My love for twin stick shooters dates way back to Smash TV in the arcades. I remember endlessly pumping quarters into the machine even though I was barely tall enough to reach the sticks. So it is surprising that I let PixelJunk Shooter 1 and 2 pass me by when they were originally released on PS3 a few years back. Thankfully Double Eleven has packaged both games and added a host of new features in this compilation for PS4 and Vita owners, and as a bonus it is also free on PS+ this month.
The premise of PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate is simple, scientists have been stranded and your mission is to rescue as many of them as possible using your trusty ship. Saving enough scientists with your grappling hook will open a gate to the next area allowing you to progress. Enemies will spawn along the way and try their best to prevent you from completing your mission. However, as you advance this simplicity melts away revealing a refreshing and deep exploratory shooter I was not expecting.
Ultimate is a shooter by name but actually has more in common with Metroid than it does Geometry Wars. Exploration is encouraged and is a refreshing twist to the typical twin-stick shooter formula. Diamonds are littered throughout each level and are needed to advance to the next chapters. Some diamonds are in plain sight, while others are hidden in the environment. There are also secret areas that are typically on the outskirts of your playable view, and have a nice rewarding chime when discovered. Scouring each location inch-by-inch in search of hidden areas and diamonds became intoxicating. I found myself reaching the end of an area, inches from the exit gate, only to turn around and double back just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
The secret sauce of Ultimate is the complex fluid simulation mechanic. Watching water and lava flow realistically is a sight to behold. Many of the games puzzles are solved by manipulating the various liquids in the game including water, lava, acid, and a magnetic fluid. They not only flow naturally but react to each other creating more variations to the puzzles and hazards you (and the scientists) will encounter. Traversing past a hot molten lava lake to save a stranded Scientist may seem like an impossible task until you notice a pocket of icy water just above it. Point, shoot and watch the physics do the work. This is just a small sample of the many thought provoking puzzles and elements you will encounter throughout the 6 chapter campaign.
Maintaining your ships temperature is another vital piece to ensuring your rescue mission is successful. Hot liquids, enemy attacks and spamming your homing missiles will increase your heat gauge. Your ship will explode if it overheats, but you counter this instantly by flying into water, or gradually by finding a safe place away from a heat source and waiting for your ship to cool down. There is a shield pick-up that makes your ship immune to heat and also allows you to fire endless homing missiles which is helpful during the fun and challenging boss battles you encounter at the end of each chapter.
Having endless homing missiles is one way to bring down a boss, another is to have a wingman. Ultimate offers the long lost art of couch Co-Op throughout the entire campaign. I was able to play the first 2 chapters of the campaign in Co-Op and it was a ton of fun! One main difference, other than the added firepower and high-fives, is you can respawn on the other player without having to restart the level. This helps alleviate some of the frustration when you die since you don’t have to redo the entire level. Co-Op also gives you a great excuse to hop back into the campaign and do some trophy hunting with a friend. It is worth noting remote play works flawlessly since the game only uses 2 shoulder buttons and does not have any button mapping to L3 and R3. The game also supports cross buy and cross save with the PS Vita…dear diary.
Ultimate offers a surprisingly fun, deep and unique online multiplayer. Battle mode is a 1v1, offense vs. defense, capture the flag type format. Each of the 10 maps has survivors scattered throughout and the goal is to secure these survivors in your scoring area while on offense, and prevent your opponent from scoring while on defense. There are two timed rounds of offense and defense, basically two innings to determine the winner. Each ship can be equipped with up to 3 items ranging from weapons, power-ups (which increase your ship’s abilities), disruptors (which affect your opponent’s ship), and hazards (which can affect the environment). The best part is, the offensive player is invisible to the defensive player unless they are in that ship’s vision cone. This creates an intense and frantic blend of CTF and hide ‘n’ seek gameplay. Playing this mode was a blast and brought back the “cat and mouse” vibe I got while playing Spies vs. Mercs mode in Splinter Cell. I was also shocked by the amount of strategic depth the Battle mode offers, not only in the many combinations of items when equipping your ship but in the various ways you can win a match. For instance, I was leading 5-1 and on defense going into the last round. My opponent scored quickly making it 5-2 so I decided to camp my opponent’s scoring area knowing they would need to score a few more times to win. My opponent sniffed that plan out and instead flew to my base and began pulling survivors from my scoring area. Not with the intention of adding to their score, but to subtract from mine. Once I realized what was happening it was too late and I arrived just in time to watch the last survivor being plucked from my base. I lost by a score of 2-1. It was in this moment that I realized just how much thought and effort went into making this mode great and I became even more enamored with it. This leads to my one gripe with this entire game, the online connectivity is terrible and 50-60% of the time I found myself being disconnected from my opponent. This was extremely frustrating and discouraging especially with how great the experience is when I was able to complete a match. Ultimate’s Online multiplayer is also compatible with Playstation’s cross play feature meaning both PS4 and VIta owners can challenge each other in this highly fun and addicting mode, when it works.
PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate is an outstanding package. Fusing a fun, thought provoking and challenging campaign with a refreshing cat and mouse online multiplayer experience. PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate is one of the best games on the PSN and whether you’re playing solo, on the couch with a friend, or online, it will satisfy all of your ship spelunking needs.
*Review based on PS4 version, also available on PS Vita