Each Monday, Chris Livingston visits an early access game and reports back with stories about whatever he finds inside. This week, screaming in space can definitely be heard in Interstellar Marines.
As an interstellar marine, it goes without saying that I’m the best of the best. I’m tough as nails. I’ve seen it all and I’m ready for anything. I scream like a preschooler and fire entire clips in a messy panic. Okay, maybe the last one doesn’t fit with the image, but I can’t help it: when malfunctioning robots run at me from the darkness I scream. Then I fire a flood of panicky bullets into them far longer than strictly necessary. Then I run away and try to hide. I’m an interstellar marine. And I’m terrified.
I step inside The Neurogen Incident, the newly released co-op campaign for first-person shooter Interstellar Marines. Having never played before, I figured I’d try it single-player first to get my bearings, which is a horrible mistake. I prowl the dark corridors of the Neurogen facility, which has experienced power loss and, I have to assume, worse problems. I creep through the gloom and crawl through the ductwork, finding a few generators that restore power to the facility’s sliding doors. Eventually, I realize I can hear something.
Footsteps. Distant metal footsteps on metal floors. They’re clonking around, stopping, starting, pacing, somewhere inside the facility. There are voices, too, robot voices, speaking not words but sort of… moans. Groans. Whines. Queries? I don’t know if they’re talking to each other or themselves. It’s nerve-wracking, though, as the minutes tick by and I still haven’t seen any of them.
Eventually, I come around a corner and spot my first bot. He’s standing there in the dark, his back to me, and there are few things as unsettling as finding someone or something standing alone in the dark and they’re not facing you. That’s usually because they turn around and have a monster face, but these are robots! They won’t have monster faces, will they? I slowly creep close until I’m standing right behind it. It jerks abruptly then runs away into the dark. There is something awful, I think, about something scary that runs away from you. Part of it is the surprise, but most of it the knowledge that it’ll be back.
It’s back. It sounds a hideous… scream? Alarm? Warning? It’s an awful noise, the cry of a robot that has witnessed a horror of some sort, as if it had spent years in Jabba the Hutt’s ridiculous robot torture chamber and has suddenly just remembered it through robot regression therapy. Anyway, the robot shrieks and its metal footsteps are suddenly clomping my way and then its face — it has no face — is in my face and it’s one of the scariest things ever. Luckily, I’m a cool interstellar marine so I make a cool noise like “NnnngHHHHAOOOOOH!” and fire 1,536 bullets into it and into everything else in the vicinity and then I reload and whirl around and fire 4,375 more bullets at whatever else is around, which is nothing.
Okay, so, a robot startled me! It’s okay to be startled, even for an interstellar marine. As I progress through the level, I’m attacked by more robots, their hurried footsteps and awful tinny howls preceding each attack. As an interstellar marine, I adapt to the situation, and soon they’re just like any other enemy. I’m lying, of course! Somehow these robots never get any less scary. I can’t quite say why. It’s their footsteps, I think. You can hear them constantly, and you get used to their pace, and then they suddenly quicken and your gut grows cold.
Eventually, I decide I’m too scared to play further on my own, and also, I’ve run out of ammo (because when I shoot, I shoot 9,422 bullets at a time), and then a robot punches me to death, and there’s no save points so I have to start over. Instead, I join a co-op session of the same mission. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make things less scary for me. It’s almost worse, actually. The other players are already elsewhere in the level, and I have to find them. Now, in addition to creeping around in the dark by myself, hearing the robots pacing, then shrieking, then running, I also hear the thudding of distant, panicky gunfire. It’s like listening to a horror movie while running around trying to get into the horror movie. I don’t want to get into the horror movie! I want to play Desert Golfing. Nothing attacks me in Desert Golfing.
Having had enough of the horrible robots, I spend a fair amount of time in multiplayer team deathmatch instead. It’s quite a different-feeling experience than I’ve had in arena combat before. It’s even a bit scary and startling in its own way. Maps, often, are dark, sometimes even pitch black for long periods of time, meaning you’ll need to creep around with your flashlight on, which makes you feel like a big, obvious, interstellar target. Some control point maps change shape as you play, with walls and floors being raised or lowered, and domination zones move from one area to another forcing players out of their hiding spots. There’s really no way to get comfortable or feel like you’re running the show, even when you’re winning.
The weather changes, too, like on one map where a light rain at the start becomes a massive downpour during the match, the skies going black and the only illumination coming in flashes of lightning. There can even be a bit of bad weather indoors: on another map, fire sprinklers activate and spray the shadowy arena with water. This all means that running and gunning, for the most part, doesn’t work: someone more patient and stealthy will cut you down from a hiding place. It’s a tense, eerie, deliberate sort of match punctuated with bursts of frenzied combat.
Crouching in a dark corner, waiting to catch a glimpse of someone in the flickering strobes or red warning lights or lightning flashes, then repositioning yourself and waiting for the next flicker to see if they’re still there. I’ve never really played a multiplayer shooter like that before. I like it! Also, it has no robots. I like that!
Despite the long, long development cycle of this game, it still has a long way to go, but still, I was impressed. It seems to be shaping up nicely, and it’s genuinely scary, at least for this panicky marine.
I played update 13, version 0.5.1.3, dated September 26. Interstellar Marines is available on Steam for £13/$19.