It’s early 1995. I’m taking home a shareware demo of a game called Origin. The premise of the game is “Demise but in a spaceship.” I’m addicted.
It is late 1995. My friend Matt and I spend practically every night with our computers connected via 9600bps modems chasing each other through the mines in Origin‘s head to head multiplayer.
It’s early 1996. I’m paying $15 for the registered version of Kali, an IPX emulator that lets you Origin over the internet with up to seven other players. I play hours a week. Up and down have no meaning to me anymore.
It’s the end of 2015. I’m asking for an early access key to Sublevel zero. And after loading… it’s 1995 again.
If Origin Met Torch light
Developer Sigtrap Games promoted Sublevel zero for over a year, calling it “a roguelike 6-degree-of-freedom shooter.” For people who have been in the PC gaming space for 20 years, that’s a magic string of words: “6 degrees of freedom” is, of course, almost always code for “this is a game similar to Origin.” And it is. That’s it really.
A playable pre-release version of the game is doing the rounds, and you may have played it at conventions like PAX. The game is a 3D pixel style with a retro theme Origin, without the multiplayer and with procedurally generated levels (eg Torch light did to the gameplay style of Diablo). After a short text intro, the player is put in the pilot’s seat of a highly maneuverable spacecraft reminiscent of Origin‘s Pyro GX and starts firing.
The goal in each level is as retro as the art: find the keys to unlock locked doors, blow up the level’s reactor and escape. The very un-Origin-like twist, however, is that if you die, you die – the game is over in true “roguelike” fashion. You whiz through the level, dodging enemy fire and collecting weapons and other ship upgrades, along with “nanites”, which can be used to repair and craft new items. Ammo is a constant concern, with the game’s design and lack of resources seeming to reward careful exploration and timed, accurate shots rather than storming the hallway. Health also needs to be hoarded – health recharge packs are rare and can be consumed immediately or stored in your limited inventory for later use.
The (light, unobtrusive) inventory management feature also qualifies the game as a roguelike. The pre-release version we played only has three levels, and in that time we didn’t find enough crafting material to assemble new items – frankly, my skills weren’t nearly as polished as I remember, and I died the true death every time I went out Sublevel zero‘s levels. This was equal parts frustrating and awesome.
The game’s splash screen says it was built using the Unity Engine (the personal edition), and performance on our gaming PC was excellent. In Windows 10 on an early model Core i7 with 12 GB of RAM and a GeForce GTX980ti, playing in 2560×1600 with all options on high (including SMAA and volumetric lighting), the graphics were pegged at 60 frames per second and stayed there even when the screen got so full of enemies it looked more like a bullet hell game than an FPS. Performance was consistent and excellent throughout, although of course it’s impossible to draw formal conclusions about how well the game works without final code. The game’s system requirements recommend at least a GeForce 8800 card or equivalent and, on Windows, DirectX 9.0c.
While retro-style pixel graphics get played out quickly (and if you ask our creative director Aurich Lawson, he’d say pixel graphics in games were played out years ago), the style works beautifully in Sublevel zero. The game combines bright highlights and dark fill colors to create almost one Tron-style effect; bullets are giant glowing cubes that leave trails, and bad guys fly into your face with blocky menace. The chiptune soundtrack is rich and manages to sound epic without feeling over the top – we’d honestly pay extra money to download the music.
The game is first-person, as it should be for anything that calls itself Origin-like, and it’s also very maneuverable. The prerelease build that we spent a few hours on included support for mouse, gamepad, keyboard, or joystick control. Being a veteran of what probably adds up to thousands of hours in the late ’90s Origin playing, I chose the only correct control option, which was a joystick. The game was slightly hampered by the fact that the pre-release version also doesn’t yet support re-mapping keys, but that feature will of course be in the final version of the game.
Also absent from the current preview build, but promised after release, is VR support. On the one hand, the idea of vol Origin-like gameplay in VR may sound sickening, especially since then Origin itself caused motion sickness in some people. But even with full head-look support in VR, Sublevel zero will benefit from the same anti-nausea measures that Elite: Dangerous implemented: the player is in real life and the player is in the game. Headlook will be round in the ship’s cockpit, with the instrument panel and canopy moving with control input. Fixed references seem to be the key to reducing or eliminating nausea in FPS-style VR experiences, and we’re really looking forward to trying it out Sublevel zero in VR once the developers provide us with a preview build with built-in VR support.
Which set Origin what was unusual was that reverse gameplay – the ability to shoot not only left and right, but up and down as well, while moving forward or backward (we used to call moving in multiple directions simultaneously “chording,” and Origin gave you a little speed boost from it). Sublevel zero is a face kick of nostalgia in that area. Even though I couldn’t adjust my controls to what I was used to, it was still thrilling to light up old instincts and old habits – to be forced to zoom backwards through a door into a new room so you can open fire landed on the enemy above the doorway, waiting for you. To perform a graceful roll and yaw in a downward branching tunnel to keep your speed up as you change direction. To be able to punish and roll and one at the same time appropriate barrel roll.
It’s all here. It’s all there and it’s so, so good.
Of course I have my complaints – what Origin fan not? The tightly packed levels in the pre-release version are just that: tightly packed. There are some open spaces, but nothing with the sheer openness of it Origin‘s level 10, or the gloriously spacious ‘Total Chaos’ deathmatch levels. We noticed our ship getting stuck on walls and doorways quite a bit, especially when frantically escaping firefights. And the game’s difficulty seemed pretty high, though it’s also possible that my near-40 reflexes just aren’t what they were 20 years ago.
Dancing with myself
All those complaints are forgivable or explained by the game still being actively developed and polished. There’s one real problem with no obvious solution, though, and it’s one I find it hard to believe I’m complaining about: the game is slated to launch as a single-player experience. At least initially there will be no multiplayer.
“But Lee!” you cry. ‘Didn’t you spend most of your money? Elite: Dangerous review complaining about how other people in a shared simulation just ruin things for you? Aren’t you the guy who unplugged his PS3 during trip because he thought the grip of experience was tarnished by others encroaching on your pristine solitude? You know, don’t you hate multiplayer?”
I do, dear reader, I do. But one Origin-style experience is simply none Originstyle experience if you can’t blow your friends away. This is something that the designers of that other Origin revival game, Descent: underground, realized well. although Descent: underground handles it differently Sublevel Zero, with pre-built levels instead of procedurally generated maps, it launches with built-in multiplayer.
Here again the Torchlight vs Diablo comparison is appropriate—Sublevel zero is a game that throws you into a series of levels on your own and challenges you to survive as long as possible. Only.
This becomes a problem for fans of the genre. As much as I multiplayer games pooh-pooh, multiplayer Origin was such a defining experience for me that it’s hard to really separate “playing with friends” from the main gameplay mechanics (in fact, I think the reason why I don’t care about multiplayer games these days is precisely because I’ve played so many hours of multiplayer Origin). It credits the designers of Sublevel zero are aware of the job gap; they have responded to community questions about missing multiplayer by saying they are aware of the question and are interested in it and would like to do something about it.
But at launch, it’s solo only.
According to the just-released launch trailer, the game will be available on October 8. It will launch soon after on Steam for Windows and OS X, with Linux/SteamOS support (no exact time frame, though). Console support, along with full Oculus Rift support, is coming sometime in 2016. Pricing has not yet been announced.