The ’80s were a phenomenal time—though I can’t say much because I was born in ’93. If the interpretations of the ’80s based upon media from the time or those aiming for nostalgic appeal are any indication, it was a time of smooth neon lights, hair bands, constant partying, and technological vitality. While technically set in the vast future of 2014, Nightwolf: Survive the Megadome is a culmination of that crisp, perhaps stereotyped ’80s aesthetic which captures the hearts of those who experienced their youth within the decade.
Also within the ’80s was the root of vehicular combat games becoming mainstream, with arcade games such as Road Blasters and Spy Hunter making the waves throughout the U.S., though many associate the golden age of vehicular combat with the ’90s via the Twisted Metal series. While my experience with vehicular combat isn’t vast, I’ve spent enough time with games such as Twisted Metal and Vigilante 8 to appreciate the fun of blowing people up with giant nukes and environmental hazards. Nightwolf is little different; its entire focus remains the fun of destruction and whimsical mayhem (as of now).
Nightwolf: Survive the Megadome is available via Early Access on Steam for your regional pricing.
While I have no knowledge of what the developers plan to do in the future, it seems almost blasphemous to assume there’s any type of story involved with the drivers being hurled into the Megadome. Even within the trailer for the game, a story is slowly panned upwards for people to read, only to have it interrupted partway to showcase the brutality of the game’s material. For what is shown, however, in the year 2014, society has become completely bought out by mega corporations, with technological innovations skyrocketing due to the discovery of a mysterious new resource. Now the Megadome is the moneymaker for an enormous crowd of society thirsting for blood and carnage. Seems almost dystopian.
With the game’s initial, unfinished release coming less than a month ago, there isn’t much within the game that tells much of a context behind one’s individual driver (who is not identified). There is info on opposing factions, though it tells more about their identity as a group than individuals. From a narrative standpoint, Nightwolf is incredibly bare-boned, so for veterans expecting some sort of expository boost of motivation, this game has yet to relinquish that niche pleasure.
This is more Nightwolf’s speed: embellishing the mechanics of its genre while pasting the aesthetic of neon onto its vehicles, weapons, and arenas. As someone patiently awaiting the incredibly-unlikely-yet-still-mathematically-attainable sequel to Vigilante 8: 2nd Offense, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “A new Vigilante 8 game could be like this and it would be phenomenal!” Fundamentally-speaking, Nightwolf has the core mechanics of vehicular combat down to a t. Controls, while slippery to some extent, are realistic considering one is driving a vehicle and not moving their much more flexible body; the standard weapon is useful enough to be a standalone weapon while also weak enough to warrant stronger weapons in future battles; the environment is full of booby traps that can turn the tide of battle should one be struggling. People familiar with vehicular combat should feel nostalgic playing this game, and with all the features available at this moment.
Some criticism of what’s available should be somewhat lenient considering the full game has yet to be revealed, though what’s already in place is by no means perfect. For example, if one flips their vehicle over by some godforsaken force of will, they have absolutely no way of flipping themselves over. One has to pray that the enemy is stupid enough to ram into you and flip you over—the A.I. isn’t typically so merciful. That said, if one finds themselves flipped over, match is over. You have to sit there and contemplate your life as the enemies slowly, but surely, destroy you, ending the match. This is a serious buzzkill. For the more adventurous type, who wish to boost off of ramps and fly around the arenas doing cools tricks, it’s almost like a punishment for being too haphazard, which goes against the entire mood of the game. The developers seriously need to consider adding an auto-flip maneuver of some sort. (Edit: Turns out there is a way to flip over in these scenarios. Oops.)
