The pistol, which is too worn to be reliable, rattles in my hand. The slide is loose, and I know the gun is prone to jam. When I round a corner and see a man with a rifle, I fire off three shots. Two hit him in the chest, sinking into his armor and bruising his ribs, and the third goes high and wide over his shoulder. I turn and run through identical hallways, as the man raises his rifle behind me. Emerging into a cafeteria, I press your body behind a thick metal table.
The man rushes into the room, and past the table behind which I am crouched. I lean and pull the trigger three times. The first shot catches him at the base of the skull, just underneath his helmet, and is lethal. The second shot goes, again, up and to the right on account of the light pistol’s awkward recoil. The third shot never comes, as the pistol’s slide finally makes a snapping noise, and the assembly freezes. The man hits the ground. I hear half a dozen sets of footsteps, and the quick chatter of gunfire. I grab the rifle off of the man’s body, and stuff his ammunition into the bag on my back, and I run.
You will probably spend a lot of your time running in Marauders, the Cold-War themed space extraction shooter recently released in early access by Small Impact Games.
Extraction shooters have been slowly gaining prominence and popularity since the beta release of Escape From Tarkov, arguably the blueprint upon which much of the genre has been built. These games are defined by their compelling loops, which combine the tense, fast paced combat and scavenging of battle royales with the consequential, long term progression of survival games. Each new addition to the genre takes its own approach to the details: Tarkov prioritizes technical precision, Hunt: Showdown encourages careful planning and deliberate shootouts, and Marauders, the genre’s newest high-profile addition, wants to turn you into an evil little rat.
The game abandons Hunt: Showdown’s objective-driven play, and instead encourages players to focus on looting as much as they can, and getting out as quickly as possible. You spawn into a large map in one of a handful of ships, which you can build or steal, and then slowly pilot your way to a station. Upon arrival, breach the station through an airlock, at which point you’ll set yourself to scavenging for materials. These range from locked resource caches belonging to specific factions, piles of war bonds, and crafting materials. The game also includes bounties, which can add a bit of structure to your looting, encouraging you to look for specific objects like helmets for a reward.
When it comes time to escape, you hop in a ship or escape pod, and go back out into space. Of all of Marauders’ features, its space combat feels the most underbaked. Ships are slow and heavy. They encourage long strafes, punctuated with bursts of cannon fire. The first few times, this can be exciting, but eventually the slow, drifting combat begins to feel rote.
The game is designed for one to four player squads, but I’ve only run solo games. Everything about the game feels scrappy: from the heavy but ramshackle ships and space stations, to the small field-of-view which encourages you to constantly check your many blindspots, to the dozens of footsteps that surround you at any given moment. Even the firearms are appropriately unreliable.
A handful of submachine gun rounds (the most common primary weapon class) will kill a lightly armored foe, but the weapons are extremely inaccurate, with intense recoil. This can lead you into messy, protracted gunfights, which devour your already limited ammunition. Alternatively, you can find yourself on the receiving end of another player’s high caliber rifle, taking you out with a single headshot.
This inconsistently high lethality is what makes Marauders encourage villainous, little rat-like play, especially as a solo player like myself. I know that fighting more than a single enemy is a death sentence, and the echoing sound of footsteps convinces me that enemies are everywhere. I sprint through rooms, most of which are empty, and sift through boxes of synthetic fibers and metal scrap. Eventually I stumble into a room with a person, and I panic and shoot. The person dies. Another room, I see a man with a rifle. He fires a heavy round at me, and I know that if I fight him I will die, so I run through the labyrinthine space station.
Where a game like Hunt: Showdown prioritizes meticulously crafted, distinctive maps, which players memorize to predict their foes’ approach, Marauders’ maps are filled with identical hallways, and symmetrical layouts. Getting lost is simple, and mapping the stations can feel impossible. This is exacerbated by the desperate, scrambling combat of a solo player. Forgetting which airlock your ship is docked at is common, forcing you to sprint around the base testing every exit as the clock ticks down on your oxygen. If you’re lucky, you’ll manage to startle and kill another player, allowing you to steal their Captain’s Keycard, and their ship. If you’re unlucky, you’ll be forced to exit through one of the station’s escape pods. If you’re unluckier still, you’ll asphyxiate.
Avoiding these fates requires as much luck as it does skill. Sometimes, even if you’ve managed to equip yourself well, you have a bad day. You spawn in, with full armor, and an NPC happens to land a few rifle shots on you early in a fight. You kill him, but you’re hurt. A minute later, before you’ve given yourself time to scavenge for healing items, his friend gets close with a shotgun. You miss your first two shots, and then you’re dead on the floor. Other times you will enter a ship with only a pistol, and, by stumbling upon enemies at the right moment, work your way up to the game’s most powerful firearms.
This scrabbling dynamism is what sets Marauders apart. The game, which draws heavily from the aesthetics of the Cold War, sees you play as a pirate, caught between two dying empires. Every ship and station you attack is ramshackle, and their stewards are poorly trained, but that doesn’t matter because they are so much bigger than you. You are a tiny thing which survives, crudely, until it is crushed underfoot.