Developer: Nadeo / Publisher: Ubisoft / Played on: PC / Price: $19.99 / ESRB: Not Yet Rated
Nobody walks up to someone playing Go and asks why they’re playing a stupid game with only two colors of pieces. Nobody sits down to a game of Chess and laments that the board really should be bigger. These games achieve competitive perfection by stripping out as much as possible, producing a core competitive experience that’s timeless and addicting.
ShootMania Storm strives for the same perfection-through-simplicity, which flies in the face of what we’re conditioned to want as gamers. If you judge a game by its number of maps, modes, levels, unlocks, and guns, ShootMania is not for you. However, if you’re looking for an intelligent, competitive shooter, nothing out there can beat it.
Dedication to minimalism makes ShootMania give a deceptively simple first impression. You have a gun (singular) and a discrete amount of hits you can take before you’re eliminated. You shoot other guys and avoid getting shot. You don’t level up, you don’t upgrade anything, and you don’t earn loads of superficial titles, emblems, or medals.
But don’t take that to mean the game is devoid of depth. You could take any of ShootMania’s basic systems and write volumes about how its implementation affects gameplay and strategy. Take weaponry for instance: your basic gun holds four shots of a traveling projectile, and once fired those shots slowly recharge.
Already this mechanic opens up tons of potential strategies. If your opponent moves predictably, you can hang back and rely on your prediction of his movements to lead shots and hit. If not, you might have to close in and shoot all your shots in one big salvo, hoping for a lucky hit. Predicting movement and judiciously saving ammunition while monitoring your opponent’s is a core principle to ShootMania, and there’s never a right or wrong approach.
ShootMania’s experience remains intricate no matter how high you crank up the magnification on it’s mechanics. Even the movement physics are complex. While they take a note from the Quake shooters of yore in speed, there’s a unique “stamina” mechanic that resembles skiing from Starsiege: Tribes or Tribes 2. If used in the air, you can redirect your momentum in another direction. It’s very subtle — just enough to cause a leading shot to miss or just make a ledge that gives you a quicker path to a capture point. On larger maps, converting a long drop to fast forward movement over open ground is vital. The scenarios are boundless.
Map design elegantly layers on top of basic gameplay mechanics, mainly because that’s how you use different guns. Rather than pick them up ala Quake or swap them out Halo style, your gun changes based on where you stand. For instance, some maps have sniper ledges that transform your projectile shooter into an instant hitscan-style railgun. The twist? It changes your jump to zoom, meaning you’re locked to the floor. A sniper may have a weapon advantage, but if the platform is surrounded by waist-high barriers, that sniper can only fall off the platform in a specific spot, giving all his opponents a predictable path of travel they could capitalize on. Of course, he could use stamina mid-fall to try and fake out the attackers… it goes on and on.
All these tiny game scenarios I describe are hopefully painting a picture. ShootMania, more than any shooter I’ve played, is about metagame and strategy. Rather than spray until someone dies, engagements in ShootMania are dogfights. You have to create situations that are advantageous for you through strategic thinking and map knowledge, and then have the mechanical skill in aiming and shooting to execute on them.
The game’s modes do a fantastic job of fostering those principles. What’s more, you won’t find a single copycat competitive mode in ShootMania, and all of them work. Well, all the ones I played worked, but more on that later. The value and rarity of ShootMania’s inventive modes can’t be understated, especially for fans of shooters. You can count off the new game modes in the last decade on one hand: Battlefield’s capture and old, Call of Duty’s kill confirmed, and Counter-Strike’s gun game and defuse.
My favorite of ShootMania’s modes is Joust, perhaps owing to my many hours with Quake 2’s Rocket Arena mod. It’s a 1v1 dueling mode on a small map with two towers. When you start, you don’t have a gun until you touch one of the towers, which gives you five shots that don’t recharge. To reload, you have to cross the map and touch the other tower. If you take too long to touch up (on the order of 45 seconds), you’re eliminated.
The dramatic events created by this ruleset are amazing. Say both you and your opponent are out of ammo, but you’re both headed to the same tower and you touch before he does. Now you have all the control. You can try to screen him out and go for a timer elimination or peg him as he tries to approach. But what if he pulls off some great dodges and forces you to waste your ammo? The situation reverses. He touches up, gets all the ammo, and you have to juke your way across the map to top up at the other tower.
Other modes are equally intelligent. Take Royal, which most closely resembles traditional Deathmatch. It’s a simple melee with a capturable tower in the center of the arena. Once captured, players can no longer respawn, and a massive tornado starts contracting from the outside of the map inward. This forces players to run from a wall of instant death while progressively cramming into a smaller area. Rounds usually end in a nail-biting standoff between two skilled shooters in the eye of the tornado, which is fun to watch even for those eliminated.
ShootMania’s take on capture-and-hold, called Battle, is refreshing after years of the mode’s near-ubiquity. There are three points that you capture to win but you can only capture points while you’re team is in an “attack” phase. Whoever gets to the middle of the map first at the round’s start gets the first attack, and you only switch to defense if 14 seconds go by without standing on any tower. It puts more emphasis on player position and engagement — if you keep your opponents busy away from your towers, they’ll never have a chance to reset or prolong their attack timer.
There are other modes in the game… at least that’s what the server filter would imply. Heroes and Siege sound interesting, but I didn’t find a single server running them. That’s only the beginning of issues surrounding ShootMania’s menus, browsers, and infrastructure. Simply put, playing ShootMania is divine; everything else about ShootMania is not.
It’s possible that the functional omissions in ShootMania are made because the potential playerbase would be used to 1998-era infrastructure for their games, but that doesn’t make it any more excusable in 2013. To start, the menus hardly look better than external server browsers from back in the day like Gamespy 3D. While it does support the most basic of options (filter by game type, empty servers, full servers), why can’t I see my ping? Why are some servers visible through some game “channels” and not through others? Furthermore, what are the channels and why do they even exist?
As anachronistic as ShootMania’s interface may be, it is still possible to find a game and start playing, so at least it’s functional. That can’t be said of ShootMania’s buddy system, which is confusing beyond reckoning. Somehow upon logging in I already had some 20 buddies imported from Steam (I think…) though only four of which were visible at any time. Some of these buddies would be “online,” but I wouldn’t be able to talk to them. Most damning of all, once I added a new ShootMania friend and could use the in-game chat (which is awful, by the way), there was no simple “join friend” option to follow them to a server. We simply exchanged server names through Steam chat like cavemen.
It’s a real shame, too, because with better social connectivity and robust infrastructure (I’m imagining web-based stats, modern messaging), ShootMania could really be special. Instead, it’s a fabulously designed game with an interface so antiquated that only the most dedicated and nostalgic shooter enthusiasts will stick with it. In the end, maybe that’s for the best. You don’t see a lot of trucker hat-wearing Natty Ice-drinkers in Go parlours either.