Indie developers at Zero Point Software were kind enough to share with me a review copy for Interstellar Marines, for which I am very appreciative.
Though it’s worth noting, as a brief aside, that a free copy does not necessarily elicit a flattering review – just see my Qora video for proof of that.
As always, I’ve gone into the game with little to no knowledge of the game or its mechanics, and given it a solid hour’s worth of play time in order to develop some first impressions of the title.
I had never heard of this game until the beginning of the week, but from what I understand, the game in question has been around in some guise or other since about 2005, when the developers involved first sought financial backing, finally hitting Steam Early Access in 2013.
I’m yet to decide exactly how I feel about the growing Early Access phenomenon. While it does operate akin to a long-term beta test, providing a customer base with an opportunity to give direct feedback and guide a game’s development, I feel uncomfortable with the need for financial outlay – particularly when a game can take a good many years to put together, running the risk of developers losing interest and moving on to other things.
Although set to feature a single player and co-op campaign comprised of four distinct acts, telling the story of man’s first contact with sentient life, all that’s been produced over the past nine years are four proof-of-concept demos and a mission entitled The NeuroGen Incident. Being a small outfit that, at this point in time is predominantly crowdfunded, it’s unclear whether the game will ever reach the high bar it’s set itself.
Based on my short playthrough of the NeuroGen mission, however, I very much hope it does.
Without any backstory, the mission drops you on un-named ship somewhere out in the depths of space. Everything around you is bathed in darkness, leaving you dependent on your torch’s narrow beam of light to navigate your way into the bowels of the ship and get the power up and running.
The mission itself is simple: to retrieve some research data and destroy all records. Although it’s unclear what the research is or why it needs to be destroyed, there are some strong Weyland-Yutani vibes -- of people in power having meddled in things they don’t fully understand.
Scrambling around in the darkness, crawling through claustrophobic air ducts, trying to bring the ship back to life, faint sounds of movement begin to echo all around you and a tense atmosphere begins to develop, the ship empty, apparently abandoned without warning but for the perpetual movement of faceless androids concealed within a shadowy labyrinth of tunnels.
It’s unclear whether they are friend or foe, showing little to no notice of you whatsoever provided you keep your distance. Antagonise them, however, and you have to act immediately. These things are fast, unpredictable and deadly. Think of the anthropomorphic androids from I, Robot and you’re pretty much there. You never know when they’re going to come for you, but when they do, you’d better be ready. They really are terrifying.
The ambiance for this mission was completely spot on in my book, and left me on edge throughout the entire playthough. It really did take me back to the first third of the very first Half Life game, venturing unaccompanied into a dangerous unknown, trying to piece together events for which you have only the smallest fragments of information. Stuff the co-op option, playing this thing alone is definitely the way to go.
I’ve seen people complain that the androids themselves are too powerful, killing you in just one or two hits. In my view, this is exactly how this kind of game should be. It makes them dangerous, puts you on the back foot, forces you to be cautious and plan your movements. Run and gun this ♥♥♥♥ and you’re in for a bad time.
As for guns, in my playthrough, all you have available is the very sub-machine gun you start off with. Now, some people might bemoan being unable to pick from hundreds of different shotguns and rocket launchers, with the developers themselves planning to eventually release 27 different weapons, but I liked the simplicity of it. The situation will no doubt change as new levels and environments get added, but on a small and enclosed ship, there was no need for anything more. And, as daft as it sounds playing a sci-fi video game, it added to the realism of the thing and maintained a pervasive feeling of vulnerability.
The visuals themselves are nothing special, but they don’t have to be. I’m a firm believer that, if the narrative and gameplay are sound, how a game looks should have very little do with your enjoyment of a game. That was very much the case here. After getting sucked in, creeping panicked around corners, inching deeper and deeper into the ship, the last thing on my mind was the lack of high-res textures and dynamic lighting and advanced particle effects.
Two points of note I will make regarding future development: first, when riding platforms that move vertically, the player’s character bobs up and down, as though clipping in and out of the platform’s floor. I’ve even seen mention elsewhere of people falling right through these platforms, so definitely looks like something the developers need to take a look at. In addition, the game seems to be pretty poorly optimised at present. Although I don’t have the fastest gaming PC in the world, the game was averaging around 15 FPS for much of my playthrough.
Those issues aside, this game was a very pleasant surprise. Though short and still far from finished, this small little taster holds a lot of promise. If the developers stick to their guns and play this right, Interstellar Marines could will be a worthwhile successor to System Shock. Watch this space and cross your fingers.