Game review: Nex Machina – frenetic, hypnotic and addictive
Just short of being overwhelmed by the action, players of this difficult arcade-style twitch shooter will get intense pleasure from being forced to quickly process a barrage of visual information in beautiful voxel-made environments
I was given my PlayStation 4 for Christmas in 2013. For at least a year, until Bloodborne came out, my go-to game was Resogun, a side-scrolling, spaceship shooter that was available free of charge to PlayStation Plus subscribers.
Developed by Housemarque, Finland’s oldest video game studio, Resogun was a love letter to my favourite game as a little kid, Defender (another Christmas gift) for the Atari 2600. Visually, it was one of the most impressive first-wave PS4 titles in large part because of its use of voxels – cube-shaped graphical units. Explosions resulted in the scattering of innumerable volume-rich particles that upped the ante for video game pyrotechnics.
In 2014, Resogun was nominated for the action game of the year award at the Dice Summit in Las Vegas.
According to Mikael Haveri, Housemarque’s head of self-publishing, after the awards ceremony, members of his team spotted Eugene Jarvis, the lead designer behind Defender. Summoning their courage, they told him the influence he’d had on the development of their craft (earlier that evening, Jarvis had received the Pioneer Award).
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In the days following the event, Jarvis, who had played and admired Resogun, agreed to collaborate with Housemarque on a new project that the studio internally referred to as “The Jarvis Project”. From that was born Nex Machina, a twitch shooter that stands as a pinnacle of a certain kind of arcade-inspired game design.
Apart from Defender (1981), the other games that Jarvis is primarily known for are overhead shooters Robotron 2084 (1984) and Smash TV (1990). Both games, in their arcade versions, use a twin-stick set-up, a form that dates back to Gun Fight (1975) but which Jarvis popularised with Robotron. With mesmerising virtuosity, Nex Machina iterates on Jarvis’ famous twin-stick shooters.
In Nex Machina you play as a robot-killing soldier who must mow down waves of enemies before proceeding to the next section. The action is frenetic and supremely hypnotic. Much of the pleasure comes from being forced to quickly process tremendous amounts of visual information while remaining ever-so-slightly on the other side of being overwhelmed.
“We like our explosions so we’re always balancing a visual aesthetic of chaos with actual readability to the player,” says Haveri. “That’s the dance that we like to take on.”
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Nex Machina uses Housemarque’s in-house graphics engine to create voxel-made environments that are among the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen in an arcade-style game.
“The voxels create a familiar but still very video-gamey world. It takes you to a different place. It’s like a storybook in that sense ... like Lego building blocks, you can see a lot of depth,” says Haveri.
As with Resogun, Nex Machina brilliantly incorporates one of Jarvis’ most inspired design choices from Defender – multiple goals. Although you can blast your way through a level with utter abandon, you can also try to rescue oblivious humans (wandering around the playfield with their eyes trained on digital devices) from being harvested by the robots who have evolved and turned against their former masters.
As it happens, there is an achievement for going through a stage on the experienced difficulty level or above without saving anyone – Nihilist. However, the game offers incentives for choosing otherwise by way of score multipliers. Of course, rescuing humans often means putting yourself more in harm’s way so you are forced to regularly weigh the opportunity cost for undertaking humanitarian manoeuvres.
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By design, Nex Machina is a hard game, a fact made plain by its difficulty levels. Rookie, or the default difficulty level, offers unlimited continues and five stages. Experienced, the next difficulty level up, allots 99 continues. I played the game on ‘experienced’ and yet, despite the seemingly generous number of continues, I was absolutely obliterated by the time I hit the fourth stage. That’s OK, because Nex Machina is a game that I plan to keep in rotation for the indefinite future.
Note: I played Nex Machina on an i5-4690K computer with a second-generation Nvidia Titan X graphics card. At 3840×2160 resolution, the game ran with an average frame rate close to 52fps.