Shootmania Storm Hands-On Preview
Last time I took a look at Shootmania Storm (back in June), I came away fairly impressed. It looked like Nadeo were taking the concept they developed with Trackmania – namely, providing the tools and foundations of an accessible game for the community to run with – and applying it to a style of quick-paced, first-person arena shooter that has fallen somewhat out of favour in gaming.
During the summer beta phase, Shootmania was a stripped-back affair. The majority of modes gave you a single projectile weapon with a timed recharge rate, a few mode-specific rules to follow and a somewhat curious stamina bar action that was also mapped to the jump button. Character movement was subject to momentum, so building up (and maintaining) a little speed could be critical to making certain jumps and (in theory) providing a harder target to hit.
In the past few months Nadeo has been aggressively pursuing the eSports market, with events like the $100,000 USD IGN Pro League tournament and this week’s Curse Invitational. Unfortunately, the eSports player base at places like ESReality don’t seem overly impressed yet. That, of course, is only a limited sample, but the same complaints seem to keep cropping up from the professionals; slippery movement, unreliable netcode and the propensity for randomness in the game. When I tuned in to watch a few matches on the livestream from the Curse tournament mentioned above, it peaked at around 80 viewers. Maybe I picked a bad time, but that didn’t strike me as a great sign.
Since I’m about as far from a professional online FPS player as its possible to be (other than people who still think all videogames are Pong), I’m not going to predict how Shootmania’s January launch will go down with that crowd. What I can do instead is give you an updated impression of the game from the perspective of a thoroughly casual multiplayer FPS player, and someone who played and enjoyed Trackmania 2 Canyon.
The movement definitely takes some getting used to. Getting up some momentum is easy enough, but you can lose speed dramatically when (say) rapidly changing your direction, or strafing hard from left to right. Since using your stamina bar requires a jump to kick it off (or for you to already be in mid-air when you activate it), its usage becomes a fairly tactical decision. Speaking of jumps, the gravity in Shootmania’s world isn’t the strongest, so you can find yourself wishing for a stronger earthly pull while you’re being shot at as you float your way down. Whether intentional or not, it seems like the best way to avoid getting hit is to make judicious use of strafing (even at the cost of speed). The game’s small hitboxes will do the rest.
Perhaps in an effort to reintroduce clever acrobatics as a more viable option, this beta phase has introduced wall-jumps and grappling hooks. I saw very little of the latter in my time back with the game, though enough to report that you can only grapple in certain zones of the map and are unable to shoot while doing so (momentum is important here too, it seems). Wall-jumps are pretty puzzling, and plenty of people were asking how to execute them in the in-game chat. I managed a couple by kind of strafing while jumping at a wall. It’s not especially intuitive, and if it’s going to remain as a permanent feature then Nadeo really needs to add some sort of tutorial area to the game before release.
These features only appeared in the game as of 19 December, so it’s far too early to declare them a triumph or failure. Both are interesting, and have the potential to add more versatility and style to movement.
When this second beta period was announced last month, two new modes (‘Fortress’ and ‘Victory’) were said to be included. These were either renamed, or didn’t actually make it in yet.
What did make it in is a new ‘experimental’ version of the Royal mode, which I loved last time around. Royal is a last-man-standing affair, where all players spawn around the exteriors of a square map. The center of the map contains a pillar which, when activated, gradually begins to shrink the playing area. Anyone caught in the encroaching ‘offzone’ (last time this was an electric forcefield, it now seems to be a tornado-like storm) will die. Matches tend to conclude with two or three players dodging around a pole in an ever-shrinking space. Those final moments tend to be quite silly, and can be rather thrilling.
That original version is still there to play, but the new experimental twist tweaks the rules a little. Players are no longer automatically eliminated on death (they respawn as long as the offzone hasn’t encroached on the spawn areas, but with one armour point), and the offzone moves more quickly if more people are around the trigger.
Oh yes, and in this experimental mode you could get experience points and level up things like your character’s ammo and armour which feels … pretty odd, to be honest.
The inclusion of experience points in some modes felt, for me, unnecessary and not particularly fun. Part of Shootmania’s appeal was that it seemed to be eschewing the kind of light RPG elements creeping into (and all over) shooters. It felt strange to be joining matches in progress and facing people who already had three times as many shots as me (which, when your main gun is a one-shotter with a long cooldown, is quite a big deal). The levelling appeared to disappear on leaving a server, suggesting that you always begin from level one when you rejoin, but it wasn’t clear if this was a symptom of the beta or a long-term feature.
But here’s the thing. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe some people really want a basic levelling system in Shootmania. Thanks to the community-driven nature of the mania games, both options should be able to co-exist happily.
The ManiaPlanet front-end that houses Nadeo’s more recent titles is still a bit obtuse and confusing (see the image below for an idea of how you have to slot available game modes into the provided ‘stations’ before you can join their servers), but it does mean players will be able to whittle down their preferences and concentrate purely on the game-styles which end up being of interest to them. The title is flexible enough for community-created modes (and maps) to flourish, and democratic enough that unpopular ones will vanish due to lack of interest.
Of course for Shootmania to take off in the way Trackmania did, it needs a broad community base. With that in mind, this second beta was slightly concerning. I was on during the afternoon (US Pacific Time, so the late evening in Europe) and evening of its launch day, but only encountered around 200 players at peak times. Remember, pre-ordering the game gives you instant beta access – this wasn’t just a press event.
Spread across multiple servers in multiple countries, those numbers meant there were only four or five viable places to join (fewer with low ping factored in). There’s an experimental version of ‘Elite’ mode out there alongside the Royal one, but nobody was ever playing it when I was around.
Nadeo has confirmed that the basic Royal and Elite modes will be free for anyone to play as part of a “welcoming” package to ManiaPlanet, so that will hopefully establish some sort of player base for those game types. For Shootmania to succeed it will need a strong community, so this sort of incentive is vital. The map editor is just as easy to get to grips with as it was in Trackmania 2, but it needs an interested, engaged player base to produce (and populate) enough maps of quality to slot alongside the official ones.
Trying to please both a specialist eSports community and an existing audience from previous mania titles may prove difficult. Apparent restrictions on the modding of key elements of the game (such as character movement) have already soured some on the venture, and too much of a focus on catering to ‘pro’ players will risk the alienation of more casual, fun-seeking types. But if any game is equipped to juggle different audience demands it’s a ManiaPlanet one. With an active enough player base and some suitably creative community members, it should be possible for Shootmania’s base game and tool-set to cater to some pretty broad FPS tastes. Those features are in place, but it remains to be seen whether the title can attract the sort of audience it requires to thrive.