Steam Early Access Impressions: Interstellar Marines – The NeuroGen Incident

InterstellarMarines.jpg

On Friday, Early Access first-person shooter Interstellar Marines received its first major update in quite a while, a single-player / 4-player co-op mission called The NeuroGen Incident. After a weekend spent immersed in Zero Point Software’s atmospheric sci-fi world for half a dozen hours, I’m back on the other side–after many deaths and only a few success–to report my early impressions.

The NeuroGen Incident takes place aboard a space station, where creepy, sentient robots roam around in the darkness, and in the quiet a ghostly voice can occasionally be heard whispering “help me.” As an elite soldier recruited to a top secret military program, you enter the facility tasked with a mission to retrieve research data and delete all records. Like a lot of old school first-person shooters, the game involves exploring a huge maze of corridors, open rooms and ventilation shafts laid out in a somewhat non-linear structure. Along the way, you hit switches to restore power, you find keycards to open locked doors, you collect audio logs to uncover bits of lore, and you shoot at things with either an SMG or an assault rifle. The core mechanics and level design, despite some obvious tweaks and balances that need to be made as development progresses, are rock solid. The minimal HUD, the first-person perspective viewed through the marine’s helmet visor, and the powerful ballistics sound effects further enhance the strong sense of immersion.

InterstellarMarines_TheNeuroGenIncident_1.jpg

Those things that you shoot–the robots–are the real stars of this pre-alpha mission. Humanoid beings made of metal normally aren’t scary, but in this game they are absolutely terrifying. While searching the facility, often in complete darkness with a gun-mounted flashlight as the only source of light, the sounds of the robots’ metal feet clanking off the metal floors and the hydraulics of their metallic joints moving can be heard as they patrol hallways and adjacent rooms. What’s truly creepy, though, is their erratic behavior. Sometimes you’ll spot them completely motionless hiding in a corner or standing face first against a wall and then, bam, out of nowhere they’ll let out this robotic groan and charge in a blind range only to break off in another direction, stop dead in their tracks, or bum rush you with reckless abandon. It’s like walking through a clothing store full of naked mannequins that appear in new places every time you look. They bring such an eerie and unpredictable nervous energy to the experience that forces you to be alert and constantly check your surroundings. Even though the mission can be soloed, you’re going to have to be super-skilled or incredibly lucky to survive until the end on even the normal difficulty, as enemies are easily capable of dropping you in only a couple hits. Having a squad of players watching your back and sticking together as a unit to revive anyone who should fall is crucial to survival and only adds to the tense atmosphere.

The summary on the Steam page cites games like Half-Life, Rainbow Six and System Shock as sources of inspiration. With this update these influences really shine through in full force for the first time. This game is not horror, but it has the dark sci-fi survival horror atmosphere and suspense of a System Shock and is actually a lot scarier than a lot of pure horror games in recent memory. It builds the same sort of look-over-your-shoulder tension as playing through the classic Ravenholm level in Half-Life 2. And yet the gameplay relies heavily on burst firing for accuracy, smart reload timing (get caught reloading at a bad time and you’re toast), team tactics and other elements of military realism that you would expect from a classic Rainbow Six game. This is totally one of those games you have to play with the lights off and either surround sound or a pair of headphones on.

InterstellarMarines_TheNeuroGenIncident_2.jpg

The NeuroGen Incident definitely establishes a strong foundation for the game’s main single-player/co-op campaign, but there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. For the purposes of offering constructive feedback, let me rattle off a list of first-hand bug encounters as well as some thoughts I have about future mechanics I would like to see added and how to improve certain design elements:

    – This game desperately needs checkpoints. At this point I’ve played the mission enough to memorize the layout and objective flow, but on a good run it still takes around half an hour to finish. Dying anywhere in the mission, even if you’re a step away from the final objective waypoint, means restarting all over from the beginning. Playing in co-op–with a good team that works together, of course–opens the opportunity to revive fallen squadmates within 15 seconds, but should anyone be left to bleed out they will have to spectate for the rest of the session. Having even one halfway marker checkpoint would help ease the tedium of replaying from scratch.

