Nex Machina: Rage Against the Death Machine | A Short Pause Review
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Housemarque’s new game is a twin-stick arcade shooter and it’s fantastic.
Nex Machina (which when translated from Latin means “death machine,” appropriately enough) follows in the footsteps of Resogun, Super Stardust HD, and Dead Nation (to name but a few) before it as an exquisitely crafted, score-chasing adrenaline rush of a game. Developer Housemarque’s stable of white-knuckle action hits is an embarrassment of riches at this point, and Nex Machina slides right in alongside the rest as “one of the boys.” While I wouldn’t go as far as to say Housemarque is single-handedly keeping the twin-stick arcade shooter alive and well — there are other developers out there making fine entries in this space — they’re certainly the one’s showing all of us what’s possible with this genre. Their uncanny ability to deliver a game that’s easy to pick up and play, difficult to master, and infinitely repayable is on full display here. Nex Machina is an absolute must play, not only by those who are self-professed fans of the twin-stick shooter genre, but by fans of well-made video games in general.
There’s no narrative to speak of in Nex Machina. In terms of the game’s setup, you’re the last savior of humanity and it’s up to you to dispense of the machine army that’s overrun the final remnants of civilization. That’s all there is to know about the world of Nex Machina, and that’s really all you need. The cliched phrase “gameplay is king” has guided Housemarque in the development of their games for the better part of a decade, and that’s certainly the case here as their insanely successful arcade formula remains intact. If you’ve ever played a Housemarque developed game, you have an idea of what to expect here; tight twin-stick mechanics, a flashy sci-fi aesthetic punctuated by bright neon colors (the game’s HDR implementation is beautiful), a pounding techno soundtrack, larger than life boss encounters, the robotic female voice that announces your upgrades… Nex Machina delivers everything you’ve come to expect from the Finnish developer. Even Resogun’s human saving mechanic returns here, albeit in an altered fashion.
While some will cry, “But Ben, we’ve seen all of this before,” there’s a lot more going on under the hood of Nex Machina than initially meets the eye, and this is where the game flashes its subtle brilliance. As an arcade shooter, Nex Machina feels as good as ever. Movement is fluid, shooting and aiming are accurate, and any time I died I felt it was because of a mistake I made over the course of a level. You’re never fighting the controls, which is paramount in a fast-paced arcade shooter such as this. Where Nex Machina differentiates itself from its forebears is on a nuts-and-bolts mechanical level. Level design is a big standout in this respect. It seems negligible at first, but the game’s tight quarters and confined spaces really put an emphasis on dexterity and agility. Sure, Housemarque’s past titles have emphasized constant locomotion and honed hand-eye coordination, but never in spaces as constricted as the ones found here. You’ve always been able to zip to the other side of a planetoid in Super Stardust HD, or dash to an area of relative safety around Resogun’s cylindrical plane. It is here, perhaps, where we see legendary collaborator Eugene Jarvis’ (the man behind Robotron, Defender, and Smash TV) influence the most. Nex Machina really feels like Housemarque’s take on Smash TV’s room-to-room progression and chaotic action.
Dashing is an amalgamation of what we’ve seen in Resogun and Dead Nation in the past. As Nex Machina emphasizes short-burst movement in restricted spaces, you’re dashing quick and often to maneuver around the game’s stages (a la Dead Nation). Additionally, as you work your way through each of the game’s worlds, you’ll be rewarded with upgrades for your dash that allow you to utilize the ability to both dash three times in a row and to leave an explosion behind at your dash’s conclusion (a la Resogun). When these little tweaks to the Housemarque mechanics of the past are coupled with a brand new scoring system based around saving humans and locating well-hidden secrets dispersed across the game’s plethora of stages, you’ve got a game that feels familiar in all the right places, but unique enough for longtime fans to get addicted to all over again.
As a package, I would have liked to have seen a few more modes available in Nex Machina out of the box. While Arcade Mode is endlessly re-playable as you’re always in pursuit of that next best run, and Arena Mode provides a nice set of scoring challenges for you to try and conquer on each of the various game worlds, there’s a distinct lack of variety in what’s offered here. Arcade and Arena Mode are essentially the same thing. Once you’ve learned the game’s mechanics and become comfortable with the stage layouts and controls, this is a game that can be completed in an hour. When you’ve got a game that’s as fun to play and as constantly re-playable as Nex Machina this is an admittedly minor gripe, but after the robust package we were given with Resogun — which I realize was the final result after a number of meaty expansions were added to the game — I was hoping for a little more. The lack of online co-op was a bummer for me, too. Local co-op is here, and it’s playable over PS4’s super cool Share Play feature (which, while cool, is not the ideal way to experience this game), but I would love to be able to hop into Nex Machina with one of my Short Pause compadres over the internet sometime in the near future. As this is Housemarque’s first self-published title (congratulations!), I understand why it’s not included here from the get-go, but let’s hope it’s on the docket for a future update.
Housemarque’s done it again. Nex Machina is another infinitely re-playable twin-stick arcade shooter that’s easy to pick up and play, difficult to master, and fun as all hell. And make no mistake, this game is difficult. While there are different difficulty levels to tackle based on your skill level with the game, this is probably Housemarque’s most challenging title to date. It’s a fair challenge, though (well, maybe with the exception of the game’s final boss, but that’s a conversation for another day!). The buttery smooth gameplay and perfect controls mean that any mistakes you make are your responsibility and yours alone. While Nex Machina is not re-inventing the “arcade shooter wheel” so to speak, the little ways in which this game turns Housemarque’s tried-and-true formulas of of the past on its head make for an experience that feels familiar but fresh. As a longtime fan of the developer, I love Nex Machina all the more because of it. Go play the game, you won’t regret it. In the meantime, I’ve got a high score to work on. I’ll see you on the leaderboards!
The Long And Short Of It...
We reviewed Nex Machina on PlayStation 4 using a digital retail code provided to us by the fine folks at Plan of Attack.