It's difficult to stand out in today's overcrowded games market, especially in the highly competitive, make-or-break multiplayer landscape. We don't envy any developer currently crafting a game that needs thousands of players logging in each and every day. However, the right combination of interesting concept and good execution might just do the trick, and SquadBlast may be onto something.
The enthusiasm UltraHorse has for its side-scrolling multiplayer shooter is clear. This game is essentially a 2D hero shooter, featuring a handful of unique characters, all with their own weapons and skills to master. Though the version of the game we played is still fairly early, we sampled two or three different modes, including objective-based affairs like Payload and Conquest. On paper, it doesn't sound all that exciting, but once we got to grips with how it all works, we had a lot of fun.
Let's rewind a little bit, though. Anatolijs Ropotovs, UltraHorse CEO and Founder, and Game Director on this title, provides some context: "SquadBlast is a side-scrolling tactical shooter set in 2041, where the squads have to battle against a monopoly of companies and the government, defending themselves in these times. The squads are here to rebuild this crumbling world," he tells us.
The result is up to 5 vs. 5 matches in which your class and weapons make a big difference to how you play. We tried out a number of characters but found the most success with the healer, who wields an assault rifle and pistol, and his special ability heals allies within a pretty wide radius. Others use shotguns which, in a 2D game where you can't see beyond what's onscreen, seems like a wise choice. Among all the weapons and unique abilities, there's a decent amount of variety.
It helps tremendously that SquadBlast just feels good to play. The controls are fairly simple, revolving around the thumb sticks for movement and aiming, a generous double jump, and almost FPS-style controls like the right trigger to shoot and Square to reload, for example. Ropotovs explains that the aim is to create a sort-of ranged version of a brawler like Super Smash Bros., in that it should be easy to pick up and have fun but also feature a degree of depth for competitive players.
He says that similar games to SquadBlast haven't necessarily had that depth: "There were a few games such as Soldat, or later Awesomenauts... They have not been as deep as first-person shooters. Maybe they didn't have a full spectrum of abilities, or haven't been well balanced. As we've approached building this game, we thought we might improve upon every small experience within that [genre]." It's clearly important to Ropotovs that the game serves the hardcore as well as casual users, and things like the inclusion of rollback netcode speaks to that.
Our play experience was extremely smooth, and as we got to grips with our favourite healer character, small hidden features began to surface, enforcing that idea of depth. You can dodge, parry, or counter enemy fire depending on which character you play, you can slide down slopes to gain speed, there are hidden power-ups to look out for on certain maps — there's a touch more to the game than just aiming and shooting, which makes it surprisingly dynamic.
It seems a big part of striking that balance of easy to pick up, hard to master has been informed by player feedback. "As this is our debut title, we've spent a lot of time with players at events and see what sticks and what doesn't," Ropotovs says. "We've tried different gameplay styles, weapons, and abilities to figure out what gamers of 2022 would like to play." Classes have been partially shaped by these player experiences, like the basic soldier class having a homing missile weapon to help newcomers who might struggle with aiming.
From what we've played, there's real potential in the game to fill a niche. Each mode is fun, it plays very smoothly, and experimenting with the various characters showed there's more to it than first appears. SquadBlast is coming to PS5 and PS4 in the future, but a playtest is happening right now on Steam.
Are you excited about SquadBlast? What do you think of this style of competitive shooter? Tell us in the comments section below.