(Played on PC)
Cotton and guns – two things that Manchester is most famous for according to Alan Partridge. However, if Alan Partridge was a keen PC player with a penchant for mechanised brutality, then I’m sure he’d be quick to add a third notable item to that rather brief list – mechs.
That’s thanks to Beyond Flesh and Blood, an upcoming third person mech shooter by Pixel Bomb Games, which is set in a future post-apocalyptic version of Manchester. While not the first game to design a shooter that features a virtualised Manchester – that honour goes to Insomniac’s Resistance: Fall of Man – Pixel Bomb, themselves a Manchester based development studio, have taken it upon themselves to combine their home city with their love of giant mechs to create an exciting new shooter for PC, Xbox One and PS4. Forget Madchester; this is Mechester (sorry, I had to do it).
The story goes a little something like this. The year is 2281 – after a catastrophic global war, the remnants of society have split into two groups – on the one hand you’ve got the United Global Remnant who now live in a space station in Earth’s orbit, known as the Tree of Life, whilst on the other you’ve got a group of rogue scavengers who still skulk about on the planet’s surface. When a meteor containing some nasty extra-terrestrial creepy crawlies hits the planet, you’re sent in as a mech pilot to retake key strategic cities back under U.G.R. control. Any guesses as to which city you’re sent to?
I’ve been checking out the latest pre-Alpha demo of the game (Version 0.04) which gives the player the chance to pilot two powerful mech variants in two large crumbling outdoor combat arenas. Each level is essentially a Gears of War horde mode style map; you’re pitted against wave after wave of human rebels and necromorph-like alien assailants and you need to blast them away before they can destroy your mech. The two different mechs that you can use each in combat (or Tactical Combat Frames to give them their proper title) provide distinctly different weapons, modes and attacks to use on the mean streets of future Manchester; each suit offers its own distinct flavour and style to the combat.
The Mark 1 is your prototypical bread and butter big mech; a bulky yellow powerloader-like robot, complete with a shotgun, lasers, pulse bombs and missile salvos to destroy pretty much anything that happens to piss you off.
The Prototype Suit on the other hand is a smaller armoured battle suit, something more akin to the MJOLNIR armour that the spartans in the Halo games wear. This suit offers some more physical attack options than the Alpha suit, such as a powerful ground pound move (speaking of Halo, it’s similar to the move of the same name in the Halo 5 Beta) which delightfully chunks any enemies caught in its blast radius. Lovely.
The two maps available in the demo, Albert Square and Beetham’s Folly (Deansgate), which are, of course, modelled after the real life Manchester locations. As a player who’s already familiar with the city, it’s a delightfully surreal experience to see familiar sights and buildings from the city now turned into beautiful The Last of Us style decrepit ruins, overgrown with both natural and alien fauna.
There’s something particularly cool about robo-rampaging around these Manchester locations that I’m sure present day Mancunian gamers will no doubt enjoy. Plus, it’s great to see areas of England in video games that aren’t just set down south in the capital for a change.
Anyway, let’s talk about the gameplay. An interesting tactical mechanic that the Pixel Bomb team have implemented into the game is that your mech can only operate in areas of the level that are within the signal range of the U.G.R’s control towers. Start to move out of bounds and your mech will gradually start to lose signal, which ultimately causes you to lose a life/mech if you keep going. At first, you’ll only control one tower and you’ll subsequently find that you can’t venture very far into the level at all. Whilst this can feel a bit frustrating and limiting initially, you can quickly expand the boundaries of your fighting space by hacking new towers, which then grants you more freedom to move around the level and blast, scorch and demolish foes to your heart’s content.
So, one of the first jobs you’ll want to do when starting a level is to get hacking away at the level’s towers in order to give yourself more room to manoeuvre before things properly kick off. However, in the later stages of a level, you’ll need to be keeping an eye out for enemies trying to take your towers offline in order to restrict your movements, which creates an exciting tug of war power struggle between you and your cannon fodder. In addition, you can also hack various gun turrets and missile batteries in the area to aid in your defensive efforts, as well as activate force fields to close off areas to the attacking human and alien hordes.
From my time with the demo, the human rebel AI is good, but they have a tendency to feel a bit like cannon fodder after a while without ever feeling like much of a serious threat in combat; they tend to either run straight at you and make themselves easy targets in the process, or skulk behind cover in fixed positions and wait for you to come and finish them off. On the other hand, the alien AI is very aggressive and very much a threat; they will often make a beeline straight for you once they spawn on the map, and they can quickly tear your mech to pieces in seconds if you’re not quick to blast them, so together a combination of two enemy types definitely keeps you on your mechanical toes so to speak.
You can pick up your fallen attackers’ weaponry from time to time, as well as environmental debris and items which provide a temporary change from your mech’s standard arsenal, although it’s not always clear or apparent just how to use whatever you’ve just acquired. I found picking up and using rebel assault rifles and shotguns to be easy and straightforward, but for some reason I couldn’t seem to be able to get my mech to throw the molotov cocktails once I’d scooped them up. My mech would just keep them clutched in its arm like it was a fine bottle of Chardonnay that it was saving to swig down later at a quieter moment. It was probably just me being an idiot and not doing something correctly or otherwise it’s something minor that will be fixed in the final game.
Speaking of things you can find on the battlefield, the thruster pack power up you are sometimes awarded with adds some extra abilities to your mech that permanently increase its manoeuvrability for the rest of the match. These include the ability to perform short dashes which allow you to quickly get out of the line of fire, to perform mid-air boosts which allow you to zoom across platform gaps and the ability to charge up your standard jump so that you can reach greater heights. It’s just a bit of a shame that the thruster pack is a separate power up that you have to acquire, and not something that is inherently built into your mech from the start; it makes navigating around each arena much more of a smooth and enjoyable process. It’s a small point, I know, but without the thruster pack, your mech feels like it’s just missing a crucial element when you fire up a new level and it’s not automatically equipped.
