Nex Machina Review: A Heavenly Shooting Gallery True to Its Arcade Roots
One could be forgiven for thinking that the twin-stick shooter genre couldn't evolve much more than it already has with the likes of Resogun, Helldivers, and Geometry Wars. These games have undeniably taken the genre in exciting new directions over the past several years, but as time moves forward, so does the invariable progression of the genre. And Nex Machina, Housemarque's new foray into the twin-stick shooter space is a fantastic beast of a game -- one that innovates on tried-and-true concepts while all at once introducing itself as the new standard bearer of the genre.
Taking detailed notes from games of yore such as Robotron 2084 and Smash TV, Nex Machina is a modern slant in the logical progression of all things chaos. Working in conjunction with the Eugene Jarvis, the grandfather of the frenetic arcade shooter, Housemarque has ventured into new territory while remaining faithful to the edicts that set twin-stick shooters apart from any other video game genre.
Nex Machina wastes no time throwing you into its utterly wonderful maelstrom. All you need to know about this Skynet-inspired futurescape and its conceit is that the human race has become complacent, allowing technology to (inevitably) morph into draconian robot overlords. And being the hero that you are, you unsurprisingly ride full speed into this raging fury, hell-bent on this new regime's destruction.
With such a storied legacy to live up to in Robotron and even Resogun, it would be understandable if Nex Machina buckled under the weight of its forebears. But that's not the case here. Instead, Housemarque graciously embraces its inspirations and takes them to exciting, if not sometimes familiar, new levels of sensory overload, eschewing story for intense combat in the best ways possible.
With the odds unflinchingly stacked against you, enemies inundate every maze-like level with mad ambition. Dead set on your demise, they pour from portals with sound and fury, lobbing reticulated projectiles from every direction, in every direction. From ingeniously designed laser traps and artillery to arcing energy orbs and pulsating fusion bolts, enemies flood the screen with cornucopias of death-dealing projectiles even at the easiest difficulties.
But several things keep you alive in this bedlam. The first is Nex Machina's tight, responsive controls. Sure, it takes quick wit and blazing reflexes to stay alive for more than 60 seconds, but that's all for naught without a solid control scheme to guide you through this mad labyrinth. So taking notes from the developer's previous top-down shooter, Resogun, Nex Machina makes it easy to dispatch hordes of unrelenting AI as you aim with one thumb and fire with the other -- freeing up brain power to focus on getting around the map, saving humans, and staying alive.
Through my about 10 hours with the game, I never once experienced control lag using a Dualshock 4 controller. And although playing Nex Machina with a mouse and keyboard isn't ideal, the game handles those PC controls adequately if you choose to go that route.
On top of that, power ups strewn across each level keep you alive and transform your little hero in a hulking tyrant of destruction -- considering you're able to push through the pandemonium and pick them up. Whether it be a triple-dash that leaves explosions in its wake or a satisfying rocket launcher that obliterates even the largest of mobs, these power ups make fighting through Nex Machina's robot hordes not only easier but more fun. My only complaint is that the power-ups aren't more varied, especially in their penultimate state, where the only differentiation between them is personal preference, not power.
And even though enemies flood the screen with their murderous machinations, each has its own idiosyncratic behavior and path. This is your third lifeline. In my first few minutes of Nex Machina, I wasn't immediately able to discern patterns or develop winning strategies -- I was just trying to survive. But as I fell into the groove of methodical robot murder, I began to notice that nearly all enemies in the game follow a type of pattern through each section of each world.
Dying copious times only resets enemy spawns, not their behavior, so it's relatively easy to memorize patterns and strategize accordingly as you move through each stage once you get a grip on things. It's something you'll want to use to your advantage as you chase that high score or search for each stage's hidden areas.
A Masterclass in Design and Sound
There's no doubt about it -- Nex Machina is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous game from start to finish. It's clear that Housemarque not only took cues from other successful games in the genre, but that they also dedicated themselves to poignantly iterating upon what they created in Resogun.
Each level is radiant, full of pink, red, and orange neons that pulsate against vibrant backdrops. It's heartening to see Housemarque venture beyond the repetitious backdrops of Resogun and instead opt to set Nex Machina in a diverse world of magma caves, luminous city skylines, and dark, foreboding research labs.
These stages are long, twisting warrens segmented into definable sections that you'll have to clear to move on to the next. Each is (mostly) highly-detailed and beautiful, although I did run into a few issues where muddled design and slightly disproportionate assets led me to think a pathway was open when it wasn't -- which delivered me directly into the gaping maw of death.
Adding to the character of these stages, the development team partnered with Ari Pulkkinen, Tuomas Nikkinen, and Harry Krueger to compose a stunning 80's-inspired soundtrack that perfectly fits the game's overall throwback aesthetic. Many of the well-mixed tracks feature thrumming bass lines amid frantic electronic beats that perfectly pulsate with the chaos surrounding you at any given moment. In short, Nex Machina is a masterclass in sensory bombardment without the overload -- and makes you feel as if you're truly living Running Man.
Nex Machina is a blast to play. With tight controls, intelligently belligerent AI, beautiful design, and interesting bosses that redefine bullet-hell insanity, it's exceedingly difficult to find another twin-stick shooter that bests it.
If you're a fan of the genre that loves climbing leaderboards and going for the highest scores against the highest odds, Nex Machina scratches that itch better than any game currently on the market.
Outside of the traditional arcade mode, where you'll play your heart out rescuing every human, nabbing every relay, and unlocking every secret, the game offers modes like survival and score-attack to supplement its core gameplay, effectively extending the roughly hour-and-a-half campaign (on normal difficulty) to 10 hours or more depending on your skill. On top of that, a hella' fun local co-op mode will see you and a friend blasting robots to the cybernetic underworld for hours on end.
It would have been nice if the game was a bit longer and the weapon upgrades showcased a bit more variety and scope, but overall, Nex Machina is an experience that no gamer should miss out on, especially those who are fans of solid shooters.
You can pick Nex Machina up on the PlayStation 4 and PC for $19.99 on GOG.
[Note: Good Old Games provided a copy of Nex Machina for review.]