The arcade space shoot em up is, quite literally, one of the oldest genres in gaming. From Spacewar! back in the 70’s, “shmups” have taken the last 50 years to iterate and refine the art of flying in one direction and shooting everything that isn’t you. As most modern shmups rely on putting players through “bullet hell” (shooting screen-loads of projectiles at the player that are nigh impossible to dodge) to present challenge, Velocity Ultra freshened up the formula last year. The slower, more thoughtful puzzle elements gave the game a distinct feel and a unique challenge and provide a solid foundation for Velocity 2X, a sequel that is superior in almost every way.
It should not be understated just how much 2X is like Ultra, and that shouldn’t be a bad thing. Even the story, starring the returning protagonist Lt. Kai Tana, boils down to a familiar series of rescue-focused missions, just this time behind enemy lines in the far reaches of known space. While attempting to find her way back home, she befriends a member of a slave race of aliens who are being terrorized by the tyrannical General Glaive and his Vohk Empire, and decides to liberate them.
The bread and butter of your campaign against evil is largely similar to Ultra as well. Using the Quarp Jet, you fly through levels filled with hazards like switch activated barriers, impassable walls, and the occasional flight formation of aggressive alien pilots. You find just about as many opportunities to shoot hostiles as you will to use the Quarp Jet’s short range teleportation to navigate through impassible terrain. Space debris and structures often replace waves of bullets as screen hazards, providing very limited movement and forcing you to leapfrog from safe zone to safe zone. Later levels will ask you to sail through installments that resemble space swiss cheese. It was a blast in Ultra, and it’s equally thrilling in 2X.
Mix in color coded barriers, making areas impassible unless they are brought down, and you have a delightful amount of stress-inducing chaos. Many of these gates need to be brought down by shooting a series of switches in numerical order. Since these colors and numbers are rarely placed anywhere convenient, you can imagine the necessary trials to make it all happen, and still find time to save floating survivors (read as: collect floating points). The synergy between managing time, the space between you and the next obstacle, the myriad of enemies looking to turn you into dust, and your score is a concept that FutureLab seems to have a leg up on their genre contemporaries in. They could have been content stopping there, making 2X just a second set of maps that played like Ultra. They instead chose to shake the genre up again, and as their hunger for innovation is applauded, the result deserves more of a golf clap.
Time and again, you’re tasked to dock the Quarp Jet and hoof it. In 2D platformer fashion, you guide Lt. Tana through mazes full of deadly traps and obstacles, shooting everything Mega Man-style in a race to the primary objective (usually a switch). Tana has skills similar to the ones her ship possesses, including short range teleportation and bomb-hurling, and these missions find increasingly clever ways for you to use them all. These 2D romps aren’t separate missions, but are laced within the standard shmup maps. You often have to dock and run multiple times per mission, which adds an interesting dynamic to the middle parts of the game, but becomes a bit of a hassle towards the end.
This is, in part, because the 2D missions themselves don’t offer a lot of variation after a while. Series’ of obstacles, like walls electrified on one side that you have to teleport past, only ever appear in predictable layouts. It can still be a challenge to navigate past them perfectly, but you almost always know you’re going to see them one after another in a long hallway. You also can’t use certain abilities outside of specific scenarios. For example, you can slide under low hanging ceilings by pressing down and X, but you can only slide when these types of obstructions are present. Sliding could have various other uses in the levels, like assisting in dodging enemy fire, but not not allowing its use outside of certain parameters really holds back the potential of these little distractions. Without more variety and more tactical options, thats all the 2D zones really are: distractions.
Game over screens have been eliminated as well. No longer do you have three lives to beat any particular mission. Now you just start at the nearest checkpoint and the only penalty for being sloppy and negligent is your score. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s divine in that the skill barrier to entry is virtually gone; anyone with enough patience can get to the end credits. The lack of impending death (and starting all over) looming over your head ultimately neuters the challenge that Ultra presented, though. Speed and points are the only focus now, and even though levels require a base amount of total points before you can access them, their thresholds are not difficult to reach. As a move towards being more inclusive, it is a plus, especially since the more hardcore fans of the genre are intrinsically score-chasing perfectionists anyway. The removal of “game overs” removes some of the teeth Ultra was infamous for, and that is an unnecessary step backwards.
With the renewed focus being on completing things as quickly and perfectly as possible, the greatly expanded puzzle-focused levels seem a bit out of place. These classically involved traveling down multiple branching paths, planting long range teleporting beacons strategically so you can always teleport back to said handmade checkpoints when you got to the end of any particular road. These missions are much bigger and more involved in 2X, and with the addition of the 2D jaunts, you could spend upwards of 15 or 20 minutes on one. Though they are fun in their own right, they become tedious when looking at the big picture.
They do, however, provide ample opportunity to take in the enhanced visuals in 2X. Textures are well defined and colors are more vivid and warm. Especially on the PS4, where particle effects have the most bling. Velocity 2X is also a safe haven for everyone who can appreciate a sonically satisfying sci-fi sonata. Lasers “pew” and engines wine with that shiny far flung future twinge than reinforces every zig and zag. The soundtrack keeps you motivated, and it’s uptempo chiptuning is a real unsung hero here.
There’s absolutely no denying that Veloctiy 2X is the proper evolution for the Velocity franchise. Almost everything Velocity Ultra did right, 2X does even better. Where FutureLab slips is in the decisions it made to differentiate the games. Though the refocusing on perfection over mere completion and the fun-but-softboiled 2D elements aren’t perfect, they ultimately don’t besmirch what is quickly becoming the top franchise in this decades old genre.