On the second day after I joined the alpha test of The Red Solstice, a fellow tester gave to me what was probably the most accurate description of the experience playing the game: “You can’t screw around in this game. If you f**k up, you will die.”
As I have come to realize, truer words have never been spoken.
Despite me being a fairly competent gamer (or so I thought), The Red Solstice has kicked ass throughout my alpha experience so far, and I mean hard. The Red Solstice, the upcoming sci-fi co-op survival game from Ironward, is an intense, nail-biting, and oft-times brutal game. Metaphorically speaking, The Red Solstice has had its way with me repeatedly, and without mercy.
And I have loved every minute of it.
Let me just get state something up front about The Red Solstice (hereafter referred to as TRS) that is important. I played in the TRS alpha, and then I backed the game on Kickstarter (which is running until April 20th, so you can still back the game). I want to make this clear right away lest anything I say below scares anyone away from the game. I played it, loved it, and backed it. Keep that in mind.
There is also something else you should know in order to give this article context. Aliens ranks in my top five favourite movies of all time. There is something about that movie, about a bunch of brash marines suddenly finding themselves way out of their depth and fighting for survival through a claustrophobic base, that just thrills me (well that and Sigourney Weaver simply rocks). Any game that can emulate that scenario and give me the same exhilaration gets high marks from me.
And that is TRS in a nut shell. It is a thrilling battle for survival where most of the time it isn’t about if you will die but rather when. TRS aims to make you sweat, keep your heart pounding, and at times frustrate you. And it makes no apologies about that.
From a gaming point of view, there are actually a lot of previous games (and movies for that matter) that seemed to be rolled up into TRS, and I am willing to be that everyone who tries it will have at least one déjà vu moment. The setting is almost pure Doom 3 with Mars and a slew of demonic looking aliens out to kill you, with a dash of Quake 4’s Stroggs thrown in for good measure. The aforementioned Aliens and the related games have fingerprints everywhere in the setting. The control scheme is sort of a mix of RTS games, MOBAs, and Diablo, although with its own feel. Ironward proudly mentions that others have referred to the game as a real-time X-Com, and I can see that. The tip-of-the-hat to the original Syndicate (which I played a lot way back) mentioned on the TRS Kickstarter page makes complete sense. And there is one alien who looks and moves a hell of a lot like Lifestealer from DOTA2. That is some significant inspiration and homage, although admittedly that is from my point of view and doesn’t necessarily represent what Ironward actually had in mind.
But in the end it doesn’t really matter where they got their inspiration from. The Red Solstice is its own game with its own vision, and it is a vision I can really get behind.
In order to provide context for the rest of the article, I have upload a gameplay montage video for you to watch. Bear in mind that this is alpha gameplay, and you can expect a lot of things to change and improve!
Oh, and before I continue, I just want to thank the devs at Ironward for spending a lot of time answering my questions. It has been great to play alongside them so often, and it is very encouraging to see how much they play their own game. In particular, Hrvoje Horvatek, the CEO of Ironward, spent a great deal of time helping me out and giving me information.
The story in TRS is fairly standard. Earth is uninhabitable. Mars has been colonized. A colony loses communication. Marines are dispatched to the colony. All hell breaks loose at said colony. Marines must fight for their lives and escape. As I said, pretty standard, but it doesn’t really matter all that much because TRS isn’t really the type of game that you visit for the story. You visit for the gameplay.
And here you will find some very serious gameplay. The game will feature a single player mode which presumably will dive into the story side of things more. I am sure I will give it a look after release, but that is not really what TRS is all about. TRS is really all about co-op, and some pretty hefty co-op at that. Up to eight players can work together on any given map, and the TRS really starts show its true potential as the team size increases. TRS is all about teamwork, and the more players you have the more likely you are to survive, and the more you can accomplish.
At the start of a match, the team is dropped into the map, either together or spread out depending on the match scenario. From there it is up to you to decide what to do. One person is assigned as the squad leader, and they can set waypoints and assignments. Each match will have a variety of primary and secondary missions that can be completed or not completed as the team desires. Completing objectives grants XP, but it often requires the team to move around a lot or split up. Early on in the match, when the waves of enemies are light, this isn’t too bad. However in later waves it becomes a gamble and hunkering down as a team to weather the storm is sometimes a better option. The choice is yours.
The waves of enemies that will be thrown at you comprise a variety of enemies, each of which has different abilities and weaknesses. Some enemies are small and fast, while others are huge and lumbering. Some will poison you, or shatter bones, and others will bury into the ground and attack you from below. Still others fly. It can actually be overwhelming at times not just from the sheer number of enemies, but also the diversity.
Thankfully, your team has access to a wide variety of marine classes to choose from. This is another advantage of having a bigger team, because more having players means more classes on the field (in fact, there is a limit to how many of each class can enter a match). Here is a quick breakdown of the classes:
- Assault: your jack-of-all-trades. The Assault has decent mobility, armor, firepower, and when upgraded can toss grenades like rice at a wedding.
- Medic: your healer. The Medic isn’t all that great at combat, but has all the tools necessary to keep the team moving and breathing.
- Recon: your scout and capper. The Recon has the high mobility and lowest armor, and excels at staying undetected while completing objectives quickly.
