As a personal policy, I tend to avoid spending personal money on Early Access games. With so many titles vying for eyes, what limited free gaming time is available feels better spent on the complete, final experience, meaning a few months after a game’s official launch (at least these days). Plus, many of these titles have a tendency to never get finished, leaving the consumer acting as a beta tester who pays for the privilege of never seeing any observation rectified. Upon seeing “Super Duper” Garrett Cooper’s Black Ice, though, I knew an exception had to be made. A project of passion that Mr. Cooper has been working on over four years, the game is shaping up to be a product of well thought design mixed with exciting action with varied weapons.
What really draws the eye is the simplified, but alluring, art design. Using sharp lines made of bold, bright colors, the retro-futuristic style is evocative of 80’s techno cool. This minimalistic style isn’t a product of laziness; shimmering rainbow textures and other cool touches stand out in greater relief due to this visual choice.
As a game, Black Ice basically acts as an almost never ending first-person shooter mixed with an RPG. The player takes control of a hacker dropped into a vast computer network. Stretching on endlessly from all directions are a vast array of businesses that can be “hacked” by approaching it and activating some form of “breaker.” When this happens, a timer starts ticking down and a swarm of enemies spawns. The player must stay in range of the target until the time to hack expires while defeating the digital defenses, success being rewarded with a heap of experience points and some loot. The end goal is a monolithic corporation that will require an immense amount of leveling up as well as some top end gear to take down.
By design, the gameplay is simplistic on the surface, adding in a healthy amount of depth and randomness to keep things interesting. Featuring a wide variety of weapons with tons of variables, there is always a chance to find something fun to use. These range from the silly but effective laser spewing disco ball, summonable minions, ice imbued plasma balls, to passive buff granting equipment, all of which can be slotted on the character as long as there is a free spot (no paper doll character management here). Indeed, the plethora of weapons and abilities to find removes the need for character classes; attack and defensive behavior can be changed with a simple equipment swap.
Leveling also happens at a rapid clip. It seems as though I was assigning a new point or earning a new perk every few minutes, growing progressively stronger and more capable. A lot of credit for this goes to the baked in difficulty system for hacking. Each potential target has a difficulty level assigned, so players can quickly make a choice. However, as long as they are in range, the player can attack multiple locations at once, ratcheting up the XP gain, as well as introducing hordes of programs to defeat at once. Once I realized this, I found myself engaging in a light, Tron themed version of Earth Defense Force as I engaged with swarms of digital scorpions and long-legged walkers that were less than excited by my attempts.
Now, this is still a work in progress and things aren’t quite where they will be. As such, I do have a short wishlist that would add to the game. The first would be a larger variety of enemies. The critters here look pretty cool, but the player can expect to see quite a few of the some ones repeated a few too many times. It would also be nice if there were a few more overworld enemies to avoid/take down. For the most part, the world is barren until a hack attempt begins. However, it is possible to run into general defense programs designed to ruin the player’s day. Adding more of these would both increase tension and make it easier to find one when the players feels ready to test themselves. Finally, the inventory system for controller mode needs a bit of work. Using mouse and keyboard, comparing equipped items to inventory is rather intuitive. When switching to a controller, which some of us heathens prefer, the menu system changes to compensate. That compensation means that comparing items is much more cumbersome. In fact, the menu system in general could do with some sprucing up, as it can feel a tad cheap.
Even in its current form, Black Ice is an enjoyable experience. The different weapons, randomness of the loot and brisk, meaningful progression has already got me on a cycle of addiction. “I should really stop and feed the cats. Their meows are getting weaker and more desperate sounding,” I might say to myself as I clean up a few nodes. “Wait. A laser shotgun? Okay, I’ve got to try this out.” Over and over something like this happens, as one of the hardier kitties attempts climb the chair to give a new meaning to the term “hacking” via depositing a hairball in my lap to get my attention. So, I am a horrible pet parent and Black Ice is already incredibly entertaining.