Black Ice: Early Access Impressions

Enter a futuristic, TRON-like environment, where your goal is to try and save your friend’s daughter from…something. From getting hacked, perhaps? Who knows. Per the press sheet, Black Ice is inspired by cyberpunk novels from the 80s and 90s, including Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and Neuromancer by William Gibson. It’s a game developed by Garrett Cooper and Eric Ford. Their company name is Super Duper Game Company and is based in Austin, Texas.

The game is set in first-person mode, though you can customize the way your character looks before starting the single-player mode. Hack servers, get data for the people you work for, then get paid in bitcoin currency, all while defending yourself from the enemies that protect the servers. Enemies range from spiders, sharks, scorpions, among other insects. These enemies are referred to as the “Black Ice.”

Weapons abound, from machine guns, flying discs, shotguns, grenades, land mines, to your pet tarantula. Each of these weapons can get assigned to a button or key from your inventory and generally have an infinite amount of ammo; other firearms may have a cooldown before they can be fired again. Weapons can either be bought or sold from the various in-game shops, or you can earn them by defeating enemies. Auto-aim is an option enabled by default if you’re using a gamepad, and believe me, it’s been a big help while I was playing with my Dualshock 4.

If you’ve played Borderlands, the gameplay is similar here. Raid a server, launch an assault against a wave of enemies, earn experience, and loot an assortment of weapons from them; each weapon is classified by its rarity. Earn enough experience and your character will level up. Each time your character levels up, you can spend a point on one of the character’s stats to increase them: damage dealt, health, RAM, hacking speed, etc. Did I just mention RAM? Yes, I did.

RAM, just like in the device you’re using to read this review, is essential to the player in the game. Without RAM, your character won’t be able to do much. He/she won’t shoot, won’t cast an item. RAM is consumed in various ways: sprinting, jumping, firing your weapon. RAM will gradually be restored while not firing. Keep an eye out for the gauge in the lower-right corner.

In addition to leveling up, for every ten levels, you can give your character a perk. Perks range from increased damage while under a certain amount of health, to doubling your minion’s health and damage. On the other hand some perks may offer an advantage in one area, but you may have to suffer some sort of penalty. For instance, one perk doubles the amount of projectiles fired from your weapon, at the expense of them traveling slower. Or you could have increased speed and damage, but your health significantly decreases. Choose your perks wisely; you won’t be able to change your mind later on.

Bounties are similar in nature to perks, except the player doesn’t need to level up 10 times to get a bonus. Kill a certain amount of enemies in a specific amount of time, or deal enough damage, and you’ll earn a reward. Usually these rewards are rare weapons/abilities that get added to your inventory.

The servers are these random polygons throughout the cyberpunk universe that glow in color in their outline. Sometimes you may not want to hack certain servers until you’ve reached a certain level; otherwise, you’ll end up cursing because the server raid is too difficult. (The recommended level to hack a server is displayed while your crosshair is hovered over the server.)

Throughout the single-player campaign, you’ll receive emails from various people. Some of those emails will be job offers. Complete the job (usually by just hacking a server) and you’ll earn some cryptocurrency, which you can then use to buy weapons from the in-game stores. Other emails will be from Anima, the person who supposedly is trying to help you save your friend’s daughter. Complete these missions to progress the mainline story.

The soundtrack, as one would expect from a game like this, is cyberpunk-y in nature and is composed by V-Axys. The music will adjust depending on where your character is in the map, whether he’s raiding a server or not, or if he’s in a boss fight. Some of the tracks can be pretty eerie while your character is not raiding a server, others seem to fit right in.

This game, for the most part, is pretty entertaining. I haven’t played through the story in it’s entirety but I will admit that later on, gameplay was a bit more difficult than I had liked. A recent update to the game brought the volcano area, and this has been a challenging, perhaps even frustrating, element to the game. Lava is pretty much everywhere and you’re scrambling all over the place trying to find a dry piece of land where your character won’t fry. On top of this, you are likely to get a game over several times until you’ve earned enough experience, as enemies will sometimes appear in large hordes and you’ve got almost no way to defend yourself.

Combat is mostly fun. The best way I can describe it is, like I mentioned earlier, it feels very Borderlands-esque, albeit without the blood or gore. The fact that you don’t have to worry about losing ammo or reloading allows the player to focus more on the combat itself. Sometimes, however, it may get a bit difficult, depending on what server you’re hacking and what level is required to hack it. Servers may be “linked” with other servers; by hacking these, you may find yourself fighting against a small army of 30-to-40 insects, whereas a typical server has around 10.

A shot of endorphins shoot through your brain after defeating these enemies, as you will constantly find new weapons to loot from them. You may find yourself updating your inventory every once in a while to upgrade your arsenal. Additionally, you can equip your character with chipsets in replacement of one of your weapon slots to increase your character’s stats, such as increased fire rate, higher damage dealt, or allow scoping. I also like how quickly the character moves; he can sprint and double-jump at Quake speed.

Throughout the game there are a couple of nods to modern-day technology. In addition to the RAM usage I’ve described earlier, there’s also a reference to the tarball compression system Linux uses in one of the enemies’ descriptions:

Mod support is possible, but this is something that I haven’t tried. Multiplayer was also something I didn’t try, but it’s possible to create a server and have your friends join in on the fun. PvP is an experimental mode that allows players to fight against one another. Checking Steam Charts, the highest player peak of all time is 40 players, and at the time of writing this only five are playing online now. So you may very well have to play with the friends on your friends list to get an online game going, or use their Discord group to organize a play time.

Linux Compatibility

All I can say here is that the Linux version of Black Ice runs great. (It’s using the Unity engine.) I’m getting upwards of 190 FPS on the highest graphical settings at 1080p with my RX 570. The system requirements really aren’t that bad: the Steam page lists a minimum of 6 GB RAM, an i3 processor, and a GTX 9-series graphics card. Some cool effects can be added in the Settings menu: you can enable “1990 mode” to make the game look like as if it was from the early 90s, and further add the nostalgia with the CRT option.

The game has been in early access since July of 2014 but has progressively been getting more updates throughout its life span. Going to their Steam store page, the developers don’t have an ETA on when the game will get finished, but the following is planned on being added:

  • More quests
  • level generation
  • Additional weapons, enemies, and abilities

That last bullet in particular is something that I’m looking forward to, enemies in particular. As for the quests, I’d like some of them to be getting assigned a job task that doesn’t have to do with hacking a server. The developers are very open to suggestions; you can get in touch with them on their Discord group. There’s also a to-do list on Trello.

Black Ice is still on sale for the next couple of days; grab it before the price increases to $20 permanently.

Note: review key provided by developer

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