- Heavy Support: your mini-gunner. The Heavy Support is all about laying down a thick hail of bullets to shred the enemy waves, but is slow moving.
- Demolition: your explosives master. If you need something to be blown into the sky, the Demolition marine is your guy (hey, that rhymes!).
- Hellfire: your man of flames. The Hellfire can lay down a thick field of flames and napalm in order to keeps the enemies at bay and burn them to a crisp.
- Terminator: your special weapons expert. The Terminator is sort of like an advanced heavy gunner equipped with a nasty plasma weapon and the ability to teleport short distances.
- Marksman: your sniper. With lower armor and huge damage, the Marksman is all about dealing death from afar.
Each of the classes has a unique set of abilities and access to a unique selection of weapons (although the weapon sets do overlap somewhat from class to class). During the match setup, every player chooses their class and their load-out. You can unlock more abilities and weapons over time, so at higher levels you can customize your load out by quite a bit. Check out the short video below to get a quick look at the classes and load-out system.
This is a good segue into talking about XP and levels. There are several leveling systems in the game that allow for players advancement. Outside of the match there are two types of levels that you can gain permanently. The first is your global rank, which gives you extra stat bonuses for any class you play, and unlock the marine classes. Additionally, each class has their own level, which unlocks access to more load out options, abilities, and stat bonuses. The more you play a class, the better it gets.
During a match you can also level up, sort of akin to leveling within a MOBA. As you level up you can assign points into your abilities, and these unlock special powers that can be activated. So, for example, a Medic can assign points into healing and curing status effects. An Assault can unlock grenades or a combat knife. One interesting aspect is that you can respec on the fly, removing points from an ability (although certain abilities cannot be downgraded) and reassigning them as needed. It is quite an interesting feature and one that I often forget about in the heat of battle.
The actual control scheme is something I should mention because it took me a bit to get used to it. I had actually expected this game to be like Alien Swarm, with WASD movement and the mouse controlling the aim. In fact, it is more like Diablo or a MOBA, with movement and aiming all being mouse driven, but with a bit of twist. The right mouse button issues movement commands, while the left mouse button issues aiming commands. This means you can move to one location while firing in another. This scheme was strange at first to me as a MOBA player, and I would often click on an enemy meaning to attack them only to watch my marine walk merrily up to a rather large alien and get face-planted. Still, once you are used to it the control system makes sense. All other commands are issued from the keyboard via hotkeys.
Speaking of MOBAs, one thing I really hope they implement is the equivalent of “quick-casting” such that hitting an ability button instantly fires it at your mouse cursor. Currently you must click on your target after activating an ability. It works but could handle some streamlining.
Concerns? I have a few, although again TRS is still in alpha so many of these will probably be addressed. The learning curve for this game is quite steep. For example, I haven’t even talked about the large number of active items that can be found and used during a match, almost all of which are important to find. This coupled with the hectic gameplay and non-stop action means it is tough for new players to learn. I hope that an extensive tutorial system will be implemented, although perhaps this is what the single player side of things will handle.
The visuals are good, but I hope they improve a little bit. I think some anti-aliasing would go a long way in this game (or perhaps I simply haven’t found that option). The maps are very dark on purpose in order to make it hard to see enemies, but this can be countered by turning on enemy UI info, allowing you to see floating text boxes in the dark. It is a bit of a cheesy way to see the enemies, and I hope they change that somehow.
During certain game modes (but not all of them), if you die early on you have to wait until much later in the match to respawn. This means you can sit around for a long time doing nothing, which is a big no-no for gamers. You do still accumulate 50% of your team’s XP while dead, so it isn’t a complete waste of time if you don’t mind spectating, but I have a feeling many players will get bored waiting around. You can abandon the match and start another, but your team might be hosed later on when they need your reinforcements. Ironward have assured me that players will have other things they can do, so we will see how this turns out.
I am a bit concerned about replayability. Ironward is really pumping up the replay value of TRS with multiple modes and randomization of objectives on maps. Sure, you can level up your classes, but that only goes so far in keeping players interested. Randomization will help, but that doesn’t change that you are still doing the same thing albeit at a different location. Ironward have on several occasions stated to me that replay value will be high, and I asked Hrvoje about this directly:
“It’s in players achieving ranks and beating the highest difficulty while facing a random factor for each game session. It’s the need for that “one perfect match” of pure pleasure.”
Essentially, it comes down to playing TRS being its own reward. I for one don’t mind that, especially since co-op games can still be a lot of fun over time. But if you are the kind of player that needs a constant stream of new content, or a serious end-game experience, I am not yet sure that TRS will accommodate that. Keep this in mind if you are considering pledging for the game.
So, having said all that, do I recommend The Red Solstice? Well I am always leery about telling others what they should and shouldn’t play. However, like I said when I started, I have really enjoyed playing The Red Solstice so far. It is unforgiving, and it still needs work, but the concept is great, and the gameplay is solid. If you like intense co-op games that really require attentiveness and teamwork, then it is worth checking out The Red Solstice. Sure it is frustrating to run across the map, chased by a stream of enemies, only to die from poisoning seconds before reaching that anti-venom, but at the same time it is just so damned exhilarating.
I really like The Red Solstice, and I backed it. Perhaps that says it all.