Sometimes a video game can be thoroughly entertaining, not for any new ideas it brings to the table, but for the way in which it combines a lot of old ideas into an excitingly fresh experience. The latest shooter from Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy interactive universe is a fine example.
Set in an alternative Rainbow Six timeline where Earth has been invaded by a race of swampy, Lovecraftian aliens known as the Archaeans, it stars the spec-ops warriors from the multiplayer shooter hit Siege as they set out to kick ET’s ass. Players form teams of three operatives, each with their own special skills and weapons, and then go into alien invasion sites to kill monsters and get things done. Every site is divided into three escalatingly difficult zones, with different objectives, and players can choose to exfiltrate after each section or gamble on not getting killed and continue on to the end, for greater rewards.
The key is to take things slowly and carefully. Believe me, the run-and-gun approach is not an option here. As in Siege, you can send in a remote control buggy to check out unexplored areas and tag enemies and mission objectives before risking your own bodies, which is good because the aliens don’t mess about: some tear at you with blade-like limbs, some shoot blue spikes, some gambol up to you on all-fours and then explode like some sort of weaponised labrador. Plus, if you get into a noisy shootout, each environment is littered with boil-like seed pods that produce new enemies until you destroy them. Stealth, careful team management and the inventive use of gadgets such as motion trackers and sentry guns, is the key, especially in the early stages where your health gauge is puny and your body armour is apparently made out of balsa wood and hope.
The zones themselves take in everything from New York hotels to San Francisco punk clubs and Alaska refineries. Locations are dark and twisty and multilevelled and, as in Siege, there are walls you can smash down and doorways you can barricade in order to control the flow of the action. When you complete a sub-zone you get awarded a bunch of points for completing tasks and doing extra challenges, and all this goes toward levelling up your equipment and researching handy new gadgets such as claymores and scan grenades, which highlight all the enemies in an area.
What it feels like then is a tactical co-op shooter crossed with Call of Duty’s zombie mode crossed with the XCOM turn-based strategy games. You’re not just hunting and shooting the aliens, you’re investigating their biology and using it to create new defences (which is very XCOM), but occasionally a mission will require you to defend a key section for several seconds as the monsters team toward you, which feels very like zombies, or any frenzied horde mode shooter. The interplay between tense exploration and these moments of loud, lethal action is extremely well-handled, and trying to complete an objective when you’re all on 1% of health and you can hear the aliens breathing nearby is genuinely nerve-shredding stuff.
As if that wasn’t enough pressure, there’s an extra resurrection mechanic ripped from the roguelite genre. When operatives are incapacitated during a mission, they’re left behind and you have to go back and rescue them on a later incursion. The rescue sequence involves you yanking the character from a horrible gooey tree-monster before it consumes them – an idea surely inspired by co-op horror title Dead By Daylight. Clearly, the developers of Extraction saw the old Oscar Wilde quote – “talent borrows, genius steals” – and nicked it for their design document.
But honestly, it doesn’t matter. This is an enthralling strategy shooter with thorough world-building, a well-balanced progression system and atmospheric locations. The soundtrack, too, is excellent, a mix of John Carpenter-esque synth tracks and spooky cello sonatas that really immerse you in the fiction. Playing with two pals is the optimum experience, but you can choose to be placed with strangers or to go it alone – in which case it becomes a survival horror experience akin to the more shooty Resident Evil titles.
There are plenty of co-op shooters on the market, and some intriguing titles on the way (Sons of the Forest, Gotham Knights, Redfall), but Extraction has military gadgets, dank horror and heart-stopping stealth, and those are qualities that, although not original, make for a heck of a game.