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Help me out here, readers. I’m not entirely sure what to say about the state of shooters today. There’s no feature or setting that really defines the era. What qualifies as old-fashioned (I’m not saying “skool”, hit me all you want) varies from person to person, and we’ve far too much history of games, even post-internet, to split any genre into such broad ages. Just look at the inevitable argument about RPGs on every forum in the world for proof.
I say this because Necrovision (2009) invites comparisons to Painkiller, a game long considered a celebration of The Old Ways, and now itself a pretty old game. But even aside from the disingenuity of cutting down history so, dismissing Necrovision as just another throwback FPS would be unfair. It’s more novel than that.
A solid kicking option is absent from too many shooters.
We “Be” American soldier Simon Bukner at the Battle of Verdun, where he immediately sees everyone (surprise) slaughtered , and must fight through “German” soldiers to safety. Note that this is no period drama – I enquoted above because those soldiers are absurdly Nazi-esque, uniformly evil sadists or at best violently insane. A few buck the trend, but are invariably killed off in scripted events. It’s basically too hammy and stupid to be offensive or insulting.
Things take a turn towards Deathwatch territory as undead monsters show up to shake their manky bits around and shriek – you know what monsters are like. Naturally, it falls to Simon to re-massacre them, then push on to fight phantoms, ogres, and eventually an underworld of warring vampires and demons. And that’s all very 90s FPS, right?
Not-nazi zombies. How novel.
But while it’s related to (and developed by The Farm 51, founding members of which worked on) Painkiller, it feels less… artificial. The initial historical setting lends it more weight and structure, so it’s less like being locked in a series of fake rooms to mechanically circle strafe around and herd nasties like bloodthirsty anti-sheep (though this does become necessary later, and immediately in the Challenge Room mode, where success at dispatching monsters in specific ways adds bonus weapons to the campaign). There’s some of that from the start, but it’s often about peering down rifle sights and taking cover between potshots. A curious bridge between two styles.
Most human guns disappear early on, disappointingly.
Though the core of Necrovision is absolutely about storming messily through swathes of enemies, it plays more like an experiment in taking some Medal of Honor eggs and breaking them into a drunken Serious Sam omelette. Soldiers use cover and careful aiming pays off, even as you’re encouraged to build up your “rage” by laying into enemies with combined shooting, booting, and uh… bayon-ooting attacks. There are bosses with big health bars and secret areas to ferret out, right alongside partially regenerating health, iron sights, and soldiers’ miserable, despairing letters to serve as audiologs. The opening third in particular could be mistaken for an early CoD campaign mixed with a fleshed out Nazi Zombie mode. But it’s never serious, and the methodical xenophobic Whack-a-Mole style (which is only systematic, with none of the military cheerleading) gradually gives way to gory, over the top hack and slash crowd management as your weapons are replaced by bladed gauntlets, fireballs, stakes, and freezing attacks, and chaining enough combinations regenerates health and energy to power them, turning you into a perpetual murder machine who gains bonuses for taunting enemies.
“Hello, sign my petition?”
What’s surprisingly apt is how the protagonist’s story mirrors what the player is doing. As Simon descends into the depths his outbursts become increasingly gutteral, sadistic, and inhuman. His horror and confusion in the opening give way to fatalistic wallowing in hatred and carnage as it becomes increasingly clear that he’s no mere man with a gun, but an unstoppable force of death. The narrative never soars, but it pulls the game along well. It feels more like a journey than being told outright that you’re special for no particular reason, or it never being clear why you, a regular human, are able to tirelessly rampage through hundreds of battles. You have to earn it, you know? Starting out as a regular guy makes the power you gain more appreciable, and to players who are otherwise left cold by games like Painkiller, serves as a comfortable introduction rather than dropping them in and just assuming constant carnage is enough of a draw on its own.
While it might prove unpopular to say it, that latter point has always stuck for me. I don’t like games based around combo attacks or building chains. I find it distracting and proscriptive. But with Necrovision, once I adjust to its strange pace and style, I find the combos coming naturally, because they tend to correspond with useful attacks anyway. Jabbing an enemy with the rifle’s bayonet, then papping a bullet in while they’re recoiling? That’s not just a fancy combo move; it’s a practical way to use the weapon.
Ooh, it’s a skaven! KILL IT WITHOUT MERCY.
That’s not to say it’s outstanding. There are rough edges and confusing plot points, and while Simon’s earnest, likable Southern delivery is fitting more often than not, much of the voice acting is poor (although in the case of the Not-zi soldiers, this works in its favour as they’re more cartoon villains than anything resembling real victims of war). Cut scenes have a bizarre habit of repeating a conversation with slight variation, sometimes not precisely reflecting events in-game, and worse, for a game dependent on melee attacks, there are collision detection issues with some enemy/attack pairings, and one or two misaligned sights.
“Okay girls, let’s really throw into that degagé, and… er, FOOLISH MORTAL!”
This is hard to excuse, particularly in the Challenge Mode, as are the controls, which are a little uncomfortable, and at times reluctant to respond, an effect which is exacerbated by the way many weapons are grouped together under one button – switching from a shotgun to a flamethrower requires cycling through every weapon in between for no good reason. This becomes a major source of frustration late on, when most of the weapons look very similar.
But none of this is ever distracting enough to ruin the experience, and Simon’s oddly inconsistent attitude – one minute he’s recoiling at the horrors of war, the next he’s snarling “death and death and death and DEATH!” or flippantly mouthing off to immortal spirits – epitomises the reason Necrovision feels like more than either a themed, demi-realistic shooting gallery or a tongue-in-cheek arena shooter: its tone.
Cut scenes are narrated stills, not unlike the early Thief games.
In an age where neither po-faced military shooters nor campy arena larks, not to mention strongly themed genre pieces are particularly dominant, Necrovision bears the strange distinction of being very secure in its identity. It’s neither serious nor flippant, and it’s simultaneously grim and campy. Somehow, the devs captured a real sense of horror and doom without sacrificing the tongue-in-cheek humour or destructive goresplosion fun of yer Bullet Sams and yer Serious Storms. Tonally it should be a mess, but it’s dark enough to be atmospheric, and exactly silly enough to be fun. It’s all a bit nebulous, and purist fans of either subgenre may find that it flatters itself with contrarieties of pleasure, but Necrovision offers a valiant attempt at occupying a seldom-breached middle ground.
“High fi-oops! Shit, sorry. Are you alright?”