Diving off the ledge and grabbing hold of a handily placed zipline, I’m in hot pursuit of a cybernetically-enhanced foe who’s stolen a vital data packet. I can see the end of the zipline approaching, and this, combined with the abyss beneath my feet, would be cause for concern if not for the billboard I can see in front of me. Leaping off the zipline and hacking into the billboard’s control systems mid-flight, I cause it to rotate so that I can land at an angle, cybernetic enhancements allowing me to run along the side of the board. Launching off this, I land on a slanted rooftop, slide down it and jump onto the top of a combat drone that’s waiting off the edge. Skewering it with my sword and pulling, the drone skids sideways as it tumbles out of the sky, bringing me in range of another ledge. A few more boards, ziplines and a drone later, I’ve landed on the relative safety of a large rooftop. Relative safety, because it’s full of enemies. Running along another billboard in order to close the gap between us, the first goon, armed with a pistol fires. Running, as I am, almost straight towards him, I have little room to manoeuver. Instead, in a move that would make any Jedi proud, I swing my sword at the very last second before impact, smacking his glowing projectile straight back towards him. A second goon, several meters behind and armed with a machine gun, opens fire. To stay traveling in a straight line would be suicide, as would attempting to deflect that many projectiles. Instead, as I launch sideways off the board, I snap out my left arm, projecting a solid wall of force which hurls his bullets back at him. This also has the fortunate effect of throwing off the aim of another machine-gunner to my left flank, as well as a combat drone that’s decided to open fire. Without a pause, I fling myself at another zipline. Traveling at right angles to my foes I have a moment to assess the environment without worrying about getting hit (they’re useless at leading a moving target). As the zipline curves and brings me to a higher rooftop, I see a close-combat soldier waiting for me. Armed with a huge katana and fitted with implants which allow him to cover large distances in the blink of the eye, the only way to defeat him is to block his initial attack (again, using split-second timing) to throw him off balance, before delivering a killing blow. Usually this would be fine, except for the machine gunner and the combat drone. Pausing to deal with the sword-wielding foe would expose me to fire, and turning my back on him would be equally lethal. I could, of course, try leaping off the building onto the drone, but that too is risky. There. As the zipline ends, I see a Cybervoid uplink – a glowing energy point which allows me to temporarily overcharge my enhancements. In this case, to conjure up shurikens (throwing stars) of pure energy. Dashing forward the moment I hit the ground, I grab the upgrade, then instantly jump into the air. Whilst airborne, I can use another cybernetic enhancement which allows me to briefly slow time as well as giving me some control over sideways movement. Leaping and strafing to the right, my first shuriken disables the combat drone whilst my second kills the machine-gunner. My leap has also taken me over the head of my sword wielding friend, who had dashed forward to try and deliver a killing blow. Landing and spinning about, my last shuriken catches him just before his second dash ends my adventure. All of this, from my first headlong leap onto the zipline, to the defeat of my last foe, has taken under one minute to achieve. Taking a few seconds to catch my breath, I get my bearings then rush off in pursuit again.
Welcome to the fast and furious world of Ghostrunner. First-person movement games (those with a heavy free-running or parkour element) are few and far between. Some of the best, and indeed only, games in this category include the likes of the extremely popular Mirror’s Edge series, the Dishonored series, and the Titanfall (you guessed it) series. Ghostrunner is the latest entry into this genre and, quite frankly, knocks the ball right out of the park.
This is a game that players will either love or hate. It really boils down to whether players enjoy challenge of fluid, continuous movement, the necessity for absolute precision, the one-hit-one-kill mechanic which applies to both player and (nearly all) enemies, and the arcade-game style approach to defeat. All of which is an extended way of saying that defeat will come fast and often, but will only ever send players back several seconds away from where it occurred.
Set in the last bastion of humanity, Dharma Tower - a monolithic building squatting on the ruins of a shattered planet - players take on the role of ‘Jack’, a Ghostrunner. Essentially a cybernetic ninja, players will have to fight their way to the top of Dharma Tower to confront The Keymaster, Mara, a deranged scientist responsible for a coup which killed one of the Tower’s founders, and supposedly all of the Ghostrunners. This, give or take a few details (sorry, no spoilers), like a failed rebellion against Mara, is essentially the story. While some players may find this disappointing, it’s straightforward, to the point, and really just provides a premise for the action taking place. Which, to be honest, is all it really needs to do, because the action is simply so good.
Armed only with a trusty sword and a few high-tech tricks which would make your average Jedi proud, players have to use their high speed and mobility to navigate around the many obstacles and lethal obstructions (such as glowing hot plates of steel from a gigantic forge, wiring exposed by the Tower’s decline, and the obligatory bottomless pits), and the numerous foes placed in the player’s way.
