Sub Rosa is a multiplayer shooter in Steam Early Access that focuses on the art of the deal. Not the self-help book with Trump gurning on the cover, but tense deals and double-crosses, pushing you into a variety of increasingly dangerous encounters in pursuit of money. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be about; the way the players actually behave is creating quite a different experience from the envisioned back-alley shootouts.
When I arrived in Sub Rosa's tiny city, I was a pauper. I tried the game for the first time late on a Friday evening, clicking on the most popular server (18 players) and jumping straight in. I'm playing in the game's World mode, which feels like a cut-back GTA Online, with each server keeping a persistent count of your finances.
The server dropped me at a train station outside of the game's city with $1,000 in my pocket. This was enough to buy a crappy sedan or a handgun, but I didn't know whether I'd rather defend myself or drive. So I kept walking with the cash burning a hole in my pocket.
It was carnage. Cars drove through streets covered in bullet casings, burnt-out vehicles and blood. Gunfire echoed in the distance. At the first intersection, two players charged past with AK47's held high, bellowing on voice chat for me to kiss the pavement as they opened fire on a limousine and armed guards opposite. In 20 seconds it was over, and the survivors were charging off into the sunset.
Seconds later, a car mounted the curb, the driver a whirlwind of questions going by the handle Wayne Brady. Brady is patient with me, despite the fact he's just picked up a complete rookie. It's useful, because Sub Rosa is one of the most obtuse games I've ever played, and I needed a dedicated training session before I could even work out how to reload a gun.
Inventory management, driving, even walking: it's all complicated, and I spent a lot of time struggling with the controls. The game is fully physics-based, with player movement, shooting and driving all handled by the physics engine, meaning literacy with other shooters doesn't help here. Jumping over a car involves turning your body in the air to slide over the bonnet, reloading involves you pulling out the magazine and stuffing in a pocket before you pull out another magazine and lock it home. It's not exactly Receiver, but it feels close to it in the middle of a shootout.
My first job is a small security role, riding in the passenger seat of Brady's car and helping him pick up discs, which are Macguffins with no real use that everyone nonetheless wants. Mid-firefight, Brady tells me why: picking up these discs and selling them on to interested parties is the key to making money in Sub Rosa.
Wheeling and dealing over these precious items is the meat of the game and there’s an expected way to behave, I'm told, that ensures we all get rich. Everyone carries a gun, but no one uses them on other players unprovoked. The bodies I'd seen up to this point were mostly AI combatants, the enemies from missions or civilians caught in the crossfire. The game only tells you that collecting the right coloured disc is worth money, and then presents a variety of interesting mechanics and tools to experiment with.
It's the community that have come up with most of these rules, and they change subtly from server to server. When you're 'in the know', then what looked like chaos starts to seem weirdly ordered.
Everybody lies. You might have an argument in the aftermath of a mission, telling the buyer you’ve set up for your disc that it was stolen, only to reveal in a phone call from the safety of HQ that you’ve had it all along; but now the buyer has to pay twice as much. This player-driven deception is Sub Rosa's dizzying high, the promise of the game: it wants you to exist in a world full of gunmen, enforcers and smooth-talking con-men.
By firmly adhering to the rules, I was raking it in. Security guard isn’t a complicated role: I had nothing more to do than make polite conversation with players working for rival corporations at the traffic lights. But it was during one such routine mission that we got hit.
We were making a drop-off, a three-way deal that saw us handing over a disc, and getting another disc we needed in return, courtesy of a third party. This many people in one place made me nervous. I still wasn't totally sure how to reload. We'd expanded the business, and I'd risen to second-in-command — the two guys in the back of our minivan definitely knew which end of the guns went boom.
One team didn't show. Seeing as they had the disc we wanted, we binned the whole deal, leaving the second team holding the cash. But as we passed a crossroads, a car hit us side-on, the driver exclaiming in rapid Portuguese as two colleagues sprinted out from behind cover, spraying the car with M16 assault rifles. Our security detail died instantly, and I saw Brady get three steps from the car before a second burst took me down.
I respawned back at the train station. Brady, our security detail, and several others were there as well. "It's the Brazilian RDMers," Brady spat. RDM is the lowest insult for a game like this. The Brazilians we’d encountered were "random killers." I hadn't noticed, but everyone I'd been playing with so far was teenaged and American. "We have to take these guys down, or we won't be able to get any business done," said another nasal-voiced teenager, Kestrel.
We rode the overcrowded train in silence. It was supposed to ferry the respawning players back to their corporations but, with this many of us dead, we were nearly lying on top of each other. Brady was holding court, saying everyone needed to join his corporation Pentacom, and lock up the top floor to resist their assault. Help him, Brady said, and everyone involved would get $250,000. This is not an insubstantial amount of money in the world of Sub Rosa. I signed up, and several new players did too, tempted into the fight by the massive payoff.
From there I was given weapons, stocks, cash and vehicles by my patrons: bored American teenagers. We didn’t care about discs any more. Instead the eight remaining 'honest' players remaining on the server were united by a new goal: hunting down the random killers.
The war got dirty fast. It's hard to kill an enemy that doesn't value the same things you do. The random-killer gangs that were carving up the streets didn't care about money — they only used it to buy guns, which they could take from our hands after killing us. We were fighting a war of attrition, but only the teenagers bankrolling it had anything to lose.
So, we started a war of attrition. For the first skirmish, we fought fair. Firing down into the street from our third storey fortress, we killed them all with minimal casualties. After which we set up at the train stop, killing them as soon as they got back to town. They reacted by picking up their revived teammates from the spawn with a vehicle, so we took out their cars. After that, they started walking.
Slowly, we started to lose our strength. Our eight players started to dwindle, and the numbers of the other gang started to grow, drawn by the promise of an enemy to scare off. Brady told me, shortly before logging off himself, that this was a problem in every server, with random killers setting up on every street. He said he'd been playing for a year, and that the last few weeks were the worst he'd ever seen it.
What had been a golden age for business in Sub Rosa has given way to an age of opportunistic crime. Bloodshed has come to the virtual streets, and it seems the community of this small Early Access game is trying to fight back the only way it knows how: flexing capitalist muscle and bankrolling more bodies for the war.
I got a taste of what Sub Rosa could offer, but at the moment the fantasy of duplicitous deals and back-alley shootouts has given way to an impossible, endless, and disappointingly straightforward brawl. And not one that many players seem to especially enjoy.
Something like this is not uncommon in online games. My sessions in Red Dead Redemption involved joyous hours exploring the Mexican wildlands and hunting bears in snowy mountains, but were always punctuated by random players riding up and blowing me away with a shotgun. My attempts at running an online criminal business in Grand Theft Auto Online were quickly stifled by two dicks with an Apache chasing me across the city. Remember DayZ? Remember trying to engage with another impoverished survivor? These friendships would last just long enough for one of you to let their guard down.
Modern online games offer us a world full of fascinating possibilities, with interesting design choices that mean you don't necessarily have to shoot someone to achieve your goal. Nonetheless, my brutal experience with Sub Rosa highlights a big problem with multiplayer games: many people will just shoot each other anyway. It’s a massive challenge for these player-driven open-world online games to overcome.