In this month's blockbuster superhero film Avengers: Age of Ultron, an artificial intelligence named Ultron comes to life and builds a body for itself.
Although Ultron was designed to help ensure the safety of humanity, he eventually decides that humans are the cause of the world's problems (a point the film muddles, making Ultron just seem kind of crazy). Thus Ultron and his army of robots declare war on humanity, threatening our very existence.
Puppy Games and Curve Digital's Ultratron, a downloadable twin-stick shooter recently released on Xbox One, Windows PC, PlayStation consoles, and Wii U, shares a similar premise. Taking obvious inspiration from arcade classic Robotron 2084, Ultratron puts players in the place of one heroic robot fighting against an evil robot army to avenge the human race. Make that two robots, if you bring along a buddy for local co-op.
No one left to save
Way back in 1982, Robotron 2084 took arcades by storm. It featured a unique twin-stick control interface (only the second game to do so) and basically created the twin-stick shooter genre. Ultratron follows directly in Robotron's footsteps, basically functioning as a spiritual sequel.
Whereas Robotron 2084 tasked one robot with rescuing humans from his murderous brethren, Ultratron takes place after the humans have all been wiped out. Our lone heroic defense robot Ultratron must continue his original mission: to wipe out those of his kind that turned on us. A darker premise than Robotron's, but neither game has any real story to speak of – just plenty of twin-stick shooting.
Shoot all robots
Each level of Ultratron takes place within a relatively claustrophobic vertically-oriented arena. On the periphery of the arena you'll find futuristic neon decorations and monitors that display the propaganda of the evil robot army.
The goal of these levels is nearly always to destroy all other robots. They appear alone and in groups along the sides of the arena or just beyond it. Enemies always drop coins of varying sizes when killed, which you'll want to collect. Should Ultratron defeat all of the stage's enemies without dying, he'll stop by the shop to spend his hard-earned money and then proceed to the next level.
Upgrades and abilities
Initially, Ultratron has no other abilities than being able to run and shoot in any direction. Luckily he can choose from an enticingly large arsenal of upgrades to purchase at the shop. Some upgrades become available to buy after reaching specific levels in the game, while others require ownership of another upgrade before you can buy them.
Ultratron only has one life, but players can purchase shields that function like extra lives. Power upgrades increase the damage of our hero's shots; Dot Slurper upgrades attract coins to Ultratron from greater distances. Buy the Speed Boost and you get a rechargeable dash, or pick up Smartbombs to clear the screen of enemies and bullets.
The most interesting wares in the shop are the game's three distinct pets. These helper robots follow Ultratron around, firing at enemies within their scanning radiuses. Pets don't help much to start with, but upgrade them enough and they become effective killing machines. You also have to babysit them a bit. If an enemy shoots or touches a pet, the helper gets disabled and stops following you. Run back and touch it to revive it.
Once or twice throughout a level, a special gold droid passes across the screen. Shoot this robot and it will turn into a random power-up. Some power-up effects include three-way shots, double bullets, rapid fire, reflective shots, invulnerability, and more.
The cool thing is these pick-ups don't disappear over time. You can leave them sitting around until you need them, like for boss fights. They are also stackable, so if you let a few accumulate and then grab them you'll receive all of their effects. The three-way shot combined with reflective bullets and other power-ups just fills the screen with robot-killing fire.
Another power-up the gold droid can drop is the drone. A drone sits right where you collected it and fires at oncoming enemies and their bullets. Drones have a limited life meter, so they don't usually stick around for too long. You can buy upgrades to increase their survivability. But given that several Achievements relate specifically to drones, I wish we could buy the actual drones at the shop instead of having to win them as random power-up drops.
Ultratron essentially goes on forever or until you die, just like Robotron and many other classic arcade games. Four types of special levels appear intermittently, keeping things fresh:
- Assault Stage: Hordes of projectile-firing enemies appear and threaten to end your run. You'll dread these levels unless you save some power-ups for them.
- Challenge Stage: Relatively harmless Spider Droids dash around the screen. Shoot them all to get bonus money for the shop.
- Dodge Stage: Small robots dash around the screen, but you can't shoot them if you want bonus money. Instead, you have to dodge them all without taking a hit.
- Boss Stage: Every 10th level ends with a fight against a huge boss. The final boss waits in stage 40. After that, you'll have to face two (and eventually three) bosses in these stages instead of just one!
Whereas Geometry Wars 3 features a separate, smaller co-op mode from the main game, Ultratron offers full drop-in, drop-out local co-op for two players throughout the entire campaign. A friend can just jump in and jam with you at any time. Unfortunately, I don't think he or she can earn Achievements.
Both players share money and upgrades, so you won't gain abilities any faster than in single-player. Whoever picked up a pet gets to lead it, which mixes things up a bit. Players can revive each other, further adding to the game's cooperative nature. Co-op scores are saved to separate leaderboard for fairness.
Whereas the PlayStation versions of Ultratron only offer a scant 12 Trophies (which I have!), the Xbox One game packs a whopping 32 Achievements worth 1,000 Gamerscore. The most challenging tasks involve protecting a single pet from harm for 10 levels and keeping a drone alive for eight levels. Those might sound tough, but I'm not that skilled and I got them both during the same run.
You see, if you pause and exit to the main menu during a level, Ultratron saves your status at the start of the level. So any time you mess up and take a hit during a level or whatever, as long as you didn't get a Game over or finish the level, you can just exit and retry the level with no penalty. That's pretty cool, but I wish the developers had added a "Retry" function to the pause menu that does the same thing instead of making us hop back to the main menu.
At the moment, one broken Achievement afflicts Ultratron: ' Drone bullet kills.' Reportedly, the developers are working to solve the issue. Hopefully they fix it soon, because I want that last Achievement!
Speaking of imperfections, here's a random non-Achievement-related nitpick. The status messages that appear in the lower-left corner of the screen are too hard to read during the thick of the action. I rarely get to know what they say.
The human race is avenged
Ultratron is an excellent spiritual sequel to Robotron 2084. Sure, players run around arenas shooting at every little thing and dodging like crazy – just every other twin-stick shooter of this variety. But the style and mechanics here make the game.
The neo-retro visual style perfectly captures the _feeling _of Robotron without actually resembling it all that closely. The electronic music and old-school synthesized voice fit perfectly as well. As for the gameplay, collecting coins and buying upgrades level after level proves extremely addicting. I actually finished off the Vita version of Ultratron and went right on to complete the Xbox One game immediately thereafter, something I never do.
This one won't last you forever unless you're chasing high scores; skillful players can get all the Achievements within five hours. But the low price and intense fun factor mean you'll still come out ahead with Ultratron.