Multi-player gaming has quickly become the central focus for PC games developers. Companies are scrambling to design games that not only work well technically over Internet connections, but also have the simplicity and wide spectrum appeal required to interest gamers in competing with each another. At Virgin, an entire design team was assigned a simple project to help the company lay a foundation for the first part of that equation. Code-named Sniper, the project was never intended to be anything more than an experiment in how to build an Internet playable game.
The funny thing is, after watching hundreds of beta-testers spend hours and hours locked in combat with each other, the company realized that they had not only succeeded in their experiment, but had also stumbled across a game design that could succeed on its own merits.
Currently called SubSpace, the new title is a futuristic shooter than borrows liberally from a score of ancient arcade classics. Situated somewhere between Space War, Asteroids, and Capture the Flag, SubSpace basically places players into a giant playing field filled with power-ups and encourages them to find and kill as many non-teammates as possible.
Players can gain up to three levels of guns, three levels of bombs (that can also be used as mines), and plenty of special options including stealth (which makes you immune to standard radar), ghosting (which makes you more difficult to spot on-screen), multifire, and repel (which allows players in trouble to send their opponents hurtling away from them). If all this seems a bit mindless, keep in mind that there are many different game options, like capturing flags and hunting down old rivals, to keep the veteran occupied. Each player is worth a specific bounty, which increases with each kill and power-up that the player collects, and can be gained by any enemy that destroys the player.
Safe areas allow players to take a breather for up to two hours without fear of enemy attacks. Play continues indefinitely; as the hours pass by, players come and go, and new rivalries are formed and then destroyed. The game is simple enough (movement is almost exactly like Asteroids and uses only the arrow keys) to pull in a wide swath of players, each with their own special tactics and techniques, some of which are less than honorable (some players have racked up a good number of kills by mining the space in front of a safe area and destroying weakened opponents looking for solace). A real-time chat keeps the competition fierce with an almost endless string of trash-talk and out-and-out challenges.
Although it's still in development, SubSpace has proved to be an unbelievably addictive title for those lucky enough to be included in the beta-test. Virgin is currently in talks with different on-line services to determine who will end up with the game, but wherever it goes, it's sure to create not only a large number of satisfied users, but also a fascinating subculture all its own. Keep your eyes on the GameSpot for a full review as soon as a final version is released.