Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios / Publisher: Paradox Interactive / Platform: PC
If Johan Pilestedt’s business card is any indication, Arrowhead Game Studios is Europe’s capital of 80s action movie fans. The card shows him screaming defiance with a gigantic machine gun in the same pose Tony Montana adopted in the final scenes of Scarface. And apparently the rest of the company’s employees also have cards depicting themselves in famous movie moments. Which is appropriate, really, given that the next game from the team that brought the world Magicka is a ridiculous potpourri of 80s movie clichés called The Showdown Effect.
Like Magicka, The Showdown Effect is a high-energy multiplayer bonanza. Unlike Magicka, however, it eschews the third dimension for a side-scrolling 2D gameplay approach. At the beginning of each match, everyone picks a character from a list of caricatured 80s stereotypes, like Dutch McClone, apparently Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lost twin brother. You can then equip up to two weapons, customize your appearance with silly props like top hats or robotic limbs, and then you’re plopped into a match with up to eight players.
Depending on the mode you’re playing, you’ll have a slightly different goal to win, though in all cases, the game is a run-and-gun chaotic mess, with players jumping, wall-climbing, shooting, and stabbing each other in close quarters. If you’re playing free-for-all, the game ends after a set amount of time, and the player with the most points win. The wrench, though, is that when time is about to expire, everyone loses their respawn, so if you die you’re out for good. The last player standing receives five bonus points, allowing for some last minute comebacks, which is exhilarating if it’s you, and heartbreaking if it’s not.
In the team variant, the game works a little like a MOBA: every death your team suffers increases the respawn timer for every player on your team, and the ultimate path to victory lies with eliminating the other team so that none of their characters are alive. Already a frenetic game, being the last player alive on your team while everyone else is trying to hunt you down is tense, to say the least.
Because it’s a game with the aesthetic of 80s action movies, Arrowhead has implemented some subtle design choices for both the ranged and melee weapons. First, it’s possible for you to block all bullets being shot your way with melee weapons (because what’s more 80s than cutting machine gun bullets in half with a sword?). Melee weapons are instant kill if you hit someone who has lost some of their health, so the interplay between controlling space and dodging becomes an art of twitch reaction, almost akin to a fighting game. Encounters are usually a few brief seconds, but they can take you a large distance as you swap between your guns and swords trying to obtain the advantage over your opponent.
“Showdown is in itself an Arrowhead game,” says Pilestedt. “The heartbeat rating of the game is such an important part of every game that we do. We want the players of our games to have an increased heartbeat, trying to get a hold of a situation that is impossible to get control of. The gameplay is so complex that the outcome is never certain. It is always deterministic, so the system has no random factors, and that unpredictable but still tangible predictability is so important to be able to achieve this tingling. There were a lot of games like that in the 90s, in my opinion.”
Specifically, Pilestedt says the team played a lot of Super Smash Bros. and Goldeneye while developing their next game after Magicka, and the feeling those games sparked in them was what really defined the speed and design of The Showdown Effect. And then there was a little known game called Return Fire for the 3DO, PC, and PS1, a multiplayer capture the flag vehicle combat game.
“That game defined how one can build a real pacing throughout a game sessions that ends in a final climax,” Pilestedt says. “DOTA does this exact thing. And both Magicka and The Showdown Effect aspire to that.”
The other interesting gameplay choice was to include an aiming cursor on-screen when using projectile weapons; in order to hit other players, you actually have to mouse aim like an FPS, introducing some skill into firefights.
“In 80s action movie you have to shoot a lot to hit anybody. At first we had this vector-based system. That didn’t feel very 80s action at all. We tried a lot of dodge mechanics, hiding in the background mechanics, and cover mechanics, and none of them felt like ‘this is Showdown.’At one point, I was like ‘guys we have to figure this out.’ Our lead programmer asked why couldn’t we do it like Quake, where you have to put the cursor on them. So we crunched all evening, so in the morning when our artist came in, and got hands on with the game, we just let him play and didn’t say anything about what we thought. And he played it and was laughing and laughing and laughing, and it worked.”
I had a lot of fun with the multiplayer beta build that Paradox debuted at Paradox Con last week, even though I wasn’t particularly good. But as I played, I started to get a hang of the subtleties of the mechanics, and every death was another lesson on how not to die next time. And the game is catching on in the online video community, as well, which is good for Arrowhead and Paradox, because the game will feature full Twitch.TV live stream support in-game, with no additional software required, a smart move to entice the community to support the game.
The game will be out before the end of Q1, but if you pre-order, you can participate in the beta for the next three weeks.