Perhaps more than any other medium, video games look to the future of sports. Certainly, you’ve got FIFA, NFL and others recreating sport from the modern day, but you’ve also got the likes of Rocket League, WipEout, the classic SpeedBall and even the blood sports of Unreal Tournament as futuristic spins on modern pastimes. The future of sport in JackHammer doesn’t have men and women vying for physical supremacy, but 900lb robots flinging iridium balls at one another, with creepily cheerful looking faces plastered on their masks.
It’s essentially robot dodgeball, with two teams of two going head to head, being brought up into the arena on pneumatic lifts, in a manner that would feel right at home in a distant edition of Robot Wars. The arenas are small and compact, starting with a string of four glowing balls through the middle, that you’ll have to rush towards to try and grab in your robot’s claw-like hand, either by sucking it up into your grip, or simply by running over the ball.
What follows is a fast-paced dance, as you grab the ball, trying to charge up a shot and fire it at an opponent while also attempting to stay fast and unpredictable enough to avoid being hit yourself. Death comes in the blink of an eye if someone’s managed to line you up, turning you into an explosive shower of sparks. Every shot of your own, however, makes you more vulnerable, simply by the fact that you need to head toward a ball and pick it up, pulling you towards those points on the map.
“It was an ethos more than anything,” Mission Ctrl’s Tom said of the game’s inspirations, “the sort of idea that people could crowd around and play and have the kind of Halo local feel where it fells like everyone’s just chilling out and playing together. It’s very, very gameplay heavy, but we didn’t want to do anything with balancing hugely, we wanted it to be much more about the raw input.”
You can still try to remain unpredictable, though. The high, looping arcs of a jump are fairly easy to see, but you also have the ability to perform a dodge dash in four directions, which is often vital to getting up onto some of the higher ledges in the arena in addition to quickly shifting your direction of movement.
It’s exhilarating. While matches can be played to best of five, they can be over in a matter of seconds, with a pair of quick-fire kills barely as the game’s got under way, or one player gets taken out, forcing his teammate to try and survive and make a comeback, or there’s a tense one on one fight that feels like it’s lasting absolutely forever as you tentatively jump and dash around the map trying to get snap shots away in the hope of landing a hit. Any kind of contact will do, whether it’s a direct hit to the chest, a perfect headshot or simply managing to catch someone’s foot as they try to avoid you.
The compact arenas can be simplistic, or they can be complex and deadly in their own right. One has only minor changes in height with raised corners, while another, more watery arena has a central platform that can break up lines of sight and allow for games of hide and seek or cat and mouse, with both sides searching for the slimmest of opportunities. A third is deadly in its own right, with a central platform that’s surrounded by a drop down into the lava. Playing on this map is as much about getting your jumps and dashes just right as it is knowing where the enemy is, and on more than one occasion, the round was decided not by a successful ball throw, but a mistaken fall down into the lava. In fact, you can easily jump into another player and both fall to your doom!
Map design is one area that the two man team at Mission Ctrl Studios is hoping to hone as the game heads into Early Access later this year, trying to find an audience in what is becoming an increasingly busy market. Tom said, “Because of the game we’ve built and because of Steam as a platform, multiplayer is going to be the beating heart of it, and it’s a big reason why Early Access, we thought, makes sense for us. We want to have the community involved when we develop maps, when we come up with game modes; we want their feedback to be a big part of what makes them what they are. So hopefully, because people will be such a big part of it moving forward, the community will be able to foster something for itself in a way.”
Finding that market is vital for a multiplayer focused game such as this, and with the floodgates well and truly open on Steam right now, it’s more difficult than ever. Thankfully there’s a growing niche with indie oriented publishers such as Team17 and Devolver Digital. In JackHammer’s instance, Mission Ctrl are working together with Green Man Gaming, who might better be known as a digital storefront for PC games.
“They’re pretty critical for us,” Tom said. “Self-publishing wouldn’t even be possible for us, and there’s so much that they take off of us to allow us to focus on the stuff that we do.’
The other half of the two man studio, Patrick added, “We know what we’re not good at, which is just selling games! Funnily enough we’re not equipped to do that, so we want to focus on the developing.”
“Green Man, they take care of everything we don’t, so it’s really, really good!” Tom continued. “We couldn’t do it without them. They’ve given us access to testing bases, and they’ve done this before, they’re well versed in it, and it’s completely paramount to us doing it.”
JackHammer is a very simple game, and that’s its greatest strength. There’s no complex balancing between weapon fire rates and damage per second, there’s no classes to concern yourself with that have different attributes, and the arenas can be as simple as they are fun and compact. In that regard, the comparisons to Rocket League and it’s simplistic game design are rather apt, but that just emphasises the place that JackHammer can find on the market.
“We’ve tried to keep it fairly distilled,” Patrick said, “so our customisation is purely cosmetic – there’s more coming on that, so it’s not just skins, but different armour and pieces – but we were keen not to get stuck into tweaking numbers, balancing weapons, because we knew that was a recipe for things to go wrong.”
Tom added, “Especially with just two of us, we’re not really sure we can do that kind of thing. We really wanted to keep it as something with very few moving parts, but that could still generate funny moments or things people can look at and think, ‘Oh, that was cool!'”
There’s even talk of this duo bringing their game to consoles. “We keep talking about Switch!” Patrick laughed, but there’s some serious thought behind it. “I mean it’s running really well, with the exception of some crashes,” Tom added. “Performance-wise we’re hitting 120fps on average on my Geforce 970, and I don’t think it’s technically impossible to get it on Switch or any other platform.” Not to mention, as Patrick noted, “Unreal Engine has been making a lot of advances toward Switch development.”
Tom continued, “One thing I was concerned about is that it’s too fast to work on a controller that well, but I’ve been testing it with a 360 controller on my PC and it works surprisingly well. I didn’t expect it to be at all playable, but it’s entirely feasible and there’s no technical reason why we couldn’t do it.”
Most importantly, I had a lot of fun playing this very early build of JackHammer. It’s simple and to the point, but that’s its greatest strength, making for something that’s so easy to pick up and play, but requires skill and fast reactions to succeed. As the game heads toward Early Access later this year, it’s one I feel deserves to gather a sizeable following.