In space your friends can hear your scream.
While the initial draw of Interstellar Marines might be the not-so-subtle allusion to the Alien film quadrilogy, players who pick up this title for just that one reason – and I need to stress the “just” – will come away disappointed.
(But only for now.)
Still in Steam Early Access, this “AAA indie” from Zero Point Software offers an old school tactical FPS experience, presenting an inspired blend of Half-Life, System Shock 2, and Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield. Mixing co-op, role-playing, and nonlinear gameplay, Zero Point aims to honor the evolution of the genre and to keep driving it forward thanks to a “compulsive interest in science fiction, role-playing, military realism, and respect for first person immersion.”
This roughly translates to “we do our best to scare the bejeezus out of you.”
It has been many years since I first panic-grenaded the lights out in Alien vs. Predator and ran screaming into the darkness as monsters both faster and stronger than me zeroed in on my position. The desperate pinging of my radar was real. The adrenaline-fueled fear to look back at what was behind me gave me nightmares. I wasn’t constantly tabbing to the scoreboard to see where I stood and/or teabagging spawn campers, I was deeply absorbed in fearing for my life.
Ah, the innocence of youth.
In recent years, the thrill of being actively scared hasn’t come across me much (which, as a self-confessed wimp, is generally a-ok with me). There were a few moments in F.E.A.R. that made me glad I kept the lights on and my headphones off, but for the most part I could laugh it off with “there goes my mommy, dumping dead corpses onto my head again.” Dead Space gave me some claustrophobic sensations. The new Tomb Raider got my adrenaline going. But for the most part, the majority of gaming took a lazy, sit-back-and-enjoy feel, and first person shooters in particular somehow became synonymous with scoreboards and foul-mouthed 12-year-olds.
Interstellar Marines had me scared. Actually scared.
(This was made significantly harder by the fact that pausing didn’t actually pause the game or the ambient sounds, you need to Alt+Tab to do that.)
Set in a believable future where you are an elite soldier handpicked to join Project IM, a top secret military program assembled to protect mankind from all dangers outside our solar system, you are dropped right into a mission that starts with absolutely no aliens at all.
And while you won’t find any xenomorphs skittering around the ceilings and charging out of the darkness, you will be faced with keep-you-on-your-toes ambient sounds, a pressing paranoia of being lost in the unfriendly dark, and the ever-present danger of crazed robots charging out of the blackness to beat your brains in.
Who knew training bots could be so damn scary?
(Then they get guns. Naturally.)
Nuts and Bolts
This is not the first time that I’ve seen an attempt to merge the vagaries of “what makes a game look/feel AAA?” with “what makes that game look/feel indie?” Life is Strange, the newest title from the developers of memory-hunting Remember Me, comes easiest to mind – a hand-painted visual style that is very much in line with the patchwork feel of indie title Shelter.
(For a first look at this game, see: First Impressions – Life is Strange from DONTNOD Entertainment)
Interstellar Marines takes a step away from games like Life Is Strange by going the other way – pumping out the AAA visuals, and presenting the most polished and downright beautiful realism it possibly can. Where the “indie” comes in, I suspect, is the absolutely fantastic and personal approach Zero Point takes with their community, taking an active interest in discussions and pushing out new updates (e.g. through their YouTube channel).
Stepping fully into the first person perspective, the creators have placed a great deal of time and effort into making it look as realistic as possible – the outline of your visor, the flecks of dust that catch on it and show up when you turn to the light, no HUD crosshairs, dynamic breathing that actually affects how the gun wobbles…
I could go on. Suffice to say… I love it. For me, it’s the little things. And that is a lot of little things.
This is not to say that Interstellar Marines is perfect – far from. There are plenty of rough edges, and development progress is slow, to the point of perfectionist. The options provided (single-player, co-op, and various sandbox maps) are constantly growing and it’s wonderful to see some of the changes that have (and keep) rolling out, but it continues to be a sticking point – where are the aliens? The landsharks? (Actual) outer space??
Furthermore, for a co-op game, I found IM didn’t play very well with the various chat programs I am almost constantly using. Mumble’s overlay had epileptic fits over this game, to the point where I had to switch it off – a thoroughly unpleasant necessity since it kept freezing as well so I never knew whether or not my mic was stuck on or stuck off. This is a minor gripe but certainly one that affected how long my runthroughs ran.
Nevertheless, I have high expectations for this game. In its current iteration, I would not necessarily encourage players to purchase and start playing immediately unless you are the type of person to heavily invest yourself into the community. I highly suspect most people will burn out on what is currently available very quickly and then never touch it again, which would do this title quite a disservice.
But keep an eye out on updates for this one. I know I’ll be. After all, it’s not like I’ll be sleeping properly any time soon.