Revival Productions is an apt name for a group of developers trying to bring back an entire subgenre. The six degrees of freedom shooter has all but died out since its heyday in the ‘90s, with the Descent series being the premiere experience, and really, the only title from that era that persists despite the many imitations. (There was a time when the phrase “Descent clone” felt as ubiquitous as ”Doom clone.”) Overload is Revival Productions’ attempts at recapturing the six degrees of freedom magic that made the Descent series such a hit in the 90’s—and they succeeded.
Now, don’t get Overload confused with Descendent Studios’ revival of the Descent series with their in development title Descent: Underground. Revival Production and Overload is the real deal—comprised of developers who worked on the original Descent series. The Descent: Underground dev team is actually comprised of people who once worked in the Austin offices for crowdfunding behemoth Star Citizen. Descent: Underground ‘s problematic development and lack of progress actually prompted the developers to remove it from Steam, with development communication being handled through the website Brightlocker. So while Overload doesn’t carry the Descent moniker, it’s the closest you’re going to get.
Overload is all about nostalgia. If you’re looking for retro, Overload delivers this effortlessly. Everything from the UI aesthetics, to the soundtrack–done by veteran soundtrack artists who worked on the Descent series—feels old school. Even the story was written by Freespace 2 author. This isn’t a title that is reimagined to fit into the modern era of gaming, instead, Overload seems unapologetically retro. I’m not sure if this is a deliberate choice, or one made by a development team that doesn’t know anything different—but it actually works in a great way.
The absolute best part of Overload is luckily its most important: how it feels to fly. Overload lets you come to the game with lots of control setups: from HOTAS and controller, to the tried-and-true keyboard and mouse, you can tackle Overload in a multitude of ways. Having played Descent with a mouse and keyboard, I opted for the same with Overload. Let me say: it’s an absolute joy to fly. While six degrees of freedom shooters usually have you controlling a vehicle that is weightless, the vehicle you fly in Overload has the perfect amount of weight, making gliding through Overload’s corridors feel effortless, but also avoiding the dreaded “floating camera” weightless feel.
The many laser and kinetic weapons in Overload’s arsenal are extremely satisfying. Weapons range from normal pew pew lasers to the shotgun-like kinetic Crusher. And oh boy, the missiles. You can shoot a barrage of missile pods at foes, or take out a whole room with a Devastator blast. When the enemy operators explode, they do so in a glorious firework display of bouncing debris—truly satisfying. Weapons also have appropriate weight and oomph to them, making them feel formidable, with some even pushing your gunship back ever-so-slightly as you fire.
There is an upgrade system that allows you to make weapons more powerful, or change aspects of your ship—like how resilient it is, how energy efficient it is, etc. This may sound a little complicated, but everything is presented in a really simple, intuitive way. Annoyingly, the upgrades for the campaign missions are based on in-game pick-ups: you don’t earn skill points by playing, rather, by finding them hidden in the levels.
The single player experience ends up suffering from Overload’s dedication to the retro experience. Most of the labyrinthine subterranean levels are fairly nondescript. There are 15 levels in the campaign, but most end up feeling same-y. The majority of objectives consist of finding keys, and destroying reactors…and that’s it. There are power-ups to find, health to collect, people in cryotubes to save, but most levels are just find the key, blow up the reactor. It’s an extreme disappointment for Overload to have gone this route, instead of providing a meaningful single player experience. Instead of moving Overload into the modern age, much like Doom (2016) did for its franchise, Revival Productions have instead opted to go with pure nostalgia.
Luckily, there are some quality of life improvements in the single player that modernizes it and will help prevent you from endlessly flying through same-ish corridors. There is a hologuide that helps you find objectives, power-ups, etc. This does take a little of the exploration out of Overload, but you can choose to use it or ignore it at will. The enemy types in Overload are decently varied, at least, and there are three unique boss enounters.
Multiplayer is the real reason to stick with Overload: it’s fast, frenetic, and extremely frenzied fun. Though on launch day, there was only about 50 something people playing multiplayer when I checked–numbers that don’t bode well for a healthy playerbase going into the future. Hopefully that number will go up—in fact, I’m sure Overload will have some sort of cult following, since they’ve already had an active community since the Kickstarter campaign and its Early Access run on Steam.
The actual multiplayer gameplay consists of three main game modes: one versus one dual, four versus four team combat, or an eight player free for all. The level design really shines in these multiplayer maps, with power-ups placed in strategic locations and hidey-holes or other tricksy areas that require you to learn the layout to succeed. And there is some stiff competition out there. You are able to setup your load-outs before matches, sort of like how the single player does it, so there are lots of different ways you can turn your competition into bouncing debris.
The story itself is decently compelling, but told in a really lackluster way. For each mission you are given a voiceover that primes you for your expedition and gives you story flavor. While in-mission, you can pick-up items to hear the narrative unfold, as well as bits of narration that are interjected with the gameplay. Unfortunately, most of the storytelling gets lost in the sauce of explosions, operator combat, and the general mayhem that ensues while playing any given level. And as compelling a the story is, it feels like a separate entity from the game–like nothing you do while in your gunship makes a difference to the narrative, and everything is incidental.
I’ve been following Overload for a while now, and it has a passionate fan base with a passionate group of developers that plan to keep supporting it past its launch. There is not only a planned PlayStation 4 and Xbox One release; there is also a level editor and other goodies being teased by the developers.
Revival Productions had a chance to do something with the Descent formula when they made Overload, but they leaned on the familiar. That’s great for all the nostalgia seekers, but for modern gamers who want a step forward into the modern era, you will have to look elsewhere. It does feel great to blow operators to tiny bits, though, and the multiplayer is a good reason to stick around. Overload ends up feeling like an imitation of the developers’ original creation—for good or for bad. I enjoyed my time with Overload, but I do have some pretty thick nostalgia glasses on. Overload is available now on Steam, and if you have a Steam VR compatible headset, you can also play Overload in VR.