For many people, the golden age of the shooter genre was the '90s, when strafing was king and Doom and Quake wanted nothing more than to hurt you plenty with demons and beasties coming at you at lightning fast speeds and in borderline unfair numbers. For those who find modern shooters sluggish and too damned realistic, however, occasionally a shooter pops up the harkens back to the olden days. In fact, we saw it a couple of years ago with Rise of the Triad, a more modern take on the classic franchise, rebuilt for an audience with more modern sensibilities, and there's a common thread here, with Dusk producer Dave Oshry (who apparently also had a hand in Strafe, a similarly retro FPS) also heavily involved with RotT. The retro-flavoured shooter might not be making a total comeback, but there's still a dedicated community of developers and players working to keep the sub-genre alive.
And thank the dark lord that this is the case, as we're definitely not the only ones getting bored of ultra-polished military shooters that come to market with less soul than a shoe. There's something to be said for the odd rough edge here and there when the gameplay experience on offer is as fast and as visceral as it is in Dusk. Allow us to elaborate...
Dusk starts as it means to go on, as your eyes open for the first time to reveal a dank cellar, with three dungaree-wearing psychopaths charging straight at you. Armed with nothing but a pair of sickles, you immediately have to strafe your way around their attacks, dodging the blows while landing your own. Then, hidden in a "secret" hole in the wall, you'll find a pistol, at which point you can start putting a bit of distance between you and your foes. Until you run out of bullets, that is - then you need to get the sickles back out.
After that little introductory moment, the setpieces come thick and fast as we explore a grainy, atmospheric world that screams Quake. Various rooms are chained together by pokey corridors that then move into wide open spaces, and you're never stalking the same areas for too long (unless you go looking for secrets, that is). It doesn't take long for waves of enemies of different types to show up en masse with the singular goal of putting you down for good. Naturally, the aim of a game like this is to shoot first and then ask where the ammo is so you can shoot again later, and so one thing you won't hear said about Dusk is that it's a subtle experience. There's no mix of gameplay elements, there are no wordy cutscenes between levels; it's simply a case of grab gun, shoot gun, stay alive until you die, rinse and repeat.
But hey, we're totally fine with that brand of straightforward action, and when a game doesn't want us to shoot "terrorists" and instead we get to pump demons full of lead, then we're fine with that too. In Dusk there are dangerous psychos exploring the dark arts, imbuing themselves with arcane powers, and nobody minds shooting floating cultists who glow in dark. It's even more fun when they look like they just came from a KKK meeting that took place in hell.
In vintage shooter style, we're getting three chapters to play through in the final game (alas, the first one came to us via a download code kindly shared via the developers; we'd have prefered a shareware CD-ROM though). That said, there's still plenty to blast your way through in the two chapters included in the Early Access version we tested. On top of that there's an Endless mode that sends waves of enemies crashing into your bullets for as long as you can survive, and a multiplayer mode that we took a look at but found empty on arrival.
While it's clear that the developers are looking to build a well-rounded package, the thing that we enjoyed most about Dusk was the feel of the gunplay and fluidity of the movement. Apart from getting snagged on a couple of items in the environment, we instantly took to strafing around groups of enemies while peppering them with bullets. The action is fast and frantic and unrelenting, and the weapons have a pleasingly angular design that'll speak to FPS fans of a certain age. The cherry on top, however, is the crunch of the heavy metal soundtrack, which along with the grim pixelated 3D world makes for an evocative, almost suffocating experience. It's as atmospheric as hell - almost literally.
Dusk is still chugging through Early Access on Steam but we certainly enjoyed our brief peek at the game and, once all three chapters are in place and developer David Szymanski and his team are finished with the rest of the trimmings, we're looking forward to jumping back into the action to frag some cultists like its 1996.