In many top-down, twin-stick arcade games, you either shoot your enemies or smack them, but you usually don’t get to do both. And if you do, it’s just a quick slap because you’ve run out of ammo, but just you wait, when I get more, I’m gonna shoot you so bad. But Livelock (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC) largely throws that unwritten rule out the window and the results are game so nice you’ll want to play it twice.
In the future, scientists realized that an extinction level event was coming, so they figured out a way to transfer our minds into giant robots. But while our bodies may have advanced, our minds have not, which is why we find ourselves at war, this time with intelligent machines who are trying to wipe us out. In other words, it’s robot race war, and not everyone agrees that #AllRobotsMatter.
As for whether you’ll be using guns or melee weapons against those mean machines, the campaign in Livelock — which can be played solo or co-op — has you deciding by choosing between one of three characters. If you’re into letting your fists do the talking, Vanguard is kind of like the Hulkbuster armor Iron Man used in Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Meanwhile, Hex and Catalyst are both partial to guns, though the former prefers futuristic assault rifles while the latter likes beam weapons. Those two are also rather fast on their feet, but a bit more prone to injury, while Vanguard is slow but tough.
Now, there are some exceptions to the idea that characters can kill one way and one way only. Vanguard, for instance, eventually gets his hand on a gun. But these exceptions aren’t especially helpful, as Vanguard learns when he finds out that his gun, unlike the ones Hex and Catalyst own, has a limited amount of ammo.
As for when and where these guys get to use their weapons, it’s here that Livelock is a lot like other top-down arcade games. Combat is fast and furious, with you often facing numerous grunts who’ll try to overwhelm you from all sides, or at least weaken your resolve for the more powerful bosses. Good thing you not only have a self-repairing system — y’know, like the soldiers in the Call Of Duty games — and can also grab health pick-me-ups that your enemies are kind enough to drop when they die.
Livelock is also fairly typical when it comes to your missions. While most have you taking out tons of grunts and the occasional boss, you’ll also be tasked with destroying reinforced targets, while at other times you’ll have to protecting certain structures against waves and waves of enemies. You also, as you progress, earn the ability to unlock new weapons and upgrade ones you already own.
That said, there are ways in which Livelock breaks from tradition. For starters, the battlefields are largely linear. And while there is some exploring to do, usually behind destructible walls, and later levels do have some spots where there’s multiple ways to go, you’re still usually just going from Point A to Point B. There’s also no map to guide you, but since there’s only one way to go….
Livelock also has a neat trick for when you die, in that you can have a new version of yourself dropped in from above, presumably from an Amazon drone. Even cooler, you can not only choose where this pod will land, within reason, but if you do it right, it can take out any enemy it lands on.
But while Livelock is a lot of fun, it does have some drawbacks and disappointments. For starters, you not only can’t change characters mid-mission, you also can’t ask that aforementioned drone to drop you someone new when you die. And while you can switch between missions, the game actually makes you back up through the menus instead of letting you pick at the beginning of every new mission.
Now, once you do switch characters, you can continue the campaign where you left off, or you can go back and replay a mission. But since there isn’t any big reason to do this — there are no missions that are more suited for melee combat, while others will go better with a gun — it actually makes more sense to play the entire campaign as one character, and then replay it a few months later as another one. Which is what you’re going to want to do anyway, since Livelock is addictive and fun.
Though twice will probably be enough: once as a shooter and once as a hack & slash game. Not just because Catalyst and Hex are both shooters, but because the former is decidedly weaker than the latter, and her beam weapon isn’t as much fun to use. Admittedly, Catalyst is essential if you’re playing co-op because she’s a healer, and you need all the help you can get. But if you go it alone, she’s just not as engaging or as effective as Hex or Vanguard.
Just don’t bother paying attention to the story either time. While Livelock could’ve explored what makes us human — our bodies or our minds — in much the same way the game Soma did, it instead just goes for rote action and predictable reasons why you’re supposed to shoot everything that moves, and some things that don’t.
Livelock also has a problem so commonplace in games these days that I’ve grown tired of including this complaint in nearly every game review I write: some of the type is too small. If you sit at a reasonable distance from your television — y’know, like your mama told you to — you’ll have trouble reading some of the menus as well as the button prompts. Though, to be fair, once you know which button opens boxes, you won’t need to read that prompt again.
Oh, and someone might want to tell the developers of Livelock that while having a boss with a personal cloaking device is a cool idea, the health bar floating above its head gives his position away.
Even with these issues, though, Livelock still manages to an engaging and exciting top-down, sci-fi, twin-stick shooter, and an addictive top-down, sci-fi, twin-stick hack & slash arcade game. That it manages to (mostly) be both just makes this feel like two, two, two good games in one.