We’ve been positively spoiled with retro throwback boomer shooters in recent years. Sprawl returns to deliver more high-octane shooting action with some unique permutations. The result mostly lives up to its promise, with many brutal decapitations and lots of powerful guns. However, there are a plethora of issues that serve to make the game less than it could have been in regard to art direction, balance, and functionality. I don’t regret my time with it and there’s enjoyable blasting to be had, but the game is simply too interested in holding the player back.
Sprawl is a roughly six-to-seven hour game broken into 12 levels across three episodes. You play as a super soldier being hunted by a government within the titular sprawl, all while being guided forward by a voice. The plot is so vague that it’s hard to really connect with, however, which isn’t helped by how lore is doled out. You’ll find QR codes that likely fill in these blanks scattered throughout the world, but these can only be read by literally scanning the code with your phone. Of course, I didn’t want to stop playing and do this, so I just skipped all the lore. What a poor choice.
At its core, Sprawl is a standard boomer shooter throwback focused more on tightly paced forward momentum, punctuated by the pulling of levers and hunting for keys. The level design is very focused, although it can still be a bit confusing. Most of the game’s levels are varying shades of brown and grey and, while they aren’t devoid of visual merit, things are more than a bit dull. Whether you’re in a grey industrial complex or a brown cityscape dotted with neon signs, the world isn’t much fun to actually look at.
Stop. Bullet time.
As with any such game, you’ll spend your time grabbing firearms and using them to dispatch of Sprawl‘s decently varied foes. From human enemies dressed in combat armour to mechs, there’s not really anything particularly unique on display here, but the enemies do a good job at keeping you on your toes. Regular soldiers, ones with shields, robot dogs, towering mechs, flying drones, and more are thrown at you from around every corner. You fight them with a standard-yet-satisfying assortment of weapons as well. You find dual pistols early, plus a shotgun, dual SMGs, a chaingun, grenade launcher, railgun, and rocket launcher.
All the typical boomer shooter beats are here, making the game feel more than a little generic. There are two facets that aim to separate the title – a reliance on bullet time and wall running. The player character can slide, which feels like it doesn’t last long enough and lacks the momentum to really be useful. Wall running is used to avoid enemy attacks and for navigation. The wall running, unfortunately, doesn’t feel all that great, as I found it rigid and not as responsive as I’d like, which was greatly exacerbated during certain sections. One has you wall run up a very tall section. The subpar responsiveness of the controls, combined with how falling requires you to make your way back up again grated on me.
Conversely, the combat is satisfying. Guns have a fair amount of weight and shooting them is fun, but there’s far too much of an emphasis on many of the weapons having obnoxious downsides. For instance, the shotgun takes a whole second before the player character pumps it and can fire again. In a game that makes so much use of bullet time, this means that you can usually only fire once when slowing things down, requiring you to swap to another weapon. The chaingun slows you so fiercely that using it can be quite risky. You can only have six rounds of grenade launcher ammo despite being able to carry 14 rockets, but rockets split when fired, making them far less useful at range.
Do you really want to hurt me?
To add insult to injury, your jump charges are limited. Once you jump to make contact with a wall, you can only jump two more times while actually wall running, which makes the movement feel much more limited than it should. I understand that the dev wanted to keep the challenge balanced by implementing all these limits, but they feel like they’re too much. There’s so much worry in regard to the player not feeling overpowered that I always felt the walls of the cage biting into my back. It’s overzealous. Thankfully, the action in Sprawl is at least up to the task.
Headshotting or melee-killing enemies rewards you with some health, ammo, and a top-up for your bullet time gauge. This leads to a sort of ballet of diving into action with a risk/reward focus very similar to the one in recent Doom games. Many enemies have weakpoints to take advantage of and it’s quite satisfying to see their heads pop from your bullets, or to rush over to a weakened enemy and decapitate them with your sword swipe. But there are more caveats, of course. The hitbox on your sword is tiny, again because the dev didn’t want your super soldier character to be overpowered. Despite being a swipe, it only impacts a tiny area. If the enemy is standing anywhere near geometry, odds are the swipe won’t even hit them, which is maddening.
Plus, enemies don’t tend to react all that much to taking damage. They’ll flinch, but there isn’t a good physicality to it. Non-fatal headshots often don’t get much of a reaction and the same can be said for hitting enemies with the sword when their health isn’t low enough for a decap. It’s like you’re not even hitting them. Then there are the boss battles. These are tedious affairs built around destroying boss weakpoints. They’re kind of cool visually and conceptually, but I didn’t find them to be enjoyable in the slightest.
I also would have really liked some better speed or mobility options, especially in regard to bullet time. I can’t help but compare Sprawl to Severed Steel, another FPS about taking down tough enemies in bullet time. But the movement there is a joy, instead of feeling as slow and restrictive as it is here. I wish there would have been a forward dive instead of the near-useless slide mechanic.
Sprawl certainly isn’t a bad game, but I found it considerably less compelling than many other similar titles. The amount of content for the price is fair and the shooting can be good fun when you’re in the zone. The game is just too focused on holding you back to try and keep the challenge level balanced when it should’ve been focused on being wildly entertaining instead.
Sprawl: Sprawl gets a lot right, but is let down here and there by a handful of annoyances. – Andrew Farrell
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