Providing a definitive review of Nadeo’s ShootMania Storm is tricky for a couple of reasons. Thanks to a delayed launch, I’ve already previewed the game at least twice in the past. So if any of the upcoming sentences feel a bit familiar, it’s because the release version isn’t a whole lot different from the most recent beta incarnation I looked at.
The second reason concerns ShootMania’s structure and Nadeo’s ideals as a developer. Just as with the TrackMania series, this game is heavily community focused with level editing and (limited) scripting tools available to all. That means the best modes and levels probably don’t even exist yet. If the title doesn’t attract the same kind of numbers as previous Nadeo releases, they may never exist. Reviewing ‘potential’ is a fool’s errand, but to some extent that’s what I’m having to do here.
My introduction to the TrackMania series was with its sequel (TrackMania 2: Canyon), which distilled the racing format to its essence: one car, with one set of stats, racing against the clock. That, combined with the instant-restart mechanic now found in platformers like Super Meat Boy, was a fine piece of design. While it meant that the game was not exactly one for the petrol-heads who like to collect garages full of cars and customise them like pretty ponies, the reduction to key, simple elements was like asphalt-laced crack to arcade and score-attack folks. When you threw in an accessible level editor and a developer who understood the power of community tools, you had one of 2011‘s better games.
ShootMania attempts much the same kind of thing, removing all the extraneous trimmings that have crept into online shooters over the years and returning to a space that used to be (and arguably still is) dominated by titles like Quake III Arena and the original Unreal Tournament. That means one-to-three hits to kill, rapid reflex strafing and aiming, wall-jumping, trick shots and (at the top level) a high skill barrier. Iron sights, unlockable perks, regenerating health or encroaching blood splatters as you near death are nowhere to be seen.
If it feels somewhat less revelatory than TrackMania, perhaps that’s because it’s a return to a style of shooter which has already existed (and continues to exist,) rather than an approach to the racing genre that felt, for the most part, unique. Innovation isn’t everything however, and, for those prepared to wait and see what spin the community can put on the base game, Nadeo has once again provided a friendly, tile-based level editor for the creation of new maps and (potentially) modes.
That’s actually already happening. I’m writing this review after just having failed spectacularly at a mode called ‘Obstacle.’ This is pretty much the ShootMania equivalent of the platforming levels in TrackMania (yes, it was a racing game with platform levels); all about the awareness of your character’s abilities to build up speed and navigate on narrow ledges. Players race through the constructed course and attempt to set the best times. The fact that this mode doesn’t share much in common with the main FPS theme (though it is highly useful for fine-tuning skilled movement) is just a further example of the … here comes that word again … potential that ShootMania offers.
Movement is clearly the key for a title of this kind, and the game opts for rapid strafing with a somewhat floaty jump. You won’t to be bunny-hopping anywhere in ShootMania, because you tend to be at your most vulnerable when drifting down for a landing. The trade-off for this is a stamina bar which can only be activated with an opening jump (or upon landing after using a launch pad.) So it’s possible to gain a boost of speed, but at the expense of putting yourself temporarily in danger.
The game has one main weapon. There are others, such as a slow-moving orb projectile and rail-gun-esque lightning cannon, but these rarer offerings are usually accessed through situational areas of the map that only activate when the player is stood on them. The default blaster can be compared with the Spinfuser from Tribes: Ascend, in the sense that it’s a projectile rather than hit-scan weapon, but doesn’t have the same area splash-damage of the Tribes effort. In most game types it can fire off four quick shots, before needing time to recharge.
When you put this movement and weaponry together, several game modes end up with little pockets of 1v1, 2v1 or 2v2 dueling it out with darting motions. Getting a hit in this game is about predicting where your opponent will be, not where he is at present. Subsequently, an awareness of your own movements relative to where your foe is expecting you to be is paramount. And if you think that sentence scrambled your brain, it’s nothing compared to trying to keep track of a dozen potential assassins at once.
One of the existing modes created by Nadeo is called Royal, a last-man-standing type affair that hinges around the activation of a central pole which (in turn) sparks off a tornado that gradually shrinks the play area. More often than not the round will end with two or three players dancing around the totem, trying to keep an eye on where all the other players are, hoping to time their shots and not run out of laser juice. It’s always a tense, thrilling situation to be in. Nerves, just as much as skill can come into play.
You also need a sturdy constitution to involve yourself in the Elite mode, which pits teams of three in 3v1 matches. The ‘one’ in this case does have a hitscan-esque weapon (the lightning style gun mentioned above, here freed from its usual situational surroundings,) and his opponents have the Spinfuser-type blasters. Further advantage to the lone gunman is offered by his three health points (rather than one) and the chance to win by capturing a pole somewhere on the map.
The asymmetrical nature of the Elite mode is perhaps the reason why Nadeo are pushing it so hard in their aggressive move on the eSports market. With its (visually) uneven nature and potential for comebacks or surprise ‘plays,’ there’s a clear intent to try to capture an audience.
As someone with no experience in the professional, competitive FPS sphere, I have no idea if this will take off with the pros. What I can say is that sitting out during the attacking phase as a player (even though it’s only for a minute or less) feels a little boring, and playing as the attacker with the other pair watching your every move is stressful as hell. In a group of players you know, it might be fine. But with random strangers? No thanks. It’s kind of a crap-shoot whether you end up on a team of sympathetic teachers or loudmouthed pricks, and life is too short to invite that kind of abuse.
Other game modes available at launch include Battle, which offers an odd back-and-forth version of an ‘area capture’ mode. When attacking, players must reach and hold poles. If they’re knocked off, a time limit begins to count down. Should this counter reach zero, the defenders will now take the role of attackers. It’s (slightly) less confusing in person than to describe in text, and, like every mode in the game, has some handy rules you can read at the respawn station.
There’s also Joust, a 1v1 mode that invites players to race between poles in order to charge up their (once again Spinfuser-esque) weapons. As well as the usual spatial and environmental awareness, it encourages you to keep an even closer eye than usual on how many shots you (and your opponent) have fired.
Given how much emphasis is placed on deconstructing the shooter to its basics (move fast, move always, aim well,) it’s unfortunate to see ShootMania lumbering itself with the extra baggage of ManiaPlanet. This is Nadeo’s centralised ‘hub,’ where the developer hopes to keep all of its games unified. You can load up the general ShootMania Storm server browser, or one for a specific game type (Elite, say) or even one of the TrackManias.
Once you get a grip on how it works it’s not too troublesome, but it feels like excessive bloat. At one point I blundered my way into a tournament news bulletin and couldn’t figure out how to get back to the actual game menu (pressing Esc, as it happens.) The user interface is functional, but setting up a server is more awkward than it should be, and the utility of the in-hub ‘planets’ currency feels highly mysterious at present (‘buying’ mods? tournament entry fees?) Sure, I can see the benefits offered to the developer by this additional shell, but right now it’s harder to see how players are getting much out of this beyond extra hoops to jump through.
But hey, at least it doesn’t use Uplay.
It encourages me to see more people in servers than during the beta phase, but certain game types are still seriously lacking in population. For a title of this type to have any longevity, those players are vital. Nadeo has at least made two smart decisions in that regard: finally getting the game on Steam (where it will inevitably attract people during sale time,) and laying down plans to make Elite and Royal modes free with “trial” accounts. Once the players are there, ShootMania Storm should blossom into something terrific. But that’s a “should” not a “will.”
Right now, ShootMania is a dependable approximation of the twitch-shooter classics you (may) know and have perhaps loved. Unlike TrackMania it doesn’t reinvent the genre; but if enough people sign up it may help put it back in the limelight.