Yeesh. It seems like you wait forever for an innovative, team-based shooter with colourful character design to come along and then—bam!—two get announced at once. Well, not quite at once. By now you’ll have heard about Blizzard’s debut FPS, the vibrant Overwatch, which was revealed at Blizzcon and we had a blast playing. You probably haven’t heard about Block N Load, because it’s being revealed right now, and which I got to play earlier this week and ended up liking a lot more than I honestly expected to.
You might however have heard of Block N Load’s predecessor, Ace of Spades, which it’s worth mentioning here because of the surrounding controversy. Short version: Ace of Spades was a free-to-play mash up of Minecraftian block building and class-based competitive FPSing. It was developed by Ben Aksoy and released in beta three years ago, but he departed soon after selling the game to Jagex, who swiftly remade the game and solid it on Steam, which went down incredibly badly with the existing fanbase. So badly, in fact, that many of them stuck with the original, or as they prefer ‘classic’, beta version.
“We didn’t launch it well,” admits Alex Horton, Jagex UK’s chief creative office, explaining what happened with Ace of Spades. Horton was previously at Rockstar, and his credits include GTA III. When I talk to him after the hands-on session, the Englishman is remarkably candid, (probably dangerously so), and startlingly sweary. He’s also keen to explain why he wanted another crack at the format: “Even the much maligned, four out of ten, piece of fucking shit that got released in the first year sat [on Steam] and had a pulse,” he says. “So I turned around to the board, because I’m in charge of product, and said ‘I want to go again on this.’”
The result of that going again is Block N Load, a spiritual sequel. It’s still team-based and you still get to build stuff, but the building and shooting elements seem to mesh together in a way that works. Or in other words: it’s fun. I found this out playing a series of matches across a couple of maps.
Each team of five players gets around five minutes at the start to build defences around (and under) their base, which houses a Generator Cube that must be protected. Your options here depend on the character and block loadout you’ve chosen. You can select five different blocks, each with different properties, plus another block which is bespoke to your character class.
For instance Italian building site foreman Anthony 'Tony' Turretto can, wait for it, place turrets. He can also mend said turrets with a suspicious stream of white spoodge from his secondary glue gun. (Horton grins and admits the visual association was entirely deliberate.) There are six classes currently, which combine standard assault/defence/support roles with various comedy archetypes. So you have O.P. 'Juan' Shinobi the Mexican Ninja, who can place respawn blocks, (handy for sneak attacks), and Cogwheel the evil robot, who fills the tank role. And is evil.
An obvious thing to do while waiting for the match to start is to build enormous walls to prevent easy access to your base. A less obvious, but more enjoyable, thing to do is place speed-up pads in front of jump blocks so that your entire team can go hurtling through the air towards the opposing base.
The five minute build phase might sound potentially boring, but it actually creates a strong sense of anticipation to see what happens when the curtain lifts. I mean this literally: there’s a giant curtain separating the two ends of the map, which rises to reveal the Byzantine network of trenches, minefields and tunnels which your opponents have managed to bash together.
From thereon it’s chaos. Some players stay back to tend to the barricades. Others trundle off in search of the opposition base and get mown down by turrets or caught in glue traps. More enterprising members band together and begin digging under the map, hoping to surface inside the enemy heartland. Before long the map is an absolute mess of failed grand ideas. The battles feel attritional, and beyond the health meter on each team’s Generator Cube, it's a little hard to work out who’s winning. But it’s also a laugh, particularly when I manage to catapult myself almost entirely across the map to deliver the deathblow to their base.
There are issues though. Respawning takes too long and matches currently aren’t on a timer, so only end when a base is destroyed, which can lead to long stalemates. Those are easily fixable though. More work will be required to give the core shooting a greater sense of impact and drama. Right now, regardless of whichever weapon you’re armed with, attacks feel insubstantial and unsatisfying. I mention this to Horton and he agrees enthusiastically.
“We’re not trying to be super hardcore as you can tell,” he says, when I ask him who the game’s aimed at. As for the spectre of Overwatch, he says the announcement only made him feel: "Completely validated". He’s also not worried about whether teams of strangers will be able to cooperate effectively during the build phase and beyond. “I think it’s a social experiment, isn’t it? Let’s see what happens. There are elements of the [development] team who are like ‘yeah, it’s tactical team play,’ and I’m like ‘You think you’re playing fucking tactically? Give me a turret.’ It’s almost built for fucking mental, online trolling. Go smash shit up… It’s all part of the flavour. See what emerges out of it.”
We’ll see what emerges when the game enters beta in December, which you can register for now at blocknload.com. Assuming that's a success, the full game will be released next year for $19.99, with a $29.99 special edition set to include an undisclosed raft of extras. So, no free-to-play model this time either, which means Block N Load may struggle to win back those angry Ace of Spades fans. The price sounds a little steep for something that's likely, at least initially, to be perceived as throwaway. But if they can tighten up the feel of the combat, there’s a lot of potential fun here. And, if nothing else, you won’t see a more startling animation than that glue gun in 2015.