Wrack – The Best You’ve Never Played

The Best You’ve Never Played is a retrospective review series on ‘hidden gems’ – games that did not receive the level of recognition that they deserved. Perhaps they were part of a niche genre, or had too many flaws to attract a significant audience – nonetheless they are quality games that deserve your attention (to varying degrees). 

Sitting on the couch and playing a console game is such a joy. It brings back youthful memories of simpler times – when controllers were still wired, game boxes actually had some weight to them, and EA was one of, if not my favourite developer. I still collect for several retro consoles, with the PlayStation 2 being chief among them. In the age of digital gaming the charm of owning a physical collection is intensified, by an order of magnitude.

And yet my preferred gaming platform of choice for the vast majority of things is PC, for so many reasons; not the least of which being that I really love first-person shooters.

Yes, you can have fun playing first-person shooters on console. I’m not denying that. But the shooters that make it to console are made to be played on console. As such they are forced to include certain console design mechanics that better suit the genre to be played with two thumbsticks – such as auto-aim (or aim assist), very low hp with regenerating health, secondary abilities like grenades and killstreaks, and a general insistence on realism to a fault. These games also tend to feature a military-style, which has sort of become synonymous with their included console design tweaks – the so-called ‘military shooter’, or ‘tactical shooter’ as it’s entered on Wikipedia.

The tactical shooter genre enjoyed an insane boost in popularity with the rise of online console gaming, and naturally many developers took note. The market became oversaturated, not dissimilar to the way it was years earlier with Doom and Quake clones on PC. The effects of the tactical shooter boom were felt in the PC market, due in part to the fact that many of these tactical shooters were being ported to the PC, but especially because of the influence it seemed to have on developers.

The PC still had some great shooters that had grown their popularity over this time, such as Counter-Strike, and Team Fortress 2 – both games from developer Valve. But the PC wasn’t seeing the same amount of quality exclusive shooters like the consoles, and the PC ports of those console shooters were often poorly done.

Tactical, military-style shooters weren’t bad games but we got far too many of them, and their console-ified game design was seriously lacking compared to the PC shooters of yore. Also, their single-player campaigns really sucked, being totally linear and suffering from an over-emphasis of “cinematic” features. It didn’t hold a candle to the labyrinthian levels of a masterpiece like Doom.

In a world full of shallow military-style shooters I found myself greatly missing a compelling single-player FPS experience.

So for me, the new wave of old-school first-person shooters has been one of the most welcome new changes in gaming. Since 2013 we’ve seen a string of games that harken back to the golden age of PC shooters – the 90’s. Games in which you aren’t limited to two weapons or a rigid sense of realism. Games that celebrate their arcade mechanics with ostensity rather than pushing a “serious” cinematic experience. Games that include, most notably, Shadow Warrior, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Shadow Warrior 2, Doom, and Wolfenstein: The New Blood. ‘

There are many games that were a part of this new wave of old school shooters that don’t enjoy the same level of recognition that these other games do, such as Hard Reset, Rise of the Triad, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, High Hell, and last but not least – Wrack.

If you enjoy the frantic FPS gameplay of old-school arcade/arena shooters, then Wrack is probably one of the best games you’ve never played.

Wrack is a good game because it understands the scope of its genre. It’s not going to wow you with it’s presentation, or it’s story, or with some kind of progression system. But it will impress you with it’s above-average level design and competent gunplay.

Like any old-school shooter worth its salt, the level design in Wrack is quite intricate and will have you exploring for pickups and secrets for the entirety of the campaign. It never reaches Doom-level of brilliance, but it demonstrates a sufficient understanding, enough to keep you entertained.

Like any good game – Wrack is difficult. Some of the levels do approach the maze-like characteristics of the old school shooters. The enemies are a real threat, so you’ll have to be on the lookout for health (and ammo) pickups. By the time you receive the rocket launcher things are getting real challenging – it becomes very easy to kill yourself by accident. I also found myself running out of ammo more often than I am used to in FPS’s. Luckily Wrack also features a melee weapon – a neatly designed blue sword. The swordplay doesn’t feel great though, but it is quite powerful, and will kill most in one hit.

What Wrack offers at a premium is unabashed arcade fun. The game is essentially score attack with a story wrapped around it. The player character moves absurdly fast, and there’s no reloading required (other than for the rocket launcher).

Most amazingly it features a combo system that, when coupled with the enemy design, totally changes how the game plays compared to a typical FPS – even an old-school one. The enemy design may seem bland at first – and it seems bland at last, too. That’s because it is. The game encourages you to maintain your combo with sustained kills by careful enemy management. Each enemy type is not much of a threat on their own, but to really succeed at Wrack you have to be kiting the enemies around, weaving kills in and out to keep the multiplier ticking. Some enemies require two hits to kill, which can completely kill your combo buzz, so alternating with the various one-hit kill enemies is the way to go.

All of this makes for a unique FPS experience where enemy management and sustaining a combo is a huge part of the experience.

I may have mentioned that the game will not be impressing anyone with it’s presentation, but as far as indie games go it’s definitely above average. The graphics and animations themselves are quite nice – everything has a cel-shaded look – and the gun models themselves are particularly gorgeous.

The music is probably one of the highlights of the game for old-school fans. It was composed by the legendary Bobby Prince, who composed the soundtracks for Doom, Doom II, Wolfenstein 3D, and Duke Nukem 3D. It’s a fantastic soundtrack for an action game of this calibre. The soundtrack will assault you, just as you assault the enemies, with hard-hitting, fast-paced synth-metal jams. The music does a great deal to add to the “faster, faster!” feeling you get when trying to keep your combo up.

The game as a whole, from the respectable 3D graphics, to the music, to the menu screens, give the impression that this is a lot more polished than your average indie game.

All of this adds up to make Wrack a visceral experience that deserved more recognition than it got. Currently it is enjoying less than 250 reviews and less than 300 discussion topics on Steam – a fraction of what it deserves, in my opinion. There’s a lot of value to be had here. Wrack even features a Steam workshop wherein you can download community-made levels.

But I understand why Wrack didn’t live up to the levels of quality that we saw in a game like Doom 2016, or even Hard Reset. The gunplay was surprisingly subpar. The feedback from the guns, both in their animation and recoil, is lacking, as is the effect on the enemy. It makes your artillery feel underpowered. You don’t really feel as though havoc could truly be wrought with such a lack of firepower. It seems as though almost all of the guns are hitscan as well, which is kind of disappointing. The pistol is undoubtedly the weakest of the guns in terms of the experience – it’s totally hitscan, is incredibly weak, and shooting it feels beyond dull.

As I was writing this article I discovered that Final Boss Entertainment has been hard at work at a sequel for Wrack, called Wrack: Exoverse (or simply Exoverse). Based on the promotional material it really seems as though they are pushing the sequel as more of an entirely new game, which seems appropriate. Wrack: Exoverse will be a procedurally generated tower defense FPS with roguelike mechanics. No, I’m not kidding – but this all seems like it’s going to make for a truly awesome game. The devs have been logging their updates, and have addressed many of the issues that limited Wrack, including many of the objections raised in this retrospective review – such as the weak gunplay. Exoverse looks very promising based on the promotional material – I hope to write an article about it at some point.

Wrack is a good game. Not a great game, but a good one, and it deserves your time. If you are a fan of old-school FPS, it might be one of the best games you’ve never played.

Wrack retails for $10.99 CAD or your regional equivalent, and you can pick up the stellar soundtrack for only $2.19 CAD more.

–Lou

 

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