Could the arena shooter be coming back?

Normally I stay far, far, away from anything in Steam’s Early Access. For good reason. You’re paying money into something that may never be done. We’ve seen this happen numerous times, and some of them have been very nefarious examples. Of course on paper the idea is sound. A small company wants to make a game to sell. But it doesn’t have quite enough resources, so they get a working prototype up, people buy in early, offer suggestions, and report problems. The company gets the feedback, fixes the problems, and gets updates out until it is done. The company feels it wins because it gets some additional funding during development, and some of the early buyers get to feel like they helped a little.

Anyway, one such title came up in my Steam suggestion list after noting I bought Unreal Tournament III a while ago. I remembered all of the years spent on the Unreal Tournament games. I was even in a clan for a while. We weren’t particularly pro grade level, but we played a lot together, had scrimmages with other (often better) teams, and became proficient. The Quake III Arenas, and Unreal Tournament series offered something that has rarely been seen since. They were the apex of the Death Match, Team Death Match, and Capture The Flag modes started in the days of Rise Of The Triad, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, and Quake.

But rather than simply making a game out of these modes, they took it further. Quake III Arena had a big emphasis on speed, rocket jumping, and micromanagement. Unreal Tournament focused on adding advanced movement. When Unreal Tournament 2004 rolled around it sort of fragmented its fan base. But you can go back, and read my retrospective if you want a history of that series. The point is that those games required hand, and eye coordination at the level of 1980’s arcade game staples. They also required a lot of memorization. You had to know the maps well enough, and approximately when power ups would appear like mega health items or mega armor items so you could take more damage before dying.

Sure, the general rule set of the game was to kill or be killed, but Capture The Flag would be taken by FPS subgenres that are popular now, and evolved. Battlefield expanded that into a Conquest game of point captures, and other games have made their own objective based play. Even UT was a pioneer there with modes like Assault, and Onslaught. But while First Person Shooters have gone on in different directions, some good, some not so good, the absence of the Arena shooter seems strange. Other video game genres have subgenres that decline sure. But they don’t entirely disappear. We still see Hex based war games come out. We still see shmups come out. The fighting game was once thought to disappear, but it never did, and now is thriving again. Meanwhile few attempts to resuscitate Arena shooting have worked. Nexius dropped off really fast. Quake Live on the other hand has been pretty successful. Even if it is essentially Quake III Arena in a browser.

Mind you being an arena shooter in of itself, doesn’t make it good. Automatically being about getting a better score doesn’t give it prominence over other games. Any game can be about better score. Even back when arena shooters were popular, there were all kinds of poorly made, cobbled together games. Much like a fighting game, an arena shooter has to be balanced. Maps have to be designed in away where the movement of the game fits the layout. Placement of the items has to lead players to come up with their own equally satisfying routes to get them. The weapons have to be balanced, where any weapon, even the crummy one you start with, can turn the tide in the right hands. At the same time, they must have advantages, and disadvantages in certain situations. When that all comes together properly, the speed, the movement, the levels, balanced weaponry, you have a really great game that can be enjoyed by everyone, and mastered by the hyper competitive people who love to dissect games to their core.

Somewhere along the way though, people moved onto other experiences. In some ways it was good. People don’t remember it now, but back then Quake, and Unreal Tournament were everywhere. Every company wanted to chase that model. And like a lot of games have these days, fell because they couldn’t do what those did, and be their own thing at the same time. Shooters began to branch out. Rainbow Six started showing us there are different kinds of challenge. Things went more realistic. More cooperatively. As I stated earlier Battlefield 1942, and its sequels expanded the objective play. Even as much as many people are sick of it now, Call Of Duty did some things that worked. Some people liked not having everything right away, and grinding their way to new guns, and upgrades. They liked it so much, that other games began copying them. Today Call Of Duty is on the verge of being where Quake, and Unreal were.

And so it’s relieving to see that Arena shooters may come back to a degree. Even if it isn’t the level of popularity they enjoyed 15 years ago.

Unreal Tournament IV is poised to make a little bit of headway. Early impressions seem good. But it also seems to be veering toward the original game in terms of movement. Everything you loved about the original UT’s weapons, and dodges seem to be there. But as of yet there are no double jumps or dodge jumps of any kind. All of the classic weapons you loved are here with new designs, except the Bio Rifle which looks like the model used in UT3. All of the weapons operate closely to the original UT99 versions. There are promises it will try to attract the level of competition it enjoyed in the early 00’s. But there is also the concern that the plan to turn it into a store to buy mods made by end users, could be less a boon than anticipated. But the game isn’t completed, so we have yet to see if it can recapture the imagination it did back in 1999. It is encouraging to see that there is already sizable number of people delivering feedback, and Epic supporting the community. However there is another contender in Early Access. The game Steam decided to put in the suggestion list for me is Toxikk.

