During the almost one-hour long presentation held by creative director Enric Álvarez (with the assistance of producer Dave Cox) at Mercury Steam's offices in Madrid, the amount of cool and inventive gameplay systems on display really surprised us. Systems that work behind the scenes as you play Raiders of the Broken Planet, the brand new asymmetric shooter from the studio that gave us Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. But this pleasant surprise came with a caveat; as refreshing and deep as those mechanics may seem, the last thing you want in your fast-paced co-op slash competitive game is too much complexity. You need immediacy, user-friendliness and accessibility upfront.
Raiders is indeed direct. It's pretty easy to read and get to grips with, and thereafter incredibly hard to master. And it really feels like something fresh and different, as the Spanish studio have been trying to base their idea of a new type of shooter using their previous experience with characters and stories. Without the pressures of working for a publisher, "we can do whatever we want", they told us, and it is plain to see that they've been taking advantage of that freedom.
So, how does this work? At its core, the game is a 4v1, mission-driven online third-person shooter. 'The 4' are the raiders and 'the 1' is the antagonist, but contrary to other asymmetric experiences, the roster is exactly the same for both sides, including special abilities. What this means is that you won't get a hugely powerful monster when playing against a team, instead, you'll focus on ruining the team's objectives, and you'll also have AI enemies on your side. Meanwhile, the group of four will be focused on not just trying to kill you, but on accomplishing their missions and staying alive.
Naturally killing the antagonist is an option, but he or she has infinite respawns (it just gains the raiders some time), whereas the raiders have to share a fixed number of lives, with the respawn cooldown increasing in length with each death until the game is over.
It's more a matter of strategy and play-style, even when you've found your favourite character. When playing co-op as a raider, you try to find the best-fitting class and gear to compliment your teammates, and you focus on specific tasks (escorting, shooting down a giant mech, hacking terminals, etc). When playing alone, you must try to be a pain in the ass of those raiders, and believe us, both roles are quite satisfying. "If you learn to play as a raider on a campaign, you'll have to relearn how to do it as an antagonist," as Álvarez put it, even if it's the exact same character/build.
But that's just scratching the surface of the main gameplay concept, as there's a bunch of really unique things in terms of presentation, release and, as you might have guessed, narrative. And then there are the numerous mechanics working underneath the hood that we mentioned earlier.
Raiders of the Broken Planet will have four releases during the so-called 2017 Season, but it's not episodic as such, nor is it some sort of Early Access (feedback and continuous development is still part of the package). After the imminent final beta, Mercury Steam will schedule the launch of four complete campaigns, each one telling the full story of a number of protagonists (raiders) and antagonists. They want players to jump in at any given point, with any campaign they fancy, as there's no specific order, nor cliffhangers or continuation (although there is a conclusion to each campaign); just four narratives adding to one central story arc.
There will, of course, be a season pass, but each campaign will also be released standalone for "an incredible [TBA] price". Each campaign contains a free prologue and the content itself, which consists of several story missions. Think around 20-30 minutes per round, 5-6 missions, and at least 6-8 hours of playtime per campaign.
The plan is to keep building and tweaking based on community feedback with every release, so it shouldn't be perceived "as a big game cut into four slices". With this model, which also comes with obvious benefits business-wise, they mean keep working on the final game beyond last year's first beta (which was "immensely productive and reassuring" for the team) and the upcoming pre-launch beta, which will be released on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
How are missions and narrative linked, then? In Raiders of the Broken Planet, there are no game modes, other than the choice between playing co-operatively or as an antagonist. You can also play solo in training mode, but that's it. Missions are not just a narrative device, but also the way to introduce different approaches to each stage.
What this means is that you'll get to watch (or skip) an intro cutscene, you'll get to know who's involved and what they're there for, but then that story will also add the tasks to be completed during each phase, going from Horde-like scenarios to end bosses, controlling specific points of the map, rescuing new raiders, or keeping AI characters alive, just to mention a few possibilities. In the end, it's a variety of objectives that play out in a bunch of arenas, but the cinematic approach adds a nice twist to both presentation and gameplay.
The game is an ambitious undertaking, and the production values are also quite high for an independent multiplayer project. This can be seen in the highly-detailed character models, the sometimes over-the-top artistic work, the quality of the cutscenes and presentation, and the movie-like music composed once again by Óscar Araujo. The four first campaigns are already written, so it's now a matter of the players telling the studio how gameplay and scenarios can be improved, more balanced or more exciting, starting with the first campaign.
Finally, there are those systems that add both the occasional twist and a reason to get hooked. We talk about things such as the elaborate close-quarters combat system, with counters, grabs, dodges and the constant drive for perfect timing, distance, and an attack type that will kill off your opponent with a single combo. And there's a why for this as well: unless you go melee, you won't get ammo, nor energy, from your kills.
If you keep pulling the thread you'll find an automated cover system (no button press needed) and the need to learn some stealthy techniques. Even if the tutorial suggests so, there won't be long Metal Gear-like stealth sections, but as staying undetected and sneaking your way through the map is usually recommended, you'll soon learn how to take advantage of quiet moments and a lack of awareness from the opposition. There's the Aleph energy, which has a different impact on each character's special and standard abilities depending on their faction. There are of course specific character load-outs, roles, skins, weapons, talents... there's a card system linked to the character progression, there are different rewards and in-game gold, and a League of Antagonists that acts as a wall of fame for the best players. There'll even be events that change the rules and scenarios of some missions.
Too much? Told you so, but it all feels natural and straightforward, believe us, and this is mainly thanks to a smart and clean user interface in terms of both the menus and in matches, including a pretty nice idea for the matchmaking layout. While all of this is nice, it won't mean a thing unless balance and smoothness of gameplay are there, but it seems as though Mercury Steam are on the right track here as well.
From what we gathered during our time (both hands-on and hands-off) at Mercury Steam, it feels like Raiders of the Broken Planet may indeed have what it takes to find a place in the crowded and competitive shooter space. It has personality, a seemingly deep and addictive progression system, cool mechanics, and varied and tense gameplay that offers a significant challenge. But, above all, it seems like something brave, fresh and potentially flexible, and we all know how important that is for a new contender to succeed.