Kill demons like its 1996
For the past few weeks, I’ve been obsessing a bit about the Resident Evil 2 remake. Not the game itself which I’m sure is very fine, but rather the mod community that keeps thinking of ways to absolutely blow me away. Whether it’s Thomas the Tank Engine, DMX, or a completely misguided thong, seeing how modders can drastically alter the mood of the game with a character or music swap never ceases to astound and amuse me.
And it’s not just that game. I’ve been fascinated with mods for as long as I’ve been reading about video games. I wasn’t a PC gamer growing up, so hearing about how two people took the Half-Life game engine and created Counter-Strike is blew my mind. The closest I’ve come to something like that is with TimeSplitters 2 and its extensive map editor. I spent hours crafting labyrinths in my GameCube copy of the game only to never be able to share them with anyone. Had I actually owned a decent gaming PC in the ‘90s, I probably would have immersed myself in the modding community, especially the Quake level scene.
Quake was id Software’s follow-up to the genre-defining Doom and it included the QuakeC programming language and a level editor. The move was spurred by player-designed custom levels in the Doom engine, and their inclusion created an army of dedicated level designers that is still going strong today. One of those designers was Jeremiah Fox, also known as KillPixel. After toiling away in the Quake community, Fox decided to try his hand at making a full-fledged game. The end result of his work is Wrath: Aeon of Ruin.
Wrath is a dark fantasy 3D first-person shooter where players take control of the Outlander, a mysterious man who washes up on shore and is tasked to take down beings known as the Guardians of the Old World by a figure known as the Shepherd of Wayward Souls. Yes, the names may make you want to roll your eyes, but the action will do anything but. Wrath is a silky-smooth, high-octane shooter that rewards those who take risks rather than run away. And this isn’t just a game that that’s inspired by Quake, but one built on the same framework id Software first used more than 20 years ago.
If the idea of an FPS from the ‘90s sounds familiar, it’s because last year I wrote about another old engine finding new life with Ion Maiden. That game, built from the same engine that gave us Duke Nukem, is coming this year from a reborn 3D Realms, the same company that is helping develop Wrath. Like with Maiden, Wrath isn’t simply looking to the past for inspiration. Rather, it’s immersing itself in the technology that defined that era.
“We’re making an authentic ‘90s shooter, not just something pretending to be,” Fox explained. “The retro thing for us is not a shtick we’re doing. The engine and the tech dictates what you can and cannot do. It’s just really, from its core, an authentic shooter of the era.”
Fox was on hands in San Francisco last week to give me my first look at Wrath, a game he’d been working on for years before 3D Realms came aboard. Along with him was Frederik Schreiber, Vice President of 3D Realms, who shared Fox’s belief that the game is fundamentally different than other modern shooters that parade their retro inspiration to throngs of fans seeking something truly old school.
“I think something a lot of people coming from this scene, a lot of people who still play Quake today and these old school shooters, never playing new games, see from this wave of new retro games is that a lot of the games seem to think that, ‘Oh, Quake was like this, so we’re going to be like this too,’” Schreiber, said, “but they played Quake back in ’96. They didn’t play Quake the day before or the day before that. So a new game comes out that’s a retro-inspired that doesn’t actually capture what made Quake great but is great in its own right. What we’re doing is actually capturing what we think and know is great about Quake. Not just try and imitate it, but exceed it and expand on it up.”
“We’re not disregarding all of the advances made in shooters,” Fox added. “Nineties classic games had some rough edges and we’re just filing those down but preserving the essence of what made them so much fun to play. So everyone working on the game really never left [Quake]. These people were making Quake maps just because they love it.”
Like Ion Maiden and its heavily modified Build engine, Wrath’s version of the Quake engine has seen some updates. The game supports up to 666 frames-per-second, a number I’m sure was chosen just so I’d write about how the game with demons in it has the devil’s number as its frame cap. The modifications to the engine will allow for levels far larger than what was possible in the original Quake and allow it to run on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch in addition to PC.
“PC has been easy,” Schreiber said,” because it’s still a PC game. There have been a lot of upgrades to the Quake engine, a lot of modifications. Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch have been a challenge. An otherworldly challenge but we’re hitting really good framerates. We have a very unique idea of how we want to port it to make it work which you’ll end up seeing when the game comes out.”
While Schreiber and Fox only had a PC on hand for my preview session, I was shown video of the game running on Switch. It’s still an early build and all of the enemies on screen were completely stationary, but Wrath on Switch was moving about as quickly and smoothly as what I saw on the hotel television screen.
