There are so many ideas bubbling around in Raiders of the Broken Planet that’s it’s tough to know where to start. There's my personal struggle with its title, as I keep unwittingly writing ‘Lost’ instead of ‘Broken’ while envisioning Harrison Ford in a fedora. Then there's the bewildering pitch, an aggressively ambitious part-asymmetrical, part-co-op hero-based third-person shooter looking to drink from the sacred (cursed?) chalice of story-led multiplayer. That’s an alarming number of labels but, after playing the game, the surprise is that they add up to a surprisingly tangible and promising whole.
Raiders is being developed and self-published by MercurySteam, best known for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (in their previous incarnation as Rebel Act Studios, they also made my favourite forgotten game and Dark Souls ancestor, Severance: Blade of Darkness – check it out). While the DNA of their past work isn’t manifestly visible here, their drive to shake up audience expectations certainly is, and that’s gone into overdrive now that they don’t have a publisher to answer to (I’d call them an indie studio, but then I’d start thinking of Harrison Ford again…)
So what does raiding the eponymous celestial body entail? Many things, the first being a series of separate, standalone co-op campaigns, each of which focuses on one of four factions fighting over a precious resource called Aleph – a fuel that enables interstellar travel as well as boosting a body’s functions to superhuman levels. [Ed's note: Isn't this basically the plot of Dune?] Each campaign is split into missions where you take on a number of eclectic objectives alongside a trio of fellow players. In my playtime I took on a giant squid creature beaming all hell down on me, rescued a wild-looking mercenary as he hung suspended above an open aeroplane hatch while his captors tried to shoot him, and jet-packed around an open-air arena, ambushing my enemies from above. The missions are structurally a bit Destiny, though spiritually this takes me back to the irreverent old days of TimeSplitters.
Amidst all this colourful chaos there’s a wildcard – a single human player on the enemy side, trying to thwart you and your allies. This player, the ‘antagonist’, isn’t some primordial monster like in that one game that people used to talk about, nor are they endowed with any more preternatural abilities than you. They’re just there to screw your shit up in the name of some mischievous Loki-like deity, Urs Beherit, who according to the devs, just wants to watch the world burn (you'd think he'd be happier about living on a planet that’s literally shattered to pieces).
The tenuous narrative justifications, of course, don’t really matter. The antagonist’s job is to sabotage the mission. Director Enric Alvarez describes it as a “trolling” role not entirely unlike that of a Dark Souls invader. Tantalised by this explicit invitation to ruin a game for other players, I made sure to stake my claim for the antagonist role come playtime.
I sat down at the designated antagonist PC, appropriately located some distance away from those pesky protagonists. A dev sat to my right whispering such sage advice as “You’ll get fucked up if you play with the keyboard.” I felt confident in my ability to satisfy this trickster god, and my own ego, by spoiling their fun.
Picking a hero was a real Snickers-Bakewell-Flapjack dilemma, because all of the Japanese sci-fi-inspired characters looked fantastic. There’s Lycus Dion of the Hades Division faction, a red-haired, white-skinned Joker-alike who’s lethal at close range with a revolver, and has a shield that recharges quicker the faster he moves. Then there’s the protagonist of the campaign we were playing, Harec, who’s got something of Devil May Cry about him, not least the anime-styled white curtain haircut. Harec can temporarily teleport, even onto walls where he clings on like a Dante-shaped security camera, popping off enemies before zapping back to his original position. In the end, I went with a tatty pilot-looking fella who seemed to be wearing sunglass lenses that only stay on his face because he furrows his eyebrows really hard. He also has a jetpack which I figured would be handy for sneak-attacking enemies and flying over their heads, giving me a bit of outflanking potential while the AI keeps the protagonists busy.
The mission took place on what is a fairly rote future-industrial level with crates for cover, distinct areas designed for battle connected by bottlenecked walkways, and not much in the way of verticality. What gives this location character is the presentation and mission objectives. The so-called protagonists’ (as the solo player I very much felt like the real star) goal was to take out a giant floating squid creature, but to get to it they’d need to contend with an aggressive AI made up of regular grunts, elites capable of melee one-shotting them if they didn’t counter in time, the laser death-beams of the squid and, of course, Yours Truly. From the moment of first contact, the level became an effervescent display of multi-coloured lasers, neon rays of spectacular special abilities whose functions I didn’t understand, and people dodging and leaping around in melee combat, all loomed over by a laser-shooting leviathan. It was beautiful.
