Preview: SpeedRunners

SpeedRunners is a competitive multiplayer platformer that began its early access period on Steam this summer. Its simple concept will evoke a response out of anyone who's tried to run a Mario level at full tilt, no brakes. You and several other players each control a character from a 2D perspective. You all run in an indicated direction while leaping, sliding and hook-shotting yourself away from obstacles - boxes, low ceilings, deadly spikes, and so on. While the camera does scale back quite a bit to accommodate everyone, its always prioritizing the lead player. The first player to fall completely behind the far side of the camera's view is evaporated from play, starting a flashing red chain reaction that floods in from the edges of the screen. As it grows and shrinks the playable area down, the margin for deviation from the leader constantly becomes thinner.

Thus, you'll need to progress through the maps quickly and frictionless. It's good fun to watch the expressive and fun character designs vault around the screen, and a handful of pickups help keep the action firmly on the the push and pull anxiety of taking and maintaining the leading spot. Missiles stagger their targets for a moment and let everyone play catch-up. A bubble force field pushes nearby players away from its center, potentially to a snappy death. A claw that can grab other players and basically swap positions with them from across the screen is especially useful (and luckily avoidable). Directing yourself around the map feels nice and consistent, safe for the mechanic of quickly reversing direction to drop to lower platforms. The momentum felt at odds with the rest of the movements to me.

There are some pretty major issues that make the concept more fun than the execution at this point. The camera is the biggest problem; it's frequently unclear where it's trying to lead you, and confusing and frustrating runs often follow. Some audiovisual aids felt sorely needed during my time with it. Often, the person who is obviously in the lead will get squashed when the camera swoops to the path it randomly deems the correct one. Some start points dropped unsuspecting players to their demise unless they immediately jumped. An unfortunate bug kept the game going even when all but one were eliminated, leaving the winner to roam the level empty by himself for some time.

SpeedRunners has a promising idea and some early adopters already playing online, but the broken flow and iffy camera can suck a lot of the fun out of the frantic action. With a well-trained camera and some spit polish, it could consistently reach the manic level of fun it occasionally inspires. I'll be watchingclosely to see how the final release shakes out.

SpeedRunners can be purchased on Steam's early access initiative for ten bucks right now, which nets you the beta.