Those with wrinkles on their forehead and grey hairs on their chins might remember a game called Descent, released in 1995 on PlayStation and PC. Developed by Parallax Software, it involved flying spaceships with six-degrees-of-freedom through a mine overrun by robots and blasting the living tarnation out of them. My personal memories of Descent are a bit groggy since my experience was limited to renting it from the local Video Ezy about 15 years ago – but I do remember that I had oodles of fun and regret never actually buying it. Descent eventually had a few sequels (released in 1996 and 1999) but no peeps from the series were heard again until 2015.
That was because of a successfully funded Kickstarter for a game called Descent: Underground – but that’s not what we’re discussing today. While that is using the official licence for Descent, today’s First Impressions is about a game called Overload. You might be wondering what the difference is, and the answer is that Overload is instead considered a spiritual successor to the first two Descents. While it’s nothing official like Underground, it is instead being developed by the founding members of Parallax Software (now under the moniker of Revival Productions).
Given the choice, a ‘sequel’ created by the original developers sounds a lot more hopeful rather than one by the licensee. Not that I’m going to continuously rag on Underground or anything (which I haven’t played as of writing) but on paper Overload certainly sounds a lot more promising. It had its own Kickstarter in the March of last year (which achieved over $300,000 from just under 5,000 backers) and is currently available on Steam Early Access with a full release penned-in for 2018.
If you’ve never heard the term ‘six-degrees-of-freedom’ before (abbreviated to 6-dof) it involves freedom of movement beyond going backwards or forwards and up or down. You can also roll, spin on the spot and control your pitch vertically. A little tricky to explain in words – the Wikipedia page on the subject has a nicely descriptive diagram if you want more – but since in this case you’re controlling a spaceship, with 6-dof there are no limits to how crafty you can be in combat.
Since Overload is in Early Access as of writing, there is admittedly little content to play. However, it does a nice job of teasing what’s to come. One mission is available (not including a tutorial level), although this will not be a part of the full game and has no connection to the main storyline (of which will consist of 15 levels). Intended as a sample more than anything, it does however nicely introduce the flying mechanics, weapons and enemies. The missions premise is straight forward enough; make your way through a base shooting baddies, find the keycard that allows access to the caverns below, blast the reactor and then escape before it pops.
The other main part of this Early Access version is the Challenge Mode. Exactly as it sounds, the aim is to last as long as you can fighting hordes upon hordes of indignant flying robots. The environments are designed in a non-linear way and there are plenty of weapons and health orbs scattered around to aid you in your definite suicide mission. These sorts of modes are not usually my thing – probably something to do with having the attention span of a three-year-old and getting bored with repetitive tasks – but by all accounts, it seemed well designed and should satisfy those who are into that sort of thing. There are even constantly updated leaderboards, which should also please the more competitive among you.
Between the two modes there are 12 weapons and 10 different enemies. It was always exciting to find a new weapon just to see what it would do (my favourite was slightly rare and called ‘Devastator’ – doing exactly what you’d expect) although many weapons were basically the same but with a different colour and varied in strength. The enemies could be classed like this too; while some were distinctive (for example, one would lunge at you with a grinder attached. Proper Robot Wars spec) others seemed the same apart from appearance. There might be more to them, but right now it’s kind of hard to say with such limited gameplay available.
The ship you control is a buttload of fun, however, and will make you wish 6-dof was in more games. It can be a bit odd having so much control at first if you’ve never played a game like this, but it shouldn’t take too long before your blasting evil robots like a champ. The levels intertwine all over the place which can be disorienting if you’re not sure which way is up, but the many controls will ensure you’ll be correcting yourself immediately in the heat of battle. It may sound a tad overwhelming, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll catch on. The controls are surprisingly intuitive. I personally used an Xbox 360 controller (which automatically gets its buttons mapped) and I’d dare say it’s the best way to play. Playing with a keyboard and mouse is certainly doable, but having the thumbsticks and buttons instead sitting there waiting in your hands makes a lot more sense when the fast-paced gameplay and 6-dof controls are considered.
The environments included are textured in a basic manner but are also quite clean. What really gives Overload that next-level ‘sheen’, however, are the lighting effects. These are definitely the highlight of the graphics and gifts Overload with a nice current-gen vibe (for an Early Access release, anyway). The kicker is that this game runs well on quite minimal hardware (I would know) so even the dinkiest of laptop graphic chipsets should run it at a reasonable framerate. I was also pleasantly surprised by how there were minimal numbers of bugs or glitches considering it’s in Early Access. The framerate slowed down occasionally if there was a lot going on (and even this was at the extreme end) but that was about it.
This Early Access had been a nice introduction to the game and a reassuring snippet of what’s to come. If I was left wanting anything, however, it would be more variation in the single player missions. While the combat and flying is a lot of fun, I’m hoping that every level won’t simply be a case of: “go from A to B, collect keycard and travel to object C and fight slightly stronger enemy”. This type of level design might have been fine in the mid ’90s but it’s antiqued now, to say the least, and has no place in 2017. Having said that, though, overall Overload has left a sweet taste in my mouth and I look forward to its full release sometime next year.