'Minecraft with guns' is the elevator pitch for Ace of Spades, and the elevator pitch is a bit weird, really. Surely a major reason for Minecraft's sweeping success with so many different sorts of players is that it didn't come with guns in the first place?
Sure enough, watch YouTube videos of Jagex's latest project - the Keepers of Runescape picked the game up about a year ago and have been working with the original creators in-house since then - and it looks a bit like satire: those glorious Minecraft steppes and valleys are seen through the squint of iron-sights, blocks shatter under the impact of shotgun blasts, enemies tunnel into the ground to escape incoming rockets, and mountains erupt from well-placed proximity mines.
Hold on, that all sounds pretty good, actually - and it plays even better than it sounds. On a recent visit to the company's Cambridge offices, Jagex staff might have bristled every time Notch's modern classic came up in conversation, but the online team-based blaster they're putting together has gained a lot from Minecraft's sense of play and of possibility. Very little of that atmosphere is lost, it seems, when you throw in automatic weaponry.
Jagex has pigeonholed Ace of Spades as a 'creative shooter', then, and what that turns out to mean is a shooter that I managed to play for about an hour or so, quite enjoyably, without actually shooting anyone at all. There's deathmatch and ranked play and load-outs and classes and games that scale up to 16v16, but the blocky landscape that all of this good stuff is set into is far more than a voguish aesthetic conceit. You can knock the environment down with your guns or digging tools, and you can use your personal inventory of blocks and prefabs - small, ready-built structures like ladders and barricades - to build it back up again.
Maps range from Wild West frontier towns to river temples of Ancient Egypt, and you can take them apart until there's nothing left. There's a solid tactical purpose for this kind of stuff, too, because the game, unlike Minecraft, uses gravity-based physics which means structures will fall, causing damage, if you take out their supports. You can also just use it to sculpt random fripperies, though, or to look for secrets. That Western town, for example, has a whole system of gold mines hidden beneath its surface - mines that you can explore, alter, fortify and expand on.
Your access point to this shifting, surprising and yet warmly familiar landscape are a quartet of classes which scale between all-out military types who are practically useless at building, to delicate structural artists who are worryingly exposed in a gunfight. The commando's the former, packing heavy weaponry like rocket launchers and machine guns and grenades but relying on a relatively slow and awkward shovel as his melee/digging tool. One step along from him you'll find the marksman: a scout with a wonderfully effective sniper rifle and dandy proximity mines - you can place them and then hide them under blocks - and a pickaxe that's a little faster than the shovel but still a bit rubbish.
Next comes the engineer, who may well be renamed by the time the game hits apparently. He's got a weak SMG and the ability to chuck down turrets, and - cripes - he's got a jetpack, too: a hold-space-to-boost number with a generous fuel recharge on it. He's not bad at digging, either. Show-off.
Finally, there's the miner, with a shotgun that ensures he's useless in any kind of combat situation that isn't extremely claustrophobic, but a backup suite of gadgets that include dynamite and a super spade that takes out 3x3 chunks of the environment each time it strikes the earth. His best toy, though - and it's possibly the best toy in the whole game - is a drill cannon that fires off chunky bore-heads which can dig instant tunnels through the environment. The miner's a team player in every way: he's brilliant in modes that require you to hack your way to your enemy's base and then pull it apart, but he needs to travel with security or he'll be snipered in seconds.
It all sounds a bit complicated, but each class sees you picking a primary and secondary weapon, a piece of equipment, a melee/digging tool and a selection of character-specific prefabs, and when you see it laid out it's all pretty straightforward. New weapons are promised in future game updates, so eventually choosing a load-out should be a big part of the Ace of Spades appeal. All your guns and gadgets are stored on the mousewheel, incidentally, along with standard blocks, light blocks (useful/dangerous when tunnelling), and prefabs. Any blocks placed diminish your block inventory, but, while shooting blocks with a gun destroys them, hitting them with a melee weapon adds them to your personal cache for later deployment.
Clear class boundaries and nicely organised tools make for a game that offers a lot of freedom but doesn't bog you down with complexity. Ace of Spades is carnage, then, but it's carnage where it's still fairly easy to get your bearings, think up a plan and then implement it. Battles are enlivened by the genuinely fascinating push-and-pull of game designs going on inside them. One minute you're sprinting between sniper spots and nailing someone through a scope, and the next you go and help a friend who's building a statue of a pig near a cherry tree: it's both competitive and playful (the guy building the pig probably isn't going to last long, mind).
Come up with a good idea and you can create massive set-pieces, pulling your enemies out of the sky by whittling away at the ground beneath them. Come up with a bad idea and things are even more entertaining. On a Halloween-themed level, I found myself storming Dracula's heavily-defended castle. I decided to duck the gun nests that had been set up around the front door, and barricaded a path to the back of the map instead. Then I hit on the notion of drilling my way inside the structure from a safe distance. I dug and dug and dug, chiselling my way through the darkness, watching enemies swarm on the mini-map, too nervous - and perhaps too incompetent - to place any lights as I went. I eventually popped out into open air halfway up a lonely - and strategically worthless - battlement. I turned around and tried to dig my way towards an interior courtyard again, but this time I quickly struck well-shaft. I think that's the technical term, anyway: I found myself falling through a massive, featureless tower, and then I hit the ground and died. Contact with the enemy? Zero. Points for creative internal design? Hmm. Probably still zero, but it was a laugh at least.
It's going to be easy to lose yourself in Ace of Spades, in other words. Luckily, smart time limits and some interesting game modes should be on hand to orientate players a little. Alongside good old team deathmatch - the team colours, incidentally, are blue and green, which doesn't cause as many visibility problems as you'd expect given the game's bright, often garish maps - there's the likes of a demolition mode, which pits two gangs against their rival's bases with the objective of bringing them down any way they can, diamond mine, where you all dig for jewels buried underground, a multi-hill king of the hill variant and the inevitable zombies mode. Zombies mode actually promises to be brilliant, each match starting with one or two designated zombies who are basically killing/drilling machines and ending when every other player has been infected and won over.
What of updates? Planned and fairly regular, by the sounds of it, providing new maps, new weapons, and that sort of jazz. What of modding? Following on post-release, which isn't ideal, but there you go. Jagex will be using Steam Workshop, and wants to build its own modding tools as well. Fans of the original incarnation of Ace of Spades might be a little put out by this, but it should at least make it relatively easy for newcomers to have a go at building stuff - and that's very important with this kind of game.
So, yes: Minecraft with guns. Funnily enough, though, the game Ace of Spades really reminds me of when I play it is Worms. It has the same chunky, colourful, destructible environments, the same silly humour, and even the same gravestones that pop out of your body when you're killed. It promises the same manner of bright, pleasantly inconsequential battling, and the same blend of creativity and happy accident, too. One to keep an eye on then.