Videogames rarely follow the maxim ‘Always leave the audience wanting more.’ But in his debut creation, developer Tom Francis (who has a day job on Edge sister mag PC Gamer) does just that. Gunpoint offers you one of gaming’s most entertaining toys – a tool with gameworld-altering abilities enough to join the worshipful company of Aperture Science’s Portal Device and Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun – then gives us an all-too-brief three hours’ worth of levels in which to use it. That tool is the Crosslink, and while it’s by no means the only gadget waiting to be unleashed in this 2D espionage sandbox, it’s the one you’ll revisit Gunpoint for.
The Crosslink is the signature tool of Richard Conway, freelance spy, hacker extraordinaire, and one-man campaign to revive the trenchcoat-and-fedora ensemble for the postmillennial gamer. With it, he’s able to rewire entire buildings and cause all sorts of mischief. It can do everything from turning a light switch into a door release mechanism to setting up Rube Goldberg machine-like chains of guard-befuddling mayhem. Conway also never leaves the house without his Bullfrog hypertrousers. Charge them with a press of the left mouse button and then release to launch him on a parabolic arc capable of clearing whole storeys in a single bound.
These gizmos are going to come in handy, because at the game’s start Conway becomes chief suspect for the murder of Selena Delgado. He’s innocent, of course, but a Bullfrog mishap means he’s been caught on camera crashing through the glass roof of the arms company Delgado worked at mere moments before her assassination. This sets in motion a tale of misdirection, corrupt corporate types and tackling goons through windows and then punching their lights out on beds of broken glass.
It’s the stuff of countless noir films and crime paperbacks, then, but Francis writes it warmly and with tongue firmly in cheek. And unlike the hacks, his witty tangle of plot threads takes you to clever places. Specifically, it takes you to a set of fiendishly secured locations, often with the goal of hacking into a computer system protected by gun-wielding guards, alarms and hand scanners. These puzzle-box levels are presented in artfully pixellated 2D, with building floors in cross section against the eternally moody night sky. Flick the mouse wheel to enter Crosslink mode and the muted palette is replaced by silhouettes on a blue background, with circuit connections in pulsating lines of bright colour. The controls are simple enough as to be near invisible, with movement handled by WASD and almost everything else done by mouse.
Francis sets the rules up early: gunshots are fatal and guards shoot accurately, which means being seen almost always equals Conway becoming a crumpled heap of blood-splattered brown overcoat. But autosaves are frequent, and upon death you get a choice of three time points to jump back to, so you’re never more than button press from being able to try out a different approach. Circuits of various colours do not intermix, meaning you’ll often need to tap into colour-coded control boxes to progress.
Your approach to these levels is your own. You’ll get a grade at the end – as well as ratings for the noise you make, witnesses you leave, the level of violence you dish out and the time it took – but there’s no sense of judgement beyond the grade, and not every client treasures a light touch. You can play Gunpoint living on twitch reflexes and some simple rewiring, but we found it most satisfying to get elaborate with our Crosslink and then execute the acrobatics necessary to carry out our plans.
As the tests of your infiltrative cunning grow steadily more taxing, so the balance of your bank account rises, giving you access to yet more gadgets. These range from the functional, such as tools for muffled window smashing, to the positively game breaking, including a gun of your own and the ability to kick down doors. Again, Francis offers freedom: bar the finale, the choice to use them or not is left in your hands, and access to the most ludicrously powerful kit is gated smartly so as to not ruin your first playthrough. We can’t help but feel the gun blows away most of the fun in a replay, however.
When the story ends, you’re left wanting more. Longevity isn’t desirable for its own sake, but Gunpoint doesn’t give itself enough room to truly unfurl everything it has to offer, nor does it offer much in the way of codified incentives to try new approaches. You can revisit the missions to tweak your grade and hunt achievements, and we’d happily play through the campaign more than once, but there’s still not the variety of levels and challenges here to explore such an enjoyable range of gadgets.
That problem may soon be overcome, since a level editor’s included with the game. It’s simple to use, with walls, doors and windows snapping to invisible grids, and while you can’t set up custom wiring, we didn’t feel the want of it. Steam Workshop support is planned, too, but sharing levels now is a case of fishing files from the Levels folder and uploading them pell-mell to the web.
Francis intends to support Gunpoint post release, though, providing the opportunity to do the minor rewiring required to get the most from his elegant creation. But even in its current form, there’s a wealth of ideas and a set of powers that few games twice this length manage to pack in.
Gunpoint is out now on PC through the developer’s site and via Steam.