Among the many demos that came out of the Summer Gamefest, Severed Steel was one that caught my eye. Set in a neon hued facility it was a first-person parkour shooter. However, the demo started with a tutorial on the elaborate traversal and then dropped the player into a level that was bewildering.
It is all played from a first-person perspective and is like a combination of Mirror’s Edge and Max Payne. The player is expected to bounce off walls, dive, slide and shoot their way through a maze-like compound teeming with enemies.
It’s a lot to take on especially at the breakneck speed that Severed Steel plays. The aim is to keep moving as enemies can’t hit the protagonist while she is in motion (either diving, wall running, or sliding) but lining up shots and keeping track of where I was just seemed beyond me.
Or so I thought.
What I didn’t appreciate in the demo but what became more apparent in the full game is that Severed Steel might share the framework of the two games I mentioned before, but its DNA feels more rooted in Burnout. In Burnout, everything the player does is focused on being cool. To do that requires boosting all the time and taking every risk possible to make sure that the car is hurtling forward. It takes very little to gain boost and often whole races are spent hurtling through surroundings with only the vanishing point seeming clear.
Instead of boost, Severed Steel has the slow-motion on the trigger. I quickly learned that if I wasn’t pressing down that button, I was doing it wrong. The game remains fast paced and hectic but with exaggerated use of slow down it turns the carnage into the sublime.
This is what makes everything click – Severed Steel does not want the rigidity of its technical predecessors. It even makes Burnout seem stuffy by contrast.
What the game does best, on its first play through, is not limit player on their options. Sure, there were some perilous drops and tough enemies but as long as I kept that flow going every level was a joy even when I lost. The term ‘poetry in motion’ is something that gets thrown around from time to time, but Severed Steel earns it by making people feel awesome even when they are being rubbish.
That seems to be the key to Severed Steel’s excellence – why short-change the player with limited slow mo when it is so much fun? Why punish an ill-advised jump when it is way more exhilarating to course-correct midair, flip over an enemy, pop them in the head and then carry on.
I’ve not even mentioned the absolutely fantastic voxel-based levels that shatter and crater as they get torn apart by bullets and rockets. Being able to look back at the tatters of a level that has had a giant robot boss stomp through it (a machine that I ended up punching to death) and go ‘I lived through that’ is more impactful than most designed environmental story telling.
It would be easy for the development team, Greylock Studios, to just be happy with how good the gunplay and destruction are and leave it at that. Doing headshots in midair as one breaks through a sheet of glass doesn’t get boring and could have been stretched out for hours on end. Instead Severed Steel has some brilliantly designed and varied levels with objectives that bring out the best in them. One moment the main character will plummet into giant fan silos emptying clips into soldiers, the sense of scale is great, and in the next moment the player is given a flamethrower and has to burn a path through a hedge maze. Not every level is as memorable but each one has its own twist.
Once the main story is over there is a series of firefight challenges that turn it into a violent Tony Hawk game requiring pulling off certain kills and stunts. It is good but plays against the game’s freeflow unpredictability. This mode needed more structure and a good leaderboard to be worth investing time in and might be the only time Severed Steel isn’t grade A perfect.
Severed Steel is here for a good time, not a long time, but I do know that every moment I wasn’t playing it in the build up to this review, I was thinking about playing it. That’s all I really want from any game.
Severed Steel is a must have for this year, nothing else has come close in a long time to distilling the definition of ‘fun’ into a video game.Become a Patron!
This game was reviewed based on Xbox S|X review code, using an Xbox S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.