Preview: Black Ice Alison Fleming May 23, 2014 Previews Cyberpunk as a genre is almost criminally underutilized in video games, tossed aside in favour of more traditional fantasy or science fiction fare. Even steampunk, which started as an offshoot of the genre, is generally more well known. Which is a real shame since it can not only be a fascinating genre to explore, but it seems more suited to gaming than a lot of others, since many of its tropes go hand in hand with gaming’s. I’m always happy to get my hands on a cyberpunk game, so I was eager to dive into Black Ice as soon as I laid eyes on it. It’s described as “Borderlands meets Tron” by its developer, Garrett Cooper, which is maybe the most apt description for a game I’ve ever heard. It’s an FPS where you fight through hordes of enemies and improve yourself via new loot and stat upgrades. The latter half of the comparison shines through in terms of the setting – the buildings and enemies are all made of brightly glowing neon and the projectiles are lasers and glowing disks. The core of the game is pretty simple. You’re a hacker, and you start off with two tools – a really basic gun and an Icebreaker, a tool to hack into the servers of the various corporations. These servers are represented by buildings making up the procedurally generated city around you. Your eventual mission is to take down a massive corporation called Finality, who are set up in a huge Skyscraper that dominates the rest of the city. That’s impossible for a long time, though, so first you have to take out smaller corporations, gathering loot and experience from the remains of their servers. Despite being rather abstract in theory, the actual hacking is pretty basic stuff. You use your Icebreaker on a building, which causes waves of enemies to spawn and a counter to start ticking down. You need to survive until the hack is complete and then mop up whatever enemies remain and, when that’s done, the building fizzles out of existence leaving behind a nice pile of treasure and some bonus experience. The loot is entirely randomly generated, and can come in a ton of varieties – one building can drop a jetpack while the next drops a shotgun that fires rockets or a sniper rifle that fires lasers, for instance. As you upgrade your loot, either by buying it from various shops scattered around the map or by sheer luck of the draw, and your various stats you can take on bigger and bigger corporations, eventually maybe being able to take out Finality. The shooting itself is solid enough, with the very basic mechanics being enough to support a fair amount of enjoyment. The real fun comes in how you advance, and eventually become able to power through hordes of horrible critters. While you start out rather weak with a tiny little pistol and no real defense or utility abilities to speak of, you’ll eventually have a whole arsenal at your fingertips and the ability to soar through levels or run at ludicrous speeds. Still though, if that was all there was too it – fighting off one wave of bad guys at a time, over and over again – things would begin to get dull, no matter how nice the mechanics feel. It’s fortunate that even at this early Beta stage there are some more involved features, then. Corporations come in different colours, and that influences what sorts of enemies they spawn. For instance, blue buildings spawn solitary, extremely tough monsters while orange buildings seem to generate particularly strong artillery but weak melee troops, and flashing buildings spawn hordes of tiny, spider like creatures. Creatures spawned from different coloured buildings are also hostile to each other as well as you and will happily attack each other if you aren’t nearby. You can also get guns that allow you to change the allegiance of struck enemies. It quickly becomes less of a standard shoot-em-up and a game with a bit more strategy, where you pit different corporations against one another and dive in to reap the rewards. Beyond that, enemies can spawn with different abilities, like the ability to set their targets on fire or lay mines in their wake, which only adds to the chaos. Things don’t get a chance to get stale, and the number of different ways you can approach situations keeps things enjoyable and interesting. The graphics aren’t particularly pleasant right now. It’s all frameworks, sharp angles and contrasting colours, but they manage to create a consistent aesthetic. It feels like the sort of computer world you’d see in early cyberpunk works, a glowing neon city inhabited by hostile, creepy AIs. Despite the game getting chaotic at times, the graphics do usually make it clear what’s going on – the special enemies have easily visible ways of denoting them, the different colours make it clear who’s fighting who and the UI is generally clean enough to work in the heat of battle. There’s also an online multiplayer mode, which seems to work surprisingly well. This is even more obviously a work in progress than the rest of the game, but the fact that it functions well and doesn’t seem to suffer from lag or latency issues is a big plus. Players use the default Unity model and there’s no real concession to the additional players beyond enemies getting harder – the gameplay’s the exact same as the single player game, but with multiple people running around the cyber city. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it would be intriguing to see new interactions and possibilities open up with more people involved. The fact that Black Ice is still in an early stage of development does mean there are quite a few flaws. There’s only a few types of enemies to fight and a similarly limited number of basic weapon types. Even though the weapons have random stats, there’s a distinct lack of unique, memorable loot like in Borderlands. None of the weapons you find lying about have much of a punch to them, or elicit that feeling of joy that other, similar games can give. Even with the variants of both of these that the game spawns, and the occasional curveball thrown in, things can get repetitive quickly. This is compounded by the fact that progress grinds down to a halt really quickly. After the first dozen levels or so the experience required to level up skyrockets and it takes a daunting amount of time to improve. Payoff from stat investments seems a bit too paltry as well – improvements are marginal, and are quickly outstripped by items. Some stats seem more useful than others as well, and the inability to respec – while not necessarily a bad thing – limits experimentation. Weapons seem to hit a sort of soft cap pretty quickly too, with few improvements showing up after a couple of hours. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to compare equipment and the UI can be clunky at times so inventory management between bouts of slaughter drags the whole experience down a notch. And when it comes down to it, even if you take different approaches throughout your playtime, the game never really goes beyond that basic idea of “hack a building and shoot the enemies it spawns.” There’s a lot of potential for other things that could spice things up a bit, and it’d be a real shame if the developer didn’t expand on the basic mechanics. Still, none of this detracts from the fact that the game is just fun. In its current state it’s not something I could see myself dedicating dozens of hours per run to, unlike some of its forebears. It occupies a space in my mind more similar to something like The Binding of Isaac or Desktop Dungeons – something to fire up when I have a spare 20 minutes to kill. A brief burst of mindless, cathartic pleasure to tide me over for a while. But as development continues, problems are smoothed out and more things are added to the game, Black Ice could definitely become something far more substantial. And Cooper is being not just quick and efficient with developing the game, but also extremely open with it. He has both a subreddit where he regularly posts updates and a public to-do list set up via Trello, where fans can vote on suggestions and the like. Black Ice is currently on Greenlight, but it’s also available for $5 here – this price will rise later, when it’s ready for release.