The final game will feature 15 levels and three massive hub-worlds with radically different themes. The hub-worlds will feature light metroidvania influences where players can collect items and skills in the levels they can use to fully explore the many secrets of the hub-world map. Fox and Schreiber said each of the levels plays into the central theme of each hub-world, but no two levels will feature the same designs, resulting in a radically diverse game. Players can either go at it alone or in co-op. Schreiber said the team is also experimenting with four-player, split-screen co-op to truly give the game that ‘90s feel.
For my hands-on, I was given access to the second level of the game: dark, gothic ruins with caves, graves, prisons, and scores of demons ready to fuck me up. When I took control of the mouse and keyboard, everything felt incredibly smooth right out of the gate. I can’t tell you the difference between 60 fps and 666 fps, but the Outlander moved with finesse as I charged skeletons, flying freaks, and other monsters with guns blazing.
Players will get access to a variety of guns over the course of the game. For this demo, I collected four of them: a pistol, a shotgun, a fully automatic that shoots teeth, and a gun that lobs acidic orbs I gain from specific enemies. Each gun features a standard shot as well as an alternative firing mode that can do more damage. The shotgun’s second shot sends bullets ricocheting off the walls and ceilings while the tooth shooter will fire a burst shot that does more damage than its rapid fire mode. Even the Outlander’s melee weapon, a hidden blade on his right wrist, has a devastating lunge attack in addition to its standard swipe.
That lunge was necessary for me to reach the first artifact of the level. Artifacts are various items that can help players in a variety of ways. Two available in the demo revolve around the Outlander’s health. One, when activated, will siphon energy away from the enemies as you kill them. The other drops his health down to 10% but makes him invincible for a short period of time. Artifacts can’t be used at the same time but smart players will be able to figure out how to use them consecutively for maximum effect.
More innovations can be found in the save system. 3D Realms doesn’t want people to be able to save spam during the game, so it implemented a system where you collect save points as if they’re items and you choose where in the level you want to leave one. Just defeat a massive wave of enemies? Plop down a save point so you won’t have to do it again. See a mid-boss coming up? Make a save now just in case it wipes the floor with you.
I spent about 25 minutes with the game, getting the feel of everything, and it just works so damn well. The design of the level is impeccable with a multitude of little nooks to explore. Enemies burst into pixelated gore as I dismember them, and the placement of the monsters throughout the stage greatly encourages experimentation with the weapons. It’s clearly a well-built game, and the last time I felt this way about a shooter I was demoing was with Ion Maiden. It’s almost too perfect 3D Realms has its hands in both titles, but as I found out, there’s a very good reason for that.
“I actually saw the trailer for Ion Maiden and I realized. ‘Okay, that’s my competition,’” Fox explained to me. “That was really the only game I considered my competition because they zoned in on what I thought a retro shooter was. I kind of disregarded all the other ones that were like a shtick or weren’t quite authentic. So I wanted to keep tabs on Ion Maiden and see what they were doing, so I joined the Discord and started talking to developers. I was keeping Wrath under wraps, I didn’t want to show it to anyone, but I wanted to have a conversation about what I was passionate about so I put a video up of a weapon or something like that and then [Schreiber] contacted me.”
“We had just announced Ion Maiden,” Schreiber added, “and were planning on what we wanted to do going forward. Ion Maiden is produced internally but is being developed by Voidpoint. We wanted to do a game internally that we knew was going to be 3D, but still with an old engine. Then I saw the video he posted of his personal project and it was exactly what we were looking for. So I reached out to Jeremiah and we had a meeting about what his plans for the game were. I offered to pay for a ‘dream team’ at 3D Realms to do the game and let him fulfill his mission of doing the game exactly as he wanted it to be.”
A “dream team” is right. For the project, 3D Realms brought in long-time Quake level designers to build the game, including one of the minds behind Arcane Dimensions. Beyond the gameplay, Quake Champions and Dusk composer Andrew Hulshult has been brought in to score it, Cyberpunk 2077 Senior Audio Engineer Bjørn Jacobsen is doing sound design, and the narrative is being penned by a former Blizzard writer. All the elements are in place for one hell of a shooter, and based on what I’ve seen and played, Wrath will be just that.
“Every single person is really passionate about the game,” Fox said. “I think we’re all happy to see a game like this exist. My goal for Wrath is for it to be on the shelf with Doom and Quake. Whenever I reformat my computer, I always have a few games that I always have installed like Doom. I want Wrath to be the type of game that when you reformat your computer it’s just always on there.”
If you want to get your first taste of Wrath: Aeon of Ruin and play an improved version of the demo I tried out, 3D Realms will have the game on display at PAX East. The full game is expected to launch in 2020 for Mac, Linux, PlayStation, Switch, and Xbox One, but PC players should get their shot at the action later this summer.
Oh, and yes, Wrath will absolutely feature mod support.
Wrath: Aeon of Ruin [3D Realms]