Contract killer TJ Trench is taking out the trash in Metrocide. Photo: Flat Earth Games MetroCity: not a great place for a summer holiday. Photo: Flat Earth Games
In a non-descript office building in Ultimo, on a floor that the elevator doesn’t quite reach, Rohan Harris is telling me about the security checkpoint he designed, and the hope it would slow his brother Leigh’s ability to make it across town and assassinate his target.
“Certain weapons like a pistol you could probably hide, although larger ones like a shotgun you can’t,” Rohan explains, “Maybe you can still get one through, you just have to think of another way”.
For his part Leigh assures me he already knew what Rohan would fail to take into account, and that he made it through the checkpoint on his first attempt. Gamers trying their own luck with one of MetroCity’s security checkpoints will almost certainly not be so lucky.
The brothers are the founding and only core members of Flat Earth Games. Metrocide — a punishing, cyber-noire, 90s vision of the future centered around a series of escalating contract killings — is their second game. In contrast to their previous title TownCraft though, which was long in development, Metrocide has been turned around in record time thanks to support from Flat Earth’s landlord Epiphany Games and the nature of the system-driven, low-fi design of the game.
In it, players become ruthless mercenary TJ Trench, accepting jobs from their contact (the harder the job, the bigger the payoff), and setting off into the noisy, dirty, perpetually stormy and drone-filled city to find their mark. Sometimes a straight hit is their goal, sometimes the parameters are more complicated, but in my playtest I found getting the job done is almost never straightforward.
It’s a world shaped by technology the likes of which the biggest game developers might have used 10 years ago, yet with overtones of surveillance that makes it a much better fit tonally for our time. It’s a world where death is quick and frequent, and often comes unexpectedly.
“One of the core pillars of designing Metrocide has been to try to find as many ways as possible for the game to do unexpected things,” says Leigh.
To facilitate this the way the city and its denizens react to you is generated on the fly, rather than according to a script. As you get better at the game you learn what’s possible and what might happen, but you never know exactly what to expect. Even the movements of your targets depend on a set of randomly generated data, deciding whether they stop in an alleyway for a smoke, or maybe duck into a bar.
The citizens and targets all have unique names and personal details. Leigh tells me first and last names are randomly selected and mashed together from a list Rohan painstakingly lifted from US census data, meaning the perceived identity of the city’s populace is incredibly diverse, futuristic and culturally even (and people named “Moon Unit” are just as likely to appear as people named “John”).
“Their personalities are randomised too”, says Rohan. “Some of them are violent, some of them are confident. They’re all sliding scales”.
“If you shoot someone and don’t realise that there’s someone across the road who’s seen you, their reaction to seeing that will change depending on their personality”.
For example a very timid person would run as fast as they could to their home, whereupon they may call the police.
“And then a few minutes later you’ll get a thing telling you’ve been ID’d by the cops,” Leigh says.
A particularly bold citizen who saw me wipe out a passing gang member with a shotgun (gang members are always worth a small bounty) decided to dial the police right then and there. Anybody who’s seen you is marked with an eyewitness symbol above their head, so the opportunity’s there to neutralise them too if you can get away with it.
Finding and obliterating your target, then, is the easy part. What you’re really up against is a city full of unpredictable personalities, and the dystopian and omnipresent police drones that are ready to fire on you given the faintest excuse.
The choice is yours whether to play it safe and slow, hiding your bodies in dumpsters and preferring to call off a contract rather than risk murdering someone in the wide open, or try to rack up as much cash as you can before you’re inevitably brought down by a drone or an unexpectedly hostile citizen.
To help you out your contact will sell you a range of weapons to upgrade your quiet but painfully slow blaster — shotguns are satisfyingly loud and incredibly messy — or an Anti-Drone EMP to get you out of a tight spot with the police. Paying the police off can yield similarly de-stressing results. Purchases like these are sure to make your life easier (and longer), but as your cash stack is also your score these decisions aren’t to be taken lightly.
The design is punishingly arcade-like in its progression (or for beginners, its lack thereof), as getting yourself killed completely ends your game. All money and weapons you’ve earned are reset to nothing, the only indication of your hard-fought progress marked on the high score board.
The feeling of impermanence and finality here actually fits pretty well within MetroCity’s bleak walls.
In practice Metrocide’s unscripted action brings to mind older stat-driven crime experiences like Drugwars and Epidemic, though with a dose of nostalgia for Syndicate and the original Grand Theft Auto, and of course a touch of indie contemporaries like Hotline Miami.
Metrocide is tentatively due for release on Mac and PC via Steam at the end of August.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @weeklyrift