In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. This week Tom gushes over Nex Machina's lovely lasers.
Nex Machina describes itself as a twin stick shooter, though it works very nicely with WASD and a mouse. You play a little guy in a motorcycle helmet who emits a relentless hose of laser fire. You jet between platforms slightly larger than your monitor, running through humans to rescue them and blasting robots to clear each area.
I've played a few hours since Nex came out yesterday and it fills a Geometry Wars shaped hole very nicely. With layers of sub-objectives and hidden levels, there is a lot more going on here, but both Nex and Geometry Wars induce a similar sense of panic. Swarms constantly span and rush to encircle you. Larger bots chase you down and charge you. Turrets barf torrents of fire in sweeping patterns across the map. Your only navigational tools are a blaster, a dash move, and the ability to run the heck away.
There's real skill to creating the perfect degree challenge in a twin-stick. It would be so easy for Nex to overwhelm you in seconds, but every pattern of spawns presents you with avenues of escape, and enemy attack patterns are designed to be manipulated. Your basic enemies can't outpace you, but they will relentlessly chase in the hope that you run into a corner. You can exploit this behaviour to line them up and wipe them out. Often they spawn in a circle around you, which gives you the chance to pull of the classic shmup escape—blast a hole, slip out of the circle and then run around the circumference firing inwards until everything is chunked.
And boy do things chunk in this game. Enemies explode in a shower of voxels that bounce around the combat space for a few moments and then dissolve. In scenes like the one above, when you're navigating enemy lasers and while lining up your own, the game throws these voxels at you in showers. It's rewarding, but also overloads the senses, and pushes you closer to that shmup sweet spot when you're just in control, but you know the situation could get away from you with one wrong move.
The laser effects add to the chaos. You die like a mirrorball going nova, bursting in an explosion of candy-pink light that bounces off walls. Death is so glorious in this game that it feels like a reward by itself. It's a neat trick in a game that kills you repeatedly after short, stressful bursts of play.
Your death is the only time Nex breaks its laser logic—yes, there is such a thing. Normally your beams are blue, enemy beams are pink. The shape and speed of pink damage tells you how it's going to behave. Fat fuzzy lines tend to wobble about. Pink skulls spawn in a ring and then move slowly outwards. They're always the brightest elements on the screen.
These simple rules make fights instinctively readable, which helps Nex to achieve the mind altering quality that you get in great shmups. In the thick of a hectic battle you're reading threats from all over your peripheral vision. You're simultaneously aware of your character, enemy trajectories, and a mesh of interlacing laser fire. Under it all a throbbing soundtrack measures out each stretching moment.
It's no wonder then that Nex gives you a moment to catch your breath between each room. It celebrates every clearance with a dazzling blue explosion of course. Whether things are going right or wrong, something is always exploding beautifully in Nex Machina.