Something I quickly learned while playing is that Raiders is filled with mechanical idiosyncrasies. One of my first crude strategies was to jetpack into the middle of my enemies, for example, and unload on them with point-blank gunfire. I landed successfully, but when I started pulling the trigger, my gun went into a state of perpetual reloading. By the time my right-hand dev told me I had to aim before shooting and that the ‘shoot’ button alone merely reloaded, I was waiting to respawn.
It’s strange to see a mechanic associated with building tension in horror games like Alien: Isolation and Resident Evil 7 here, and my guess is that it’s to encourage melee scuffling when you’re up close. The melees are good fun, comprised of standard strikes which are evaded by dodging, and spectacular one-shot grapples which earn you bonus Aleph (for using abilities), and can be countered by strikes. Each character has their own eccentric grapple animations – from flippy cartwheel kicks to recreant neck-snaps – making these moves all the more satisfying to execute.
Having learned my lesson, melee is good and shooting from the hip is non-existent (and the devs call this a 'Western in Space', pfffft), I took a more cunning approach. When the protagonists took one of the early objectives,I hid behind a crate (conveniently, you stick to them automatically) and let them run past. Once they were all ahead of me and pressing on with the next objective, I jetpacked down to their platform, approached from behind, and picked them off with grapples one by one. I got a good three kills in this way before I was taken down, which was a good return, cutting into a quarter of their shared life pool. On top of that, the AI and the almighty squid wasted no time on piling in and giving them hell. I was a merely a big cog in the game’s combat machine, and it felt fantastic.
Missions don’t have a time limit (though certain objectives within them do). Instead, when the protagonists’ shared life pool depletes, a countdown timer begins, indicating the time left before the supply ship returns with more Aleph/lives. During this time, the antagonist must finish off the remaining squad members before they re-supply. If the antagonist fails, the squad respawns and their life pool becomes full again, although next time it depletes the final countdown is longer (so the game gets increasingly difficult for protagonists the more they die).
So when the protagonists ran out of lives and they had just one hero left, my virtual team and I smelled blood. You see, each character has a ‘stress’ bar that fills up as they sprint and shoot. When this gets full, the Aleph running through the character’s body becomes visible even through walls, giving away their position to the other side. The best thing the hapless surviving squaddie could’ve done was hunker down, hide and wait for the timer. He may well have been trying this, but a single shootout with an AI elite grunt would’ve been enough for us to spot him. Whatever he did, his red stressed-out skelly appeared on the map, and we swarmed in on his position.
By the time I had a direct line of sight, he was already on his last legs, stumbling desperately towards cover. I jetpacked over, feeling particularly villainous as my shadow enveloped him. He had a bullet-proof Shield active but I didn’t care, because I’d already decided the killing blow would be a melee attack – a coup de grapple, if you will. Just as I was about to pounce, however, the timer hit zero, and the enemy replenished. Shit. I executed the protagonist, from frustration now rather than gratuity, and the game went on.
A moment like that could’ve completely turned the battle around, seeing as the protagonists regain all their lives if they survive the countdown, but it was not to be and the melee victory I craved arrived at the second time of asking. It was a resounding victory too, as I earned a 7.0 rating thanks and two Stigmas – antagonist badges of honour which help build your reputation and earn yet-unknown rewards that may just possibly might be the first sights of a cosmetic loot system. Of the four matches we had the protagonists won only one, suggesting that the odds currently favour the baddies.
There’s a nice tension to Raiders. On the one hand, you have the pull of wanting to progress through the campaign, unlock levels and characters, fight alongside your pals, and take on some well-designed bosses (the two we saw were a pustulent mass of purple flesh and the giant squid, though our collective ineptitude prevented a confrontation). On the other hand, it feels damn good to be bad. What makes the role of the antagonist so carefree is that you’re not the target. The protagonists are never ganging up on you, nor chasing you into a corner, because they have more pressing things to get on with and you’ll just respawn anyway. You’re there to stick your leg out when they come running around the corner to complete an objective, or to leap out from cover and hit them over the head with a figurative frying pan when they get the better of an Elite AI grunt. It’s a wickedly whimsical role that provides a palette-cleanser to the more traditional co-op mission structure.
Raiders wants to be an online phenomenon, and it has that potential, although it’s easy to worry for a mid-sized indie studio like MercurySteam when they’re entering a field containing the colourful stylings and heroes of Overwatch on the one side, the co-op shooting of Destiny on the other, and all the big-budget online team games in between. It’s a tough arena dominated by big publishers and huge budgets. But Raiders at least has a big dream, and is fresh-faced and unusual enough to have a fighting chance.