ShootMania was supposed to be the TrackMania of gun-games: a simple shooter in what's become a tornado of killstreaks, unlocks and customisation. And it is, but only if you look at the bits where a mouse- click fires a gun at a bunny-hopping enemy. The rest is a rebuilding of the competitive FPS, but with an odd logic that suffuses everything from the menus to the movement.
It's clear I'm in thrall to Nadeo's eccentricities even before a shot is fired. ShootMania Storm's menu screen is full of tiles. The biggest one is Storm, but to the right there's a collection of smaller tiles with 'Royal', 'Battle', and 'Joust' written on them, and to the far right there's TrackMania Stadium, an entirely different game. Er, which one of these makes people explode?
It takes some Googling to get my head around all this. The thing I'm looking at is the ManiaPlanet Launcher. Within that are Nadeo's games, with ShootMania Storm and TrackMania in the larger tiles, and game modes in the smaller tiles. To play a game mode – some of which I have to guess at from the (mostly unhelpful) titles – I need to select what I want to play before entering the game, although it also appears that I can just hop into Storm and find every mode available in the server browser. This makes sense to someone somewhere, and I expect they live in the future and solve crimes before they occur. Whatever happened to a server-browser?
ShootMania does have one, but you can't reorder the current games by player-count or ping, just by geographical region and game type. It's also ordered, apparently, by player skill-level, which Nadeo keeps track of for matchmaking. I finally hop into a game of Royal, which I understand is the most basic game mode – and at that time was the most populated game mode – but even then it's not just deathmatch. It's fought in a massive arena: players are shoved out to the edges, equidistant from a central pole. That pole activates a storm that starts on the edge of the map and then contracts, forcing all the players closer and closer together. It's hilariously dramatic.
Matches begin like horse races, with everyone bolting out of their little cubby hole towards the goal. In this instance I can't even see the pole, just a huge wall that blocks my path. I stop and look around, watching everyone else flying upwards. Jump- pads! I follow them up, trailing by a few steps. I land on the bottom lip of a sloping hill that leads up to where the pole should be, although I still can't see it from here. Because I've taken a few extra moments to orient myself, I'm being ignored. Everyone is fighting everyone else.
It looks like a fairly simple game of precise shooting and dodging, but when I finally pluck up the courage to get involved I'm sluggish and off- pace. Others are demonstrably swifter. Then I notice the Stamina bar and it all makes sense: jump and a little bit of stamina drains; spam the spacebar (or right-mouse button) and it'll drop swiftly. It keeps bunny- hopping in check, but the Stamina bar is also tied to sprint.
In order to sprint, you first need to jump, take your finger off the jump button, then hit it once again just before you land (see 'Sprint Hint' on page 89) and you'll run for a short time, but cover a lot of ground. It also has a third use, which I discover when I run towards the top of the hill and fall down into a huge hole. It's like the prison from The Dark Knight Rises: a hole in the ground with rooms and corridors off to the side, with the pole at the bottom. As I fall I hit the spacebar. For a few moments I glide.
It saves me, as I glide into an unused corridor and avoid the fight for the pole below. It's fun being a spectator of ShootMania: missed shots burn lines of glowing plasma into the air, and people fade when they die, leaving a transparent, glassy outline for a few moments. I stay here watching the fight for a bit before leaping into it. Movement isn't the only action that's tied to an energy system. Shooting is too. It's not as complicated, but you do need to take care not to spam away the weapon's charge – usually four shots per charge – which I have a tendency to do. In fact, I tend to spam weapons and jump at the same time, which in ShootMania will leave you as vulnerable as a newborn.
So there I was, powerless and sluggish and in the centre of a map with an encroaching stormfront, doing everything not be shot. And to be fair I wasn't. I died by running at a wall, trying to pull off a walljump, when the storm ripped right through it. A few other fights on the level were informative: the incoming storm, while a good way to make sure there's always a fight for control of the level, usually means that games end with two people in close proximity on either side of the pole, shooting at each other, reducing ShootMania's dynamism to a comedic, close-quarters duel.
I also discovered that, while you can't select your weapons, most levels have zones where the two other guns – an instagib railgun and an explosive sticky balls launcher – are engaged. You don't have control of this: it just happens when you're in a designated area. The railgun zone removes your ability to jump, because it's hugely powerful. Of all the movement eccentricities of ShootMania, this was the one that most hindered my intentions – I'd be frozen to the spot instead of leaping dramatically out of the way.
But there were moments where all the movement mangling clicked: I'd dodge plasma blasts while riding this strange gust of wind the control system seems to invoke. It feels like it was built for speedruns and frag videos, made for people with preternatural skill who can keep up with the zippy turns and can lead their target perfectly. You feel swift, deadly and accurate. You take shots on instinct, and watch players fall away as you sweep on.
The replay mode, which enables you to grab any game you've played online, is something I spent a lot oftime fiddling with, rewatching those moments where I've felt like a force of nature. It's something the community has embraced. There are molecules of wall-jumping and rocket-jumping deep within ShootMania's DNA, those old glitches gone pro, and they've been teased out in the Obstacle maps. They're not official, but they were the second-most played after Royal for the time I was playing. You don't even fight – instead you attempt to defeat a series of increasingly difficult physical challenges, a string of awkward jumps that needs a keen understanding of ShootMania's bespoke movement rules to defeat. They're a good place to stop off if you're struggling with the controls.
Because it's a game with an easy editor that rests on the community's creativity, levels can vary wildly in quality and size. The symmetrical design of Royal means there's not a lot of balance issues to fret over, which is quite refreshing in an FPS. It frees the modders to think about how to best build for leapy, speedy, agile players. Most Royal arenas are huge, with everyone launched into the air at the start. It depends on the game mode: I joined a Battle game, which is basically team deathmatch with a bunch of shifting capture points. It's by far the best mode, with the continually rotating capture points making each game an interesting tactical test.
Nadeo are at least trying things. Another favourite of the community, Elite mode, has one attacker playing gainst three defenders, and is remarkably satisfying to win. It's balanced by the selection of weapons, with the attacker getting the railgun and the defenders struggling with the rocket launcher. If you're on the attacking team, you'll have to sit the round out and watch your teammate fight on his own. It's resolved swiftly though, so it's not frustrating.
Combo is even more bizarre, an experimental mode full of collectible drops. The most important part is that you need to kill both members of the opposing team within a time limit, so when the first dies the second must be killed within a few seconds or the match continues. Cool? Yes, but there are barely any servers playing it.
Which is part of a problem Nadeo are facing. They're trying to evolve a game and genre but the community is small. They're working with a niche, so whatever they make won't make a big difference to the wider FPS world. Making a game that's initially baffling doesn't help when you're attempting to entice a new set of players, either.
It's good, but it's basically built to emulate what it's like to be a pro- Quake player, and in doing so it misses the point of the games it's attempting to remake. They were simple, and ShootMania isn't.