Shootmania Storm is a first-person shooter with a difference.
It doesn't feel like mindless, contextless violence; carnage punctuated by endless respawns. What it feels like is sport; a competition, a keenly fought contest between two teams. This I like.
The first thing that grabs me are the Tron-esque combatants charging headfirst into massive, open maps decorated with dilapidated castles, rocky outcrops, wooded areas and open countryside. The scale is impressive and the visuals stunning.
The second thing to impress is the pace at which Shootmania is played. It's not quite the fastest shooter on two legs, but it's certainly no slouch in this respect. Straight away you're sprinting and jumping into action, a swarm of players, shields on back, heading into a mosh pit of controlled aggression.
I've been playing the beta for a few days now (to get guaranteed access you need to pre-order the game) and so far I've been suitably impressed with the offering made by Nadeo and Ubisoft.
It's a game based on community and fun; two things often under-appreciated by games in the first-person shooter genre. Far too many are serious, dour affairs, but Shootmania follows in the footsteps of titles like Team Fortress 2 and Gotham City Impostors by taking the edge off the seriousness. Unlike the two aforementioned shooters, Nadeo's effort doesn't used comedic combatants to achieve this feeling, preferring instead to rely on competitive team spirit. This is not the next Battlefield. It doesn't feel like the fate of the world rests on your shoulders: it feels like dodgeball with rocket launchers.
There are several game modes to play with, and the community are already adding their own to the mix. The servers seem friendly (on the whole) and most of the contests I was involved in were fairly evenly matched. This feels like a game that has been built for us - the gamers - to grow and nurture. Nadeo are facilitating the fun, but at the same time they're encouraging the community to take ownership, and to the develop content for others to enjoy.
Games start with each player staring at a screen inside a small structure. A quick step to the left and a stream of shield wearing knights pour out into the map from these metallic starting blocks. Players are identical save for the shield on their back and the badge next to their names. In fact, the shields are the only thing that can be customised beyond your colour scheme (in team games we revert back to the classic red and blue colouring). Nadeo clearly want to cut away the nonsense, exemplified by the fact that there are so few weapons available to use.
The three weapons that I encountered were all incredibly different. Your main staple is a plasma cannon, and it can fire up to four shots in quick succession. Each plasma shot leaves a vapour trail in its wake, and moves at a steady speed. Discretion is the better part of valor when playing with this weapon, as once the four shots have been fired, there's a cool-down period as the gun returns to full charge and maximum capacity.
It makes even the most basic tête-à-tête a tactical sparring match, with players trying to preempt each other's movements at the same time as dodging the incoming shots and preserving their ammo. Each player can take two hits, so there is room for error, but not much. This is in no small part due to the fact that the protracted nature of individual exchanges often leads to crowds forming. Duels quickly descend into mass brawls as players descend on combat hotspots hoping to score points as others dance in and around each other.
Beyond the basic plasma/rocket launcher there are a couple of other weapons, but both hold very specific functions. There is a lasergun that acts as a sniper rifle, one shot enough to put an opponent out of action. It's ideal for long range combat, but up close and personal it is less useful. Often the laser is only available when stood on specific platforms dotted around the map, which stops it from dominating games.
There are also mines, and like the laser they are scenario-specific. Enter into one of the labyrinth of tunnels found under certain maps and they become active, allowing for ambushes to be sprung on oblivious opponents. Mines also become available when stood near doorways; ideal for trapping opponents. The mines are flung out and stick to floors and walls for a short time before exploding. Splash damage is larger, so a direct hit and it's back to the drawing board.
Each of the three weapons on offer has a very specific function, and Nadeo seemed to have found a really good balance. The plasma launcher is undoubtedly the star of the show, but the short and long range options add enough depth to keep each match varied and unpredictable.
There are already a selection of different playlists on offer. Some of them are official, others have been devised by the game's fledgling community. There are the usual team versus modes (deathmatch just doesn't seem an appropriate name), as well as some cleverly designed free-for-all modes. The most interesting of them is Royal, where a switch sits in the middle of the arena that, when activated, causes a map-sized energy field to slowly shrink in circumference towards its activation point. One touch is death.
Siege mode is also another popular way to play. Two teams focus their attention on capturing a series of poles, one group attacking, the other on the defence. Adding gravitas to proceedings is the knowledge that two hits (or one with the laser) and you're watching the rest of that turn from the sidelines. After five rounds the team with the most pole captures takes home the trophy.
Joust is the 1v1 playlist, and here there really is nowhere to hide. It comes down to you and your opponent. No excuses. Games are still played in the right spirit, with the community offering support and encouraging words. It creates an atmosphere where it is alright to lose; having fun is the ultimate objective.
Watching as a spectator could be more exciting and this is something that will need to be addressed if Shootmania is to become the eSport that Nadeo desperately want it to be. There's only one camera and so following the action can be tricky. Whilst there is room for improvement, watching is still a good way of soaking up the atmosphere and learning new techniques.
Access to the map editor is already available, meaning that many of the maps are community creations. It means a wealth of content is already at your disposal, and this is only going to increase as the game becomes more and more popular.
Graphically there is plenty to admire in the beta. Lush fields, rolling hills and dense woodlands are populated by solid stone structures, bridges, gravity lifts and metal fences. The first release, Storm, will focus on these environments, but subsequent entries into the series will each carry its own distinctive aesthetic.
UK servers are dead at this point. This leads to a continental battlefield, where flags are worn like badges. The atmosphere is still good, with players regularly trading compliments after each round.
At the time of writing there is little in the way of official guidance, so for explanations you'll need to seek out help from your fellow gamers. Happily, most are accommodating and will guide you through the first few rounds, but a manual of some kind wouldn't go amiss. I spent a lot of time trying to work out what all the modes and options were, and a simple guide would've gone down a treat.
As previously mentioned, access to the beta is available to those who pre-order the game (they call it pre-order, but in reality you have to put your money on the table). Nadeo are determined to give players the power they need to grow and improve the game, and that's why most of the features included are already fully customisable. There's still work to be done, but this already feels like a (nearly) complete package. It's hard not to recommend.
My first experience of Shootmania was an entirely positive one. The frantic pace is evocative of Quake (and for PC shooters, there aren't many bigger compliments), but the non-violent approach and community-driven atmosphere gives it a distinctiveness that will help establish the game in what is a very crowded marketplace. If you're looking for something new and exciting to play on your PC this month, you could do a lot worse than check out Shootmania Storm.
- Online players:1-80
- Release date:10 April 2013
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