Now, time for a bit of a confession; I’m primarily a console player who doesn’t play an awful lot of shooters on the PC these days (heresy, I know), so I accept that I’m not exactly an expert on how a shooter should feel control-wise on a mouse and keyboard. In my opinion though, Pixel Bomb have taken what could have been an overly complicated and fiddly set of controls (yes, I’m looking at you Steel Battalion and your 40+ button controller) and assigned them to a control layout which largely feels simple to use – even for a PC noob like me.
With a bit of practice in the tutorial, I was soon stomping around, darting around corners and piloting my mech with ease. The weapon system felt a little strange with this setup at first, as the majority of your weapons are fired all by using the left mouse button in different ways, but I actually found that this actually makes things way more concise and simple in the fast-paced nature of the combat so that you’re not constantly scrolling through a weapon wheel every few seconds. Perhaps it’s just because I’m primarily a console player, but I have to say that there’s just definitely something undeniably cool about playing a mech game with a keyboard, as it gets across that tactile feeling that you’re directly manning the controls of the mech in a way that you don’t quite seem to get when using a controller.
Having said that, I personally found that some of the keyboard controls could feel a bit awkward and clunky at times. In particular, activating the slow motion precision aiming ability on the keyboard felt like quite a convoluted procedure – you have to click the right mouse button as you simultaneously tap left shift, but if you hold left shift for slightly too long then your mech will start to race forward as it’s also the run key. This makes things a bit awkward if you’re wanting to snipe at fast moving targets from afar without your mech lurching forwards at a crucial moment. For a skill that you need to consistently use in order to take out targets at range, it definitely took a while to get the correct timing down in order to aim accurately in slow motion. Admittedly, the game is designed to be played with an Xbox 360 controller first and foremost, which probably elevates this issue altogether, or like with the molotov cocktails, it might be just me being an idiot again.
In contrast to the issues I had with the long range shooting, the game really nails the up-close and personal mech on flesh brawling with flying colours. Perhaps I’m a bit too bloodthirsty for my own good, but in my opinion one of the game’s greatest strengths is its heavy emphasis on guts and gore. While Manchester is often (unfairly) labelled as the rainy city in real life, in Beyond Flesh and Blood, it’s certainly raining an awful lot of blood at pretty much any time of day. The ease with which you can eviscerate the attacking rebel humans and curb stomp them into nothing more than greasy red Deansgate pavement stains feels disturbingly great. There’s a hefty sense of weight to your mech, particularly when using the Mark 1, and it’s a real rush (pun intended) being able to thud into a frail fleshy human at speed and pulverise them into great big bloody chunks with just a single click of the mouse.
Alright, look, I might be a tad bit bloodthirsty, but the liberal use of gore and giblets gives the game this old school Unreal Tournament sort of feeling which works surprisingly well within the game’s more serious post-apocalyptic aesthetic. In particular, the various animations that your mech performs when dismembering some poor futuristic Mancunian soldier always made me chuckle (I’m definitely not a psychopath, I promise), and they imbue what would otherwise be cold and unflinching robots with a gleefully malicious attitude. Despite this, the high frequency with which these zoom-ins happen did start to get a bit irritating after a while, as they greatly slow down the action and pull you out of the experience a bit, particularly when they happen to trigger every couple of minutes.
Perhaps one of the greatest concerns I had before even playing the demo was whether a third person camera view would best suit a mech shooter? For a genre which is typically associated with intricate first person cockpit immersions, the decision to go with a third person perspective felt an unusual design choice. From my experience of playing previous mech shooters such as Titanfall, which places a great deal of its emphasis on the simulation of climbing inside and piloting the giant Titan mechs, I was worried that the third person perspective of Beyond Flesh and Blood would lose something by eschewing the traditional cockpit view.
The game’s curved onscreen interface and futuristic heads-up display certainly help to create the impression that you’re inside the mech and directly piloting it first-hand. Although I personally feel that you somewhat miss out a bit from not having an internal cockpit view that gives a first person perspective of the action, the game goes a great way towards capturing that feel of piloting a robust heavy mech through the way its gameplay mechanics and the controls nicely intermesh with one other. You definitely get that great sensation of having all of the mech’s weight and power at your fingertips when playing; you feel like you’re controlling nothing short of a walking death machine on legs as you romp around the crumbling red brick ruins and pulsating alien hives of post-cataclysmic Manchester.
Additionally, the developers have stated that one of their main intentions with the game was to particularly focus on the “visual atmosphere…we’ve made one of the most enhancing features of the game its environments – using visually stunning playscapes to accelerate your experience.” Using a third person camera allows them to do exactly that, as well as show off the majestic mechs in all their shiny glory too – even though when you’re using the Mark 1 mech, it does take up roughly a third of your screen’s real estate. However, like I mentioned earlier, the area of the screen that you can see shows off some great set pieces and environments to fight in which look very promising even this early on in the game’s design.
So, all in all from what I’ve played so far in the pre-alpha demo though, From Beyond Flesh and Blood looks to be shaping up into being a fun mech shooter that’s full of promise, lasers, and pints and pints of blood.
I’ll be talking to the Pixel Bomb developers later this week at EGX Rezzed and also hopefully getting the chance to try out the latest Unreal 4 version of the demo which they are debuting there, so stay tuned for an upcoming interview piece and further written impressions in the near future. Until then, if you want to get in on the Manchester mech mayhem yourself, then simply download the demo to start eviscerating humans and aliens to your heart’s content. Just don’t forget to wear an apron – it’s bloody up north.