NEON STRUCT is a first-person stealth game from the makers of the excellent Eldritch. You play as a federal agent who falls foul of high-level conspiracy when an apparently routine mission goes wrong. It’s out now.
It might have lacked much of what made later stages of Ion Storm’s game so beloved, but first level Liberty Island was also the freeform Deus Ex promise writ largest: a wide-open playground for action and most especially evasion. While what followed introduced more ways to kill, people to talk to, secrets to find and decisions to agonise over, it downscaled the sandbox, live by your wits promise. What if Deus Ex had been like Liberty Island throughout?
That this is the next game from the developer of Lovecraftian shooter/Minecraft mash-up Eldritch might be recommendation enough even before we get to comparisons with something so revered. You don’t have to hunt far to see Eldritch’s cubist blood running through NEON STRUCT’s low-key cyberpunk veins, but it’s more stylised this time, pitching an off-kilter world of disorientating angles, CCTV grain, flickering shadows and faceless people, a paranoid atmosphere to reinforce a surveillance state storyline.
Its levels are wide and tall, warrens of doorways, vents and ladders, guards everywhere. Get in, get something, get out without getting caught. You carry no firearms so open combat isn’t an option, but you can knock enemies unconscious if crept up on unaware or temporarily incapacitated by gadgets. Then, of course, you’ve got the problem of a body lying around – drag it away, into the shadows, but it’s so slow and patrols are frequent. Everything is a risk: you’re not a powerhouse, you can’t fight, you can only move.
Pure evasion is usually the wisest course of action, but where NEON STRUCT most flares into life is getting out of trouble, rather than simply staying out of it. Desperate sprints to safety will doubtless attract the attention of yet more guards, but even creeping has its risks. The sound of footsteps emanates from all around, a disorientating aural blur that forbids knowing exactly who’s exactly where, and there’s no radar to help you second guess enemy moments.
Measured risks is the sharpest strategy you can hope for, and even then you’d better have paid enough attention to the level layout to have a working sense of what’s where. No minimap, no objective markers: just you, your senses and your memory. Go your own way.
Liberty Island without guns: skulking around, learning the layout, unravelling the open plan maze, trying not to create a ruckus even as each new corner throws you into further danger. Light and sound and posture and terrain type affect stealth, enemies visibly change alert state as in Metal Gear, running away when it all goes wrong is both necessary and thrilling.
And, perhaps best of all, a hacking minigame which embraces its minigame status utterly: it’s Breakout. Just a tiny, perfect Breakout, with the number of rows your balls have to demolish increasing depending on the difficulty of the hack.
I know it sounds ludicrous, but in practice it’s so much more appropriate, and so much more fun than rotating cylinders or lining up circuits.
NEON STRUCT is not especially difficult: its interest is more in encouraging you to respond to problems on-the-fly, using a combination of instinct and gadgets to escape detection, than in punishing you for error. It even autosaves each minute, an inelegant but effective rewind option for any error.
You do get a rating at the end of each level, an F to A grade denoting how effectively you ghosted and how reliant you were on incapacitation, but this is an optional spur to do better and to experiment more, rather than a mandate. It absolutely worked on me. I tutted at myself for a mere D or C, but I’d have scowled all the more if I’d reloaded just because I was seen. If I am to get the A, I want it to be because I mastered my own senses rather than that I exploited systems.
Through all this weaves a conspiratorial plot, which plays both politics and science fiction, and social commentary too. It’s creeping menace, more The Parallax View’s lingering bass note of wrongness rather than the bombastic hand-wringing of Enemy of the State. That even allies are faceless keeps trust at bay throughout, and likewise, how can you ever be sure that an enemy is an enemy when all you have to on is what a sinister superior has told you? (And how he’s first made sinister is smart, and timely – he calls you, a women agent, “darling” and tells you “not to worry your pretty little head”, then threatens you with the sack if you choose to object to the belittling language).
A glorious half-swoony, half-evil synth soundtrack brings its stark world all the more to life. Less epic than Human Revolution but more foreboding. And, in a joke which never stops being funny, most levels have a radio somewhere which you can turn off, abruptly ending the music. It’s only so melodramatic around here because someone in it wanted it to be.
Some will find both the presentation and the stealth system too rudimentary. That’s fair: aesthetically it teeters on a razor’s edge between stylised and crude, while enemies do behave robotically, clip through doorways and fail to search obvious places. These are counter-productively superficial reasons to spurn it, though.
NEON STRUCT is a game about hide’n’seek as paranoid fear, not superthief glamour. It gives you large, heavily-guarded maze-like spaces and asks you to find your own way around them, whether it’s by roof or street, by stolen keycard or opened vent, by planned strikes or pure evasion, by gadget or by wits alone. Welcome back to Liberty Island. You’re not safe here.
Also, the toilets flush.