Monday, May 28, 2012

Nexuiz Review

Nexuiz, developed by Illfonic and published by THQ.
The Good: Many temporary player-chosen gameplay mutators, action-packed chaotic pace, fair use of experience points, $10
The Not So Good: Some extraneous weapons that lack innovation, only eight players per game, occasional stability and connection issues, regenerating health
What say you? An inexpensive arena shooter that relies on dynamic mutator variety: 6/8

Following the success of Quake and Unreal Tournament, a free, open-source online first person arena shooter was released in 2005 with an unpronounceable name: Nexuiz. It used a modified version of the Quake engine and was popular enough to spawn a considerable number of community-made maps and modifications. Then, in March of 2010, Illfonic purchased the rights to the game name and source code to develop a commercial product for the PC and consoles. Shortly thereafter, members of the Nexuiz community branched off and developed Xonotic, based on the original principles of open-source development. Now the commercial Nexuiz release is here, sporting shiny graphics and tons of mutators that vary the gameplay mechanics during a match. Does Nexuiz signal a revival of the arena first person shooter?

Overall, the graphics of Nexuiz exceeds the game $10 price tag. The nine game maps use two design themes: industrial interior and rocky exterior, but each map becomes distinctive enough with enough exposure to the nuances. The maps feel empty with no interior decoration to speak of: plain, metallic hallways connect plain, metallic rooms. The brightness of the level design, however, helps to offset the lack of decoration. The “pretty” levels can make it hard to spot enemy soldiers at a distance, especially because team coloring is faint on default settings. The soldier models are generic and the weapon designs are uninspired and indistinct, making them hard to tell apart when you have them armed (I relied more on the targeting icon than the weapon model). The weapon effects look good, though, with neon beams and shiny projectiles flying across the screen. There are also some fancy processing effects that give the game a comtemporary look. CryEngine is notorious for having high resource requirements and poor optimization, and Nexuiz falls into that camp as well. While I was still able to garner a respectable 40 frames per second on “very high” settings (and 60 on “medium”), the game could still feel more fluid (important in a fast-paced shooter such as this). As for the sound design, it has features nothing of note but no distinct shortcomings, with varied sounds for each weapon and cues for mutators and successfully hitting enemies. The music is way too loud on default settings, drowning out everything else; it was the second thing I tweaked (after the insufficient mouse sensitivity settings). Despite some performance issues, Nexuiz still looks better than a $10 needs to.

Nexuiz takes its cues from Quake and Unreal Tournament and is focused on online play, although a single player training mode is available. The bots are better than I had anticipated, putting up a good fight thanks (I think) to very accurate aim. They get a bit confused when a match starts, instantly engaging enemies all the way across the map (but within view), but soon enough they are capturing and defending the flag and killing others with aplomb. You can customize your bot experience by adjusting the difficulty, time limit, and available weapons. Online play grants access to ranked matches (where one player acts as host) and dedicated servers where things are a bit more fair. The inherent problem in ranked matches is that the host benefits from zero ping, which can be a significant advantage in a twitch shooter like Nexuiz. While I did not perceive any significant disadvantage of having a ping below about 100, warping did occur if a connection was any worse than that. The game also likes to select a terrible host where everyone else has poor (200 or more) pings and the host enjoys a zero ping advantage. Frankly, the game isn’t popular enough to ensure you’ll only be playing against nearby opponents, so poor connections, and an inferior game experience, are frequent. Thankfully, the experience points gained from playing ranked matches have small value (discussed later) so you can spend all of your time on the dedicated servers and not miss out on unlocking really important things. The server browser can’t be sorted by ping or filtered, but at least the developers support dedicated servers that make the game more fair.

Nexuiz only supports eight players. I suspect this low amount was designed for peer-to-peer console games in mind, the maps are large enough where more (twelve, I’d say) players could be integrated. The game keeps score, using a points system based on kills, assisting teammates, capturing the flag, and other activities. Players are ranked during a match, but I really don’t understand how the per-game rankings are done: it’s not by score and not by kills and not by experience. I’ve had the top kills and top score and been ranked 4th out of eight players. There must be some formula to determine the #1 player each round, but I sure can’t figure it out. The nine maps are reminiscent of Unreal Tournament, with multiple levels, jump pads, teleporters, and plenty of locations to fall to your death. Three of the maps are for capture the flag, while the remainder are reserved for team deathmatch. I thought the map design was decent, producing fairly constant action, and learning where weapons and power-ups are located was a quick process. I’ve encountered several bugs (already, or in the process of being, fixed) during my time playing Nexuiz: invisible soldier models, errors when going to the main menu or switching maps (with a cryptic “Deleting Reference Counted Object Twice” message), random crashes to the desktop, and incorrect server player population listings. All of these are indicative of a small development team dealing with unwieldy code; while most have been earmarked for correction, you should be aware that every new patch usually introduces a new set of issues.

