‘Minecraft with guns’ seems like it ought to be an interesting take on the arguably stagnant FPS genre, and for a while, it was. Initially developed by former Navy man Ben Aksoy, the Ace Of Spades beta was released back in April for free and slowly attracted a dedicated community. This all changed in November when the game was acquired by Runescape developer Jagex, who promptly polished up the graphics a bit, performed some other minor tinkering, and punted it onto Steam with a £7 price tag. So are the changes an improvement, or did Jagex deal us a bum hand?
Ace Of Spades is a squad-based shooter with an aesthetically very familiar 8-bit destructible environment. Armed with a selection of weapons and also differently sized block pieces, the game allows for teams to construct fortifications to protect themselves, or dig tunnels into the landscape to find alternate routes to targets.
Starting the game throws you into a colourful menu complete with chirpy chiptune soundtrack. Disappointingly there’s no tutorial or other help included anywhere in the game, which is somewhat lacking. Keys can be rebound in the settings menu and there is a brief explanation of each classes’ role in the selection screen, but for the most part you’re on your own.
There is no shortage of servers to choose from, a boon from having a pre-existing community before launch, but numerous ones seemed to lag pretty badly, disrupting the audio as well as video. Selected matches take considerably longer than desirable to load.
The classes themselves are clearly modelled on and infused with the wacky sensibility of the Team Fortress 2 ranks: there’s the Commando filling out the basic heavy infantry role, the Marksman acting as sniper, the Miner standing in for the engineer and finally the somewhat unique Rocketeer, whose jetpack enables him to sail over the blocky landscape in single bounds, a distinctly unfair advantage. He can also place turrets and other defensive emplacements. All characters have a spade they can use to take chunks out of the ground, but if this is the role you want to play in your team, the Miner has dynamite and a unique drill cannon able to cut vast swathes into the rockface. Pick one of these and a side (blue or green) and you are thrown into a game, usually one already in progress.
The game launched with a mere handful of maps, and although these have been added to with extra content, there still isn’t the kind of variety that would lend the game real longevity. Also one would have thought given the game's unique selling point that some sort of map editor would be welcomed, but none is included. The maps that do exist are admittedly lovely to behold and have various themes like a spooky mansion, Mayan jungle, or London complete with a blocky Big Ben.
The central problem seems to be that while the deformable surroundings potentially allow for grand structures like bridges or bunkers to be created or time-saving tunnels to be dug, from a practical standpoint the moment you choose to engage in such a creative endeavour is the moment you get shot in the back by a wily opponent. There simply isn’t the time or player organisation to make this happen in a regular deathmatch situation, and this is observable in the player base who spend most of the time running and gunning like a standard FPS with little regard for base defense. It's hard to admire the colourful pixelated landscape and set about modifying it when you're under constant enemy fire, and it’s a process that’s fiddly at best, especially when you have to gather blocks repeatedly to build new items.
The multitude of game modes include the self-explanatory Team Deathmatch and King Of The Hill which seem to be most popular among players; Demolition, where the opponent's base must be destroyed by any means, even by digging out the foundation; the ubiquitous Zombie mode, where the living dead can use their powerful claw-like hands to tear through obstacles and infect others; and the slightly innovative Diamond Mine, where the precious gems must be extracted from the earth and delivered to home base, a bit like capture the flag with extra excavation.
Even if the building mechanic was a solid premise, for any FPS to work the actual shooting has to be accurate and satisfying, and this just isn’t the case here. The guns feel clunky, aiming is off-putting due to the blocky nature of the sight, and the animation of the players you are targeting is ragged and disjointed.
On paper it sounds like it could be a winning combination, and perhaps this will improve as the game evolves, but in practice the play styles don't mesh well together, seemingly diametrically opposed at times. What is the point of making protective structures when the enemy base is never more than a few rocket jumps away? Apparently in the early days of the beta, matches would go on for an hour or more, and that time allotted for some actual fortifications to rise and trenches to be dug, but when scaled down for the quick ten minute matches that most FPS fans would be accustomed to, the concept falls apart. This is a game at odds with itself. Although they deserve a point for the puntastic name, the conclusion much be reached that Ace Of Spades is something of a failed experiment.