GDC 2014: Hands-on with Midnight Star

The most-anticipated shooter of 2014

GDC 2014: Hands-on with Midnight Star

In case you missed it, Bungee co-founder Alex Seropian and industry veteran Tim Harris have spent the last couple of years working on an iPad game.

Their studio - Industrial Toys - has also commissioned an interactive graphic novel from artist Mike Choi and author John Scalzi to go along with the game.

The game is Midnight Star, and the graphic novel, which provides optional but significant backstory and narrative context, is Midnight Rises. You're likely to hear those names a lot this year.

I saw both at GDC. I won't dwell on the interactive novel, though, since that isn't my area of expertise. I'll just say that the art is excellent and that there are numerous ways in which the novel and the game interact - for example, finding certain items in the graphic novel gives you access to them in the game. It covers the period before the events of the game, and introduces the characters with which you'll be dealing.

Charlie likes to wear goggles when he kills

The story takes place 150 years in the future, when humanity has got as far as travelling into space to mine asteroids in rusty, hulking ships. A strange signal from Saturn activates something called the Morning Star Protocol, and the research ship Joplin is duly weaponised and dispatched to investigate.

The gameplay itself involves shooting a variety of different species of alien with a variety of different species of gun. Midnight Star is an on-rails shooter, with an emphasis not on Halo-style movement and positioning but on choosing targets and stringing together kills and headshots to accumulate multipliers in 90- to 120-second bursts of precision violence.

You shoot aliens - humanoid grunts; squat, vaguely canine beasts; rancour-like colossi, etc. - by holding your finger down on the screen to bring up a slightly offset reticule.

By using a sniper rifle, you can pinch out to zoom and see the enemy's weak spot. Repeating the movement automatically trains your sights on the next poor chump along. You bring up your shield by holding two fingers on the screen.

Every four stages, there's a boss

At the edges of the screen are peripheral vision indicators telling you whether there are aliens outside your immediate field of view, and, if so, how close they are to shooting you in the face (red for danger).

Also on display in the section that I saw was the "levitate" ability (one of many "hyper" abilities). This enables you to remotely lift an alien off the ground and shoot it while it hangs helplessly in the air.

There are 14 different weapons in the game, plus alien variations, all of which have immensely detailed profiles that tell you how good they are for more or less any purpose.

You can acquire sniper rifle rounds that transfer the energy you take from an enemy into your own body, vampire style; shields that reflect bullets; health packs that give you more energy if you shoot them in the air than on the ground; and much more.

The enemies have complex AI, so they respond differently depending on your weapon loadout, how well you're doing, and what's happening around them.

Observe the 'nerd corner' in the top left of the screen

Once you're done killing aliens, you head back to the bridge of your ship to start spending your haul.

"Everything in the game levels," Tim Harris tells me. "Everything. You level as a player. Your guns level. Your ship levels. The rooms of the ship level. The achievements level."

This in turn opens up access to different weapons, achievements, and that sort of thing.

There are shades of CoD: BLOPs in the RPG-style levelling, just as there are shades of Mass Effect in the narrative-heavy backdrop to all the shooting.

But, oddly, from what I could gather during my five minutes at the controls, Midnight Star has shades of more than just a first-person shooter and an RPG.

It feels like a (much) deeper, more complicated, and more demanding cousin of Fruit Ninja, as you pick targets and race to string multipliers together, jabbing at the static triptych of backdrops in a state of mild panic.

The primary approach is to go after the highest possible score by getting multi-kills (chains of kills at intervals under three seconds) and killing sprees (not taking any damage). "You can rack these up and up and up," Harris explains.

The opportunities to increase your score are endless: you get a "perfect hyper" by killing every enemy before levitation wears off; shooting off a helmet and then getting a headshot constitutes a combo; you get a time bonus for finishing stages quickly; shooting an enemy with a slowing gun while using a time dilation hyper sends that enemy spinning into a black hole.

It is advisable to use a shield

Midnight Star is a shooter, then, but not as you know it.

Rather than struggle to make virtual movement controls work, Industrial Toys has attempted to take a shooting gallery mechanic and to refine and embellish it as much as possible with elements borrowed from RPGs and arcade games.

Also noteworthy is the community support - you can add friends in the game, or just follow them Twitter style, compare your stats with their numbers, and take them on in all sorts of challenges (using an ante system if you're brave enough to risk losing credits if you crash out).

What with all the community features, the gameplay elements, the weapon stats, and the extensive backstory (so big that it needs a separate app to contain it), the overriding impression of Midnight Star is one of abundance. I spent an hour or so talking to Tim Harris and Alex Seropian, and they spent pretty much the entire time just pumping unadulterated data into my brain.

Amid all this abundance, the single most important element is obviously the shooting. I enjoyed what I played, my own panicky incompetence notwithstanding. Only time will tell, though, whether the action of Midnight Star is fun enough to make all the depth and detail relevant.

If it is, Industrial Toys should have a hit on its hands.

Rob Hearn
Rob Hearn
Having obtained a distinguished education, Rob became Steel Media's managing editor, now he's no longer here though, following a departure in late December 2015.