Those of you who've been following RGCD for the last few years will know that we very rarely feature previews or prototypes - as a general rule we prefer to wait for a final release before giving our opinion (a lesson learnt from previewing Rob Fearon's super-fun yet still super-elusive G-Force *twice* back in our old diskmag days). But hey, I'm not writing here to complain about the non-appearance of one of my favourite remakes (again) - no, today I'm going to tell you why you really need to check out Free Lives' two player cooperative/competitive run 'n' gun kill-em-up BROFORCE.
I really want to avoid the direct comparisons that a lot of other review/previews have already made to the current generation of indie games, because as far as I am concerned BROFORCE is unique in its execution and style. No other platform/shmup I've played in recent years has been as frantic, chaotic nor downright explosive - and the (currently) compulsory old-school two-players-in-front-of-a-pc design choice makes it stand out even more from its peers. Sure, a game like this would be doable in single player, but as the name suggests BROFORCE is all about working together with a friend (Bro), blowing the crap out of everything that gets in your way - and then blowing it up some more (force).
And when I say everything, I really mean everything. There's a mountainside between you and an enemy populated underground bunker? No problem, just hold down the fire button and feel the wry smile on your face widen to an inane grin as the entire landscape in front of you is decimated, with little surprised enemy soldiers running around bleeding, screaming and erupting into gibs as their previously-secure base is rocked by explosions. If you've got an overly keen trigger-finger the level's structures and supporting landscape will be ripped to shreds within mere seconds of starting a mission - the game really is that volatile. Remember that classic scene in Predator where Mac cuts through the dense rainforest with a minigun? That's the kind of raw power BROFORCE puts in your hands - but we're talking mountains and reinforced concrete buildings here, not wimpy vegetation.
Having said that though, BROFORCE isn't a one sided battle. Sure, your weapons are ridiculously overpowerful (the exact flavour of destruction depending on what bro you are playing as of course), but this is ultimately balanced by one hit instant-deaths. The titular Bros may look as tough as nails, but unlike the action movies the game is clearly inspired by (with character names such as Bro-Hard, Snake Broskin, Rambro, Brade... need I continue?), a single bullet is enough to put a premature end to their mission.
In developer Evan Greenwood's own words, BROFORCE "is a game that came out of discussions about 'broness' between me and the other bros I work with". Now, being a mature gamer (read that as 'jaded old bastard') I hate terms like broness, but I have to admit that Free Lives have captured something really special here. During each mission you'll encounter other 'Bros' imprisoned in cages, and setting them free not only swaps your character, but offers an extra life in the sense that if the active character is killed, the previous brother comes back into action. It's a bit like the weapon swapping mechanic in Super Crate Box - you might not want to swap to another character, but to progress it is a necessary evil. In addition to this, if your comrade has died, then these additional troops act as respawn points for the less fortunate player, bringing them back into the warzone for another generous serving of death and destruction.
Remember in the opening paragraph where I was indecisive about whether the game was cooperative or competitive? Well, both players will most likely battle together cooperatively through the bulk of each mission, but after defeating what appears to be Satan sporting a business suit at the end of the level only one of you will be able to "get to the choppa!" - the other player is left behind as the entire area is levelled by an airstrike of shock-and-awe proportions. This simple design choice brought us to tears or laughter here at RGCD HQ, with the mad dash at the end of each stage climaxing in a stiff middle finger fuck-you to the unlucky mercenary left behind.
So, how does the game currently stand? To be honest, despite being rough around the edges, light on content and more than slightly buggy, it's already surprisingly solid for an early preview. The core mechanics are just about perfect for a two player game, with just the right mix of love/hate between the players. In fact, whilst playtesting for this write up we often found that it was more fun attempting to kill off the other player than bothering to beat the level, the surviving soldier only to die moments later as a result of the destruction caused in the face-off. Infinite continues just meant that this gave us a refreshing break or intermission from the real task at hand.
The other thing BROFORCE gets 101% right is the fact that it offers players a true sandbox battle field. As well as being able to smash, shoot and explode through concrete walls, like all true action heros the bros can scale vertical structures using little more than a blade and brute strength. Got to get the top of a building and don't fancy your chances taking out the army of bad dudes inside? Just blow a wall out and climb up the outside in relative safety.
Thankfully though, there are limitations. The fact that you can only fire on the horizontal axis means that some strategic play is required. You can't just shoot up a ladder to kill an enemy above - instead you'll have to use a grenade, plant a bomb, or find some other route and take him out from behind. This is an important element of the game that I think has been lost on a lot of players - if you had the ability to fire four, or even worse, eight directions then it would leave practically no challenge other than avoiding the flaming debris falling from above as you manually disassemble the level from your starting point. I personally hope that Free Lives ignore the naysayers and leave this much-needed feature intact.
To conclude, this is a game that I am totally rooting for. Scheduled for release some time next year and currently buried amongst the thousands of other games on Steam Greenlight, this is one that is more than worthy of a vote.
Download the current preview build here (from the Steam Greenlight entry).
