Early Access Investigations: ASTROKILL

Throttle jockeys, rejoice. The once-proud space dogfighter scene is back. Whether you like throwing money at mismanaged colossi, strapping in for Kate Sackoff's Icelandic VR bill-paying or ogling impressive solo productions, the choice going forward feels like the old days.

Here's another option in ASTROKILL, which I'll capitalise conventionally for now. Just in case you think I'm shouting excitedly, which I kinda am.

Astrokill offers a different kind of dogfighter. It's a vicious kind of combat, really baring the canines in Doomsday Games' stark vacuum. It took me a while to meet the game on its terms, as it sits somewhat aways from genre conventions.

Taking cues from Battlestar Galactica's fascination of ballistic weaponry and quick-zooms, there's little of that languid tail-chasing zap-zap we grew up with. No gentle arcing enemy fighters to pot-shot and feel good. Kills are hard-won in the darkness, at a jarring proximity. The ships are wonderfully ugly beasts, ungainly and brutal in their look and devastation. Like orbital tank-killers, they drill downrange with heavy cannon and flak, filling the screen with glittering tracer fire as they rake and rattle and lead their targets. 

The flight-model is somewhat Newtonian, offering the chance to switch between assisted conventional turn-and-burn and Independence War-level frictionless slip. Whether you dream of Colonial Vipers or Starfuries, the act of peppering an inbound enemy craft, have it buzz past, switch over to manual thrust to maintain targeting without changing your heading is appropriately satisfying.

This is all made the more intense -- however clumsy the descriptor -- by a clinical, utilitarian aesthetic. There's a rawness to Doomsday Games' space. Coming from Homeworld, where Relic and BBI succeeded in evoking the lines and textures of an Elson airbrush, Astrokill is cold steel, nuclear drive and spent casings the size of watermelons.

There's no romance; no banana motherships or Dyson-esque megastructures. The game increases the aesthetic with a light-dark binary, the divide near-instantaneous and utterly captivating in the blown-out bloom of a nearby sun. Shadows as dark as the night you're churning through and light refraction searing on exposed metallic surfaces. In other Unreal-powered works-in-progress, it's been poorly or under-calibrated. Here? It's arresting. Expertly wrangled in its relative simplicity.

It also helps the soundtrack is a moody mix of low synth and woodblock percussion. Again, fitting in its pared-back production.

While the Outer Belt and Domain of Man campaigns aren't fleshed out beyond a few missions each at the time of writing, the survival mode allows pilots to fend off waves of bogeys until eventual destruction. Players can cycle through a small selection of intercepter and heavy fighter ships at the beginning of each mission, and will automatically switch to surviving ships once their current one detonates in a satisfying gout of fire and chromatic aberration. As to online multiplayer or selectable loadouts, only time will tell. 

Bantam-weight dark horses like Astrokill are equal forces to the big guns in bringing back the genre. In this tiny Early Access slice of titanium and depleted uranium slugs, I've had as much hard-learned, hard-earned fun as anything from the dogfighter hall of giants. A sharp, lean, carnivorous space combat game, Astrokill is an easy recommendation for those wanting a little more bite in the cockpit.

Astrokill comes out on Steam Early Access this month. You can also follow the devs on Twitter and follow their work on the official site.