There is no argument that isometric twin stick shooters are like tribbles in the game industry. They have yet to overtake survival games or rogue-likes in the realm of saturation, but gamers have them up to their knees. The thing is, the genre is typically chosen because it can be done well for a lower budget while still creating a good product (see Nuclear Throne or Enter the Gungeon). The sub-genre wasn’t always like this, though. There was a time when the Crusader games were hallmarks of the AAA experience, lauded for their technical expertise and the purity of gameplay. Years later, Tuque Games has entered the scene with Livelock. Based on the initial reveal and information leading up to completion of the game, I was expecting a machine-based overhead arcade game similar to a futuristic Gauntlet mixed with Halo: Spartan Assault but…good. That is what excited me; something fun but niche. Instead, Tuque decided to create a robust, exciting blast-a-thon that far surpasses many heavily-hyped, full-priced AAA action games released today.
The set up to the Daniel H. Wilson story is intriguing. A cataclysm is set to befall humanity, something that cannot be prevented. Three human specimens, known as Hex, Vanguard and Catalyst, volunteer to have their consciousness transferred into giant, nimble walking machines, while others in the human race are uploaded to various other machines. The hope was to be resurrected as organic life in a place called Eden when the end of the world got bored. When the apocalypse arrives, these other machines become corrupted and begin waging war with each other, because no plan can ever work out. It is up to the three experimental warriors, directed by the dulcet voiced AI in the sky known as Satcom, to fight to find a solution to stop the war and allow humanity to be reborn. Where the story goes after the set up takes some strange twists and turns, revealing mechanical foes who have gone “native,” complete with back biting and betrayal. The story becomes increasingly dense while still remaining understandable. The maudlin tone is counteracted by the characterization of the heroes. They know their task is vital, but they try to inject humor into the proceedings. Look, spoilers are obnoxious and everything is being done to avoid them. It must be stated that those who are fans of the author’s novels Robopocalypse and Robogenesis will have a grand time with the tale told here.
While the story itself is great, the gameplay tops it by leaps and bounds. Each of the three characters have their own unique weapons and abilities. Hex is the sniper class who can deal hefty damage from a distance with lasers, explosives and burst rifles. Vanguard gets in close with a large hammer, but can also pour on the damage with a chain gun and mines. He is the tank class, for obvious reasons. Then there is Catalyst, the support class. While she does wield personal weapons, she also packs some drones that assist in the firefights. While the characters have their assigned roles, how the player uses them makes the difference. Through use, the characters earn experience that unlocks various weapons and perks to customize the how the character plays.
Taking Hex for an example (because he is my current favorite); he can be kitted to operate in wildly different ways. For example, he can be set up to rush into the fray at high speeds, drop a load of mines, then take up the stragglers with an assault rifle that does “plasma burn,” an elemental damage type effect. Or, he can be set up to handle everything at range using a burst rifle, beam weapon and grenade launcher being augmented with an overcharge ability. This can then be followed up with an orbital strike ultimate ability. So, while each character has a prescribed class, it isn’t set in stone. In fact, experimentation is encouraged as skills can be swapped out between levels at will for no cost. This isn’t a Diablo III situation where the player isn’t forced to do some committing with a build, though. While weapons can also be swapped out between stages for no cost, there is a resource that is found in missions to upgrade them. It’s not exactly scarce, but it forces the player to pause and consider the options as the game goes on and the choices unlock. So, while the game isn’t loot based, with the exception of cosmetic heads, capes and color schemes that can be found, there is a nice amount of player agency.
All of this means nothing if the gameplay isn’t up to snuff. Fortunately, it well and truly is. Thanks to expertly-tuned difficulty scaling, Livelock manages to be one of the most engaging experiences available, packed full of memorable moments. Situations like defending a point, with the help of some automated turrets, stand out. The turrets can hold off some of the oncoming mechanical horde, but it is vital that the player assist, so it’s a tense balancing act to thin out a swarm from one angle of attack and then moving onto another. The particular moment in mind saw a few of the helpers go down, but was eventually surmounted. Barely. Through the course of the levels, there might be some trash mobs to deal with, followed by encounters with elite class bots that take more thought and liberal use of special abilities to take down. This is also bolstered with a large variety of enemy types that require different strategies to overcome. Add in more players, and the game gets even more difficult, as the difficulty, and rewards, increase with the amount of players, up to three. Then there are the various bosses. Wildly divergent and creative, these encounters feel and look epic.
Actually playing the game is just as important as the set piece moments. Fortunately, the way Tuque handles these feels good. Depending on the character, the player is able to sprint and roll, fluidly dealing out damage. Despite the agility on display, there is still a feeling of heft, mostly communicated through the destruction of the environment. Entire walls collapse to reveal secrets, concrete chips away under ballistic fire and cars can go flying with a melee hit. While the cities, factories and forests that the player explores look worn down before the player does anything, they are dynamically demolished by the player and foe during battle, leaving a disaster area behind. There, of course, limitations in order to keep each map from becoming nothing more than a rubble strewn flatland. This is what I had in mind when the environmental destruction of the original Red Faction was announced; strangely beautiful in a messy way. It’s even encouraged to abuse the system as much as possible, as there is plenty of interesting lore to be found.
When reviewing a game, it is vital to approach it with a critical eye as even the smallest flaw can be a deal breaker for some. I will readily admit that I was expecting to enjoy Livelock based on the previews and hands-on time I experienced, but even those didn’t quite show the full potential of this game. There simply wasn’t a detectable flaw found during play. Every moment is pure destructive joy, the likes of which absolutely must be played. It is something that I never thought would be seen again: a AAA isometric shooter. With likable heroes, overwhelming villains and engrossing story and gameplay, Livelock sets a new standard for the genre. No bugs could be found, either, with the exception of the mechanical ones that are supposed to be shot. Publisher Perfect World Entertainment proved that they knew what they were doing when they picked this up to release as their first non-free to play game. This is a masterpiece.