UNLOVED has the classic feel of an old-style run and gun series of first-person shooters.
“Remember the good old days?” is a common, but powerful phrase. Starting a conversation with these words can lead to a whirlwind night of old-school revelry and revitalized camaraderie. It can turn a group of wizened gentlefolk into a swing-dancing set of flappers and greasers. It might transform a pair of college graduates into their past grade-school selves as they reach back into a video game collection that has never strayed far from their memory. No matter the context, and no matter the base materials, this phrase triggers the often-amazing catalyst known as nostalgia.
Gaming franchises such as Doom, Quake, Unreal, and Half-Life are responsible for millions of player memories and a copious amount of that same nostalgia. While each game has their own strengths, each one also offered more than the traditional single player experience in the form of networked multiplay. These games did not have to end after the credits began to roll. Instead, it was time to invite your friends over. The temporary alliances and bitter rivalries of competitive and cooperative gaming only served to fan the flames of each franchise and helped carry gaming ever higher into the hands of new development teams and new players.
Today, gaming has changed dramatically from the sometimes simpler times of the early DOS and Windows 9x gaming days. Multiplayer experiences are now expected to not only be present but the primary focus. Games such as Valve’s Left 4 Dead series and Blizzard’s Overwatch are examples of games that provide an excellent modern multiplayer match.
Still, some players still reach back to their memories to scratch the invisible, insatiable itch of “the way things were”. Paul Schneider is one such person and to him, “the way things were” meant working on a popular mod for the GZDoom release of the classic Doom 2 engine. In developing the new edition of UNLOVED available through Steam Early Access, Paul offers a game that is a thrilling mixture of new and old. Hold your breath, maybe check that the closet doors have fully latched closed, and dive into the darkness.
Be warned, though. First impressions are not kind to UNLOVED. The horror aspect of the game is unintentionally introduced early on as UNLOVED begins with an obtuse menu system that immediately hits the player with several layers of gameplay arena and multiplayer settings. Much like a woebegone camp counselor frantically searching for an item of use against a creeping evil, the player is forced to search through menu items that do little to aid an inexperienced player to the desired option. Clicking each menu option will either open up a new branch of other menus, open a sub-menu, or darken the screen and fade into a new menu full of other features. UI elements do not appear to have any relative scaling so certain text labels or buttons will not appear anchored correctly on screen. Some of the elements that you might expect to transition away from the main view (such as the unlockable diary entries and image galleries) are instead clumsily superimposed onto yet another menu window.
The menus could stand for some dramatic redesign, but they are navigable with practice. Players that persevere will be generously rewarded with a veritable sandbox of weapons, monsters, and powerups that allow for a fantastic procedurally-generated horror trip.
UNLOVED offers varied game modes for both a single-player and online group play:
Ultra Violence is the default game mode that allows up to four players can cooperate to complete game objectives and escape back to a safe zone.
Classic Horror adds a suspenseful twist best played alone since this mode reduces monster spawns while increasing their damage output. Worse, the player moves slower and item generation is reduced. It’ll take careful footwork and luck to win out here.
Arcade Style seems to be the “it goes up to eleven” game mode. Here, the overall game speed is increased, item pickups are instantaneous, and the game throws a ton of monsters and items around.
Hot Mode should be familiar with fans of the game SuperHot. Monsters do huge amounts of damage, but time only moves when you do. This lends a certain element of strategy to a players moves, but it really serves as a great way to see some gratuitous (and glorious) slo-mo gore.
Difficulties such as “Sliver of Mercy”, “No Hope”, and “Unearthly” are available right from the beginning, but the game is quick to recommend a gentle experience curve when attempting the higher difficulties. Enemy spawn rates and damage amounts are increased as the game difficulty increases, but so are the potential rewards.
That said, any thoughts of rewards will likely be quickly forgotten once a player begins their initial descent into the game world. No matter what options are selected, the world of UNLOVED is one that invites all players to struggle with every step. Players should expect to blast away their last vestiges of sanity as darkness approaches, embraces, and finally becomes them.
Each game instance has an element of random generation that is used by the “Architect” system to not only mix up the distribution of items and monsters, but also the layout of the rooms in the given area. There are four different “environments” that can be selected such as an abandoned hospital, a foreboding city-type area, and even a corrupted apartment complex that seems to be ripped right out of Konami’s Silent Hill series. Certain items such as keys and locked doors may always be present, but the objectives and placement of these “permanent” set pieces remain random. The game seems to borrow from games like Valve’s Left 4 Dead series in that certain sections of the game will trigger large waves of monsters during normal play. This is usually when a key item is interacted with, but certain doors can trigger this as well as simply taking too long when exploring an area.
UNLOVED has a detailed character progression system that rewards multiple playthroughs. There are several resources that can be gathered by the player such as Tarot Cards, Ink, and Photos. These resources can be melted down for quick Experience Points (or “ Q “, as it is called in-game), crafting precious Trinkets (that allow for a varied set of player stat increases), or unlocking scraps of memories and further in-game lore. Unlocking these passages not only serve to further engage the player into the game world, but also grant rewards in the form of Karma, another resource used for purchasing other upgrades. (I must reiterate my distaste at the current menu system as it took me a few playthroughs before I realized the proper order of mouseclicks to reach a certain Trinket Upgrade screen.)
