Folx, I’m falling in love. If you ever wanted to combine the gloom of the original Killzone with gameplay from Titanfall and F.E.A.R. as well as Doom and its neo-retro children—and toss in some immaculate vibes from 1995’s Ghost in the Shell for good measure—then let me tell you about Sprawl.
Released on August 23 on Steam, developer MAETH’s Sprawl is billed as a “hardcore retro FPS set in an endless cyberpunk metropolis.” The result is a visceral, fast-paced shooter with a magnetic gameplay loop of wall-running and bullet time combat that is so delightfully engaging gameplay I literally can’t stop playing it.
Hypnotic, acrobatic, bullet time gameplay
Sprawl’s intense shooting action has you employing bullet time and wall-running amid intense arena shootouts. It very much feels like Titanfall’s agile movement mixed with F.E.A.R.’s stellar gunplay, but set in Doom-like arenas bearing the visual aesthetic of Killzone. Even the enemies look and sound like Helghast soldiers who got Combined.
Shootouts in Sprawl require recognizing the surrounding threats, then using bullet time in (ideally) short bursts to hone your aim that much further. It aspires to deliver the fantasy of a super soldier facing insurmountable threats who must deploy her wits and physical enhancements to eke out victories. The waves of enemies sometimes feel endless, and you’ll need to sustain a rhythm of acrobatic leaps and dodges while wisely deploying your time-slowing ability. The intensity is such that you’ll heave a big sigh of relief every time you drop the last enemy.
If you’re coming straight from Titanfall, you might find the wall running a little heavy. Run and jump onto a wall and you’ll start running across it; you get three chances to jump again to sustain your momentum, else you’ll fall. At first, gravity feels a little too unfair. But Sprawl’s combat is so electrifying because of that relative strictness, not in spite of it. Every time I’ve pulled off a successful kill or thrilling jump, I feel like I made that happen through skill and execution, not just from using “the wall-running feature.”
The same is true of bullet time. You hold the left trigger (or right mouse button) to engage slo-mo, which depletes an adrenaline bar. Fairly straightforward. But by not including an aim-down-sights feature, you’ll quickly learn that bullet time is your ADS and not only that, it’s on a sort of leash by means of that rapidly depleting meter. You need to use it with precision lest you run out and get killed very, very quickly.
The game includes auto aim as default on gamepads, and an option for it on mouse and keyboard. Using this feature isn’t a bad way to get a feel for Sprawl’s action, as it will clue you into the key to unlocking these combat puzzles. You need to look for opportunities to single out an enemy, slow down time, aim at their head (or back, where explosive canisters are mounted) and fire, ready to snap back out of bullet time so as to not waste that precious resource while also looking for the nearest wall to run across so your enemies don’t overwhelm you.
Ammo, slide distance, jumps, wall-running, and bullet time, Sprawl keeps all its combat elements somewhat on a leash, with nothing feeling game-breaking or overpowered. That means that when you pull off the badass moves, you really feel like you are making it work. These aren’t features that will do the killing for you. You’re a Swiss army knife of tactics and violent potential.
Sprawl inspires persistence in the face of gloom
I get that folks look at Guerrilla’s original 2004 PlayStation 2 Killzone and just see boring dark environments, but for me, its visual stylings of endless grayness, rust, and urban decay brings me a kind of still serenity of the kind I appreciate on a featureless overcast day.
But while Sprawl’s dark cyberpunk fantasy of an oppressive, corporate-controlled city might remind me of the ravaged and imposing stages of Killzone’s Vekta, the more frenetic gameplay here lifts that aesthetic experience to a whole new level, further enhancing the sense of sustained dread that I find oddly calming. Add to that the subtle crunchy retro stylings of modern-retro “boomer shooters” (ugh), and Sprawl is striking to see in motion.
It isn’t just depressing, however. Sprawl’s aesthetics (as I felt with Killzone) inspire optimism and persistence. I’m fighting through its dark, oppressive grays as SEVEN, a renegade super soldier following the guidance of FATHER, a mysterious entity, to fight endlessly violent military police forces. I’m trying to escape them, with the hope that something brighter lies beyond. But it also means that light and color jumps to life with a contrast that wouldn’t exist if this game were as aglow with neon as Cyberpunk 2077. While Sprawl’s monotone motif is aesthetically compelling, it’s also very helpful to its fast-paced, sometimes punishing action.
Sprawl’s dim, dark environment draw my attention to the action, as opposed to distracting from it. My violence creates color in the world. Colorful items burst from foes, explosions create bursts of vibrancy that, especially through bullet time, keep me engaged as much as the gunplay itself.
Thrilling combat with some rough edges
Sprawl’s Gameplay has won me over by and large, though there’s still some room for improvement.
While I love the combat loop, for example, not every environment has felt great to jump around in. Occasionally you find tight, restrictive spaces that sort of feel a little too punishing. Also the enemy AI could certainly be more dynamic. Enemies have a tendency to sort of mindlessly shoot at you and bunch up in ways that don’t always feel great. I could also do with a more substantial melee option, as the quick sword slash is meager to the point of feeling unfair.
While you’ll never hear the end of how much I love the visual aesthetic of these environments, I do sometimes feel a little “where the hell do I go now?” syndrome creeping up from time to time.
The HUD also is quite large. I’ve gotten used to it, but I’d love a setting to shrink it a bit. I’m also not sure why there isn’t an option to turn the subtitles off. And there are a few bugs. On at least one occasion I had to restart a whole level because I was locked in a literally endless wave of broken enemies, and a bit of finicky jank can crop up from time to time. But these issues don’t ruin the fun.
Sprawl has been a wonderful time, and I look forward to seeing it all the way through to the end on my Steam Deck, where performance has been great and the rear buttons have been a gameplay godsend. And after I reach the end, you can bet I’ll be jumping back in on a higher difficulty, attempting a run without auto-aim. Sprawl is a violently delightful time, and one of my favorite games so far this year.