Jogging towards the objective with your team, you instinctively break off to cover the flank when, suddenly, the artificial sun goes down and rain starts to pour. High-voltage flashbulbs go off simulating lightning, their flashes providing sporadic glimpses of the battlefield as your adrenaline spikes.
Illumination from your helmet display starts to get in the way of your night vision in the near-total darkness; you decide to lift up your water-streaked visor for a better view. You’re taking up position near the objective, knee deep in a patch of swamp water infested with stinging nettles. Only the sound of droplets hitting carbon fiber is audible while you scan the dim horizon.
Soon after you hear distant gunfire, your team begins to engage the enemy, kicking off a dangerous game of search-and-destroy in the shadows.
Interstellar Marines isn’t very well-known, despite being one of the first crowdfunded early-access games on the market. Development started in 2005 on the Unreal engine, but Unreal was later scrapped in favor of Unity. At the time, it was an ambitious, risky endeavor: a four-player co-op tactical shooter on a then-unproven engine, from a self-funded indie studio promising a AAA game that embraced design inspiration from every Immersive Sim you’ve come across, and then some.
Zero Point never really delivered on the scope of the original concept, but this almost certainly gave us the game’s greatest strengths. What was a sprawling 27 planned weapons became a tightly balanced three that fulfill their roles concisely; extravagant mutant bipedal tiger sharks became blank-faced dummy AI drones that somehow manage to be terrifying at times. The spartan art style reflects the nature of the gameplay itself, a minimalist tactical shooter drawing straight from 1998’s Rainbow Six. The clean presentation of these finely tuned elements creates something liberating, a game stripped down to the core tenets of the genre, unburdened by the design noise of its peers.
The level design exemplifies this with intuitive layouts that deftly channel the action. Warehouse arenas reconfigure their layout at random intervals, marshlands have day-night cycles, and indoor weather effects manifest a pervasive fog of war, creating moments that add nuanced layers of tactical considerations for the player.
Lighting is an aesthetic afterthought in most games. Interstellar Marines bucks the trend by leveraging it everywhere possible, making it as vital within the design as any use of geometry. We have players passing each other in the dark waiting for the flash of a muzzle to give up an enemy’s location, we have irregular lightning strikes that give regular snapshots of everyone’s positions. One can shoot lights out to compose the perfect spot for an ambush, or be forced to navigate more dynamic events: the corridor fully lit minutes ago becomes a deathtrap with spinning red emergency lights that distort your perception of speed and distance.
Interstellar Marines reminds us that less is sometimes more, and how giving simple design decisions room to breathe lends more nuance to the flow of a game than we realize. While it is not as accomplished as its peers in many ways, I think it remains one of the more memorable multiplayer FPS games available. When the next Steam sale hits, it is definitely worth picking up to play with your friends, especially if you can organize some 5v5 sessions.
Zero Point’s development has seemingly slowed to a crawl, having aimed for the stars but, in their attempts, having made something far more grounded. In a twist of irony, a game derailed by its own mission creep wound up prevailing as an example of how much you can pull off with the fundamentals of shooter design.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice