Miner Wars 2081 is an ambitious upcoming project from Keen Software House, incorporating a first-person, action-survival space simulator with single-player, co-op, and multiplayer support and a fully destructible and persistent open-world. It’s currently using the Minecraft model in which you can prepurchase the alpha, with an MMO version in the works to follow up the “classical” flavor. It’s got a pretty wild wishlist of features, and it sounds absolutely awesome.
Miner Wars Arena is a short, standalone arcade release that has virtually nothing to do with this, which begs the question of why Keen Software House decided to shift resources away from their current projects to develop this thoroughly lackluster side game. Essentially, Miner Wars Arena is a decent attempt at two-fifths of a game, but it suffers from a dire lack of content and features.
The basic gameplay of Miner Wars Arena consists of up to four teams of ships mining their way through a bedrock-covered arena to gather resources and assault each other. It’s structured halfway between a top-down and third-person shooter. You’ve got three ships to pick from and five weapons to swap between.
The strategy comes into play as you use your drill to mine out a tunnel network to pick up important ship-enhancing upgrades. Your cozy network eventually intersects with the tunnels of your enemies, which leads to laser swapping shoot-outs. Mining out tunnels is hard work though, so you’ll have to periodically return to your home base to recharge your batteries and repair any stray hull damage. It’s a great concept for a game, and was used to great effect by the game’s spiritual DOS predecessor Tunneler. It even comes together perfectly sometimes, offering slices of challenging and fun gameplay, such as a thrilling moment of racing through a tunnel with two rivals in hot pursuit, with plenty of side tunnels to strafe into and start preparing an ambush. But no amount of great gameplay can make up for a complete lack of content and irritating technical problems.
Miner Wars Arena comes with four basic modes, all of which are severely lacking. First is Skirmish mode, which allows you to set up custom battles based on last man standing, and features three very slight variants on death match. While the game is gracious enough to let you choose one of fifteen rock textures, it refuses to allow you basic features like adding more than one ship to each team. This effectively limits Skirmish to four ships or less and keeps you from doing anything besides a free-for-all.
Next is Tournament, which is the closest thing to a campaign you’ll find. It consists of fifteen short levels of predefined skirmish matches, except now, AI teammates are suddenly on the table. Getting through the hardest difficulty at a very leisurely pace takes a grand total of forty-five minutes.
After that comes multiplayer, which is entirely limited to split-screen. Online multiplayer could have been a Hail Mary throw for the game, but instead, you and your buddy will be splitting the keyboard, unable to team up, and once again limited to just two AI opponents.
Lastly is an utterly awful and perfectly unbalanced Horde mode, which isn’t co-op enabled and is essentially a minute of watching four equally armed opponents blow up an important generator while you feebly die and respawn. Again, the gameplay is just fine, but Miner Wars Arena has an utter dearth of content and options that gameplay alone can’t make up for.
To make sure the lack of care is evident enough, the game boasts an impressive array of technical shortcomings. The graphics toe the line between decent and sub-par, where the ships look fine, but blurry rock textures and the chunky polygonal mess that is the destructible terrain look at least ten years out of date. A forgettable soundtrack compliments the decent audio design, which is great overall, aside from the bombastic guy who cheers every kill and every item with a handful of repetitive lines. Technical snafus include a jumpy and confused item radar, an infrequent bug that causes ships to use twenty times more energy until the entire program is restarted, a disappearing enemy that resulted in an unbeatable match, and the fratricidal team AI. Playing tournament missions with teammates was more of a handicap than an asset due to their penchant for drilling through friendly ships, and missions that pit myself against four yellow enemies would lead to four or five enemy lives lost before even one enemy was encountered.
The way Miner Wars Arena was released evokes the model used for Torchlight. Runic Games was building a Torchlight MMO, but released the standalone single-player version as a stop-gap to build interest and raise funds. But that game was packed with value, content, features, and polish which enhanced their brand and led to one of the biggest indie sleeper hits in recent years. Miner Wars Arena is instead an utterly pointless spin-off, creating a good base, but neglecting to give the game critical components like content and polish. There’s little reason to play this when Keen Software House obviously has bigger and better things on the horizon.
Final Verdict: Don’t bother with this game. A bare minimum of content makes it feel half finished, lazy, and not worth your time or money.
This review is based on a review copy of the PC version of Miner Wars Arena provided by Keen Software House and distributed by Cosmi.