There was a time when first person shooters reigned supreme. Numerous shooters began to emerge. Many sought to include a catchy new hero, 100 new weapons, or other ideas to be distinguished from the rest. One developer dropped the idea of “six degrees of freedom”, that had a hybrid flight sim and first person shooter ideas combined, that game was called Descent. There’s something to be said about the style of play it introduced, not only where you checking towards your left and right for enemies, but you were also checking above, below and behind as well as trying to remember your sense of direction in a fully X-Y-Z axis level design. It’s a gamer favorite, and looked at favorably with nostalgia by many gamers. Now you may ask, well we’ve already played Descent and it’s sequels since 1994, do we really another version? Yes we do. The bar on may have been set pretty high in 1994, but it’s been kicked up to pole vaulting heights in 2015.
Enter in Sublevel Zero by Sigtrap Games, that is releasing today on PC. Skimming the outer surface of its description, yes it is a Descent-clone, that’s like saying Team Fortress 2 is just a Half Life 2 mod. It’s that “more” that distinguishes this game, and leaves a resounding mark on the shooter landscape. Graphically it takes plenty of cues from it’s ancestor, the retro homage is unmistakable. Screenshots may fool you into thinking this is simply a recreation of a twenty year old game. Using the Unity engine which is far more capable, there is dynamic lighting which you can adjust, and high use of antialiasing, which provides nicer and flashier effects, enhanced atmospheric looks, and explosive battles unlike it’s older ancestor.
Red, Blue, and Yellow key cards have returned from the dark ages, but blended with the thrill of permadeath and procedural generated levels and enemy placement. Molding rogue-like entities with first person shooter elements is handled masterfully by developer Sigtrap Games. Instead of “oh not this gain!” its “why didn’t they think of this sooner?”. Story goes like this: solar systems began to vanish long ago due to a manmade event, as space/time was torn apart across the galaxy. What was left of humankind was scattered among the stars. Humanity’s advanced understanding and knowledge was mostly lost, as the remaining people were grouped into various clans. You find yourself in an ancient space station defended by various artificial intelligences, searching for the answer and the knowledge to reverse the effects of the galactic event. Your mission is to destroy each level’s core and take all six advanced flux parts and escape alive. Seem simple enough?
Survival in Sublevel Zero is unlike static shooters of old. Like any good rogue-like however, you only have one life, no saves and no checkpoints. The levels and enemies are procedurally generated, so you will never play the same game twice, so forget memorizing enemy locations and hidden overpowered BFG rocket launcher locations. The name of the game is efficiency, and that efficiency creates a sense of urgency and welcomed chaotic quick decision making. Ammunition and missiles are limited, repair kits are even scarcer. You have another element to concern yourself with, the weapon crafting system. This strategic layer raises constant dilemmas for the player. You start off with a slow firing autocannon, plasma cannon, and a dumbfire missile, soon you’ll find other weapons. Do you equip the new versions? Save them and hope to craft more advanced weapons? You only have 12 slots on your ship this includes slots for repair kits, how many kits should you keep? Do you save for a crafting a new shotgun style ripper or new multifire missions? Do you push to the level’s main core, or risk yourself exploring unknown tunnels for the chance of finding one or more really powerful items? Do you carry two energy based weapons and risk running out of energy while amassing bullets from downed enemies? When you are out of slots, what gets left behind?
I also found that the AI in this game is well implement, I found myself bracing at every door in later stages. Game always begins at sublevel 0, your starting point, all enemies on this level are pretty basic. However a shrewd experience player will still be cautious, piling up his repair kits, for the harder later sublevels. I cannot tell you the amount of times later on I thought the room was clear only to have an enemy drone float down behind me, pop me in the rear, and then run and hide. There are some enemies that are expert bull rushers, and plow into you causing considerable damage. Early on I was able to dodge them easily, but later on in more clausterphobic spaces with enemy laser turrets or flame geysers defending the room, these rammers suddenly become juggernauts of doom. Rooms are later combined with multiple types of enemies that are simultaneously trying to flank you, snipe and hide, charge you with barrages of shots, ram you; while at the same time you are dodging and avoiding the static dangers of the room itself, lava, spewing geysers of flame, lasers and more. Some games equate difficulty by giving enemies more health, and precision aim and high damage output. Sublevel Zero ramps up difficulty by blending enemy types and dangers in such a way that you are dodging fighting, retreating, and dancing your way in and out of combat creatively to survive. I highly prefer this approach to ramping up player challenges.
At one point I sat in the middle of a long, long, winding corridor. Counting my inventory. I had two barrages of homing missiles left, that’s not much for the sublevel I was on. No energy left, so c’est la vie to my favorite weapon. I had a shotgun style weapon. 20 health points. No repair kits. I said my favorite Captain Picard/James T. Kirk lines just charged. The room housed two valuable item boxes and it was very well guarded. Spinning enemy drones exploding, and blaring alarms from my hull collapsing, a fury of particles and charging red ram enabled enemies whizzing at my sides constantly, it was an unbelievable cacophony of furious combat. In the end, when it was all over and my hands ached clenching my controller still unsure how I managed to find and activate one of the boxes and repair kits in time… I survived. Think after surviving 15 minutes of that craziness I had any doubt this was a really good game?
I played a mission where I built a continuous firing energy beam, but my second playthrough I was unable to as the items required simply never dropped. Instead I was relying on this nasty high speed gatling gun I crafted from other weapons. Third playthrough? I was able to amass high amounts of darts for my combination energy based scattercannon and multihoming mini-missile barrage. However my favorite still is to find and craft the best type of sniper weapon and explosive missile possible and just pop into a room drop a bomb and float back picking off anything foolish enough to follow me, all while nodding my head to the engaging soundtrack. And the controls? Controls are as smooth and carefree as the humming engine coasting you through the space station. When the developers promised no two playthroughs would be alike, they delivered, the fact each playthrough is still fun for me after many attempts, is a nice surprise.
Still, a handful of items nagged at me as I played this game, for starters the tutorial explains most of the functions only in keyboard and mouse terms. Even if you are playing with a controller (which actually felt more comfortable for me, despite the shooter nature) none of the control hints accurately displayed relevant controller icons. Repair kits are extremely scares to nonexistent levels starting around 3. So much so, that I would easily become frustrated with pressing on, knowing there was just no way I would pass levels 5 and 6. You could have oodles of ammo and, weapons in inventory but if the game never drops repair kits then the difficulty takes a sharp spike upwards that could seem insurmountable and discouraging. The graphics as mentioned but after a while enemies due tend to blend together, and procedural generation often creates long passages of nothing, and then the predictable larger room with 20 baddies. Really small potatoes when compared to what you are getting.
Sublevel Zero is a great example of taking something that has been done before welding entirely old concepts into it in order to produce something profoundly better, unique in it’s own right, and more captivating in every way. It pays homage in many ways to it’s sources of inspiration, but packs enough creative ideas and changes that it now feels like both the definitive version of said experience, while also setting a better precedent for this style of game. It’s day one pricing is an absolute steal for the hours and hours of rogue exploring and captivating gameplay the title has to offer. The strategic on the fly decisions required of players will keep you in the pilots seat, and thankful you took the plunge on this great indie title.STEAM