Nex Machina – Review

I can just about remember the last time I was in an arcade. I think I was about 14 and it was an old dingy hall on the outskirts of my hometown’s town centre. Walking up the weakly illuminated staircase lead to a huge open hall full of snooker and pool tables while classic arcade cabinets were lined up against the walls, each of them hungrily flashing and blaring their jaunty tunes in the hope their attract modes would result in someone feeding them a veritable feast of coins in exchange for credits. Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Arcade was the game of choice; mainly because the arcade proprietor had reduced the cost of a credit to 10p meaning we got 10 credits for our pound coins. With that single pound coin, my friend and I managed to complete the entire game in fewer than 10 credits. We felt incredible. It’s not often you completed an arcade game and certainly not often you got so much mileage from a single coin either. For our 14-year-old self’s, it felt like a huge achievement. But no one else saw it. No one else to cheer or give us the verbal slap on the back I used to witness when I was much younger.  You see, the arcade was weeks away from closing, just like many other arcades like it around the country. Mostly forgotten and being left behind in the wake of the rising sales and popularity of home consoles and computers. The age of the arcade was sadly passing by with very little fanfare to celebrate it.

Very few games these days try to capture that ‘spirit’ of the arcade games of yesteryear. Games where the challenge is genuine and mistakes are down to the player and not just the game cheating them. Where progress comes down too tightly honed reflexes and success is measured by how large your score is.  But, along comes Housemarque, developers of the immensely popular Resogun on the PS4, championing that very arcade spirit with their latest release, Nex Machina.

For anyone familiar with the classic arcade games Robotron 2084, Smash TV or even the more modern Geometry Wars series, then you’ll be immediately familiar with what’s expected of you. With both analogue sticks, you’ll manoeuvre dive and blast enemies in all directions in the hope of beating waves of enemies before moving onto the next arena. Yes, it’s a simple premise, which many games have tried to copy with varying degrees of success. Well, it’s a not a hard formula to copy, really. The magic comes with how depth is added to such a simple premise and keeping the game feeling fresh each time it’s played. But what gives Nex Machina the edge is that Housemarque has worked closely with the legendary games designer, Eugene Jarvis, the man responsible for the aforementioned Robotron 2084 and is very possibly the father of the twin stick shooter himself. So, immediately, hopes are high that we are not going to get a standard facsimile of a very tried and tested game mechanic.

And I’m thankful to say that their collaboration will not disappoint as Nex Machina is a genuine blast to play. The game is extremely fast paced, leaving very little downtime or giving way to catch your breath between the waves and arenas. In fact, within the very first 30 seconds of playing the game, I had already fought my way through to the 3rd arena of the first world. The second you down the very last enemy of the final wave; you’re barging headfirst into the next arena just as the next wave is counter-charging you back. And if you aren’t on your toes at all times, the enemy will quickly swarm you and it’s very humbling how quickly you can go from a full stack of lives to your last in the space of a few confused seconds. Learning each wave and memorising exactly where each enemy will spawn from won’t guarantee you success either as, within a blink of an eye; it’s all so very easy to get distracted with the ballet of destruction and pandemonium on display.

At times you will be mere pixels away from dying. You will be constantly chased by masses of enemies hot on your tail like some twisted version of the pied piper of Hamelin as you are forced to back pedal around the arena, blasting frantically behind you, your gun being the only thing keeping the very narrow space between them and you clear, waiting for your dash cooldown to reset and fully aware that one awry shot is all it will take for them to finally swarm you. It’s a fun intensity that will really challenge the hardcore gamers out there.

Thankfully, the game doesn’t need to end as you lose your last life. In true arcade fashion, you have a number of credits which you can choose to use to continue from the last arena you died on, the quantity of which is down to the difficulty you set the game to. I shamelessly went with experienced and was gifted with 100 credits which, essentially, let me brute force my way through to the end. But the higher in difficulty you go, the more ruthless the enemies become while simultaneously reducing the number of lifelines the game is willing to give you.

Now you will be forgiven for thinking that the game giving you so many chances to continue as not only compromising the mileage you will get from the game but negating any real challenge the game may pose. You see Nex Machina wants you to complete it. It wants you to see how each level is built so that you come back and play the game the way it’s meant to be played – on the higher difficulty levels. It’s these higher difficulty levels where the real scores can be accumulated, where the real ‘Arcade’ challenge is to be found. So by letting you get your feet wet on the lower difficulties and, essentially, giving you a pass through to the end, it’s preparing you for the real challenge ahead and one which won’t be so forgiving.

