Intersteallar Marines is that endangered project I want to see succeed.

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I like to think I lean a bit on the cynical side when it comes to Steam Early Access. I personally don’t like to buy and play games until they’re feature-complete. But, I gotta say, Interstellar Marines may have got me with its free week and accompanying $7 sale.

It still feels like it’s in an extremely pre-alpha state despite having a very long, troubled development cycle. Despite that, I’m finding what’s already in place difficult to put down. I should warn any prospective buyers though that this could be entirely due to my own personal taste in first-person shooters, a taste that’s gone unsatisfied for years. If you have the same yearning for certain kinds of first person action however, you might develop a similar attachment to this game.

When I read that Interstellar Marines was supposed to bring back the nonlinear tactical shooter I got interested enough to at least follow its development, picturing the original Perfect DarkTimeSplitters 2, or the first Crysis in my head. When I read developer Zero Point Software was inspired by Rainbow Six 3 and System Shock 2 just like every other indie developer is inspired by some classic, I was like “uh huh, sure.”

These guys were not joking.

I haven’t actually played Rainbow Six 3, but this game has me more interested in installing it sooner rather than later. Interstellar Marines is a lot like what I imagine RS3 to be. The assault rifle has ridiculous recoil, your standard movement speed is pretty slow, you have to manually reload, and most importantly two bullets will usually kill you. Add to that enemy AI which is surprisingly tactical in how it won’t just walk into your line of fire to get you. But that base philosophy isn’t what made the game strike me so hard.

As of this writing Interstellar Marines is mechanically bare. There’s no ammo system yet (you just have unlimited clips), no stamina system, only one enemy type, no checkpoints, just two weapons, and you can’t even pause yet. Artistically it also still looks somewhat flat, like it has the environment design of a fancy PS2 game but running on more modern tech. A lot of the aforementioned features should be rolled in within the next few weeks. Outside several multiplayer maps (in which you can play with bots), Interstellar Marines also currently only consists of two campaign missions, but those two missions show Zero Point has already nailed this game’s greatest strength — level design.

The first mission has you infiltrate a base to reach central level in the basement, and gives you several different paths. The base feels gigantic, elaborate, and logically-planned out. With guard towers, barracks, bridges, and elevators for you to wind around it successfully offers the fantasy of breaking into a functioning place. The difficulty in singleplayer is brutal, probably having been balanced around co-op, but I enjoyed repeating the mission to try out different paths, eventually learning how to best circumvent the enemy. It’s exactly the kind of level design I’m sad AAA shooters don’t have anymore.

The second mission takes a complete swerve into System Shock territory. It’s a derelict space station filled with crazed robots where you must eventually restore power to different sections, searching rooms and making your way to a central lab before escaping. Despite how little Zero Point has implemented in Interstellar Marines so far, this level manages to exemplify the depth and atmosphere that makes System Shock. The individual decks are labyrinthine but feel just as “real” as System Shock 2’s Von Braun. The pitch-black of the place forces you to see everything through the tiny cone of your flashlight which by itself thickens the atmosphere.

What Zero Point does with these levels mechanically already feels pretty smart but also shows promise for the future of Interstellar Marines. That first mission basically just has you tracking down a chain of key cards which you find through waypoints, but the level design shows the potential for a true investigative game with hidden bonuses. One of the keys has a hidden duplicate. Maybe when Zero Point adds weapons, ammo, and health packs we’ll see more things packed into the environments. The second level is very much about hitting switches as well as powering them up (with other switches admittedly). More interestingly it randomizes the locations of some switches while only offering waypoints to possible locations for you to eliminate. These are things I really hope Interstellar Marines builds on as it continues down its long road.

This game in one form or another has actually been in development for around 10 years. I heard someone say they remember seeing it in a PS2 magazine. In 2013 for its Early Access launch it basically had to restart development on a new engine with only two people on the team at the time. Since then it’s picked up the pace but these are usually the signs of a Duke Nukem Forever situation. Then there was the Kickstarter that failed. Zero Point wants to be in beta this summer and is preparing to start a multiplayer event in which it will develop some critical gameplay features which seem to mostly be multiplayer-oriented for now. The two campaign levels are actually supposed to be the “prologue” chapter which Zero Point wants to follow with three more, but I have no idea what the timescale is for those. I just hope they’re as good as this first one.

I guess another point worth arguing is the morality of offering a free weekend and sale for a game still so early in development. On one hand it let’s in people like me who are too cynical to buy right in, and I think what Zero Point has so far might actually be worth $7. On the other hand Vlambeer made a good point when it said it won’t put Nuclear Throne on sale while in Early Access because it wants every customer right now to be actively interested in facilitating its development, not just tossing it into their Steam sale backlog. This could likely be a whole discussion of its own.

Interstellar Marines seems like a dangerously troubled project hiding what could be some real game design talent. Better yet (or more tragically depending on how things go), it’s trying to fill a niche in shooters that’s been abandoned for many years now, and I think that’s going to become its most attractive aspect. 15 years ago this would have been seen as a generic shooter, but today it could potentially be a breath of fresh air.

BULLETS:

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