NeonXSZ (pronounced “excesses”) is a game with quite an interesting story behind it. Paul F, the solo developer of the game and a former employee of Rockstar North, had only just begun development as a side-project when his small business was robbed. So much was lost in the robbery that the business was forced to close and he was at a crossroads. In his own words, it was then that he decided to commit to full-time work on NeonXSZ “as a metaphorical finger to those who robbed him,” creating Intravenous Software as a one-man studio.
According to Paul, “NeonXSZ is a homage to the 6DoF genre of FPS games like Descent combined with the frenetic adrenaline pumping feel and gameplay mechanics of old-school twitch shooters such as id software’s Quake.” This makes the game a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant genre. For those of you not familiar with the style, 6DoF refers to “6 degrees of freedom,” meaning that the player is given control over not just a horizontal and vertical axis, but also altitude and banking. Back in the days of Descent, this unique control scheme often resulted in motion sickness or nausea in its players, but its unique take on the first person point of view led to critical acclaim. NeonXSZ’s addition of Quake-like shooting mechanics and zero-gravity leads to some head-spinning fights that you just don’t get in other games. The high-contrast visuals—which, by the way, are stunning for a one-man job—only add to this.
In NeonXSZ, you are “the anomaly,” a program injected into cyberspace to choose your role in a war between the system and viruses. There are four factions and two sides to the endless conflict: the OS and Antivirus vs. Viruses and Malware. As an anomaly, you are free to choose who to fight for and against, and attacking ships of a certain faction will affect your reputation with them permanently. While the game has little in the way of story, it is eventually made clear that the end goal is to claim cyberspace in the name of one of these factions.
In order to claim cyberspace for a particular faction, the player must travel to the Sphere, the large structure in the center of each “station,” and complete the Challenge Arenas offered there. These vary in difficulty and objective, but always end in high-tech loot and an option to give control of a portion of the station to the faction of the player’s choosing. There are multiple stations that you can teleport to and from, with varying levels of enemies, from 1-80. Each station is procedurally generated and completely open world—you can go to an area with level 15 enemies at level 5, but you will be shot to pieces, and rather quickly at that.
Progression is very different from the standard RPG template of killing enemies and gaining experience. In Neon, each enemy that you kill has a tech level based on the gear in their loadout, and loadouts differ from enemy to enemy. When you destroy an enemy, loot in the form of bits of “code” appear in the wreckage for you to collect. Each bit of code represents a small percentage of an upgrade, and once you have collected 100% of that upgrade by collecting loot from various enemies who had it equipped, you can then equip the upgrade yourself. Your level is dependent upon the average of the tech levels of your various upgrades, and determines whom you are prepared to fight. You also collect new ship hulls, weapons, and more through this system.
While we are on the subject of the enemies you fight throughout your campaign, it is worth mentioning that the developer has done an incredible job in creating them. I mentioned earlier that the world is procedurally generated, and that extends on to the enemies. When the world is populating after you load a game, enemies are also created with differing loadouts and even AI. Some enemies will play more defensively, and others will have more erratic movements. This is actually really noticeable in gameplay, as I could rarely lead targets as effectively as I normally would be able to after getting used to the AI. It certainly adds to the difficulty of the game, and is something I would like to see more of in games going forward.
Arguably the best part of the game is the gameplay itself. NeonXSZ’s (excesseses..es..) gameplay is nearly flawless in execution. After a couple of hours of flight time, I had gotten a decent grip on the controls and was able to fly circles around objects while keeping my reticle centered on a target, moving in all 6 directions. This is absolutely exhilarating when fighting several enemies at once, and the fact that I often needed to take a breath after a long encounter is a testament to how exciting combat can be. Energy is used for everything in the game, from moving to firing weapons, and learning to ration that energy reserve between your shields, boosters, and missile systems all while trying your best not to be “compromised” (destroyed) is exhausting in the best possible way. Even the UI is masterful, as the cockpit of your ship is fully interactive, and every button and screen are actually useful, not just for show. It can’t be overstated just how well Intravenous Software nailed gameplay, and I can’t think of a single thing I would change.
This isn’t to say that the game is without its flaws. For one, the sound design is lacking in a big way. Your ship is equipped with an AI called “Betty” that tends to just ramble off information constantly—and I mean constantly. For example, when you are nearing a portion of the map that is held by an enemy faction, and has a wider range of tech levels, she spits off a never-ending monologue of “hostile enemy detected” “lethal enemy detected” “entering hostile border” “hostile enemy detected” “not enough energy” “constructing missile” and so on and so on in the most incredibly monotonous robot voice. Battle sounds are also pretty underwhelming. Granted, this is cyberspace, and the muffled tones of the weapons, ships, and explosions make some sense, but the game lacks the visceral feeling you get from other games. Firing a gun just makes a visual appear, but you don’t really feel like you’re firing a cannon.
Another issue I came across in the game was just how slow progression was. There is very little tutorial to the game, and what you do get is fairly vague, essentially prompting you to go “kill all the things.” It took a good perusing of the help menu to finally get a grasp of what I was doing. Unfortunately, the game also suffers from a case of severe grindiness. Even with combat as dynamic as what the game has to offer, I got bored of fighting ship after ship after ship just to unlock a slightly better energy tank. Even unlocking new weapons just wasn’t much of a thrill. I couldn’t imagine going through 80 tech levels in that way.
Even in these issues, however, NeonXSZ certainly has an incredible amount of untapped potential. Something I would love to see to add a bit of flavor to the grind is some kind of event system. Perhaps a portion of the station you are in that is controlled by the OS is hit with a Trojan, and a massive battle ensues where you can discover upgrades through loot at an increased pace while fighting to destroy the virus or infect the system. There are plenty of ways to make progression more interesting than it currently is, and I am confident that the developer will begin to add some of these kinds of things in on top of the solid foundation he already has built.
It is important to remember that this is an early access title—at the time of writing, it has not even been released on Steam yet (though it has been Greenlit), just on Desura. Even so, the game is worth picking up if you have been dying for a 6DoF FPS since Freespace went out of style. The developer is still very active, and judging by his forums and community relations in general, he has incredibly high ambitions for the game. With time, this will be a game to be reckoned with.