Hands-on with Heat Signature, the new game from Gunpoint dev Tom Francis
In space they might not be able to hear you scream, but they sure as hell can detect a warm hull approaching with sinister intent. Still, I take some comfort from knowing that they don't get to enjoy my agonised howl as the missiles zero in and reduce my already tiny ship to its component pixels. So it goes in Heat Signature, the new stealth game from Gunpoint creator, (and PC Gamer alumnus), Tom Francis.
The build which I'm playing here at GDC begins with only your single-seater ship on the screen. Run your finger back on the scroll wheel and the camera zooms out with almost indecent smoothness to reveal a carpet of stars. Or, more precisely, several translucent carpets, stacked together in luscious parallax.
Heat Signature is designed to be entirely playable using the mouse. How far you left click away from your ship determines the amount of propulsion you use, and soon I'm scudding through the stars in search of prey. In flight, the game's risk/reward trade-off is that the faster you move the more your ship heats up, which exposes it to the sensors of other ships.
Enemy ships are procedurally generated, which accounts for their substantial variation in size and threat, but they're all best described as boxy. Part of the reason they look like flying Lego is that, as with Gunpoint, the final art assets won't go in until Francis is happy with all the systems, but the modular design will change the way you play. During ship-to-ship combat, how many boxes/rooms a ship has effectively equates to their health points, which break off as they come under attack.
However, before engaging other vessels, you need a more substantial one of your own, which means finding a target and mounting a successful boarding mission. Because you can't afford to come in hot, I kill the power and begin circling my target with little dabs of the left button. Once my hull stops glowing, I drift lazily through the warning sensors (represented by a red circle around the enemy ship) and then use even more judicious mouse control to inch around my target's geometry towards the tiny jutting airlock.
Or at least that's the plan. In actuality I clang off a couple of times, panic, hit the gas and get atomised by some particularly uncompromising heat-seeking missiles. The obvious antecedent in terms of feel here is the BBC Micro classic Thrust, which also used hair-trigger spaceship physics to satisfyingly moreish effect.
On the second go I'm no more nimble, but realise that banging into the enemy ship actually doesn't appear to alert it. Presumably they blew all their cash on heat sensors and left nothing for boring old tactile ones. Having gained entry, the dual purpose of the boxy layout becomes clear. Heat Signature's second format reveals a far more recent influence, in the form of Hotline Miami.
The rooms/boxes are effectively a maze which you need to navigate in order to reach the ship's helm and take control. In your way are patrolling guards, all of whom are as capable of one-shotting you as you are them. Presently the game's procedural algorithms only generates layouts with one route from airlock to helm, although Francis is considering tweaking this to make for more varied approaches.
As a reasonably accomplished Hotline Miami spree killer, I'm on slightly more comfortable ground indoors, but still managed to get gunned down fairly swiftly. Francis explains he'd set out to make a roguelike with permadeath, but was now considering taking an alternate, perhaps slightly less brutal approach to fail states.
There's more to be pinned down as development progresses, including the reasons behind your void-wandering. Francis admits he wants to have an end goal but has no idea what it might be yet. Crucially as with the BAFTA-nominated Gunpoint this, the core systems are fun to tinker with right away.
Playing it, Heat Signature feels like it could easily be a game about viruses and antibodies with you steadily taking over larger and larger host organisms, though that would probably create less opportunity for the icy sci-fi soundtrack I suspect Francis has in mind for the final game. Keep up with how Heat Signature is coming along over at Tom's blog or by following the game's Twitter account.