It’s been a while since my last run-in with the digital plague. However it is no less cathartic to play Retrovirus, a neat little resurrection of the 6-degrees-of-freedom-shooter. The game tasks you with seeking out and eliminating the dirty purple globs of stylised virus, which are running amok in your computer’s pristine starship-like virtual space.
The gameworld is slick with various computing references; from a high-ranking moustached character called the Kernel, to upgrades being in the form of collecting kilobytes and “upgrading your software” every couple of megs. The story feels light-hearted and enjoyable, with such things as a goofy email service called the Courier obsessing over the safety of his “Timestamp collection”. The plot seems to hint at darker elements beyond the initial impressions, but they thankfully don’t detract from the feel.
Of course, the gameplay is what it really comes down to and I think in this instance the game delivers a solid experience; certainly the best of its genre for over a decade. The niggles are really rather minor. For example, some self-righting is present, presumably to prevent players becoming disorientated. But it has the effect of occasionally butting-in with an arbitrary sense of which way is up; irrelevant, I would have thought, in a zero-gravity virtual world of abstract shapes.
The game has come under some criticism for its sporadic difficulty, which is not entirely unwarranted. I think the issue is that, like many modern games, Retrovirus has opted to present danger with health that regenerates after a while; rather than an amount that is depleted (resulting in the well-known situation of hunting around a level with no health looking for some sort of medikit). The main issue with this system is if health recharges too quick then you can charge headlong into battle and be unafraid of death. So here you have pickups that are an “instant recharge” and they have balanced prolonged fights so that you will need them to sustain much more than killing an enemy or two in a row. Unfortunately, I’ve found these to be of little use in most situations, as you need to find the right key for the healing in the 4-5 second window between “CHRISTONABIKEIMGONNADIE” and “already got full health back, you WASTED that one, haha!”.
This can in turn lead to the kind of gameplay where you are doing totally fine then you suddenly get killed several times in the same place. Is this better than the more old-fashioned “feeling fine for a while then go on a manhunt around the whole level for a medikit, whilst teetering on a precariously small number of hitpoints”? I suppose that’s a matter of taste, but in terms of pacing it is at least more exciting. The game also has multiplayer co-op and competitive modes, although I have yet to really get into them. Still, if you’re looking for a co-operative story to play through on a LAN, this is an unusual but intriguing prospect.
Retrovirus comes across as a genuine and quirky shooter that revisits the fun of the Descent series, while looking good and not getting too bogged down with hipster game mechanics. Also, you get to shoot viruses. Who’d pass up the chance to do that?