MercurySteam has a short but interesting history; their only independently developed game that saw any success was Clive Barker's Jericho, and the rest of its titles have been franchise instalments to already popular IPs like Castlevania and Metroid (even if Lords of Shadow famously started its life as an original IP). With Raiders of the Broken Planet, they've broken that trend with a brand-new universe and a whole roster of characters with unique abilities that have never quite been seen before. Interestingly for a third-person action shooter, the developers have opted to release the game in a series of four episodes, costing £9.99 each, plus a free prologue for anyone to download.
On the face of it, Raiders of the Broken Planet looks fairly standard; third-person cover shooting mechanics, cliché missions set on a planet in the distant future, and stereotypical angry half-naked fighters who each specialise in different aspects of combat. All is not as stereotypical as it seems though. Missions are playable solo, but the game focuses on the co-operative aspect, with each player picking from six characters, with more to come later. You also have the option of playing as the antagonist in another party's game, supporting the enemies and fighting alongside them, picking a character that directly counters what they've opted for.
Story-wise, the missions are split among very short campaigns, with each episode containing one campaign, or four missions. There's nothing too unfamiliar; expect to be escorting NPCs, defending a location from waves of enemies, and targeting a big baddie's weak spots throughout the first few hours of gameplay. That's pretty much all there is though, £9.99 is a steep price for each campaign given how short they are (of course future episodes could end up being much longer).
A dishonourable mention needs to go to the voice acting too. It's incredibly cheesy and unforgettable, but at least it matches the equally cheesy and poorly designed personalities for each of the characters.
Each character available to choose from has traditional roles found in most games of a similar ilk. Konstantin is a tank with a chain gun, while Lycus Dion is equipped with shotguns for close quarters combat. Then there's the character you're given for the tutorial, Harec, who has a sniper that doesn't seem useful in many situations at all since all the enemies tend to rush you, and Alicia, who also has shotguns. A range of options, but nothing too diverse, right?
But then their abilities come into the fray. Konstantin can create a 'repulsion sphere' around him that keeps enemies from getting too close. Lycus has a shield that is recharged by movement, while Alicia can perform superhuman jumps and leaps, then slowly descend, blasting her shotguns below her. Harec, on the other hand, has the most interesting ability of the lot, being able to transmute his body into particles and glide to any spot he wants, like hanging from walls, awaiting enemies to pass by. He doesn't become invisible though, so using it during a mission where you're engaging in direct firefights is a big mistake as you'll quickly be shot down.
That's the problem; most of the missions we experienced in the prologue and first campaign were exactly like that. Constant action and engagement, meaning Harec who is supposed to be the main protagonist for the game, was often the weakest and hardest choice to use. The rest of the character's abilities were situational at best, but we managed to find some use for them and it gave each character a sense of individuality.
Disregarding all the abilities and roles though, because much of the combat in the game falls down to melee, and every character is on an even playing field there. There's three types of melee move; strike, grapple, and dodge. It's supposed to work in a rock-paper-scissors type of system, where strikes overpower grapples, grapples beat dodges, and dodges evade strikes, but we found that grapples were far harder to pull off than the other two so it boiled down to some frantic button mashing as we tried to repeatedly strike enemies then dodge as they took a swing at us. There's definitely skill involved in learning when to use each move, and if you're not finding your chosen class to be as effective as you'd hoped, you can still jump into the chaos and batter down some enemies.
Each mission gives players a total of 16 lives. When those lives run out, your ship must leave and refuel on a substance called Aleph, which is when the going gets tough. Each time your ship has to refuel it takes longer, and it means you have to really fight for your survival. Taking cover and baiting enemies out, to stop yourself from going down is necessary, and to use a sporting term, is a fine example of squeaky bum time. It's intense, it's stressful, and you feel like you're really in trouble.
That feeling is intensified when you're playing either as or against an antagonist. Knowing there's a designated bounty hunter after you, or trying to avoid and get the upper hand over the 'good guys' is where the game shines, but it doesn't enhance the experience enough. The dynamic of the maps stay pretty much the same, and you're not given any extra powers or weapons as the bad guy; aside from your army of minions that endlessly charge in with you.
At the end of it though, is Raiders actually fun? The answer, unfortunately, is "not right now". There's hardly anyone playing, so finding an online match took an absolute age, then the few times we did find one, one or two people seemed to drop out straight away. While the option to play as the enemy in other lobbies mixes things up a little, it doesn't escape the fact that the game isn't that fun. It attempts to introduce new concepts, but it doesn't quite execute them effectively, and the price point for each campaign felt very steep all things considered.