Between the arcade mode and arena challenges, there is plenty of content to keep you coming back, especially if you relish the challenges within. Arcade mode is a straight forward journey through all 6 of the game’s worlds while Arena mode has you tackling a specific world or series or arenas with only one set of lives to get you through it. You also have the option of tackling a specific world if you want, which is handy for those who try to master the waves of each of the individual arenas of that world. The important part is that each mode has its own individual set of scoreboards, with a scoreboard specific to each difficulty mode available. So while you might score in the top 10 in the world for Arcade mode on Rookie difficulty, there are still 3 other scoreboards waiting to be conquered. Also, by playing the Arena mode, you accumulate in-game currency which you can then use to unlock more arenas as well as some visual changes to your character and profile and let’s not forget the multitude of in-game challenges waiting to be completed too.

I should point out, that while I didn’t test it, there is also a local co-op mode allowing you and a friend to battle through either the Arcade mode or an individual world together. A very welcome, if expected, addition. I’m just surprised there isn’t an online co-op mode.

The score is a very important metric in Nex Machina and with plenty of different paths available to the player to accumulate as high a score as possible, mastering and being aware of each option available becomes key to climbing to the top of the boards. Starting off from simply killing as many enemies as possible with each subsequent hit building up a score multiplier bar at the bottom right of the hud. Each time the bar fills, the multiplier increments, meaning you want to get this as high as possible and maintaining it for as long as possible as dying causes the multiplier to reset. Sometimes an enemy may drop a multiplier bonus giving you an instant increment on top of your existing multiplier or even just surviving an arena without losing a life once can give you a nice chunk of bonus score. There are even hapless humans roaming around the arenas and saving them gives you a huge boost to your multiplier also, but they are usually surrounded by masses of enemies so getting to them on time, either before they are killed or you kill the last enemy, might not always be possible.

But that isn’t all. Laced amongst all the different arenas are many secrets, all of which go towards boosting that ever precious score and multiplier. From hidden humans to rescue, beacons to destroy, specific groups of enemies to kill before they escape or indestructible boxes that can only be destroyed by specific weapons. Noting where each is and going out of your way to find/destroy them all will become essentials tools in your belt if you hope to ascend the top tier scoreboards. The secrets, thankfully, aren’t terribly well hidden. Most of them will be in plain sight or will be unveiled easily as you shoot up the environment. And while you may start to learn where they all are, the trick will be in manipulating the waves to get you into a comfortable position to collect/destroy them all. It’s no easy task, even on the easier difficulty levels

Housemarque have taken their Voxel expertise, which they refined with the seminal Resogun and applied it with aplomb to the very look and feel to the world or Nex Machina. The world around you can literally reverate in response to large explosions, with the terrain morphing and visibly struggling to hold onto its cohesiveness under the sheer weight of all the explosions that will pepper each arena. Equally, destroyed enemies are reduced to the tiniest of particles resulting in flash Voxel dust storms which can make the arenas extremely chaotic to navigate through. With pickups celebrated by green light shows and your inevitable death resulting in a spectacular purple firework display, bouncing and ricocheting off any surface that gets in its way, it all accumulates into a literal feast for the eyes. With each world visited also having its own unique and satisfying visual fingerprint, it’s safe to say that I doubt many will be disappointed with how the game looks.

And the most impressive thing about all this is that Nex Machina’s engine keeps this visual buffet running at a buttery smooth 60fps and at the expected standard resolution of 1080p. Not once did I experience a momentary drop in frame rate, experience any dropped frames or any form of negative impact on the gameplay. This is all while the screen is filled with enemies, explosions and the voxel engine is throwing voxel clouds about like confetti. Housemarque’s Voxel engine is incredibly well tuned and is more than fully capable of handling the chaos Nex Machina will throw at it.

For anyone craving a truly authentic arcade experience, Nex Machima will not disappoint. From its tight controls, fast pace and scoreboards that are genuinely compelling to compete in, it’s a game that is very true to its roots. With the right balance of fun and challenge, you never feel cheated, and you will frequently hear yourself saying ‘one more game’. It’s a game you will quickly complete, but it will take time to master. Time my 14-year-old self would have easily invested if this was released ‘back in the days’.