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Hands On: Ace of Spades

Dig For Victory

There are spades for digging, blocks for building and a drill for tunnelling or demolition work. Ace of Spades a bit like Minecraft, you might think. Well, there are also rifles for shooting, grenades for exploding and sniper rifles for long range headpopping. It’s a team deathmatch game on large, destructible maps! But when I played it last week, Ace of Spades put me in mind of something else entirely.

Playing on a server full of games journalists*, I was surprised to see how quickly people fell into roles. Teams spawn at what I’ll loosely term a base. On one map it’s an actual building that is on the moon, on another it’s a tree. My personal favourite of the three team deathmatch maps we played has a tower at each end and bridges between them. Whichever map we playing, I’d always hear the tink tink tink of a pickaxe on stone. Somebody was digging.

I never found out who it was, but he was persistent. By the ten minute mark of a game, every time some blew my bonce off from afar I’d reappear at the base and find fresh tunnels and shafts carved into it. And still, tink tink tink. The sound was the only proof of his existence. He was never seen, no matter how deep into his twisted passages we wandered. He had become erosion.

The thing is, nobody asked that man to dig and I don’t even know if he knew why he was doing it. He seemed happy though and occasionally the fractured scenery formed a decent vantage point or secret exit route, so perhaps there was purpose to the tinkering. Maybe he’s still digging.

It was as a bridge fell to pieces, pelted by bazooka fire from our gloating enemies, that I finally banished all comparisons to Minecraft/Infiniminer from my mind. Ace of Spades is much more like a realtime, 3d Worms game. And it’s the best Worms games for ages. It doesn’t have the crazy weapons and the physics are more like those in Scorched Earth than either Minecraft or Team 17’s perpetual product line, but it allows players to build a home, a castle or a warren and then allows everyone else to burn it to the ground.

The Darkside, it used to be called, that side of Worms play. The people who dug deep and planted mines, as if it were ever possible to hide when all the world was war. In Ace of Spades, where there are no turns to take and fortifications can be much more grand, having a few Darksiders about is great. Each class has four prefabricated constructions they can build immediately and if you’re a sniper, like me, you might find that one of your teammates just drops perfect little bunker-towers all over the place. Go teamwork!

For those who aren’t aware of the background, Ace of Spades has been available for a while. Publishers Jagex refer to the original version as a prototype and it was a prototype that I spent a great deal of time with, enjoying the tension of its WWI-esque trench warfare. The announcement of the commercial release concerned me a little because screenshots showed dragons and massive explosions. It’s not that I don’t like those things but the limited toolset available to the tiny, cuboid soldiers were part of the game’s charm.

The dragon doesn’t fly around, smashing levels to bits; it’s part of the scenery, a sculpture looming over a bridge. The explosions are never particularly huge either and guns are still the most important weapon. Dynamite provides the biggest bang and even that will only take chunks out of the larger buildings, while guns will only chip away, damaging blocks before they destroy them completely.

In the original, a spade, a gun and some rudimentary block-stacking transformed the voxel landscapes into nerve-wracking battlefields, but even though there are now four classes, and a selection of modes and maps, the core of the game hasn’t been lost. It’s more frantic than I remember and it doesn’t take long for the world to be pockmarked with craters, but it’s still possible to play patiently, either as an engineer or a sniping scout.

Of the maps we played, my favourites had valleys and/or hills, allowing players to hide rather than just run toward the action with their fingers on the triggers. There’s a moonbase and that didn’t seem to work as well, although low gravity means it’s possible to infiltrate the enemy’s structures in surprising ways. It all felt a bit too empty though, like a large expanse of snow with the occasional mast sticking out of it.

Far better is the zombie mode. I’m going to assume that you already knew there was a zombie mode because this is a computer game. We only saw one map that supports zombies, although there may well be more, and it was a SPOOKY mansion in the middle of a CREEPY graveyard. One player spawns as a zombie, selected randomly, and instead of having a crude, cuboid gun obscuring part of his screen, that lucky specimen has two brilliantly corny grasping corpse-hands to punch the world with. Zombies are very good at smashing things and they run extremely fast, so the defending players are likely to see the bastard thing boring through their fortress like a bullet through butter.

The zombie’s victims respawn as zombies and if everyone gets chomped before time runs out, the dead win. In my experience, zombies will not try to eat people though, they will simply barrel through the ground floor of their home, trying to destroy every support so the whole thing tumbles to the ground. Damage is persistent across rounds too, so when the game is up and the next random zombie is chosen, the once mighty mansion might be a pile of rubble.

Despite all the possibilities that construction, minefields and the like offer, Ace of Spades is a team game that doesn’t require a great deal of communication. It’d be easy to jump into a map with a group of strangers and immediately fit in because playing in the world is a pleasure in itself. Watching a platform fall off a cliff when a sniper takes out the last block holding it in place is entertaining and there’s skill in performing the perfect headshot across the generously sized maps.

It’s not quite as bracing as the original version was and I miss what that game used to be, but it’s another clever use of destructible/constructible worlds that really doesn’t rely on comparisons to Minecraft. It’s not a particularly attractive game, with no clear artistic direction beyond BLOCKS, but I’m definitely looking forward to playing more.

Like I said – it brings back fond memories of the original Worms. Teams blowing the crap out of each other and the environment, building bunkers and trenches that might as well be sand, and probably won’t survive the next wave of carnage. If you’re going to bring that concept into 3d, I reckon this is a damn good way to do it. I'm not sure how many maps will be included, and nor are Jagex yet, but the game will be on Steam and will, so we are told, make full use of the Steam Workshop for map sharing and, hopefully, mods.

*or if not journalists, whatever term you reckon fits

Ace of Spades is out in early December.

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