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Wot I Think: Nex Machina

Robotron 2017

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I can’t think of a better collaboration than the one that’s brought Nex Machina [official site] to life. The blindingly-fast twin-stick shooter is the spawn of Resogun developer Housemarque and the creator of the entire genre, Eugene Jarvis. It has a great deal to live up to, then, and the legacy of Robotron, Smash TV and Resogun hovering over it. Clearly the pair were up to the challenge.

All of the above games are inside Nex Machina. They are in both the foundations and the bricks — the teeming swarms of robots, the linked rooms, even the voxels. Combined, however, the construct something new; something that’s full of its own tricks and quirks, challenges and surprises.

Chaos reigns, at first. It’s the end of the world, a machine apocalypse, and the odds are appropriately stacked against the nameless hero (or heroes, if you choose to play in co-op). Each room is a disco death trap, blinding lights and neon explosions erupting to the beat of the electric soundtrack. Enemies pour out of gates and teleport in at an alarming rate, while laser traps and turrets ensure that there’s no breathing room. Sweaty palms and unexpected deaths dominate.

It’s a clever illusion hiding the fact that every moment is a choreographed puzzle. I was fighting my way through the second world when it finally clicked, though I won’t pretend that I didn’t waste a multitude of lives and use up many continues afterwards. Even now, I still suck. But at least I can look at the screen and know exactly what’s going on.

Each enemy type has a pattern, a set of behaviours that simultaneously create a distinct challenge and also reveal its weakness. Giant walking tanks can murder from range but have to stand still to fire. Swarms overwhelm with their vast numbers, but they’re mindless homing missiles that gleefully walk into gunfire. There are machines that can only fire in specific directions, deadly but fixed turrets and harvesters that completely ignore everything else when there’s a human — every room contains a few for you to rescue, some standing around, some hidden — waiting to be munched on.

Blow them all up, sure, but if you want a respectable score at the end you’ll want to pick your targets and perfect your timing. It’s all about combos, chaining both kills and rescues until that glorious moment when the cold, distant announcer lets you know that all the humans have been saved, or when there are no more robots left and you jet off in a pyrotechnic display, heading to another plane, another room, where it begins all over again.

Eventually, the optimal routes and the best order to murder each robot in becomes clear. You might want to take out that pesky turret that’s filling the room with orbs of deadly energy first, but maybe you should wait because you know there’s a harvester who will kill one of your feckless human pals if you don’t save them straight away. And you’re making these decisions between breaths. There’s no time to think, so instead you’ve got to train yourself and then go by pure instinct. These are puzzles for the most primal part of your brain. You’re Luke, turning off the targeting system and listening to the voice in your head.

Your tools are speed, in the form of a life-saving dash that can be just as handy when you’re on the offensive as it is when you need to get the hell out, and destruction, that never-ending spray of gunfire. Augmenting both, as well as providing shields, are a robust list of special weapons and power ups. Triple dash, rockets, explosives, even a sword. A robot-slaying sword. Never would I have thought that I would love using a sword so damn much in a twin-stick shooter, but dashing towards a bot, slicing it up, rescuing a cowardly human, and then dashing out of the way of a sniper’s bullet all in two seconds… well, it feels amazing. And it — all of it — feels effortless. Nex Machina is tough, but it’s easy to play. It’s intuitive and precise and these things foster confidence. Even when all hell is breaking loose, it never quite stops being manageable.

It’s a short game, but still generous. And its modest size is by no means a bad thing. It’s not a one playthrough and you’re done type of game — it’s a ‘play and play and play until you rescue every human, find every secret, and maybe, if you’re good enough, manage to run through the entire thing on a single life’ type of game. And then you do it again on a higher difficulty.

There’s a great deal of variety in the six worlds. Each is bursting with character, from the menacing enemies, glowing red with ill intent, skittering, flying and rushing towards you, to the individual rooms that suggest Earth is being consumed by the machines, with nature and cities being swallowed up by alien-looking tech. And at the end of every world, a huge boss to fight, bristling with weapons and nasty tricks that reveal themselves with each stage of the battle.

Beyond the arcade mode there’s an arena mode, tasking players with simple things like getting high scores, or more complex challenges where you can only score under special circumstances or where everything moves faster. And then there are the feats — hundreds of them, achievable in arcade, arena or just by selecting a single world to play through. Finish a world without saving any humans. Kill 10 enemies with one sword slash. Defeat a boss 100 times. There’s enough here so that this seemingly short game can go on for hundreds of hours.

There will be more twin-stick shooters, probably excellent ones, but if time stopped and all we were left with was Nex Machina, then that wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. Housemarque and Eugene Jarvis have created something very special, and I suspect, enduring.

Nex Machina is out now on Windows via Steam, GOG and Humble for £12/$16/€16.

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