    – More clearly defined objectives would help a lot. The space station environment is both massive and labyrinthine, and the only aid to figuring out where to go and what to do is the voice of a female AI providing mission objectives as well as lettered icons overlaying the screen as objective markers. I understand not having any sort of hand holding waypoint system to explicitly guide you where to go, as the feeling of being lost in the dark environment is an integral part of the game’s tension and exploration. But there should at least be some way to pull up a tab so you can recall the current mission objective in case you missed the one time it was voiced over. Signage could also help make navigation less confusing without breaking the atmosphere. By signage I mean labels on walls or doors indicating what room you’re about to enter, so when the lady on the headset says to go to the hydroponics room or the mainframe there is at least some natural direction provided so you aren’t spending huge chunks of time walking around aimlessly hoping that the next door you open is the right way. Most buildings and facilities in real life have labels on doors or wall markings somewhere, so similar navigation aid wouldn’t be out of place here.

InterstellarMarines_TheNeuroGenIncident_3.jpg

    – Joining co-op sessions that are already in progress isn’t handled very well, as new players spawn into the game at the beginning of the level, even if the rest of the team is far along in the mission. Worse is when you start a game solo and leave the session open for others to join. If new players gradually join in rather than everyone starting all at once, it is tough to keep a strong unit together, and thus chances of actually completing the mission decrease. Another mutual benefit to having checkpoints would be to allow new players to spawn in at the nearest checkpoint passed. An even better solution would be to have new players spawn to the team leader’s position so players already in progress don’t have to wait or backtrack in order to help stragglers catch up.

    – I would kill to have a melee mechanic as well as scroll wheel functionality for swapping guns. While the game does have a knife attack, it is self-inflicting only. (Whatever you do, do NOT press the K key!) On many occasions I found myself burning through a clip with multiple robots in pursuit and no way to fend them off due to the realistically slow reload animations. It would be awesome to be able to give a quick melee strike with the butt of the assault rifle or maybe even have a knife or kick attack as a last act of desperation, even if the attack only served to stun the enemy or knock them down so you can attempt a reload. Swapping guns is done the old school way by tapping numerical keys, but being able to give a quick flick of the scroll wheel would feel a whole lot more responsive.

    – In addition to the garden variety bug fixes, balancing tweaks and performance optimizations that any Early Access game must go through, this game has some major level design glitches that are of a more urgent nature. The big one is with the mission’s elevator ride to the ending scene. I haven’t encountered this in solo play, but the two times I completed the mission in co-op players have either fallen through the elevator completely or become stuck bobbing up and down in the floor panel. And on one of the occasions just getting the elevator ride to trigger was bugged. When we arrived at the elevator platform it would not close and begin its ascent. Eventually, after we spent five to ten minutes jumping around, shooting the elevator and stepping on and off the platform, the trigger finally decided to trip.

InterstellarMarines_TheNeuroGenIncident_4.jpg

    – Of lesser importance yet still glaringly broken, I’ve come across certain doors that open but are blocked off by invisible barriers. When I hit the switch the door would open and I could see a room on the other side, but a magical force field prevented me from entering. This could be a glitch, or it could be a result of sections of the level that the developers simply haven’t completed. Thankfully none of these invisible barrier rooms are necessary for progressing the mission or appear to contain anything of importance, so it’s really more of an immersion-breaking cosmetic flaw.

For pre-alpha, Interstellar Marines is one hell of an impressive indie game with all the trappings of a full-budget AAA first-person shooter. Yes, it’s a very rough, incomplete draft of a game, but the fact that it’s already this intense and atmospherically captivating proves that Zero Point Software is heading in the right direction. Oh yeah, and did I mention that this game also has team-based competitive multiplayer? I didn’t? Well, it does! I’ve been so sucked in by The NeuroGen Incident co-op that I only dabbled with a few matches while letting my nerves calm after dealing with those creepy robots. I can’t offer any in-depth impressions of the multiplayer, but what I did play seemed substantial enough to maintain an active community while the rest of the game’s modes and mechanics continue to grow and evolve.

Interstellar Marines normally sells for $18.99, but there’s still a little time left on the clock of the game’s 25% off weekend sale. 25% off coupons are also floating around that can be stacked on top of the sale price. If you don’t have any reservations about paying for unfinished Early Access games, this is a good time to consider jumping in because the game is already a worth playing, and the price will inevitably increase by the time the full game is complete.

Disclosure: A free Steam key for Interstellar Marines was provided to VGBlogger.com by the game’s developer.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!