hard to follow, but a steady stream of gags and comedy profanity (very recognisably in Francis’ voice, if you’ve followed his games journalism at all) meant I sort skipped along happily enough and just presumed everyone was probably a bit of a dick so it didn’t much matter who I ultimately sided with anyway. Dialogue options in every conversation broadly offer the choice to be polite, rude or glib, so I very much had a developer-approved option to not things seriously throughout.
It’s one of many ways in which Gunpoint reflects Francis’ other career – he’s played hundreds, if not thousands, of videogames good, bad and from the endless beige area in between, and is no doubt as acutely aware as I am of when his time is being wasted by some over-indulgence, lack of player empathy or cynical exploitation of compulsion. Gunpoint is lean, gets straight to the point and is very nearly annoyance-free. If you want to just get straight into a mission and bypass all conversation, Gunpoint lets you. If you want to save and exit at any point, Gunpoint lets you. If you screw up and only want to have to replay the last second of a failed mission, Gunpoint lets you. If you want to not bother with being taught how to use a new item, Gunpoint lets you. Lots of little things like that, which when collected together create a game that feels very much made with maximum good times and minimum down time in mind.
It might just be a little too lean, however. Much as the unrestricted ability to rewind time by approximately 1, 5 or 10 seconds in the event of death was a blessed relief in terms of not having to repeat all my actions up to the point of my folly, and the option to have any upgrades I didn’t like/use be refunded in favour of something else, I did at times find there was a certain sense of challenge missing. Especially in the later missions, it was almost too evidently a given that I would succeed, that all I really needed was time: far from an unusual scenario in singleplayer games, but here I was perhaps more conscious of it than usual.
Additionally, while ‘solving’ a level has the appearance of freedom in terms of having a few options with regard to what you wire and how/whether you neutralise enemies, ultimately it’s about opening doors in sequence and picking up coloured keycards (specifically, activating fuse boxes which allow hacking access to other devices in the building) in the grand old tradition, and that at times limits the variance that the controlled chaos of Gunpoint’s mechanics would so suit. I reckon third-party maps – there are already a couple – will go on to construct exceptional things out of Gunpoint’s jigsaw pieces, mind.
Coupled with the fact that, at 3-4 hours, it’s a short game which screeches to a halt before its mechanics have had the chance to become especially elaborate, I did feel that Gunpoint had given me slightly too easy a ride, or more that it was just the start of something bigger. Maybe it is just the start of something (especially as it managed to reach number one on the Steam charts on launch day – I guess Tom Francis is now Rich Tom Francis), but then again for £6 and this level of finesse, brains and player-understanding I really shouldn’t grumble. Also, its final level offers the opportunity to kick doors down with a boot, often into people’s faces, which is outrageously satisfying and once again happily evokes the brutal fluidity of Hotline Miami.
It might stop a little short of its systems’ potential, but for a debut Gunpoint is enormously impressive, with a killer mechanic I’d love to see more of, and draped in confidence and style. I’ll end this with special praise for the brilliantly-suited soundtrack – noirish piano noodling that I could listen to for days, and successfully keeping Gunpoint’s mood that of a hi-tech Maltese Falcon rather than the more familiar cyberpunkery it might otherwise have been.
Gunpoint is out now, costing $9/6 for the standard edition. You can by either on Steam or direct from the dev. There’s also a demo, sensibly.