(Evan Greenwood from Free Lives kindly took some time out from frenzied development to speak to RGCD and answer a few questions about their BROFORCE project).
As way of introduction, could you give details of your background and how/why Free Lives was founded?
The game development scene in South Africa is relatively small. To make the games I want to make I was always going to have to start my own company. Pretty soon out of high-school I realised this. I had dreamed of being a AAA level designer once upon a time, but nothing in AAA approaches the pace I enjoy and ultimately I like living in South Africa. I've worked bloody hard (I haven't had a holiday, besides going to GDC, in years) and finally I have the skills (I hope) and a lot of the money we need to do this.
What were the main influences and inspiration for BROFORCE? How did the concept arise?
The game was originally going to be called "Rambros". I had made a previous game for Ludum Dare called "Super Smash Lander Suicide Party, Bro?" which played with the concept of "broness" and violent machismo and I had really liked the results. So when the word "Rambro" was uttered I knew we had to make that game. Orginally I wanted to make a Metal Slug like game where all the bros you meet follow you in a congo line... kinda like Grim Joggers. But then it was suggested that your bro could change, like the way a weapon normally changes, which fitted so well with the saving Vietnam vets in Metal Slug (and obviously works brilliantly in Super Crate Box).
Destructible terrain was always going in. Destruction might not be everyone's favourite flavour of gameplay, but I love it, and it fits the theme so very well. The first version of the prototype for BROFORCE was created for Ludum Dare 23. It ended up controlling a lot like Spelunky (which I'm a huge fan of) and borrowing a lot of flavour from Valmbeer's Infinite Swat. As development goes on the game is going to become a lot deeper and have a more content, and I think we're moving in a direction that leads to BROFORCE feeling like its own unique creation.
It turned out that another game that is in development had had it's name changed to "Rambros" just months before we made the prototype. That felt really sucky at the time, but "BROFORCE" suits our theme better, so it worked out for the best (and I think both games are going to be super sweet!).
We had been busy with a totally different game at the time. And had already invested over six months work into it, but BROFORCE kept tempting us until, recently, we realised that BROFORCE offered way more appeal and was so much more satisfying to work on. We've retired that other project (for the time being perhaps). I don't regret that decision at all.
What development tools and hardware set-up were used to create the game and could you briefly describe the development process?
We're working in Unity, which is great. It's allowed us to iterate over a lot of ideas really quickly and doesn't have any limitations for this sort of project. There are four of us now (the prototype was just me and Jarred Lunt really). We've been kind of just throwing ideas around and seeing what sticks. Right now our animator is trying to create explosions in the shape of skulls. It's AWESOME. So far this theme and project has been more enjoyable and inspiring to work on than anything I've ever worked on.
What are the biggest challenges that you have faced so far as an indie developer?
I find the business part of making games really difficult. Spending time writing emails to customers (who are sometimes really mean) and brokering business deals or porting games into other languages to maximize profits are all things that steal away from the joy of making games (for me). And being the sole programmer / designer / producer / business owner (which I was for a while) was really crushing. Free Lives is a bit bigger now and the people I work with are excellent, so I'm hoping I've put much of that god-awful pressure behind me.
You've already got a fistful of game releases under your belt thanks to competitions like Ludum Dare. Excluding BROFORCE, what is the game that you are most happy with?
I made a game called "Kicky Fighter" once. I didn't release it, but got it to quite a substantial prototype (if anything more substantial than BROFORCE is now). It is kind of a gestural brawler, which would have been great on IOS but might still work as a ridiculous Kinnect game. It involved the struggles of one man with a sweet fro smashing everyone in his path into bits of blood and meat while seeking to have revenge for the death of his mentor who was killed by a rival martial art's expert. He later finds out that he's actually in a zombie apocalypse, which explains all the enemies trying to kill him. Also he drives a car which looks incredibly similar to KITT from Knight Rider, and which is great at exploding zombies. Like BROFORCE I feel happiest when the project's goal is to create as much awesome content as possible.
The preview version of BROFORCE has already shown that the game is fundamentally designed for two players - which is a brave, but nonetheless strong feature. However, will the final see any sort of single player campaign?
Yes. We want to work a fair bit of story into the campaign (told in succinct nuggets). We really do want single player players to have a great and engaging time playing the game, and the hope is that improving single player (if done right) would make the co-op experience better as well. Also we're going to spend a lot of time working on getting online multiplayer working, to try make BROFORCE playable with bros by everyone.
Free Lives clearly has its game design roots fixed firmly in the golden age of video games. If you could travel in time and work with any game developer or team, who would it be?
Treasure. If I could have worked during the Golden Age of video games I would want to have been a part of Gun Star Heroes. Nothing for me, besides maybe Metal Slug and Contra, or Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, comes close.
Thank you for participating in this interview. Is there anything else you'd like to add before signing off?
Thank you for the glowing words. Seriously. Making games is super hard, super complicated and ridiculously expensive. Having a good feedback (positive or negative) and getting exposure makes taking the massive risks involved possible. I really hope we manage to create a game that fulfills this idea's potential.