Sunday, 29 January 2012

Retro Blazer (Preview) (PC/Mac/Linux)

I love Quake. I've got a major soft spot for the game which might be in part because it was a game I played a hell of a lot of during my awkward teenage years and for a while was practically all me and a few of my friends talked about during school hours. I used to get up early on weekends to play direct-dial deathmatches against a mate with a faster modem, and got reamed every time.

Quake was a dingy, moody game and if it was a bathtub it would have really awful tidemarks all the time, and probably some dubious matter clogging the plughole. I loved how it was shot through with Lovecraftian themes and as a teenager I was pretty much contractually obliged to think Nine Inch Nails, and therefore the game's sinister and brooding soundtrack, were awesome. Also it had nailguns. So witnessing the Darkplaces engine, a souped-up version of the Quake engine, used to make a game that looked as bright and hi-res and just visually loud as Retro Blazer just had to be done.

Retro Blazer is a galaxy away from the muddy, grim visuals of Quake, and looks just wonderful; and seeing these sights through the eyes of the Darkplaces engine is weird, like playing a Bizarro World version of the cistern-crawling FPS we all know and love. Retro Blazer drops the player in a day-glo dungeon of bright lights, weapons that fire balls of energy (even the shotguns!) and good old fashioned exploding barrels. Because life's not been the same since villains realised it was a silly idea to leave them around their bases.

I know I'm banging on about the graphics and haven't mentioned the gameplay, but bear with me because there's a lot more to write about. Retro Blazer may use an engine descended from the one that ran Quake, and the walls, floors and ceilings (and sky when it's visible) are rendered in three dimensions. Everything else, however, from the energy packs the player picks up, to the bad guys themselves and even the aforementioned exploding barrels are the kind of two-dimensional sprites that anyone who has ever played the first two Doom games, Duke Nukem 3D or about 97 other first person shooters from the 1990s will easily recognise, and that was it for me. Totally hooked on the nostalgia drugs RetroBlazer injected into my eyes while it had me distracted. It's like the contents of a can of Red Bull acquired sentience and crashed Quake and Duke Nukem 3D into each other. In a disco. In space. A few more pictures will probably do a better job of explaining how great the graphics are, and I'd better start writing about the gameplay.

Fast, exciting, tough at times (but it's the Quake engine so you can save the game at any time instead of waiting for a scene change or a magical rabbit or whatever) and all in all relentless; that's how Retro Blazer plays. Firefights turn quickly into heart-in-mouth teethclenchers and in true 90s FPS fashion the bits where you aren't fighting with stuff go past quickly because there's always another laserfight around the corner, and this game doesn't muck about with long exploration sequences. And you need keycards of various colours at various points in the game. Glorious!

Quickly recapping, it's really nice to be able to save the game when you want to. Playing hunt the save point or having to keep retrying entire portions of a level just to get to a point where you can actually put down the controller without losing half an hour's play sometimes don't always sit right with me, and this (I guess you could call it "retro" but it would make me feel really old and I'm not 30 yet) function gels well with the equally old-school difficulty curve of the game.

Elsewhere the weapons are a little underwhelming - the shotgun let me a down a little in firing spheres of green energy and not angry clouds of buckshot death, but that's probably because my love of shotguns in first person shooters borders on a fetish. Still, they fit in well enough with the game's visual style and neon-soaked sci-fi atmosphere. I was undecided on the music before the soundtrack hit its stride on the third level, where the pacing of the music and the level design sync up neatly.

The gameplay of Retro Blazer isn't flawless but there's very little I could find wrong with it that wasn't based on personal prejudices. I agree with the Editor that it this game really is a breath of fresh air, and the fact that this is only the alpha build of the game is certainly impressive. I thought hard about whether I should give a five joystick rating to such an early build of a game. Then I loaded Retro Blazer up again and it made my decision for me.

Download the game here (from Retro Blazer website).
5 out of 5

Second Opinion

Doom is still a game (and very likely always will be) which is probably in my top 10, if not top 5 games. I have been somewhat active in the Doom community (which is quite lively and has a backlog of almost two decades of occasionally great custom made stuff). I like Quake too, and played a fair share of other popular and not so popular games of this ilk back then and even made level for quite a few of them.

The level design was the first thing in Retro Blazer which struck me as "retro", and "retro" here would be used in a derogatory sense. I like the graphics in this a lot, they are indeed a fresh breeze as far as FPS games go. But the level design, really? Wolfenstein 3D was what came to mind, with it's always similar looking, completely non-memorable locations that make navigating the levels less than fun, and especially so when there are actual maze contraptions thrown in for good measure.

Retro, the game even has it in it's name; although it is something I can not really understand, other than perhaps some people might like this kinda stuff. There are a lot of things I would never touch with a 10 foot pole, and yet others like them so I can't really judge them for that. The only thing I can do is look at this game from the standpoint of a person who has played games actively for a quarter of a century now and whom also works in the gaming industry. The way the game plays feels very dated. Yes it is fast, but it is also confusing due to the lack of variation in level design. Often I find myself wondering which of these five doors in this square room I have already passed through - and most of the time they lead to more square rooms...

Another thing I did not really enjoy was the fact that the peashooter weapon, while graciously having unlimited ammunition, does not auto-fire. It is not fun to tap your mouse button a lot. I don't know where this design decision came from, but in my opinion it does not make any sense.

Concluding, I have to say that I did not play this very far. Why you ask? Quite simply, it bored me to death. Also I saw some videos of further levels, one of which gets into a proper maze after a while - and because mazes themselves are not annoying enough (I played through all of Wolf 3D and the Nocturnal Missions, so I've had my fair share of them) in Retro Blazer there are guys on the walls of the maze lobbing grenades at you (did I mention you can not aim up?). This I guess was made to create some kind of tension, but it just looked cheap to me. Then after you made it through the maze you get to walk on top of the maze walls and show those grenade lobbing bastards what you are made off. Funny enough in the video below the guy at some point fell down the walls back into the maze, but he gracefully edited the footage with a nice fade-over effect to spare us watching him get back up again.

So all I can say is, while I am sure there are people who will enjoy this, I am not one of them and if you are the kind of person that likes their shooters with a bit more intricacy in design and level layouts then you probably won't either. The nostalgia alone just does not do it for me any more.