It could be said that time has not been kind to the humble shoot-em-up. Over thirty years ago, games like Space Invaders, Defender, Asteroids and Galaxian were drawing mullet-sporting teens in stonewashed skinny jeans and tight leather jackets to amusement arcades like moths to the glowing neon lights that would hang above the entrance. Today, such arcades are a rarity; mostly replaced by shops or trendy bars and often pulled down entirely, whilst the teenagers of 2015 queue all night outside their local grocery store to buy the latest copy of Call of Duty minutes after its launch.
The shoot-em-up genre has never been keen to go quietly into the night, however, and every generation of consoles has had its fair share of classic static, scrolling and roaming shoot-em-ups for players to consider. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a couple of days with Project Root, an upcoming shooter from Argentinian developer OPQAM that is positioning itself as the definitive next-generation take on this classic genre.
Project Root claims to feature a unique open world aspect in addition to crisp controls, cutting edge graphics, a comprehensive upgrade system and a truly exceptional level of challenge. The game isn’t scheduled for release for a few more weeks, but my experience with it over the past couple of days leads me to suggest that it may yet need a little work to live up to the lofty expectations set by the forebears which it aims to emulate.
I won’t even bother to bore you with the details of “who’s who” and “what’s what” in Project Root. Suffice it to say that the player controls a generic hero, whilst the enemy is a megacorporation with endless resources and limitless greed, made possible only because of their cunning ability to hide their true nature. Or something like that anyway. The story is delivered via brief, static cut-scenes between levels and by (often huge) reams of tiny, almost illegible text which appears in the bottom corner of the screen mid-level. The game actually features a minimalist and fairly clean GUI which suits the frenetic 360 degree nature of the onscreen action, so I’m not sure that making the text box bigger would be in the games best interest. Let’s just say that it’s a good job the story is irrelevant – because you won’t be able to read about what’s happening anyway.
Unfortunately, the problems don’t end there. Project Root’s party piece is the open ended nature of it’s game world, but as far as I’m concerned that’s just marketing nonsense. The levels I have experienced are all large and filled with a decent amount of enemies to destroy, but each one is progressively expanded by completing one repetitive mission objective after another. Take the first level for example – can’t get past the massive force field? Oh well, better go and destroy the shield generator then. Level two? More or less exactly the same sequence of events. I’ve read that Project Root is being likened to Desert Strike (and its sequels), but though it may share a similar perspective and multi-directional movement, I would say that the comparison is an insult to the much more involving Megadrive classic.
I wish I could report that Project Root was particularly exceptional to look at, but unfortunately it appears as if the designers have simply created a theme for each level, then hit copy/paste a few thousand times. You could be forgiven for thinking that it doesn’t look too bad from the screenshots, and that’s fine – it doesn’t. But trust me, once in motion you’ll quickly find that the same chasms, forests and installations appearing over and over again. A particular bugbear for me is the enemy buildings – they are fairly infrequent and therefore stand out all the more in their uniformity. Because the environments are so generic, there is rarely much impetus to explore them, which makes the current lack of a usable minimap another annoyance – objectives on the map are so tiny that it is basically impossible to see them, so I hope OPQAM are able to find space on the screen for an expanded version.
Almost all of the reservations I’ve described could probably be forgiven if the gameplay were so solid that the rest becomes irrelevant. Thankfully, this is an area where Project Root does actually show a lot of promise. Once the action begins, the gameplay comes into its own – the controls are tight and responsive and the player’s craft feels good. Enemy units and attack patterns are not perfect, but they are much more varied than the scenery, and the challenge quickly ramps up by the third or fourth level.
Unfortunately, there is another minor complaint about the gunplay too. The ship features an air-to-air weapon and an air-to-surface weapon which can both fire simultaneously and provide decent feedback, but in addition to those the only weapons are collectable, limited use special weapons which are rarely especially powerful. This feels like the kind of game where stackable, mid-level ship upgrades that add bigger and badder multi-directional weapons would have been the right move. There is an upgrade system between levels, but it’s very arbitrary at the moment and seems to add statistical (rather than visual or gameplay) changes to the weapons. There are currently no additional ships or other unlockables of any particular note.
With just under three weeks until its scheduled release, time is running out for the kind of changes which Project Root needs to make in order for it to compete not only with modern shooters, but also those classic games which it hopes to emulate. At its heart, Project Root has the potential to be a solid shooter and the basic fundamentals are there, but it is still lacking in so many other areas that I fear it may not be enough to satisfy the kind of niche gamer which it hopes to attract.
Project Root is scheduled for release on April 28, 2015 and is rumoured to cost around $10. An early access version of the game was provided on Xbox One for preview purposes, and the content may not reflect that of the finished product.