I grew up on rails. To be precise, I grew up on Rails Shooters, a particular type of computer game which seemed, for a while, to be the exclusive province of the arcades I was never old enough (Despite being 6’1 by the time I was 14) to go into and the last but one generation of home computers. You know, back when they were called home computers. In the Dark Ages.
Rails shooters are exactly what they sound like, shoot’em ups, games where your objective is to kill everything that isn’t you, just with no freedom of movement. It’s designed like a fairground ride, the doors bump open at the start of the level, you trundle through on a set course, able to move your gunsight but not yourself. At the end of the level , if you’re still alive, you get points and go on to the next one. Operation: Wolf, a game which I once successfully played a level of without killing a single bad guy or destroying anything, was one of the first of these games. Digital spectacle over control, never mind the lack of controls just relax and enjoy the show. I can feel modern-day Call of Duty players getting hives even as I write this.
The rails shooter died at almost the exact moment the First Person Shooter was born you see. The FPS is the default narrative model for a lot of games these days, putting you in the head of the main character and letting you run, however you like, around a level, killing who or whatever is attacking you. From Doom and Counter-Strike up to Halo IV, the FPS is a game model that works the same way a sandwich does in the real world. You just know what to do and how to interact with it from the moment you see it. Doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of crappy sandwiches, and plenty more crappy FPS’s but the principle’s the same.
As a result of this new found freedom, the rails shooter stopped getting invited to the fun, home computer and console parties and was instead relegated to the dwindling world of the arcades, where this decade’s version of 14-year old me no doubt looked at them with the same sort of reverence 14-year old boys look at facial hair and actual girls that talk and wear clothes and everything. Of course the occasional one still made it to the consoles, the, initially, Wii-exclusive Dead Space game, Extraction, is arguably the best rails shooter no one bothered to play for example, but for the most part rails shooters glory days were over.
Enter mobile gaming, stage left.
Smart phones aren’t just at the stage where they can outperform certain types of computer, they’ve been there for a while. I remember, not that many years ago, being blown away by the huge scale of Grand Theft Auto III and your freedom to do very nearly anything. Likewise, I remember being amazed by the beautiful and faintly nightmarish world of the Myst games. Now? If I want to I can replay them both. On my phone.
This level of freedom and processing ability goes hand in hand with an interesting new grammar in games design. Your phone is now your clock, your mp3 player, your web browser, your ebook reader, your camera and your runtracker, a ubiquitous device, almost an artificial, modular sense organ. As a result, the attention span and design of a dedicated mobile phone game is increasingly dictated by the length of your commute, or your lunchbreak or how long it takes your bus to get there. Games like Temple Run and Zombie Gunship thrive on this sort of short, intense gameplay but it’s Arc Squadron, a relatively new release, that seems to have taken it to the next level.
Arc Squadron has a cheerfully generic storyline about you being recruited to a unit fighting the Guardians, the group of aliens taking over three galaxies. It also has a good, if familiar, customization system where you earn points for each level completed and can use those to buy upgrades ranging from faster charge times for your weapons to entirely new ships. It also has the option to pay real world cash for these upgrades, a recent addition to a lot of games which in the case of multi-player games permanently skews the playing field in favor of those who can afford to blow hours on a game at a time and, when called upon, pounds as well. It’s a bullshit system which makes no one but obsessive gamers and company accountants happy, and as I’m neither of those, I’m not a fan but this is the world we live in. Or in the case of the Galactica MMO, live in for as long as it takes some spotty little turd who has paid real money for his capital ship to run you over like a bug on the highway.
That problem aside, Arc Squadron takes the commute-time theory of gaming as its cornerstone and the end result is actually rather brilliant. You control your ship by dragging it around the screen with your finger, trigger secondary weapons by tapping on a target and primary weapons will fire at anything they can kill that you point them at. It’s as intuitive as the FPS model and each level is playable in about two minutes, provided you live. Or to put it another way, you can literally save the galaxy at the bus stop. There’s even a sense of narrative progression which for a game with the plot ‘Those guys suck, kill all those guys’ is frankly astounding. You unlock later levels by completing, or sometimes just surviving, the level before, leading you up through the usual series of boss battles and sub games which can be played over and over to raise your cash. It’s not exactly a Sid Meier-esque god simulation but that’s the beauty of it, it doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be. This is gaming as distraction, gaming as something to fit into the cracks of your day.
It helps that Arc Squadron is insanely pretty, of course. There are a couple of odd design choices, including a junk monster that looks more Toy Story than Battlestar Galactica, but the ship design philosophy is varied but coherent and the levels are at times just utterly beautiful. ‘Orbital Debris’ has you careening through the shattered hulks of massive derelicts whilst ‘Plagued Space’ has you playing run and gun through an asteroid field that’s been fortified by the Guardians. It’s always a good sign if you move with the game and I’ve found myself ducking on that level more than once.
Arc Squadron has no narrative depth whatsoever, but, weirdly, that’s actually an asset. This isn’t just gaming as distraction it’s gaming as vent, something you can play for a few minutes to chill out without having to get intellectually or emotionally invested. This is the beauty of the rails shooter (Or rather most of them, Dead Space:Extraction actually does some very clever things), it’s almost completely passive, just requiring you to press the trigger or tap the screen. There’s certainly more that can and should be done with computer games but believe me, Arc Squadron will make any commute on the planet a lot more fun. Hopefully it marks a return for the rails shooter, in all its pretty, slightly interactive glory. After all, everyone could do with a trip to the digital funfair every now and then.