Developers Grip Digital and Terrible Posture Games don’t want you to take their new title Mothergunship too seriously. As soon as the cheesy, nineties-era synth-metal rumbles across Mothergunship’s main menu, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the balls-to-the-wall action fest you’ve got coming up. Thoughts that will be confirmed moments later when, during the opening tutorial sequence, you’re instructed to punch a turret “in the face parts.”
Surely Mothergunship is one of the many (we’re sure) bastard children left about the gaming metaverse by the one and only Duke Nukem.
It could very well be true. But while Mothergunship may follow in the footsteps of The King with its big personality and Doom-inspired combat, there’s also plenty of DNA in here from Gearbox’s Borderlands series and the best of the roguelike and bullet hell genres. It’s a mix that almost works, but despite not being short of great ideas, Mothergunship is less than the sum of its parts.
The Guns Maketh the Player
The Archivists are no-good alien evildoers who’ve successfully invaded the Earth in some far distant future. Now their massive armada sits in orbit as a constant reminder of that victory. As the latest recruit in the resistance, you’re going to have to take down the whole armada one ship at a time in order to locate the intel required to uncloak the Mothergunship. This vast vessel is the Archivists’ brain and its destruction key to securing humanity’s future.
From your little hub space aboard a military vessel, you can scan for nearby Archivist ships and then take them on in the order you see fit. A reward in the form of a cool item for your war chest is granted for each successful mission, so you are gifted some leeway to choose a path through the game that wins you the goodies that most float your boat.
Rewards aside, though, there isn’t too much else to really segregate the singular ship experiences from each other. No matter which ship you’re on, the base rooms you enter are randomly generated, and hold a mix of enemy types that materialise as soon as you cross the threshold, before reigning hell down upon you. Despite playing from the first-person perspective, dodging incoming patterns and unleashing waves of gunfire are very much what you would expect from a bullet hell experience.
There is XP to be earned, and new parts to purchase at the plentiful number of shops you encounter on these alien vessels. A successful mission will bring these back to your resistance ship, adding incentive to stay alive when you find quality parts. It’s wandering around this cosy space that you can upgrade your power suit with earned XP, and experiment by crafting new weapons with collected parts.
Crafty Combat in Mothergunship
During the nineties heyday of the first-person shooter, guns were gloriously overpowered and frequently outrageous. Mothergunship takes the concept to the next level by putting you in control of crafting all the game’s weapons from various parts and attachments.
When you pull up to a workbench, you’ve pretty much got free reign here to create whatever your mind can conjure up, with only one proviso. Firing the resulting gun takes energy, so there is a balance to consider here in how many barrels you may want to stick on the thing. How long it will take to charge once your energy supply is burnt out?
There’s definitely a laugh to be had adding more and more to your weapon. Your power suit has a connection point on the end of each its arms, which can take a gun barrel straight up for simple dual-wielding combat joy. However, you can add connectors to this, then keep piling on more and more attachments. Depending on what random loot you find, buy in a store, or earn as a reward, you can create something ludicrous.
To be fair, much of what we created looked ominous, but had little practical advantage despite all the firepower. However, tinkering around with combinations and experimenting with various ideas can lead to surprising results, and a mix you’ll definitely not want to lose by dying mid-mission.
Despite this element of inventiveness, the gameplay does boil down to the basics of a bullet hell shooter – albeit one that finds eccentricity in being a first-person shooter and a roguelite. You move between areas testing out your latest, lovingly crafted gun on the face parts of a range of enemies. Kill ‘em all, grab the loot, make a better gun, head to the next room and continue to kick arse in this fashion until you either collect the intel or beat a boss.
But the Gameplay Loop Has Issues
Yet there is a problem with Mothergunship’s gameplay loop. It’s not an easy game, and with the randomly generated rooms and enemy layout, there is little way to truly prepare for what is going to happen when you open a door. It’s true that there is excitement in just finding out what the next room contains, but often you die. And dying sucks.
It sucks not so much because you lose everything you’ve collected, bought and taken into that run-through. But because you’re then jettisoned back to your little hub space, where you have to reload back into the action.
This includes going through the whole process of choosing your loadout, rebuilding your arsenal and going through all the banter again and again. Before long, those funny personalities you were giggling at earlier are driving you up the wall.
The penalty for death here just doesn’t fit the fast and frantic nature of the gunplay. An option to restart near instantly back at the start of a ship would greatly fix this issue. The developers need to work out a way to get you straight back into the action without a lengthy delay. And the game should be smart enough to know that we only need to hear the dialogue once; not every time you play a ship.
Taste the Flavours
While the sense of bravado is all Duke, the visual design is more like Borderlands meets Dead Space. On the one hand you have the constant one-upping or your arsenal with bizarre new weapons in a cartoon-like world, with health points even spilling out of enemies as you go to town on them. But there is also this futuristic, space-tech vibe running over the top.
The art design in general is quite gorgeous. And some of the boss battles and almost platformer-like rooms filled with moving obstacles are wonderfully over-the-top.
Movement in Mothergunship is frantic and fast, just like the best old-school shooters. For a recent comparison, look to the speed at which Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus rockets along. Our alien-bashing hero comes equipped with a triple jump, too, which can become handy in larger spaces. It allows you to get a quick height advantage on your enemies and avoid bullet patterns in a 3D fashion.
Framerate stutters (on the Xbox One version at least) did break our flow at critical moments during combat. Plus, trying to move through the jump pads and obstacles at pace while under fire isn’t fluent. Occasionally we found ourselves often getting stuck on part of the environment or otherwise ending up in areas the game clearly didn’t expect us to ever reach — leaving us effectively broken out of the game.
Mothergunship Could Still Set Sail
The development duo of Grip Digital and Terrible Posture Games deserve credit for effectively taking the bones of a roguelike, bullet-hell shooter and Duke-like, and finding a way to create a structure and theme that glues them altogether. That said glue often falls apart under the pressure of the intense play is unfortunate, but not a reason to turn a blind eye.
There is fun to be had here, especially if the co-op mode arriving in August makes the challenge more manageable. Time will tell if patches cure its framerate ills. We also believe some minor tweaks to the way you enter and exit missions following death could greatly help gloss over some of the gremlins lying within.
Because punching robots in the face parts should be pure joy.
Mothergunship is out today on PC, Xbox One, and PS4.