Most contemporary shooters are power trips. Between endless respawns, regenerative health and auto-lock targeting, something of the challenge has gone out of the shooter single-player experience. This may have something to do with how story-driven most FPS’s (and TPS’s) have become; players generally don’t really want to have to deal with difficulty spikes in order to uncover new layers of a plot they’re enjoying.
BIOS, a new FPS currently in early access on Steam, stands for something of a more old school aesthetic. It’s hard. Eye-wateringly hard. It offers no quarter and it’s unforgiving to those who make errors. Developed by PIXYUL, a studio that can boast developers who worked on Far Cry 2 among its ranks, BIOS feels like a throwback to a time when developers weren’t afraid to issue players a challenge to work at becoming good at playing their games.
“We were at GDC last year,” says PIXYUL co-founder Louis-Pierre Pharand, “and we ended up talking about the the good old days – the mid to late 90s where you had shooters that were challenging and you don’t have those games anymore. BIOS is basically a Gen X game made by Gen X guys in the sense that, yes, it’s punishing, but the idea is that you’ll push yourself to make better times on the courses your running.”
Here’s how BIOS works: you head into a room armed with a gun. After a brief countdown, you’re tasked with tearing from one end of a course to the other is as quick a time as possible. Along the way you’ll encounter mounted cannons, missile turrets, AI enemies, trip mines and generally a whole host of items designed to make you dead. BIOS is not a power trip. Since most of these automated weapons are quite efficient at peeling away your health level, you’ll die a lot. An awful lot.
“Right now, we’re quite sure the game is too hard,” says Pharand’s co-founder and partner in crime, Julien Cuny. “It’s the classic problem you have when you develop your game alone in your basement and there are only three or four people working on it and testing it. You become very good at it and you don’t have access to a huge QA team – like we had when we working at Ubisoft.”
The difficulty incidentally has presented PIXYUL with something of a dilemma in finding a sweet spot to suit a wide audience. According to the feedback they’ve been receiving on Steam, some players give up on BIOS very quickly as they just can’t cut it, yet there are other players who – astonishingly enough – have posted faster times through the game’s levels than the people who designed it.
“Look, I don’t want BIOS to become known a year from now as ‘The Demon’s Souls of FPS’s’,” says Cuny. “I mean, it’s what it can become if you insist on playing it on extreme difficulty.”
Cuny and Pharand want to offer an option in BIOS that’s similar to the help offered in Forza. As anyone who has ever played the Xbox’s flagship racer will know, players have the option of augmenting the HUD with guidelines, showing them the optimum turning arches on bends and corners, so they don’t spin off the track the first time they start playing. That way players who are rusty or new to the game completely are given something of a helping hand so they don’t just quit in frustration right off the bat
“”We want the game to be hard at the end but we don’t want it to be brutal at the beginning – which is what it is now,” says Cuny. “Think of the difficulty structure like a funnel. At the beginning we cram as many people into the large end of the funnel and our aim is to see how many we can push right through to the other side. We know we’re going to lose people along the way, but how many people will progress and get better?”
“We want to keep a steep progression, but we want to give players the chance to get better,” he says.
Along with tinkering with BIOS’s difficulty levels, Cuny says PIXYUL has plans to implement levels that throw a continuos stream of curveballs at the player, forcing them to adapt at a clip.
“The original concept for the game was the player spawns in front of a door, they open it and then they have to find an exit,” he says. “But before the player opens the door, they have no idea what they’re walking into. Open one door and your on a dock and it’s raining and there are zombies everywhere. Open another door and you’re in a space station.”
Since BIOS is a brand new IP and not tied to any storylines in an established franchise – as was the case with some of the games Cuny worked on in the past, like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry – Cuny says they’ve got a lot of freedom in where they take it. Think of the sort of procedurally generated content in a game like Spelunkey, and you’re starting to see the places BIOS could go.
“Because the game is based in a simulation, we have very few constraints on the possibilities we can imagine. That’s the concept that excited us.”
So BIOS is not a power trip. It’s resolutely old school. It’s good looking, sure, but it’s Spartan in both its visuals and its mechanics. There’s not much of a plot to speak of. There are no flashy set-pieces or beefcake characters. BIOS is feels positively utilitarian in its design: it’s the player vs the machine and the objective here is to post the fastest time. That’s it.
So, are you game?