Review: Space Marshals22 Jan 2015 0
Space Marshalls, a top-down 'tactical shooter' from erstwhile racing game developer Pixelbite, throws us into a science fiction Wild West men are men, roaming the plains, dispensing justice and taking orders from sarcastic AIs. Pixelbite show their own frontier spirit with such a radical departure from their civilised comfort zone, and even if this, the game's first episode, doesn’t always hit the mark, it's still got style and moxie to spare.
The plot, this being only a narrative warm-up, is straightforward -- following a breakout on a prison ship, Burt, a disgraced, suspended marshal is released to hunt down the ringleader on a nearby planet. The broadly drawn, quip happy characters are charming enough, and the game is nicely peppered with touches of Space Western flavour. Although the Wild West look might have you thinking about all guns blazing showdowns on main street, the game quickly establishes that'll get your gunslinger killed pretty quick. You're on your own out on the frontier, partner, and you gotta fight smart.
Particularly early in the game, running around trying to gun down every bandito you see is a bad move -- your health is very fragile, and your energy shield can only shrug off a couple of frontal attacks before recharging. Instead, Space Marshals encourages you to make use of a generous damage bonus for ambushing enemies from behind. The top-down view makes it easy to track enemy movement patterns and sneak into their blind spots for a kill -- more Schofield Kid in the outhouse than William Munney in the bar.
Equally though, this is not a hardcore stealth game. It doesn't have sections where discovery is instant failure or clearly demarcated 'stealth only' foes like the Arkham games -- you're never in a situation you absolutely can't gun your way out of. Your stealthy tools are, noisy rocks and specific disguises aside, mostly limited to crouching, convenient-waist height cover, and the dubiously short sensory range and attention span of guards. It's Metal Gear Solid with a looser, arcade sensibility; ending up feeling more like deadly hide-and-seek than a lethal stealth operative at work - but the game still nails the satisfaction of instantly wiping out some poor sap who didn't even know you were there. It's when you're picking off mooks at a controlled pace that Space Marshals is most enjoyable, and also when the game's controls work best.
Space Marshals goes with the 'virtual twinsticks' style reluctantly favoured in iOS shooters -- move your finger around the left side of the screen to run, and around the right side to draw and aim your gun. Pixelbite, though, make some smart UI decisions that elevate this implementation most iOS shooters. A white aiming line broadens to a cone to indicate an enemy is in your sights. Floating red punctuation marks broadcast enemy alert statuses. Aiming a rifle drags the screen towards your target for an easier shot. These little touches add up, and most of the time, Space Marshals manages to make the core act of shooting a dude feel smooth and natural.
That 'most of the time' though, is a killer. When Space Marshals sees fit to pressure you into a run and gun situation, whether by a timed optional goal or a close-quarters boss fight, the controls then leave you feeling a half-second too slow. Even when you have the weaponry to fight toe to toe, neither automatic or single shot weapons feel comfortable when trying to fire off snap-shots or hit a moving target. Despite Pixelbite’s fine efforts, 'console style' controls, shorn of their native tactile feedback and pinned to a screen, still aren't sufficient for a game of this pace and complexity.
Visually, Space Marshals is damn purdy, and in particular the levels defied my dustbowl-dominated expectations, being varied and colourful. In terms of design though, they're pretty linear affairs, a loose path littered with scoundrels to bushwhack and the occasional key or lever to find. That's fine --ambushing banditos is what we're here for-- but it means the levels are lacking in the replayability the game seems to assume they have.
Players unlock new weapons and armour as a reward for finishing levels -- the fewer times you die and the more key targets you take, the better the selection on offer. The game's array of items is well thought out, offering up distinct gear that allows you to substantially adjust your playstyle -- a bandit disguise or a laser rifle, to pick two, neatly open playstyles heavier on sneaking or blasting respectively.
Unlocking new levels, though, is based on finding clues scattered throughout the stages. These are too often found in otherwise pointless dead ends, and searching for them kills the game's tempo dead. If Space Marshall's stages had a bit more sprawl, if they rewarded the player for exploring with special gear or stealthier routes, these mandatory replays might be a pleasure. As they are, having to revisit levels for perfect runs and doodad hunts did a lot to cool my ardour for Space Marshals, particularly as mid-level progress isn't saved when the app is closed and trickier levels feel a little too lengthy for quick play sessions. The replays became a chore, and rather than a playing a short but slick action game that left me hungry for more, I had a slightly longer experience that I was glad to see the end of.
Despite all its clever touches, Space Marshals often feels like a title bravely fighting against the incompatibility between genre and platform. If you've been soured on virtual controls and iOS shooters already, Space Marshals probably won't change your mind. When the game is in its stride, though, it stands as a pretty, polished experience and one of the best games of its type on the platform. Seen as a first episode, it offers a strong foundation that, if followed up on by more ambitious level design and greater focus on its strengths, could be a real Wild West legend.
Reviewed on an iPad 4.