For the moment, only two types of enemy groups are available to fight, each with a set amount of vehicles to combat. One group has shields on top of their health, while the other just has health. What group one faces is completely random, as well as one of two arenas available to battle in. One can only have a single weapon at a time, so achieving new weapons will only have those available to use until their ammunition runs out. Finding those requires seeking out green-hued question marks among the map; again, the weapon achieved is random. Blue-hued question marks can also be found that give the player health boosts, shield boosts, or temporary boosts in things such as weapon damage, fire rate, etc. Again, what the player gets is random. There’s a large portion of gameplay dedicated to chance—not so much the level of For the King, but enough to make battles feel distinct from one another, in good and bad ways. Blue-hued question marks rarely give me the thing I want in a dire situation (health, health, and health, specifically), which makes the game of cat and mouse between a nearly K.O.’d player and three or four full-health adversaries really irritating.
What’s especially interesting about Nightwolf is that it takes a somewhat different approach to balancing the game in the favor of the player. One might expect enemies to be fairly easy to kill, while the player is notably harder to kill from the enemy’s perspective. Here, it’s almost equal; should the A.I. be smart enough to go after the player and spam their weapon at all times, the player would go down nearly as quickly as the enemy. It’s not smart enough, but it’s a hypothetical situation. Playing Nightwolf is no leisurely stroll down the road. One must always be mindful of their health (and particularly shields), be frugal with their ammo, and not be afraid to retreat when it’s smarter to. My first hour or so playing this game, I struggled to make it past the first wave of battles because I always drove straight for the enemy guns blazing. It wasn’t until I learned to manipulate the environment and let my shields regain their energy that I was able to make it further into the game.
Finally, while there’s not much outside the battles themselves, there is a basic RPG-like leveling system of various vehicular abilities. After each battle, one gains experience points based on the number of opponents destroyed multiplied by the “fame bonus,” which builds throughout a match based on death count and how rapidly one stacks them up. When the player is destroyed themselves, the match will end and they will earn however many experience points based on their performance. These points can then be spent outside of battle on a simple customization window which allows for player perks such as maximum health, weapon damage, shield regeneration, etc., to be upgraded for future battles. Protip: the more one plays, the easier battles will be; not just due to vehicle upgrades, but player familiarity.
Graphics & Audio
Allow me to say this outright: this game has a commentator for each match. This commentator is incredibly annoying and has so few lines that he may as well be a tape deck stapled to a microphone. He says something after any noteworthy event, whether it be a vehicle being destroyed, picking up a weapon/upgrade, or ramping off a platform. I really wouldn’t mind so much if he just said different things, but I’m not exaggerating when I say he says maybe twenty lines, tops. I even like the idea of having an apathetic announcer pestering the player and/or enemies throughout, as it adds to the atmosphere of the game. I just wish they utilized him more.
Already noting the aesthetic of the game in previous paragraphs, one can expect a lot of neon, notably purple, blue, and pink. Graphically speaking, Nightwolf looks fairly good for the time, but not something within the metaphysical boundaries. It takes almost an imaginative mind to find appeal with the environment and action of the game, especially considering how “sci-fi” it all feels below the ’80s epicness. Framerate fails me only on small occasions, nothing so harsh that it ruined the experience for me. The game froze only once in about four hours of gameplay. More than refined, everything just looks immensely flashy. Perhaps that’s what they were going for.
Unfortunately, aside from a semi-catchy menu theme, there isn’t much to say about Nightwolf’s soundtrack. Again, some blame is due towards a focus on gameplay, such that one can’t even hear the soundtrack over general vehicle sounds and the persistent announcer. What’s lacking in content may also have something to do with it, as one should always keep in mind that this game was just released via Early Access less than a month ago. One shouldn’t expect the world.
If basic things are your requirement of life, Nightwolf has your blatant pleasures. Of its current form, the gameplay mechanics expected of vehicular combat are concise and almost rigidly fair. With the ’80s aesthetic and the promise of something more, it’s recommendable to any fans wanting an old helping of Twisted Metal while also recommendable for those outside that area of expertise based on the low price tag. There is potential here, though I don’t expect a huge overhaul on the outset. I could only hope for personality from the game through individual characters and story, but why not be appreciative of what made Vigilante 8 fun for me at its base? Nightwolf: Survive the Megadome should easily revive one’s fix for full-throttle fun (and explosions).