With each Trinket or Upgrade selected, players have quite a few options open to how they would like to build their particular character. Some players may choose to place all of their faith into a fully upgraded single weapon class. Other players may choose to willingly forgo certain items or weapon types for greater speed or stamina regeneration. I am sure that I have only seen a small fraction of the available Trinkets and Upgrades available, but the immediate boosts I have already received during my gameplay have been empowering. (As a hint, try to upgrade your pistol’s quickfire and reload abilities as soon as possible. A single pistol damage upgrade turns a quick-firing pistol into quite a lethal piece of hardware early on.)
UNLOVED has an impressive set of graphics. The game may be in Early Access, but the game has a convincing set of textures and models for most of the game world. Melting walls and crumbling graves alike are rendered with enough detail to be convincing, though the game is best beheld at shotgun’s length. Enabling Motion Blur not only helps create a little extra fear as the game camera swoops around during gameplay, but it also serves to mask any “rough spots” in the environmental models. Lighting from candles and torches are done very well, and in a nice touch, certain rooms even seem to have a thicker darkness that the player’s flashlight will not be able fully push away. Walls, floors, and ceilings have some sharp textures, but some of the monsters feel like they need a little more work. For example, some of the “butcher” variants seem to be a deeper red color than the others and while the general effect may have been to make the monster appear to be blood-drenched, it comes off as more of a lighting or palette issue. Other monsters such as the morbidly obese flame-thrower creature are rendered very well. The otherworldly designs of some of the monsters were truly enough to make me uneasy, but that particular monster type managed to disgust and frighten me at the same time. Very well done.
There are some other troubles in this hellscape that do not strike the right type of unease. Monster animations range from middling to “not great”. Most of the monsters move at a sedate pace and this allows a smooth walking animation, but once they start up an attack, it’s a mixed bag. Most monsters have a projectile weapon of some kind and their ‘wind up pitch’, so to speak, is almost identical to watch. The worst culprit of this would be the clown-type monster. This fellow is normally quite creepy in appearance and has an awkward high-stepping gait, but loses quite a bit of “scare factor” once it very mechanically twists to the side to perform a fireball attack. I can’t help but think that if the walking animation was changed to an animation that is just as mechanical as the throw, perhaps a “possessed jack-in-the-box”-type effect may be achieved. Another example is the aforementioned butchers that seem to have a lunge-swipe attack that do not feel like there is any weight to it. It damages the player, to be sure, but it always appears as if the monster is reaching out to tap the player’s shoulder.
I should note that an exception to these animation negatives would be the monsters that can perform the “running jump-scare”. UNLOVED has plenty of areas that can turn out to be a long hallway or wide arena, and certain monsters will zip right across that expanse and jump right into your lap. It’ll make you jump once or twice before you get the hang of it, but this movement is unsettling and very well done.
I saved the best for last. We need to talk about the audio in UNLOVED. It is excellent. Depending on the environment selected, several sets of tracks play a loud, pulsing, urgent beat not unlike a quickening heartbeat. Each piece of music has a moment or two that feels intentionally heavy and though the music may not always sync up with the in-game events (such as an item pickup or large monster wave), a fair portion of an UNLOVED player’s unease can be traced back to this haunting collection of tunes. During my first playthrough, I ran my character into a safe-ish corner of the level, sat back from my keyboard and tried to separate the music from the other game sound effects. The audio comes together in an often overwhelming mixture of dissonant music and freakish monster noise.
Speaking of monster noises, take my complaints about the monster animation with a grain of salt because audio saves the day again. Each of the monsters have at least one or two unique sounds and nearly all of them are capable of startling the player. Even if the player happens to be on playthrough number nine or ten, there are plenty of grunts, growls, and whispers that can coalesce into a palpable sense of dread. Hearing one of the Lobotomized Doctor monsters speak for the first time was particularly freaky. (For an added thrill, play though the ‘Hot Mode’ game mode at least once and listen to the slowed-down versions of all of the in-game sounds.)
My time with UNLOVED has been great. Due to the early access nature of the title, the multiplayer group is not quite there, but the core content of the game is solid. The developer has kept up active communication with the Steam Community and the most recent update (adding the town area mentioned earlier in this review) is only a couple weeks old. UNLOVED may not be perfect in the graphics area, but the content that is present is effective enough. The audio is damn near perfect and quite frankly worth a playthrough for this alone, but the player progression and unlockables will reward players for hours. The available multiplayer options further give this game the possibility of a long shelf life. Readers, if you have any love for the old-style run and gun series of first-person shooters, or if you’re looking to try a game that might cause a nightmare or two, pick up a copy of UNLOVED off of Steam and tell the developer that MacSources sent you!