Interstellar Marines can be best summed up in one word: potential. These days terms like “alpha” and “beta” have been so overrun by marketing speak and promotion that they don’t have much of a meaning anymore. That’s not the state that this game is in, it’s what we would have considered “pre-alpha” and in truth I don’t think it’s anywhere near complete. That’s not to say that Interstellar Marines doesn’t have something to offer at this early stage, just that the finer points of what it can and intends to become have not formed yet.
The tale Interstellar Marines dates back to 2005, when the project was originally started to be an Unreal 3 shooter for the 360, PS3, and PC that was hoping to use pre-orders and investors to bypass the mainstream publisher system and create a high profile game. While that did not work out, developer Zero Point Software has fully utilized the modern independent landscape to keep its vision alive. After a transition to the Unity engine and an unsuccessful Kickstarter in 2012, Interstellar Marines has found a home on Steam with both the Greenlight and Early Access program. Despite the sordid tale of its beginnings, one who looks at the eventual goal and current work on this title cannot deny that it is compelling and may give way to one hell of a game. Throughout the development, one key concept has remained intact: deliver a “AAA” (which is code for “high budget, high profile”) experience within the independent development system.
If you haven’t heard of it, you probably wonder what Interstellar Marines is and wants to be. Zero Point Software has released a concept statement that will pique interest. They are promising a tactical shooter that takes a more simulation approach to gameplay and integrates RPG-like elements to create and enhance character progression. Additionally you will have the option to take your character on a sci-fi adventure campaign, a co-operative campaign (at time of writing these appear to be separate campaigns), and of course a myriad of competitive multiplayer modes. Zero Point has made specific focus on the unpredictability of the campaign, realistic simulation goals, and also has released some great concept art as to what we can expect in alien worlds. I mean seriously, there’s a hulking shark creature, who doesn’t think that’s cool?
So how has that fared so far? Since releasing last summer, twelve updates have gone live and this title has begun to shape up into a playable format. It used to be simple items like traversing several areas, which eventually gave way to the eight or so maps that you can play around in at this point (although you will be completely alone in them). Each environment is a medium sized playground that follows the multiplayer shooter concept by the book – mild verticality, choke points, and strategic points for both defensive and assault play types. As you navigate these maps they will come to life with random effects like alarms going off or rain beginning to fall. It could be day, it could be night; both have strengths and weaknesses although I did not see an actual transition cycle from one to the next. Areas warn of hazards like poison gas or reduced oxygen – these hint at future plans for both zoning and the helmet function – but currently nothing happens there. It all points to a heck of a lot of minutia for a game that is so early in development. I’m not a developer and I know little about the stages of creating a contemporary shooter, but typically this amount of detail is one of the last parts in development on most previews I’ve seen (and it’s been quite a few over the last 5 years). Still, there’s no denying the game looks gorgeous and with the steady patter of rain to impede sight or having an underground passage flooded with poison gas to trap enemies you can see where these early ideas could be cool.
The closest hint you will get to actual gameplay can be found in the prototype area where you can play around with previous updates. Bullseye is a shooting gallery that lets you get used to how the guns will work and the basic concept of aiming. Given that this game is focused on being more realistic, you will probably notice right away that kickback and aim are a large factor. For those hunting down the single player experience, here’s where you can challenge yourself to high scores and even unlock some achievements.
Once you’ve had your go at the shooting gallery, you can move on to the Running Man demo that integrates shooting and movement with some bots. It’s more of a movement concept to show off what could be, but it doesn’t resemble much of a training ground. It should also be noted that you can play these two prototypes in a web browser on the Interstellar Marines web site (interstellarmarines.com) before purchasing the software. There is also a cooler updated version in the “bonus” folder of the Steam version called Get Killed By Bots! that can be run to unlock that fun little feature. It was amusing to say the least.
Most people who pick the game up at this point will jump into the active stage of development: multiplayer. It’s only available on one relatively open map that takes place at night with the usual weather effects. Named Deadlock, it has capture-and-hold areas on the map but the catch is that it’s more intended for single players to be at each point. This is handled by putting more spread out points on the map than there are players on a single team and points are only given to the first player that arrives. This means you’ll want to take advantage of ducking, cover, sneaking up on people, and planning your shots appropriately. An arrow appears in blue over teammates’ heads so you do not shoot at them, although I think the only penalty is giving away your position. Jumping feels a bit weak, although if you’re going for realism the average soldier doesn’t have the vertical leap that other shooters give them not to mention the near flight Master Chief is capable of. Respawns take time but you can dynamically view cams and open environments while waiting so it’s not so bad, but it does work with the low health of each player to encourage you not to be hasty. Given that it takes place at night, you can also play around with your laser scope and flashlight for assistance, but again this is a visual cue of your position. The helmet can be put on and taken off, but it currently does nothing save for having a visor animation – plans for a HUD may be live in the next update. It’s fun for a short spell, but honestly wasn’t my main draw to this title although in full disclosure I’m not much of a multiplayer fan in shooters.
If you are going to play Interstellar Marines be prepared for a few decent, and expected, hiccups in running the game. It ran just fine on my Windows 7 64-bit and didn’t ever crash, but I saw quite a framerate dip in multiplayer along with occasional lag. At times the game would hitch up and I would need to quit and restart, not to mention the bugs that Zero Point cop to. Keep in mind that at this early stage this is all to be expected and hopefully as development continues we will see improvement to the framerate. Honestly it’s unfair to expect much until the final finished product hits, which is usually when the engine is optimized to run as best as it can. I was on a 3.4 ghz quad core AMD with 4 GB of RAM and a GTX 760 and was able to run Interstellar Marines in 1080p with mostly high settings around 40-60 fps. Tweaking some of the effects didn’t make a drastic difference in performance, but I also didn’t see a drastic difference in visuals without some effects. Granted, I’m betting the game performs much better on a stronger machine, I would consider mine midline. All in all Interstellar Marines has the potential to take on bigger budget games provided that it can get development wrapped up at a slightly faster pace. This already seems in place as co-op is supposed to hit September 18 and they are hoping to release the single player Prologue after that and within about two years the full campaign. It’s going to be a slow process, but in the end those that get in early should hopefully expect some decent updates every 12 weeks or so (based on current pacing). Keep in mind that mechanics are still being worked on so campaign is most likely a back burner item. With all that in mind you may find that $19 for the regular edition is worth getting in at the ground floor or if you’re really dedicated you can get the Spearhead Edition for $44 that gives you a gift copy of the game and earlier access to some updates along with plenty of bonus items. It all comes down to whether or not you see the potential and if you trust the development team. In the least, Zero Point Software has been very open about the development process, but this also demonstrates just how slow high end game development is today.
Interstellar Marines is currently available on Steam Early Access for $18.99 or $43.99 for the Spearhead edition. It is possible to pay to upgrade the regular version to Spearhead at a later date. A code was provided for this preview. We plan to continue review coverage after major updates come along that justify more elaboration. Currently the co-op update is scheduled for September 18, but this is subject to change. Keep in mind that all Early Access games are in development and that this game is still quite early. It will be some time before it is in any state that resembles the goal of the finished product, but purchasing at Early Access means that you are getting the final project at presumably a lower price point.