Demo Driver 8: Running With Rifles
We are living in the year 2015 of the common era, and folks, I’m as ashamed to write this as you are to read this, but your demo should include a tutorial. You should do the bare minimum necessary to ensure that when someone loads your game they are aware of what in the ever-loving hell they’re doing, because the alternative is both stupid and awful. Precisely one game has ever gotten away with throwing you in sans any tutorial, and that was Worms, which succeeded chiefly on the strength of making progress almost a secondary objective.
Yes, I could write entire articles about my love of Worms. And in this case, the comparison is not entirely unwarranted, as Running With Rifles shares some traits with that venerable squad-based deathmatch. Sadly, it lacks the wit and humor that define that franchise. It also lacks a tutorial, hence my irritation. There’s a lot of stuff going on in Running With Rifles that isn’t really explained, which pushes some of the game’s central conceits out of focus and make it seem less fun than it might be.
In fact, let’s just get this out of the way right now – the game inherits the sudden and frequent deaths of Worms, but without the humor or useful feedback. Which keeps death as consequential without being overly punitive, but it also removes some of the usual ramp-up. Unless I missed the “press Y to figure this out” command or something.
Running With Rifles is, at its heart, a top-down competitive shooter. You take on the role of a random grunt in an army of grunts. As it stands, the design is fairly simple. You want to push back the enemy, they want to push you back, you go back and forth as they kill your guys and you kill their guys. There’s no narrative to speak of, with the armies vaguely modeled after World War II armies but without any actual ties beyond color schemes and uniform elements.
To the game’s detriment, there’s no way to bring up a map of the area, which means you’re running around blind. And run you will, darting about the battlefield and using your admittedly limited moveset to take down your opponents. Of course, taking them down isn’t as simple as running down health; there are no health meters listed, every bullet has a chance to kill, and it also has a chance to not even slow someone down. Whether that skews more toward realism or just abstraction is hard to say, since there’s no way to aim quite right to ensure a takedown and there are no non-lethal injuries.
I believe the intended result is a feeling akin to Worms, where one-shot kills were wholly possible and, at times, even probable. Hell, sometimes you would kill half of your team by moving wrong; in one match I watched a player knock one of my worms and three of his own into the water through ill-advised jetpack maneuvers.
Unfortunately, the difference is twofold, starting with the fact that Worms allowed you to see what killed you each time. If you tried to Ninja Rope out of a pit and wound up flinging yourself into a land mine, it didn’t feel cheap, it felt like you made a bad call. Running With Rifles will frequently have enemy forces running toward you and then you just die without time or reflexes to get out of the way. It feels a bit more arbitrary, and while that’s doubtlessly more realistic it doesn’t do much to produce those learning moments.
Worse, though, is the fact that both sides feature endlessly respawning forces. I can understand why the developers would do this, because given the always sudden nature of deaths in the game, anything less would make you feel as if you had little to no control over your performance. This does elegantly prevent you from feeling as if you just got cheated out of play. What makes it problematic is that both sides simply endlessly wash against one another, and as a lone grunt without much to offer outside of the other grunts, you aren’t going to do much to change the tide of battle. The whole thing is a constant tug-of-war, and like any system with infinite respawns, as one side gets pushed further back it also becomes harder and harder for the other side to finish the job.
It’s a shame, because there’s the core of a fun game underneath all of that. I realize that I was hamstrung slightly by the fact that the controls are never explained, but the graphics are well-handled and stylized, and the weapons you wield feel appropriately weighty. There’s something very fun and satisfying when things go right and you hurl a grenade into a reinforced location, or you swing around and cut off enemy reinforcements at just the right time. It’s a broad, diverse game that’s clearly trying to replicate that feeling of never being wholly safe in battle but also not feeling brutalized by each mistake.
To be totally fair, the game is also still in early access. And with practice and other people playing on the same server as you, it’s conceivable that you might well be able to provide some useful changes to the state of the battlefield. Yes, the various non-player characters are reasonably intelligent, but they probably can’t compare to a team of people who are actually coordinated. Nor is the game’s current state the final word on its long-term performance.
Still, what’s there now isn’t tremendously encouraging. And you have to judge a game on what it is, not what it could be, yes?
Right now, Running With Rifles is a good nugget of a game, but it has too many significant flaws and obvious missteps for me to feel confident about it as a whole. Hopefully further development can produce a better core experience; it’s not a bad game, but it has a way to go before it sings.