If speedrunning hasn’t been enshrined universally as its own gaming genre yet, it is overdue.  Historically, the term has been applied to the general act of completing a game as quickly as possible, and the activity has been leveraged for everything from charity to straight up competitive bragging rightsMore recently, some games have been designed specifically around this practice.  In these titles, racing to the end as quickly, efficiently, and exploitatively as possible is not only something gamers can do for kicks, it’s the way the game is meant to be played.

Into this fairly new frontier enters ICEBOX: Speedgunner, a speed-centric cyberpunk FPS, and the maiden voyage of Australian one-person developer Games of Edan.  From just a glance at the title of the game, it’s obvious which notes ICEBOX is trying to hit: the joy and adrenaline of speedrunning mixed with the aggression and catharsis of shooting.  To this end, ICEBOX employs incredibly fast movement mixed with an arsenal of weapons which would have made the Doomguy proud.  Players must dash through a Tron-esque world, racing along narrow platforms, dodging pits and traps, and killing guards and destroying turrets along the way.  Players can run through a twenty level campaign mode complete with a final boss, but this is mostly a preparation for ICEBOX’s main playground, a set of procedurally generated challenges which are sorted into Marathon, Quick Game, and Game Plus modes which can be further customized and varied by randomly generated “World Seeds” which can be changed every time a new game is started.  With such an abundance of content, players can certainly get their money’s worth out of ICEBOX.  Of course, the question is, will they want to?

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The ICEBOX ix a virtual prison from which you must escape by runnin’ and shootin’.  The world is fast, fluid, and pretty to look at.

First, let’s take a look at ICEBOX’s fundamentals.  In a speedrunning game, control is especially important, and I’m happy to say that movement in ICEBOX is fluid, responsive, and confers an exhilarating sense of speed with precise handling.  While graphics are pretty low on the priority list for this particular genre (after all, how much do you care about how good the blur in your peripheral vision looks), it’s worth nothing that the cyberpunk aesthetic is well done and the assets of ICEBOX could easily be licensed for a future Tron tie-in title.

However, the most interesting fundamentals are the design elements which make ICEBOX work both as an FPS and a speedrunning sandbox.  For example, the red glow of the sentinel guards gives their position away to the player even from far in the distance or behind doors, giving an opportunity for the player to plan their strategy of attack even as they rush towards the inevitable firefight.  This prevents frustrating “gotcha” moments where players could die from enemies they never saw – an event which could have been particularly maddening in a game focused on balancing blinding speed with ranged combat.  Also, smart HUD and sound design keeps players oriented to the positioning of enemy targets as they strafe around arenas, making it difficult, even at a full breakneck sprint, to lose track of threats and the trajectory of their projectiles; tracking brackets will frame previously spotted enemies even through walls, and the shrill electronic cries of the sentinel guards are unmistakable over ICEBOX’s thumping techno soundtrack and crunchy arcade sound effects.  Finally, ICEBOX features an ability called “Glitch” which functions both as a way out of mistakes made in haste and a way to improve combat effectiveness.  Glitch slows down time and temporarily grants invulnerability and flight for a few short seconds, though invoking this ability is balanced with a hefty cost of “Tech”.  Tech is a collectible resource that pulls triple duty as ICEBOX’s sole ammunition source, Glitch fuel, and an end-of-level score multiplier.  This provides incentive for the player to not rely on Glitch as a crutch, as abuse of the ability can lead to lower scores, low ammo, and of course an inability to trigger Glitch itself at truly crucial moments.

Glitch
The Glitch ability comes in handy for firefights, slowing the action down and preventing damage.

After running through just a few levels in the campaign and experiencing all these features, it becomes evident that ICEBOX is a game of solid design and execution, which, while important in any title, is especially important in a speedrunning game.  However, after the first few levels of the campaign, I found myself contending with a creeping sense of disappointment.

Part of the problem is the way ICEBOX is structured.  Although an identifiable genre, speedrunning games vary in style.  Some, like Super Meat Boy, SEUM: Speedrunners From Hell, Lovely Planet, and Cluster Truck, offer short and brutally challenging levels, where the mere triumph of completing the course at all is the main reward.  Others, such as Dustforce, Cloudbuilt, and Deadcore, focus on progress and efficiency of movement, rewarding players heavily for taking the shortest path possible, finding shortcuts, exploiting the environment, and utilizing items and abilities to shave as many seconds off the clock as they can while moving through an increasingly difficult world.  ICEBOX is of the latter variety, with levels that normally take at least a few minutes to complete.  However, as ICEBOX progressed, I found myself desiring more challenge, something which I was definitely not expecting from a game involving speedrunning, a genre which has always been defined in part by its difficulty.  I first expected the difficulty to ramp up within the levels themselves, as I cruised easily (albeit speedily) along.  I braced for the unexpected booby trap, insane platforming section, or impossible firefight which must surely be around the next corner,  but the challenge never came.  For that matter, I began to notice not only a lack of unexpected challenges, but also a lack of “next corners”.

