One drawback of speedy arena shooter Nexuiz is trying to pronounce its name, which seems like it's supposed to be something like "Nexus." Even though the nomenclature is hard to get your tongue around, developer Illfonic has done a great job of resurrecting the classic craziness of run-and-gun multiplayer first-person shooter games like Quake III Arena or Unreal Tournament. Innovation may be in short supply, but pure speed and excitement are not. This $10 Xbox Live game soars, thanks to zippy, brutal matches set in sharp-looking sci-fi battlegrounds brought to living color with the CryEngine 3 engine. The primary complaint is the platform itself, as this is the sort of old-timey strafe-and-shoot game that practically demands you play with a mouse and keyboard rather than the clumsier console gamepad.
Guiding principles of the game design stick closely to the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. This is a simple, straightforward FPS with objectives that never get more complicated than shooting the other guy in the face early and often. There are just two modes of play in Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. Both are playable online with other humans, as well as alone with allied and enemy bots (which are just smart enough to give you a slight challenge in Team Deathmatch but dumb when it comes to Capture the Flag). Matches play out with a maximum of just six players, and there are no classes, experience, or any other extras to clutter up the killing. All of the brief, bloody battles on offer take place on nine small maps. And there are just nine weapons with which to murder one another. This is a modern rendition of a multiplayer arena shooter from circa 2000 here, all decked out with modern visuals and sound, as well as a few little tweaks to satisfy contemporary sensibilities.
The carnage has been revved up due to the cramped maps and small number of players on each team. Nine weapons may seem chintzy, but it's hard to complain when you start with an effective shotgun. You soon collect the likes of a thumpy rocket launcher and an enemy-shredding railgun called The Nex. All weapons have secondary firing abilities as well. So you can love the shotgun for its close-range kills and go to the alternative option that keeps the shot pattern a little tighter for foes a bit farther away. Secondary weapon attributes can also be different from the core ones, letting you vary up battle tactics without swapping. The brutally powerful Nex can turn into a backup sniper rifle, for example.
Pace is extremely fast; it's in line with the Quake Arena and Unreal Tournament franchises that served as Nexuiz's inspirations. You stop; you die. It's that simple. Maps are tightly constructed for both Capture the Flag and Team Deathmatch, with each being set aside for one mode of play or the other. The main focus of both types of design is to push the small teams together for lots of quick, chaotic bloodletting.
Speed isn't everything, though. Maps are loaded with platforms that launch you into space. Some are so prevalent that you can bounce around like one of the zanier levels in a Serious Sam game. Armor and strength boosts are scattered all over as well, along with the dynamic mutator power-ups that serve as something of a wild card. These build on that mild Serious Sam vibe, tossing out more than 100 crazy buffs and penalties for you, your team, the other team, or everybody. Some are generic shooter boosts like health regeneration and faster fire rates. Others are more off the wall, like one that summons all bad guys to your location, another that drains the color from the entire map (making it hard to tell friend from foe), and yet another that gives the players bumper-can bouncy physics. The mutators really spice things up because you never really know what's coming next. You can, however, try to stack the odds in your favor by using points on mutator tiers to influence which ones appear.
Nexuiz is powered by CryEngine 3, which was under the hood of last year's Crysis 2, and it looks quite nice for a $10 XBLA release. Animations are smooth, while the character art is a blend of alien and space-age armor. The maps also come complete with everything from Mayan-styled jungle ruins; neo-Victorian castles that look steampunkish; imposing, Coruscant-resembling cities; and even some kind of futuristic casino nightclub reminiscent of one of the weirder zones in a Sonic game. Much of the game has a shiny art deco look to it, which makes for some striking level and character art. Everything is a little dark on the default settings, although you can adjust the gamma.
There are a couple of issues that make Nexuiz's carnage a bit less compelling than it could be, however. Controls can be frustrating. This is one souped-up shooter that occasionally reveals the limitations inherent in gamepad controls, even if those controls are standard for the genre with the usual use of the sticks and triggers for main movement and firing. Aiming assist is present, supposedly, but it doesn't seem to do much. You can't help but think that this fast of an FPS would be better on the PC with its mouse-and-keyboard setup (and we'll find out soon, as a Steam version of the game is due shortly).
A few problems exist with how multiplayer matches are set up and populated. Matches cannot begin until a full roster of players is logged in and ready to go, which can cause delays, especially in the days right after the game's release when there weren't huge numbers of players online. Also, numbers can't be evened up after matches begin, so teams can become unbalanced if someone quits. Patching in the ability to switch sides or the ability to add bots to fill out missing slots for matches would be a great way to smooth over these rough spots. Bots display varying levels of intelligence in solo matches, but they would still be better than having to deal with three-on-one odds when somebody rage-quits.
Nexuiz is a sharp and simple arena shooter that nails an old formula. It works both as a pick-up-and-play diversion with an amphetamine pace and as a nostalgic trip back to 2002 or so. The price is also more than right at just $10. Let's hope that the game finds its audience because this FPS really deserves one.