Again, by no means should you run out, and buy it. It isn’t complete. It’s been in EA since the end of last year. There are as of now, a mere three maps, and three modes. But after putting some time into it, what is here so far is promising. So far, the game has captured what made Unreal Tournament 2004, and Quake III Arena feel special. It plays like a fusion of those two games. You have the a faster run speed than UT. But you also have the parkour introduced in UT2k4. You can dodge forward, left, right, or back. You can dodge kick off of walls, double jump, and even dodge jump again. The maps you are given are designed around that movement too. The game even has elevator jumping, and the classic rocket jumping of Q3A. So you can traverse the maps without really running all that much if need be. The game has its own versions of mega armor, and mega health as well,

The weapons are also a mix of the two flagship series. You have handguns, and rifles inspired by UT. You have a shotgun inspired by Q3A, A flame thrower, a plasma rifle, and there is also a weapon called the Hell raiser. All of the weapons have a secondary fire. Some use more ammo to cause more damage. Some offer different firing altogether. The plasma rifle’s secondary fires a laser reminiscent of UT’s shock rifle. The Hell raiser is a clone of the Redeemer found in UT. Sometimes you’ll even gib your opponents. Blowing their body parts all over the ground.

Toxikk also has vehicles in it. As of now they are only usable on the game’s Capture The Flag map. All of the vehicles will give you flashbacks to UT2k4’s. There are also a lot of customizations you can do to your character, and HUD. The HUD customization is pretty in-depth, color, opacity of your HUD, and cross hair for each weapon is here. You can also pull a Q3A by having hit markers, and sounds go off when you hit targets.

It’s all a solid foundation. What has been done thus far is fast, frantic, and fun. While there are a lot of similarities to the old games, I wouldn’t call it a complete clone, though it could use a little more personality. Character models are nice, and detailed, but have a generic look to them. You can customize the colors, and helmets, but they really need to do more. The characters can also cloak for a few seconds, so there is that. The developers thankfully haven’t advertised the game much at all other than the required Steam page trailer, and a couple of behind the scenes videos. Which is a very good thing, because the game has a long way to go in terms of completion. The base gameplay is excellent. But with only three maps, and three modes (though a new map is on the way) absolutely no one looking for a new game should be buying this right now. This isn’t a review, just some initial impressions.

Since I already spent the $18 I figured I may as well talk about how it is coming along. Surprisingly, I haven’t seen too many bugs aside from a few clipping glitches, and occasionally the game hangs when loading a map. Forcing me to pull up the task manager to close the game, and restart. Most of the time though performance is actually pretty impressive. But the developers at Reakktor have a couple of major hurdles to jump though. The content updates need to come much more quickly. A couple of them have been delayed for long periods of time. Every one they let slip pushes back their ability to release the following update. If it takes too long, there is a point where competition (and there IS competition) can ape them. The second, again is personality. The game needs more characters, original characters. An original story. There is none. It could be a threadbare story, but something for players to get behind. Even Unreal Tournament, and Quake III attempted to tie in the tournaments into their respective universes. It could also spell its name correctly though I suppose that’s actually a minor complaint.

Another game called Reflex is also on the horizon. This game is also currently in Early Access, and seems to focus more on bringing back a pure Quake 3 Arena experience but with a number of minor additions. It seems like it will be much faster, and the advanced movement tricks have also been expanded.  I have no experience with actually playing this one at all. Early videos put out by its developer shows It doesn’t have the fidelity of a newer game. Everything is pure geometry, with minimalist designs for the time being. Although there do seem to be plans to bring in a lot of graphics overhauls to give it the look of the locales seen in the Quake games. But it’s nice to see another developer taking a risk in resurrecting this genre.

There’s no set release date for any of these releases. But they may be something worth keeping an eye on. In the meantime, the games that inspired these games can be had relatively cheaply. So if you’ve been missing the arcade adrenaline rush of an arena shooter, go back, and play those while keeping an eye on these. And even if you weren’t around playing those back in the day, don’t be afraid to check some of them out. You might find you enjoy that type of game play as much as you like today’s juggernauts. Quake Live is free, and is a great way to experience what was, and is loved about this FPS subgenre. If you’re worried that veterans are going to trounce you (they probably will), the good news is most of these old games do have ways for you to enjoy them with only your friends. Hopefully these new games turn out very well, and usher in a new generation of fans. That doesn’t mean we should see the modern military shooter, or objective based shooter disappear. But more variety in any genre can be a good thing.

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