Why I love “Intrusion 2”

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Chances are you’ve never heard of Intrusion 2, despite the fact that it is secretly a gaming demigod.  Created by Aleksey Abramenko (and only Aleksey Abramenko!) it somehow manages to be breathtakingly beautiful, perfectly playable, and gratuitously gratifying, while never sinking into pretentiousness.  In a world of $20 million development budgets and brand identity raping, we look to “indie” games for the unique, unfettered visions of true artists who are free to do whatever they want.  But the sad truth is, the indie scene is so desperate to “go viral” that they’ve sold their souls too, resorting to imitation and pandering in the hopes pleasing the Almighty Aggregate.  Even great games seem infected by that bland cultural and self awareness that the Internet has forced artists to account for.

Intrusion 2 somehow stands apart from all of that, and it is masterful.

Here’s the trailer:

After watching the trailer I hesitated to even download the demo off of Steam, feeling that there must be some obvious catch once you actually started playing.  It looked stunning in motion, but the whole “physics” thing guaranteed that it would be unwieldy, if not sluggish.  Skill and physics do not mix well.  Look at Little Big Planet as a perfect example; that game relies on its charming narrator, adorable mascots, and kindergarten aesthetics to hide the sometimes-infuriating sloppiness of controlling a floaty character in a world of unpredictable physics.

Within seconds, Intrusion 2 had me dodging, aiming, and jumping with an almost hypnotic connection to the character.  Unconsciously, I had made a checklist of problems I expected to see any moment, and it was avoiding all of them:

  1. High energy nonsense to distract from shallow gameplay
  2. Constant repetition as bland filler
  3. Nostalgia trips and frequent “old school tribute” in order to mask unoriginality
  4. “Atmospheric” stretches as bland filler
  5. Huge generosity and leniency to compensate for the brutally random physics issues
  6. Some lame ass/quirky story in order to motivate the player to finish the game in spite of all that bullshit

How is this even possible?  There’s something magical about it, really.  To see a game with this much dignity today is just weird, because we’ve all accepted the fact that games will never be like that again.  You don’t have to make games with dignity, okay?  What are you trying to do here, Aleksey Abramenko?  I can’t trust you, because you’re not stupid!

I braced myself for screenfulls of spam, bullets flying everywhere, streams of disposable enemies and tons of explosions — all of which occupies your brain so that you don’t notice deeper flaws or think about stuff.  It’s the modern trick of making everything “epic” instead of “interesting”.  I braced myself for a stream of masturbatory “achievements” to stoke my ego, giving me the illusion of satisfaction.  But when I finally did get some non-boss-beating achievement, it was nice.  I don’t want to reveal what I did to get it, but it was something I did out of desperation in order to kill an enemy creatively, and I was not expecting to get an achievement from it.  When it popped up in the corner, I was already full of joy: the achievement actually followed my joy, not the other way around.  That’s how achievements are supposed to be.  You’re not supposed to look up in the corner, puzzled, and think “Huh?  I did something?”  There is a learning curve, but it’s the perfect kind of learning curve, subtle and built right into new challenges.

When I realized that the game was respectful of our intelligence and time, I started to brace myself for the next sign of trouble: tributes, homages, and corny plot points.   “Clearly this development team [note: I assumed there was a development team at first. My mistake!] knows how to design levels and create pacing,” I said to myself, “but that means they’re probably inspired by old classics, and are trying to evoke the same experience for the player — which means they’ll have to shovel in corny tribute to the 8-bit era in order to go viral.”

But, at least so far, no such tribute has been seen.  In fact there’s no story at all.  This game is so confident in itself that it doesn’t need it.  Not even a single line of text is used to explain the setting, the year, or your mission objectives.  Amazing.  And yet there is a story, if you pay attention to the description on the Steam store page:

…set in a sci-fi environment on a reserve planet occupied by a hostile military corporation conducting forbidden weapon research.

That’s it!  A perfect excuse for everything you see, with no stupid support characters or trying to pretend it’s a movie.  Lord knows the character designs, style, and animation is good enough that I’d be happy to see some in-game cutscenes, but nope.  Instead, I’m experiencing the story the old fashioned way: by piecing things together as I go.

Difficulty is an interesting matter.  If you stop caring and get sloppy, you’ll die easily.  If you try hard and pay attention, you can do really amazing things, and come out unharmed. Simply by changing my attitude, I’ve gone from repeatedly dying to beating it perfectly.  Switching weapons, taking cover, and acting decisively in tough spots are all factors you need to manage — the game won’t hold your hand, nor will it trip you up.  Dying forces you to restart at the previous checkpoint, but these checkpoints are always placed so that you only have to repeat the parts you sucked at.  This way, you can stay focused on fixing your mistakes and improving the areas you’re weak in, instead of being forced to humble yourself and start way earlier.  There are infinite lives, by the way.  Thank god this game doesn’t imitate the classics!

Gosh, I didn’t intend to write this much about the game, but I haven’t even begun to express how deeply I appreciate this game, and it’s legendary lone creator.  Everything feels so physical, even the menu screen has a bulky charm.  You can (but don’t have to) roll balls of snow and they’ll get bigger.  Or you can jump on them and maybe there’ll be something inside.  You can exploit the physics for your own advantage, but it never feels like much of a puzzle game.  Your character clings to hanging ropes, which bounce and stretch with amazing fidelity, creating a sort of sniper trampoline situation.  You can ride on the back of an oversized wolf, which has some of the most fascinating movements I’ve ever seen in a game, climbing over ledges and jumping with a marvelous organic feeling.  It’s not a perfect ride — it’s not supposed to be a motorcycle.  You will have to learn to manage it’s pacing, such as the fact that it’s terrible at walking backwards, but it really feels like a living creature, biting enemies and trying to follow you around if you jump off.  The wolf itself, with its perfectly animated joints and AI, warrants wider attention.  The list of amazing things keeps going, and going, and going, eventually introducing mech suits, grappling hooks, and more.  The water physics are stunning.  The grenade launcher is a strategic joy.  The boss fights feel genuinely exciting, testing your endurance, precision, and understanding of the weapons.  It clearly has a sense of humor tucked in tastefully.  When you kill the dudes with jet packs, their dead bodies go flying around and smacking into stuff!  There’s just too much!

Please buy this game.  The money will go to Aleksey Abramenko.  He drew everything.  He programmed everything.  He animated everything.  He conceptually designed everything.  The only thing he didn’t do was the music, and he graciously promotes the guy who did as soon as you start the game!  This man, wherever he is, deserves to be compensated, and if that’s not a good enough reason, how about the fact that you’ll own a modern masterpiece that is currently not getting the recognition it deserves?

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