Side-scrolling arcade shooters are ten a penny in the cluttered aisles of the Steam store, so when yet another one’s announced it’s easy to dismiss it as something you’ve played a hundred times before. In the case of Scottish studio Ruffian Games’ (best known for the admittedly rather underwhelming Crackdown 2) intriguing effort Hollowpoint, I think doing so would be a mistake. There’s some interesting ideas on display here that could provide a new angle on what is a fairly time-worn genre.
Quite literally, in fact. In contrast to most side-scrollers, Hollowpoint gives you an entirely new dimension to worry about. Enemies will charge at you not only from the 2D horizontal plane, but also from the 3D backgrounds, and at the touch of a button you can transition to an over-the-shoulder viewpoint that lets you start pinging shots off into the distance. This isn’t an entirely new mechanic; 2009’s arcade shooter Shadow Complex (a game that Hollowpoint appears heavily indebted to) also gave depth to its environments, but viewpoint shift in Hollowpoint seems smoother and more natural, and the levels more expansive. The addition of a cover mechanic lets you quickly snap back and forth between the two perspectives, making for a more dynamic and fluid combat system.
The addition of unique enemies like shield drones that project a field of energy to protect their troops, heavies armed with rocket launchers that take a barrage to put down, and sneaky snipers taking up position right at the back of the screen means that combat seems to have a good deal of variety to it. Then there’s faction-specific enemies that you might encounter on each level, which pack their own bag of deadly tricks.
Variety is the key, and that bleeds through the core foundations of the game. Hollowpoint is set in a visually attractive if not particularly original near future world run by corporations who dominate through their use of specialised mercenary teams called Operatives. You run a team of five Operatives, each of which can be tweaked to your heart’s content via an in-depth grid levelling system. Paths on the grid lead to different skills and stat bonuses. You’ve got two weapons to take into battle, so you may choose to create a sniper who relies on a powerful handgun for close-quarters battle, or a machine gun-wielding heavy who also packs a devastating rocket launcher. Combined with cosmetic customisation and a loot system that offers randomised weapons and items, Borderlands-style, and you’ve got enough depth to keep players tinkering with their setup for hours. If you want a team of burly Operatives covered head to toe in pink and yellow camo, fill your boots.
When you’re ready to go into the field, the contracts screen lists a series of missions, which give you a brief setup, a simple map layout, and the particular corporation that you’re hitting. Here’s the cool thing; from here on in, missions are procedurally generated, so the game cycles through its pool of assets and constructs an arena for you to play around in on the fly – Ruffian says that no two maps should ever be the same. Right now my only concern is that the level topography might change, but the steel and concrete industrial look remains. The game’s crying out for some more varied tile-sets. Luckily, that’s something Ruffian says it’s working on, so hopefully at launch there will be a bit more visual variety to match the systemic depth.
Once you’ve completed your initial objective in a given mission, you’ll receive another randomised task. There might be a boss to defeat, plans to steal or another Operative to rescue, but the game will keep you on your toes by constantly mixing things up between each level. No worrying about choosing a sniper and then getting stuck in a fight against heavy armour, either; you can jump between each of your squadmates on the fly, choosing the right man or woman for the job as you see fit.
Sadly I didn’t get to go hands-on with the game at the preview event I was attending, but we saw a couple of random levels played out that went in wildly different directions. One evolved into a sniper battle across a vast warehouse, while the other was a close-quarters battle through tight corridors marked by enemy soldiers charging forward and crossing into the 2D plane to blast the players at close range. That one culminated in a knock-down battle against a rocket-firing airship. It was also conducted in co-op, which seems like the best way to play the game. The game features drop-in multiplayer, so teaming up with friends to charge around a map blasting enemies should be nice and simple. There’s a clear synergy at play, as one character picked off distant enemies with a rifle, while the other charged around hurling explosives at anyone who came close.
Of course, as solid as the combat looked, until you get your hands on a shooter like this you can never really judge how it will play, and arcade shooters tend to stand or fall on… well, the shooting. For now I’m optimistic. Weapon sounds are chunky and satisfying, there’s plenty of enemy types to consider (though personally I could do without the multi-coloured blobs of currency they spill as you mow them down), and the randomised weapon drops you receive upon completion of a mission should stimulate the obsessive looter’s brain nicely. Everything seems to be in place to hook the player in to the kind of brief, constantly rewarding gameplay loop that marks out the best arcade games. I didn’t go in to Ruffian’s demonstration expecting much, as these kind of games aren’t usually my thing, but I came out rather impressed. Hollowpoint’s set for release later this year on PC and PS4.
Most anticipated feature: Trying out the random level generator. Hopefully it can make each level feel truly unique, rather than a slightly shunted around version of the last map.