First up, movement feels exceptional. Fast, fluid and precise, the game is simply a lot of fun to navigate around, and I found myself enjoying the thrill movement brought. Movement in Ghostrunner is inspired. Starting off with a basic set of easily grasped moves – the ability to endlessly wall-run (provided you don’t run out of wall), jump, dash, air-dash (which briefly slows time down and also allows you to strafe), and slide – the game then adds further environmental abilities to the mix, including ziplines, moveable platforms and walls, the ability to use an energy leash to latch onto parts of the environment and pull yourself towards them (think Spider-man’s zipline), as well as short-lived powerups which include a super-jump that can launch you five stories in the air. Intuitive and easy to use, players are given enough time to get comfortable with one ability before another is introduced, ensuring that players never feel overwhelmed, and keeping the challenge always feeling fresh.
Of course, the best movement mechanics in the world will mean nothing if the environment is lacking. Fortunately, Ghostrunner nails it here as well. Not only does Dharma tower look spectacular (thanks to the Unreal Engine and use of ray-tracing for those with the hardware to support it), it also provides a challenge which gets increasingly complex and demanding as the game progresses. This is in no small part because the levels are designed around gameplay - form follows function. As a result, no other game simply comes close to just how fluid Ghostrunner feels when you’re leaping from platform to platform, bouncing off walls, and dashing past obstacles. There’s no logical reason why the environment should be so handily arranged for you to reach your target, nor why there should be the occasional arrow on a sign helpfully pointing you in the correct direction, but it simply works. You’re never scanning the environment wondering where you’re supposed to go, just simply dealing with the ever-changing now as you assess and react to the challenge before you. In many ways, this sense of fluidity is what Mirror’s Edge could have achieved had it not, in some ways, been hamstrung by the need to create realistic city environments. These challenges come together in some truly spectacular sequences, perhaps the best of which is a fight against a gigantic security bot, which challenges players to precisely time the jumping and dashing to avoid an incredibly imposing array of lasers and energy blasts (there’s nothing quite like the thrill of timing your energy leash just right to propel you up through a gap in the rotating laser-web).
In between bounding around Dharma Tower, players will also get to explore the incredibly abstract world of Cybervoid, a digital construct which allows players to stretch their grey matter a bit. More puzzle oriented, Cybervoid’s challenges range from standard switch puzzles (like figuring out the sequence of switches to rotate a power-grid the correct way), to more perceptual-based challenges, including a few mind-bending ones which follow a non-Euclidian logic such as a corridor that gets longer the further you walk down it, but shrinks when you back away, or doors on other sides of the map which are inexplicably linked by an impossibly short corridor. Not only do these sequences give players a chance to relax a bit, as well as listen to some exposition, completing them also unlocks new abilities, which leads neatly to combat.
Just like movement, combat in Ghostrunner emphasises precision and speed, with a single misstep being all that is needed to bring your run to an abrupt end. While you are armed with a sword, nearly all of your opponents have guns, meaning that standing still is usually a death sentence. This would be an impossible challenge if not for two things: your advantage in terms of mobility, and your ability to deflect, and later reflect bullets with your sword. These abilities allow you to outflank your opponents and, if you get your timing right and manage to hit the attack button just before a bullet lands, send a shot straight back where it came from. As the game progresses you will acquire a number of abilities, including a lethal dash which lets you slice through any enemies and projectiles in your path (particularly useful for foes armed with machine guns), project a shockwave which will kill any foe in its path (as well as reflect incoming projectiles), unleash an energy wave attack, or even temporarily make an opponent fight for you. While these are all useful, and are sometimes vital for success, they do have a slow recharge rate, meaning most of the time you will be getting up-close-and-personal and giving your foes the closest haircut of their lives (note that whilst a single hit of your sword will slice your opponent into multiple pieces, gore can be disabled).
Furthermore, there are also quite a mix of enemies, each with different attacks (ranged or melee) and all requiring different tactics to defeat. Combined with the movement mechanics, this makes for a deeply satisfying challenge requiring enough tactical thought to keep things interesting, but not so much that it breaks the flow of your movement.
Beyond movement and combat, the game also features a number of secret collectibles, from cosmetic upgrades to your sword, to bric-a-brac which adds a bit to the story of the game. While none of these are really necessary and don’t add anything in terms of game mechanics, they’re still nice touches for those who like such things.
So what about when you finish the game? Well, this is where the arcade inspiration really shows. Firstly, when you finish each level, not only does the game show you how many of the secrets you discovered, it also tells you how many times you died, and just how long it took you to navigate the environment. Couple this with the low penalty for dying (you are never more than a few seconds away from where you were defeated or stupidly missed a jump), it encourages you to go again and again, and there’s a definite satisfaction from seeing a level which took 30 minutes and as many deaths to complete, to drop to 3 minutes with zero deaths (oh, there’s also a global leader-board for the super-competitive). Secondly, once you’ve finished the game, it unlocks a ‘Hardcore’ mode which lets you play from the beginning, but with all your powerups, altered level geometry, and levels stuffed to the gills with the hardest of foes. Thought you’d mastered the game? Think again.
Without a doubt, Ghostrunner is the pinnacle of first-person platforming, and for those who love the thrill of fluid movement and precision, this game is an absolutely must buy.■