The initial release of the PlayStation 4 was a glorious period in my gaming life. Admittedly, the new hardware was somewhat lacking in truly compelling launch software and suffered a severe drought of new releases for quite some time after. I’d rinsed Killzone: Shadowfall within a few days and whilst Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag kept me busy for a while, it didn’t really feel like a true ‘next-gen’ title. But in the midst of an altogether average launch line-up, one game shined brighter than all others and dominated my life for months on end. That game was Resogun.
Resogun’s sharp focus on high scoring across several difficulty levels truly brought out my competitive edge and that of my friends. Everyday, one of us would somehow manage to come out on top, with our scores eventually entering the top 10 of the global rankings. Yeah, we were that good (we have of course long since moved on and our scores are no longer even remotely impressive compared to the feats some folks have achieved).
I’ve since played Housemarque’s other arcade titles including Super Stardust HD, Dead Nation and Alienation – these are no doubt impressive games in their own right and I certainly enjoyed my time with them, but none of them could compare to the iron grip that Resogun held on me for several months. I was beginning to think that Housemarque had a one-hit wonder on their hands and wouldn’t be able to replicate the same level of addiction I felt with Resogun. Until now.
Nex Machina, Housemarque’s latest arcade title, is easily their strongest game to date and one of the best twin-stick shooters of all time. Built with special consultation from legendary developer Eugene Jarvis, Nex Machina clearly takes direct inspiration from Jarvis’ own classic arcade titles Defender and Robotron whilst also taking some cues from Housemarque’s own Resogun.
The premise of the game is fairly straightforward; you play as an unnamed hero tasked with defeating a robot uprising whilst saving as many humans as possible along the way. You’ll traverse along various locales from forests to urban districts, with each level split into 15 bite sized set pieces. The goal is to simply eliminate all robot enemies in each set piece to progress to the next, culminating in an intense boss battle at the end of each level. Very Robotron.
In theory, you could blast through Nex Machina on the standard difficulty within an hour and be done with it. But in doing so, you’d be missing the point of the game. See, like Resogun before it, Nex Machina is full of hidden depth when you start to focus on increasing your high score. Scattered throughout the levels are poor, defenceless humans that you must save if you hope to achieve a respectable score at the end. Saving your first human will kick start a ‘human combo’ – you’ll need to save the others within a certain timeframe, or that combo will automatically reset. However, save them too quickly and you’ll be stuck without any way to sustain the combo until the next set piece. It’s a simple but marvellous mechanic to ensure you effectively manage your time whilst also trying your absolute best to simply survive. Eventually, you’ll start meticulously planning each play session to maximise your chances of boosting your score efficiently.
Make no mistake, Nex Machina can be a punishing game, but the difficulty curve is absolutely spot on. It consists of four difficulty levels; Rookie, Experienced, Veteran and Master (note, you need to complete Arcade Mode on Veteran before accessing Master). As you up the difficulty, the enemies become faster and far more numerous. That plan you set out to save all the humans on Rookie difficulty? Yeah, you can forget about that. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to get surrounded and overwhelmed if you’re not used to the behaviour of the enemies, though I fully recommend cranking the difficulty up to Veteran as soon as possible – it’s an intense experience and, in my opinion, the way the game is meant to be played.
Aside from the basic Arcade Mode, there is also Arena Mode – here, you’ll be tasked with completing the levels under certain conditions, such as increased game speed or four minute time trials. It’s a great, effective way of providing additional challenges to players who may have already mastered the game in Arcade Mode, though it’s a shame that the various game modes are locked behind in-game currency. I would have rather had these unlocked from the start and saved the currency for the cosmetic items you can adorn your character with. Still, we can’t have it all.
Nex Machina is a world class example of how to make a twin-stick shooter. It’s not exactly a surprise when you consider the talent behind its development. The moment you begin decimating the swarming robot armies, you’ll realise just how fundamentally perfect the core gameplay is. It’s flawless. This is the best digital game of 2017 so far, and easily Housemarque’s best game. I’ll be keeping a close eye on their next title Matterfall when it releases later this year.