For more than twenty years, the good people at Housemarque have made a career out of top-down, twin-stick shooters. But while they’ve constantly pushed this genre’s conventions, they’ve also kept many of them alive, as evidenced by how their latest gun game, Nex Machina (PlayStation 4, PC), is less like their most recent arcade shooters, and more like the classics that inspired them.
Like their previous games Alienation and Dead Nation, Nex Machina is 2D shooter with an aerial perspective in the vein of such classics as Robotron: 2084 and Geometry Wars. One you can play on your own or co-op with a friend, provided they’re sitting next to you.
Along with your main gun, you can also pick up special weapons, such as a sword or rocket launcher; improvements for your main weapon that give it better range or a different bullet dispersal pattern; or such defensive abilities as a shield or an extra life in case you lose one. Further augmenting the latter group, you can also do a quick dash that will get you out of the way of incoming fire or through laser barriers without being hurt.
But what makes Nex Machine different from Alienation and Dead Nation, and more like Robotron: 2084 and Geometry Wars, is that you have an unlimited supply of ammo, and use one of the thumbsticks to aim your constant stream of bullets. Though the game further distinguishes itself from Dead Nation, but not Alienation, by having enemies come at you from all angles.
Where Nex Machine starts to differentiate itself from Robotron: 2084 and Geometry Wars as well is where you use all this ammo to destroy these enemies. In Alienation and Dead Nation, your fights took place on battlefields that were explorable but still linear, and had you going from point A to point B. In Robotron: 2084 and Geometry Wars, everything happened in a single screen arena. But while the battlefields in Nex Machine are self-contained, they’re typically bigger than a single screen, and have a set number of enemies, though many do spawn in after the fight has been going for a bit. Furthermore, you don’t move to the next gunfight until you’ve cleared the area.
Just make sure you’ve actually cleared the area. While survival is your main objective in Nex Machina, there are other people walking around these battlefields. But if you destroy all of your enemies before you’ve rescued all the people, you’ll move to the next battlefield, leaving those people behind to fend for themselves. Thankfully, you can grab them by just running into them. Y’know, like you did in Robotron: 2084.
Speaking of which, Nex Machine also takes a few cues from such Robotron 2084 contemporaries as Galaga, Defender, and Centipede. Not only is one of the power-ups you can grab a smart bomb, albeit one that isn’t as wide-spread as the ones in Defender, but there are times when the aliens will all move together in a line, like they’re marching in lock-step. Or they’re chilopodas.
All of these gameplay elements work together to make Nex Machina a frantic and challenging arcade shooter, a true test of your reflexes. In fact, it feels much more old school and arcadey than Alienation and Dead Nation, which had stories and elements of role-playing games. This is a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. While some may prefer this unadulterated challenge, others (myself included) will find its emphasis of skill over story makes this less compelling. Still, as mindless shooters go, Nex Machina has an interesting approach that makes it compelling in its own way.
Though it helps that Nex Machine corrects one of the more irritating aspects of Alienation: the inability to pause the game when you need to answer the phone or the call of nature. What, do the good people of Housemarque never order pizza?
While Nex Machine is quite good, it’s not quite perfect. And no, I’m not talking about the lack of a compelling story.
For starters, there are the moments, however brief, when the camera shifts behind the hero, and the game momentarily becomes a third-person shooter. And while this is an interesting change of pace, after playing the game, I’m glad these moments were only brief.
Nex Machina also has three modes to play. But while “Arena” lets you play each world with the added challenge of having to beat a high score, or you can play a world normally in “Single World,” the only one worth bothering with is “Arcade,” which is the campaign and has you going from one world to the next. So much so in fact that I almost forgot to mention “Arena” and “Single World” in this review.
There are also instances when Nex Machine goes a bit too old school with its sound effects, some of which sound like they were sampled off an old Pac-Man machine, and thus are a bit silly compared to the rest of this game’s audio aesthetic. Which, like the game’s visuals, are like a cross between Alienation and Geometry Wars.
And don’t get me started on how this has such stupid boss names as Beamatron.
But the biggest issue with Nex Machina is how it doesn’t have a lot of variety when it comes to enemy types, especially in the beginning. And not just because many of them are spider-shaped robots that look variations on the Tachikomas from Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Most of your adversaries, save for end of level bosses, just rush at you like, well, the zombies in Dead Nation. Except they’re robots. And spiders.
Still, these are more minor annoyances than deal breakers. Which is why Nex Machina shall henceforth be known as yet another solid shooter from those good people at Housemarque. Sure, it’s decidedly more old school than their most recent games, but it’s still an addictive, clever, and unrelenting gun game from some good people who’ve made quite a few.