A long time ago, so long ago it defies memory (~2000), I played a demo of a game called Gunlok. I didn’t understand how to play videogames so I don’t think I even managed to move my dude(s), let alone complete it, but the blurb made it sound well cool. Fast-forward two decades and here’s me browsing through old games on a popular internet auction site, looking for things to put on my XP machine and, what ho, it’s a factory-sealed copy of this very game!
I barely remember what genre it was, but I’m long past hesitation now.
Good news! It’s an isometric real-time-with-pause tactical party-based RPG. You take control of the eponymous Gunlok and his elite robot pals in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has been all but wiped out by machines. Those dastardly AIs are up to some nasty tricks to try and finish off the few pesky humans still around… but Gunlok has fancy power armour and the power of three friends to help him stop them.
Yes, I can see why 12-year-old Robbie wanted this. 33-year-old Robbie still wants this. The circle is complete.
Actually RPG is maybe the wrong term, but I can’t think of a more appropriate one. Obviously I want to say Real-Time Strategy, in the same sense that WC3 RPGs are RTSes where you only control a tiny handful of specialist units. There are no levels or experience points, but there are four characters with distinct strengths and weaknesses, who can be equipped with various weapons and upgrade modules as you find them.
Gunlok himself is a decent all-rounder; a human in power armour with no particular speciality. He does have a superweapon that obliterates anything at the cost of health, but that’s a last resort.
Elint is his only starting pal, a haphazard robot that built itself from whatever junk it had to hand, and the only one who can power-down certain enemy systems with its Interface Arm; but it has light armour and slow movement speed from its mismatched legs. For some reason this is the character I remember most clearly from that demo experience. (No joke, even before the possibility of actually getting and playing this full game had occurred to me, I have always wanted to do a spin on it for Exon.)
A couple missions in you find Hark, the small hyperactive one who can barely shoot straight but who can run fast and get into tight spaces — your scout. Finally you get Frend, the big dumb one who can use huge guns and has huge armour but walks at snail’s pace — the tank. Four heroic pals to take on the world.
Missions are a little bit like obstacle courses. You are always outnumbered and outgunned, and ammunition and healing are scarce, so running straight in guns blazing is a sure way to get everyone killed. No, you have to make use of all the classic stealth game mechanics: avoiding vision cones and audio sensors by skirting patrol routes, hiding in junk piles or luring enemies away with decoys.
Failing that, there are a whole heap of systems to support taking powerful enemies out more tactically. First, you have “recon mode”: a first-person camera that allows you to zoom in and scan enemies. This is important because although there are a number of obvious repeating types, these are sometimes augmented with additional shielding that makes them impervious to certain weapon types — for example, just when you’ve got comfortable that you can splash a big Archore with the grenade launcher, you might stumble into one that’s got anti-grenade shielding and suddenly have to run like fuck because your plan to mortar it from a safe distance didn’t work (ahem).
Then you can move on to setting up ambushes. There are explosive barrels at many convenient places and your own stock of landmines if not. Once you’ve picked a nice spot you can shift-click to queue entire sequences of orders (eat that, Infinity Engine) for each character, and even more, you can trigger them independently when leaving pause mode. You can get one dude to act as a lure and pre-program everyone else to wait — then trigger them to open fire on some nearby explosive barrels when your hapless target is led into range.
Admittedly I haven’t felt the need to do that very often. A well-placed Remote or Proximity landmine usually does the job without quite so much faff — for all you need to juggle equipment to suit the situation, characters don’t have anything like spells or special abilities that need the full extent of the refined control on offer. (Mumble mumble modding potential mumble.)
Because ammunition and upgrades are relatively scarce (and there’s the omnipresent inventory capacity limit so you can’t just take everything all the time), there is a tenuous balance between wanting to avoid confrontation and wanting to thoroughly explore every level.
Levels are the collapsed remnants of human civilisation, so they’re replete with junk piles that may contain precious loot. While a lot of stuff is lying along the obvious path to your objective, it’s as often a tantalising pile of junk defended by a massive bulwark of an enemy off the to the side — is it worth spending the ammunition to kill this thing outright, or can you sneak Hark past it to grab the loot and run? Is it even worth trying to get to this junk pile or is it just another sight range upgrade?
This makes levels into intricate almost-puzzles, as you spot a nice-looking junk pile in a corner and then have to twist and turn the camera to try and work out how to actually get to it. As somebody who has always been a methodical completist anyway, this suits me rather nicely.
Though I opened blaming my 12-year-old self for being rubbish at games, Gunlok does have a few annoying issues that wouldn’t have made it easy on him. The hotspots for activating junkpiles and elevators are often temperamental, and given how much you need to spin the camera to navigate the levels, it’s easy to miss them completely. Even then, elevator control buttons and even bits of the inventory and command wheel will frequently ignore a click entirely, making you doubt yourself — but I’m not crazy, I really did click it the first time.
Much as I love the look and feel of the level art, this comes with plenty of issues too. Levels are often multi-layered, with overhanging gantries and walkways to navigate — extremely pretty and evocative in the post-nuclear gloom, but also very easy to misclick and send your dude walking up the slope and straight into a pile of enemies instead of along that side passage you intended. Failing that, the pathfinding will just seize up and they’ll get stuck on something until you cancel their order and hold their hand round a corner.
And then there was that thing where it piped all its audio through the onboard sound instead of the soundcard, so I thought the audio was totally broken… Until I forcibly disabled the onboard sound controller and it started using the card. Fun times.
Overall though, I’m thoroughly delighted. It scratches the same itch as many of my favourite WC3 RPG maps in a neat post-apocalyptic package. Maybe it could do with a little less jank and a few more special abilities, but that’s nothing a sequel couldn’t have sorted.
So thanks, pre-teen Robbie, for filing that memory away and nurturing it for over two decades. Better late than never!