Hands On: Retrovirus Single Player

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.


  1. Mr. Mister says:

    What’s that you said about pre-ordering?

    Anyway, Primesque scanning? Why yes!

    • El_Emmental says:

      aw Mister for christ’s sake, leave the bad faith for online multiplayer games.

      “1) Pre-ordering a publisher-distributed game either online or in-store.
      2) Pre-ordering an indie game.
      3) Contributing to crowd-funding at a tier that secures a copy of the game.”

      => STOP. STOP. STOP. This is not a publisher-owned game. This is not a publisher-owned game. This is an indie game. An indie game. An indie game that failed to complete its Kickstarter. An indie game that had to find a distribution deal with Gamestop. STOP. Read the article.

      Still, after this, people will be of bad faith and pretend John Walker’s Editorial was against any form of crowdfunding/pre-ordering. STOP. READ. READ WHAT JOHN MEANT. READ THE EDITORIAL. STOP AND READ THE ARTICLE.

      (if you don’t get the reference, watch this: link to youtu.be )

      (nb: I have nothing against Mr Mister or anyone, they’re very nice persons :D that video just popped into my mind with so many “but you said pre-orders are bad !” posts)

      • MadTinkerer says:

        If they had posted that video in their Kickstarter maybe they would have been more successful. (I was one of the backers, incidentally.) But at least it’s getting made.

  2. KDR_11k says:

    Descent had its clones but they were bad and are now forgotten. Do you remember Forsaken or Terracide?

  3. Lim-Dul says:

    So, you’re flying through a virtual computer? Bummer… They should have taken the idea from the 1997 (!) game Virus, where you were actually exploring YOUR OWN computer:

    link to mobygames.com

    Your own sounds were playing in the game and textures were taken from pictures, if I recall. Now imagine fighting in your porn folder. :-P

    • Firkragg says:

      Co-op, please!

    • Max Ursa says:

      im so glad there is another who remembers that little gem. the only problem with using your own computer is that nowadays our hard drives measure in gigs at least. back in 97 they were a fraction of the size.

    • yhancik says:

      OH yes! I knew this “virus game” idea reminded me of something!

    • The First Door says:

      I used to love Operation: Inner Space for this exact reason. It was fun collecting your own files, or destroying important ones.

  4. Chizu says:

    Kinda got into 6dof games lately, all I had ever played in the past was Forsaken 64, which I enjoyed.
    Just recently got the decent games on GOG and am playing my way through those, and also bought Miner Wars 2081 on Desura the other day. Just got a steam key fo rthe beta for that. So thats good.

    I was very interested in this back when they started the kickstarter up.
    I’m not the biggest fan of Gamestop per se, but at least this game is being made and released, so thats a thing.
    I wish their website would stop redirecting me though, links always just end up with me at a location selector that doesn’t include the US, and then I get sent to a frontpage.

  5. Low Life says:

    You had me at Tron 2.0.

    I really should replay that game.

  6. zipdrive says:

    This comment thread was lacking in nitpiking, so here: There is no such thing as a Six Axis Shooter (or anything else, for that matter); There are only ever 3 axes (x, y, and z) leading to 6 directions one can go. OK, Walker?

    • Low Life says:

      You’re right in saying that all the movement of an object in three dimensional space is based on three axes, but the rest I’ll need to correct and/or expand.

      First of all (and this is where the nitpicking comes in), the axes aren’t really x, y, and z, but forward/backward, left/right and up/down, based on the object’s current rotation. Granted, one way to present these axes is naming them local x, y and z (as opposed to global x, y and z), but going with separate names from the world axes is potentially less confusing. The object can then move along each of these axes (or, as you said, in six different directions), which provides three degrees of freedom in movement.

      In addition, the object can rotate around each of these axes – roll, pitch and yaw. This provides another three degrees of freedom, and that’s where the proper term for these games comes in: six degrees of freedom, or 6DoF. This is as opposed to the more traditional control system of FPS games, which provides only movement in three axes and rotation in two axes (yaw [look up/down] and pitch [turn left/right]), or 5DoF. In fact, for many FPS games one might argue that they’re only 4DoF, since looking up or down doesn’t actually rotate the object (so what appears as yaw is actually an entirely separate rotation for the viewport only) except in very specific circumstances (such as swimming).

      So, you were right in saying that the term six axis shooter is wrong, the correct term would be six degrees of freedom or 6DoF.

      • jalf says:

        There are no three “true” axes.

        Three-dimensional movements can be described with *any* set of three axes, as long as none of them are parallel to the others. “forward, left and up” is just as arbitrary a convention as “x, y and z”. Even having them at 90 degree angles to each others is nothing more than convention.

        Well, you started the nitpicking… :)

        • Low Life says:

          True. And isn’t nitpicking (and bad puns) what we’re here for, anyway?

  7. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    Your website is trying to sell me gold in Diablo 3, not dead dolphins! No fair, spam!

  8. AlienMind says:

    ““Enter the web browser” and you’ll say, “What web browser?”, and it won’t answer and you drift about confused.”

    And that, ladies and gentleman, is known in the gaming world as solving puzzles.