Levels in ICEBOX are starkly linear, not only figuratively but literally.  The game features a lot of running straight forward with slight strafing to avoid a bit of clutter here and there.  The occasional slight bend in the platform or 90 degree turn does little to break the monotony, and honest-to-god zig-zag sections exists but are rare.  There are traps, but their occurrence is low, and they are by-and-large reasonably avoidable.  Even sections with rotating, falling platforms fail to ramp up the difficulty, as the game’s generous jump height and distance allows for near divine air superiority, allowing the player to avoid nearly any section they do not wish to dally in, and that’s before even nailing the jump button again for a double or triple jump.  This is not to say that the precise nature of ICEBOX’s control is an issue.  Rather, the problem is that the difficulty of the level design hasn’t been scaled accordingly.  The game is literally begging for a challenge which can show off what the player is truly capable of, but ICEBOX never quite delivers.  Also, even in the procedurally generated levels outside of the campaign, the courses are assembled from a cache of pre-designed sections, and these set pieces are repeated enough throughout the levels that they become quickly identifiable.  It is common to approach a section from a distance and immediately recognize what’s in store; from obstacles, to traps, to sentinel guard spawn locations – all easily anticipated because those sections have probably been seen multiple times in the current level alone.

Straight
The level design in ICEBOX is pretty straightforward for a speedrunning game.

The gunplay doesn’t do ICEBOX’s difficulty curve many favors either.  The weapon lineup follows a familiar structure that would be right at home in any retro shooter from the Quake era: start with a weak but accurate pistol, then gain a rapid fire weapon, then a shotgun weapon, then an even MORE rapid fire weapon, then an explosive launcher, and so on.  However, there’s little incentive to switch between the various weapons once you’ve obtained the next weapon in the lineup, other than occasional ammo conservation.  Each weapon is extremely accurate, which may make sense given the speed of the game, but this pinpoint accuracy renders all weapons with lesser damage entirely redundant.  Sure, some weapons have a longer range than others, but since players will spend the bulk of their time in ICEBOX running straight forward at full tilt, most enemies are engaged at near point blank anyway.  Some variety in ICEBOX’s enemies may have helped to solve this problem, and also would have helped to shore up ICEBOX’s enjoyment factor when looked at as an FPS.  Unfortunately, players contest only with sentinel guards of various armor toughness, and two different types of turrets.  The extra armor on later incarnations of sentinels doesn’t make much of a difference either.  Even the toughest variety of sentinel is capable of falling to a single well-placed shot from some of the more powerful weapons.

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The Blaster is ICEBOX’s version of a shotgun, but it’s still more than capable of landing headshots.

With a dearth of challenge from both the environments and the enemies in the game, ICEBOX seems almost out of place amongst most of its invariably difficult speedrunning peers.  ICEBOX does feature a difficulty setting, and I found the game to be most satisfying when this was cranked all the way up to “Expert”, but the setting only affects how much damage is taken from enemies and traps.  The  spawn rate of these dangers remains the same, as does the general composition of the level.

ICEBOX is a game full of potential that just isn’t quite fully realized.  It has the makings of being a great hybrid of first-person shooting and speedrunning, but the lack of challenge factors normally associated with both genres limits ICEBOX’s appeal.  A little more challenge and variety in the levels, weapons, and enemies would have done wonders.  As it stands now, I can’t unequivocally recommend ICEBOX, especially when compared to other games in the genre, despite an extremely solid base of fundamental design and execution.  The basics will certainly be enough to satisfy some players who may crave speedrunning exclusively; the kinds of players who will be happy as long as they’re traversing a game at speed.  But, others may be disappointed by what eventually turns out to be a missed opportunity.

Save Your Ammo:  Niche, Negotiate, or Nevermind.

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Game: ICEBOX: Speedgunner
Release date: 10/18/2017
Developer: Games of Edan
Genre: FPS & Speedrunning
Player count: Single-player


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