The control scheme for Nexuiz is typical for a first person shooter, although fans of recent military shooters will notice the lack of a reload button. The explanation is simple: in the future, guns are advanced enough to carry an infinite amount of ammunition, duh! I did find that the default mouse sensitivity was set way too low and was adjusted as soon as possible. The weapon selection is decent, although several weapons do the same thing and the developers could have eliminated a third of them. The Hagar and Crylink do the same thing: throw multiple rockets or energy (respectively) outward simultaneously. These could have been combined into one weapon. The ClanCutter and Ravager also do the same thing, acting as quick-fire machine guns, and could have also been combined. The shotgun is one of the more effective default weapons I have encountered, although it still takes a while to eliminate an enemy using it. I did not care for the rocket launcher, which fires too slowly and has limited splash damage. The Electro is basically an electric form of the rocket launcher, and the Mortar is a rocket launcher that fires in arcs instead of straight ahead. Finally, the Nex is a sniper rifle. Each weapon comes with a primary and secondary firing mode (hello, Unreal Tournament) that behave somewhat differently, usually trading more concentrated firing for a slower rate. Overall, I felt the weapons lack innovation with no unique or memorable features. I also dislike the lack of a weapon preference list: a couple of the weapons I don’t care for (the Ravager and Nex, specifically) and I’d like to be able to prevent switching to them automatically when they are picked up, but still have the ability to switch to others on the fly.

Unlike Unreal Tournament, where the mutators are set before a match begins and are active for the entire game, in Nexuiz they are triggered by players during a match, so you never know what to expect as a game progresses. I found this mechanic to be quite enjoyable and some of the mutators to be innovative. If you pick up a mutator item, capture the flag, or start a killing spree, you get three randomized choices that can affect yourself, teammates, enemies, or everyone. There are exactly one hundred to choose from, and some of the more interesting examples include rapid fire, instagib, infinite ammo, jet packs, color blindness (the display is in black and white), invisibility, higher jumping, triple armor, magnetism (nearby pickups gravitate towards you), heavy flag, flag bomb, change the scoring limit, steal mutators, summon players to your location, kill everyone in a nuclear blast, more damage using a specific weapon, broken hit detection icons for the enemy, heal teammates by shooting them, invulnerability, faster running speed, increased team strength, instant melee attack on nearby enemy flag carriers, inverted controls, switching everyone to a random weapon every couple of seconds, reflectivity (bullets bounce off), respawn near flag, inaccurate enemies, and increased damage from falling. These temporary effects usually last under a minute (a game lasts for ten) and multiple mutators can be active at one time, although I’m not sure why sometimes mutators stack and sometimes they queue (maybe you can have one personal, one team, and one everyone at a time?). The variety here is staggering and it injects a healthy sense of randomness and replay value into the game, since you never know which mutator is coming up next.

Experience points earned by playing ranked matches are thankfully not used to unlock new weapons; instead, they are used to increase the probability of getting specific mutators during a match, which I feel is a very fair use of them. This also makes it so that playing on unranked servers isn't a waste of your time, since the experience accumulated from playing ranked matches isn't that important in the overall scheme. Plus, some servers let you assign preferences at no cost (the “free” mutator option), so you may still be able to guide the dice rolls your way a tad without having to log hundreds of hours of game time.

Nexuiz has a fast pace, which is refreshing given the methodical nature of many recent online shooters. Constant running and bunny hopping are the rules of the day, made more chaotic by the multi-level map layouts. Enhanced weapons (from specific mutators, or the “Nexuiz” double damage pick-up) are very dominant and serve as an easy gateway to multiple kills. You can also pick up armor, but there are no health pickups because health regenerates if you are not being attacked; I don’t think I like that aspect of the game mechanics. Nexuiz allows headshots from every weapon, which is fine: getting hit in the head by a gigantic electrical ball should hurt more. Friendly fire is also always on, which is necessary given some of the mutators in the game and not as big of a deal since regenerating health is also enabled. While Nexuiz is obviously not designed for competitive play because of the randomized (and inherently unfair) nature of the mutators, it is designed for fun play, and I did enjoy my time with the title.

Nexuiz stands out because of its huge roster of dynamic mutators, integrated into each match and shuffling the gameplay mechanics in a positive way. Players can choose between three randomly chosen mutators (out of one hundred) when they pick up a specific power-up or start a killing spree, and their brief effects range from silly to game-changing. It’s a fun, significant addition to what is otherwise a fairly standard arena shooter. The weapons could be pared down a bit, as some of the instruments of destruction are repeats of other options. Overall, none of the weapons offer too much in the way of innovation, offering up variations on themes found in older games. The pace of the game is fast and the level design involves lots of jumping between multiple levels, which can be disorienting (probably on purpose). This is not a methodical shooter, as you need to constantly move and shoot to survive. The bot training mode features surprisingly decent AI to practice against, and finding dedicated and player-hosted online servers is straightforward, although you cannot sort or filter the server list. The limitation to only eight players is disappointing, although most of the maps are small enough where you’ll usually quickly encounter a foe. The graphics are quite nice to look at, though the game could perform better, but that seems to be par for the course for CryEngine. Overall, the mutator variety helps Nexuiz stand out, and at a $10 price point, it is an attractive option for fans of arena shooters.