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ShootMania Storm [Preview] – Lightning reactions

14 Jun 2012  by   Peter Parrish
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Nadeo is establishing themselves as a developer with a winning formula; create a fun, innovative spin on a well-worn genre and then hand the instruments of construction over to the players. With the TrackMania series, this took the form of pushing your car to inch-perfect race times with the frustration-defusing mechanic of the instant restart and scrupulously egalitarian multiplayer (every player had exactly the same car with exactly the same handling). These terrific foundations encouraged drivers to use the straightforward in-game editor to fashion more tracks, and the title became self-sustaining.

ShootMania Storm aims to do much the same thing, but with the first-person shooter genre as its heart.

For people who’ve only been introduced to shooters through recent console outings, it probably seems like uneven weapon loadouts, perks and light RPG ‘levelling’ mechanics are the norm for the genre. It wasn’t always that way, and ShootMania is definitely harking back to previous PC twitch-shooter outings where a player’s reactions with a keyboard and mouse were paramount. This is FPS in the manner of Quake 3 Arena or the original Unreal Tournament, with perhaps a dash of early Tribes to round things off.

Movement and weaponry are key to how this style of shooter feels to play, so it was great to discover that this alpha version of ShootMania has satisfying movement physics pretty much nailed down. Each player avatar (dubbed ‘StormMan’, though I’m sure other cosmetic skins will become available in the full release) is nimble enough to feel fast and responsive, but also has enough weight and momentum to convince you that you’re controlling a guy rather than a frictionless balloon.

Rapid, continuous movement, bunny-hopping and mid-air twists (particularly if making use of some of the jump platforms dotted around certain levels) are all vital if you want to stay alive. A stationary target is always a doomed target.

In terms of weaponry, the primary gun present in this alpha release was a projectile-based affair. If you’re used to ‘hit scan’ (ie; projectiles with no travel time and instant impact) this will take some adjusting to, and it’s the reason ShootMania has slight echoes of Tribes. Though lacking an area of effect (splash-damage), the default ShootMania gun feels quite like a Spinfusor.

When you combine this with the rapid movement of the players, dramatic showdowns between duelists are commonplace. The combatants hop in and out of cover, bound around one another and let off sporadic weapon fire in the hope of landing the crucial hit needed for victory. When you’re engaged in such a fight the adrenaline rush can be intense.

That tension is in part down to the creativity of thought that’s gone into ShootMania’s game modes. In-keeping with the spirit of the title, new modes can be created with the ‘ManiaScript’ instrument that’ll ship with the game; so although these alpha variants were made by Nadeo, anyone with enough imagination and coding skill (ManiaScript will have a higher barrier of entry than the basic map editor) can construct something just as compelling.

The two stand-outs in this release were both modes which came down to individual skill and one-on-one duels. ‘Joust’ is a one-on-one mode where players have to race towards lit up poles in order to charge up their weapons with limited shots, and revisit these poles when they need more ammo. Here’s the twist: sometimes getting to a pole first will lock it out for your opponent (who then has to travel to one on the other end of the map). Rules are (of course) customisable, but the default is a first-to-seven approach, with a tennis style tie-break system that requires one player to be at least two points ahead at the seven point mark.

It makes for some frantic, skill-based tussles and even adds a slight tactical edge. Do you hold back with a few shots until your foe is out? Should you be counting your enemy’s ammo, Dirty Harry style (“Did he fire four shots, or only three”)? Are you able to lure your opponent towards the next pole, just as he runs out of shots and you’re about to recharge yours?

That’s what you should be thinking about. More likely you’ll be going through a mental process closer to this: “Gah, missed again … there he i … shit, out of ammo … ok, I can make it to the po … christ he still has shots left, ok ok, just duck and weave, duck and weav … yes! Made it!”

Likewise, a mode called ‘Royal’ tends to come down to tense, individual dances between two competing players. This mode is a ‘last man standing’ affair, with the added spark of a central pillar that can be activated to gradually shrink the play area with an encroaching electrified fence. In one particularly engaging map, it was a multi-way scramble for the high ground surrounding the pillar followed by increasingly desperate fire-fights as the space began to constrict, and any fall from the central platform spelled death.

If you’re more of a traditionalist, ShootMania also offers basic deathmatch (called ‘Melee’) and team focused area capture (‘Battle’) modes. These didn’t feel quite as innovative to play, but still benefitted from the deftly balanced movement and weaponry of the title.

As with TrackMania, there looks to be a real accessibility to the title. The barrier of entry will perhaps be slightly higher (say, a small fence rather than absolutely nothing) because players will need to at least be familiar with, and semi-competent at, the classic style of PC shooter. Mitigating that somewhat, the game modes take no time at all to learn (there’s even a little ‘rules’ board at every spawn point) and the projectile based weaponry, while tough to master, should be simple enough for players to eventually get a few kills with.

Of course, a commendable aspect of all of Nadeo’s recent games is the freedom afforded to players to simply alter aspects they don’t like. As mentioned, ManiaScript is theoretically powerful enough to tweak and forge new modes of player entirely (as well as, it can be presumed, new weapons and player abilities). Nadeo themselves suggest this instrument will be for “a minority” of players, but any scripts can be shared and used in maps created by others, so popular mods or scripts will proliferate with ease.

Maps, happily, are just as easy to put together as in TrackMania. This doesn’t automatically mean all user-created maps will be good, but if a player has a strong idea then then select terrain block, roate and drop mechanics of the included map editor should be accessible enough to bring it to reality. Once again ‘simple’ and ‘advanced’ editors will be included, but ‘advanced’ perhaps over-sells the difficulty of an application which is still quite straightforward to figure out. Just as Canyon was the included tile-set with TrackMania 2, so Storm will be the blocks that ship with ShootMania.

With Tribes Ascend already out there and ShootMania Storm on the horizon, it’s looking like it could be a fine year for twitch-shooter revivalists. Far from ruining the crop, this is one Storm that’s poised to help it flourish.

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