PAX Prime 2015

Sublevel Zero Preview – Going Down


At a glance, Sublevel Zero is Descent, one of my favorite childhood LAN games, and looking a bit deeper into it, it’s still Descent, and it’s still delightful.

I hadn’t heard of Sublevel Zero – as is the sad case with so many remarkable indie games these days – when I first got the meeting request, but as soon as I saw a screenshot, I knew immediately that I had to check it out. I spent a lot of my high school career playing Descent via LAN, since it was the only game they’d let us install in the school’s computer lab, because it conveniently lacked any kind of graphic violence. Naturally, the school computers were years and years behind the times, so they couldn’t handle the sequels, which I was just fine with. I got to speak to Sigtrap Games co-founder, Dr. Luke Thompson, at the booth. I’d never seen an indie dev with “Dr.” on their business card – though I’m sure I’ve met a few that were qualified for it, even if it never came up – so I had to ask about it. It turns out that not only did Thompson get his doctorate in Physics – my undergrad degree is in Physics, which was difficult itself, so I have a great deal of respect for the field of study – but he apparently also worked on the Large-Hadron Collider at CERN. He was also the man behind Decay, the zombie movie set at CERN, which got some press attention a couple of years ago. Suffice to say, Thompson is a man of many talents, not the least of which is game development.

Thompson summarized the concept behind SLZ as a “procedural Descent clone,” which, having now had the opportunity to play, is as apt a description as anything. SLZ definitely has the Descent feel to it in controls, navigation, and combat. We’ve come a long way in the games industry since Descent, though, so you’ll find many modern accoutrements to set it apart. As you’d expect, the maps are procedurally generated, so you won’t be able to simply memorize areas and spawns to help you succeed. Weapons can drop from enemies, and there are several different types accessible from the outset, though the stats – fire rate, damage, and the like – are randomized when it drops. A neat concept for the random stat rolls here is that the rarity doesn’t determine stat ranges, rather it’s the reverse; the item’s stats determine whether it’s a common, uncommon, etc. It’s not all that much of an effective difference, but it’s an interesting approach to a loot system. Rather than rolling a rarity, and determining stats from there, it rolls stats first, and the rarity only informs the player of the item’s ballpark power level.

In addition to the loot drops, you’ll also be able to combine weapons in the crafting system to get access to new, more powerful equipment. You’ll only have the simplest blueprints available at the start, but you’ll be able to unlock new designs as a reward after a good run, which actually persist between games. While the sheer power of your arsenal is absolutely a big motivation to utilize the crafting system, the system is a core part of Sublevel Zero‘s design, since it enables player choice in how they want to approach the game. I’ve got terrible aim, so I favor weapons that just spray bullets everywhere over those that may do high damage, but require precision to be effective. Others are exactly the opposite, and still others will want a balance between the two. It’s nice to have options.

Sigtrap is targeting a fall 2015 release for Sublevel Zero on PC via Steam. It should be noted that despite the trailer showing an apparent intention for a release on Oculus, Thompson did not mention it when I inquired about platform availability.

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