When it comes to my sci-fi aesthetic, I have a distinct fondness for what is often referred to as “retro-futuristic”: a sort of scruffy, lived-in, quasi-industrial look covering everything from Red Dwarf to Firefly. It’s what made movies like Alien and Outland compelling, that feeling of being used, not all nice and shiny. So when Marauders popped up on my radar, I was intrigued by the look the game was shooting for, even as I felt a certain trepidation about the basic premise. After a little playing around with the current “tech test” build before their Early Access launch yesterday on Steam, I’m still loving the aesthetic, but my trepidation has evolved into full blown loathing.
Marauders posits a timeline where manned spaceflight and human colonization of the inner and outer Solar System is commonplace in the 1990s. Three formal factions control various facilities spread around the Asteroid Belt, but pirates roam the void between space stations. They’re a fourth shadowy faction that are perfectly happy to pillage and plunder everything and everyone they come across. As one of these marauders, you’ll load up some gear, get into your beat up little spacecraft and attempt to raid one of these stations, or even steal a bigger spacecraft for future use. Of course, there being no honor among thieves (or pirates), you’re just as likely to get a bullet in the head.
And therein lies the problem. You do catch a bullet in the head. And in the back. And shells from enemy vessels with little or no warning. Repeatedly. Any of which will kill you stone dead after a few shots, allowing your gear to be plundered off your corpse. Sure, you’ll get a little XP for the indignity, but you get more of it for surviving more than about five minutes, which is currently a ridiculous challenge. I looked up the stats for an aggregate play time of approximately an hour. Four raids were considered “successful” only because the random player I teamed up with ducked out of the mission zone without doing much of anything because it was the “wrong” zone for contracts. The other four raids, I was brutally slaughtered within a few minutes. Average XP per minute: 2. Given that you start at level 0, and it’s 525 XP to reach level 1, that’s a little over four hours to unlock anything which might be considered helpful to your character. It’s the epitome of a painful, joyless, death march of a grind. Just to hit level 1. And if you’ve depleted all your starting gear and money trying to get through this tunnel of suck, there’s always the crappy pistol, half-box of ammo and dinky little harness that always spawns with your crappy starter boat to grab a few items with in the vain hope you’ll get away.
You have no ability to play solo against bots, which precludes any sort of helpful training or memorization of locations, as well as preventing any sort of environmental storytelling or overarching narrative to be presented. Worse, you have no ability to pick which zones you can operate in when launching a raid. Worse still, pretty much every action that is not movement or shooting is exposing you to be shot. Open a container? You’re gonna get shot. Reveal what item is in a container? You’re gonna get shot. Go into your inventory to use a healing item because you were shot? Yep, you guessed it. This is not a game to be playing solo. And playing with other people is either going to be a crapshoot with randoms or it’s going to be the sort of exercise that tests your friendships because you picked a game they may or may not enjoy. Being fair, I did luck out going with a random player, but far too few players have “open” crews without a password required to join them. And from what I was able to learn, up until recently you had a hotbar which you could put healing items in, but no longer.
Was there anything good about this brief period of misery? Well, visually speaking, the style definitely gives the impression of an industrialized space presence circa 1990. The sound effects are pretty decent, though there’s a lack of music to help accentuate the mood. The ship navigation is pretty straightforward, though there’s a tactical issue of flying “under the guns” which can potentially lead to frustration if you’re trying to keep from being boarded. Moreover, your “sensors” for ship navigation and combat consist of the Mark I, Model A human eyeball. Virtually no HUD, no rangefinding, no IFF, no ship recognition, nothing.
As first impressions go, Marauders has the look of a great game, but it’s entirely skin deep. This is not a title for the casual gamer. This is not a title even for shooter fans in general. This is for the grind-loving players who can spend their days dying every five minutes, or for those who’ve grown numb to the punishing difficulty found in Escape From Tarkov. Time will tell if Marauders can grow into something more appealing to a broader segment of gamers or if will remain a niche product for a tiny sliver of the total population.