I’m not sure I like this trend of indie games having intentionally bad graphics. Yes, nostalgia is great. And, like anyone, I love revisiting the past, but I’m not so much a fan of perpetuating it. These days, with indie games like ‘Life is Strange’ and ‘The Solus Project’ sporting some phenomenal visuals, the whole pixelated ‘retro visuals’ thing is starting to wear thin. Of course, games like Minecraft or Undertale totally break this mould. But try as it might Gunscape doesn’t follow suit. And that’s a shame because the concept behind Blowfish Studios’ latest outing is truly interesting.
The concept of a zombie apocalypse permeated a significant portion of my childhood conversations. For my friends and I, the idea of fighting in a familiar location was an enticing one. And that’s the mindset that Gunscape focuses on, except not with zombies per se. Disregard the campaign – and it is a campaign that should be disregarded – and the game is essentially design-a-shooter.
I want to commend Blowfish Studios on Gunscape’s level builder because it’s quite fantastic. You’ve got access to a myriad of textured blocks and interactive pieces. And you can set spawn points for weapons and enemies. On top of this the controls are accessible and simple, which makes the creation process a fluid one. Basically anything you saw in the campaign, you can create yourself. And in many instances, the community made maps far surpassed those that the developers created. See, it was easy to sink a few hours into level building because the process is a rewarding one. There’s a charm to creating levels that allows time to tick by without your noticing. And while I’d love to say that this charm extends through all of Gunscape, it doesn’t.
You’ll rarely get to properly experience the levels you’ve created because almost no one is playing Gunscape – I’ll touch on why later. I spent an ungodly amount of time ‘waiting for players’ to join my game. On a more positive note, Gunscape doesn’t place you in some mind-numbing lobby. It let’s you explore your chosen level, so I did a good deal of exploring and shooting at nothing until either someone joined (if I was lucky) or, more realistically, I gave up. That said, a few players did join the later levels of my campaign. And thank god they did, else I wouldn’t have made it that far.
Now, I know I’ve already touched on the campaign, but it needs further attention. Obviously, the focus of Gunscape is on the ability to create and play. But I’m not even sure why the developers bothered to include this campaign at all. They’ve tried to force a story on an idea that is inherently story-less. And in doing so added a difficult and frustrating element to an already sceptical game. Shooting against other people in online matches isn’t so bad, and that’s because they’re all struggling with aiming in the same way you are. But when you’re flying solo, killing the enemies in the first level of ‘The Shay Complex’ campaign is difficult. And it only gets harder as those enemies become tougher and more plentiful. Even in the best-designed campaign levels, you’re struggling to see with the ‘retro graphics’, you’re struggling to aim with the ‘retro’ weapons and all the while you’re getting angry at the ‘retro’ physics.
With all these ‘retro’ elements and deliberately pixelated graphics, Gunscape draws a comparison to Minecraft. Of course, Blowfish are well aware of this. They’ve thrown little references to Mojang’s Mona Lisa throughout Gunscape. Yes, these references are a subtle and effective taste of humour, but with them notwithstanding the Minecraft comparison doesn’t serve Gunscape well.
See, Minecraft worked because it was charming and because it was addictive. It functioned on a step-by-step process; you had to build little things in order to eventually create bigger things. The process of mining the building components was what ticked the hours over, and the incentive of creating something from nothing is what kept you playing. As soon as they introduced that ‘creative mode’, things started to go downhill because that incentive didn’t exist to the same extent. And if you take away the guns, Gunscape is just ‘creative mode’ on Minecraft. Sure, it’s cool to build your house and your school and then to kill some monsters there. But the notion of reward is gone. And once you’ve built the place and killed the things, there’s not much point to coming back.
The other thing is that it’s 2016 this year. We live in a time where shooters are so realistic that psychologists can blame them for the rise in teenage delinquency and have people believe it. The days of the pixelated and difficult to aim shooters are behind us. Yes, Doom amazed audiences back in 1993, but if you showed it to a kid who’s been playing Halo 5 all week his reaction would be very different. Minecraft worked as a game because there was nothing else like it. While Gunscape does give us the capacity to create maps, the whole design-a-shooter thing quickly loses its appeal when there are pre-designed shooters that are a thousand times better looking and infinitely more playable. Now, before you accuse me of being ‘harsh’, I do understand that the smaller studios are working with limited staff and limited budgets. I’m not asking indie developers like Blowfish to push the graphical boundaries. But I am saying that this idea of retro graphics has outstayed its welcome.
See, I actually wanted to like this game because its central idea really is a good one. Were we still living in the days of Doom and Quake, I’m sure Gunscape would have gone down in history as a classic. But the thing is that shooters these days look and feel so good that a step this far backward is difficult to abide, even if it does offer an interesting premise. It’s like someone discovering a truly beautiful colour but you can only wear it in a suit of armour.