“Wrath is an authentic ‘90s first-person shooter experience. It’s basically a love letter to those types of games.”
This is Jeremiah Fox’s first game, the game he dreamed of making when he was still a graphic designer at a small paper in Huntsville, Arkansas. The game he quit his job for, sold everything, packed up his life and moved to the Florida Keys for.
It was in late 2012, maybe early 2013 when the idea of creating this game came to Fox. He was just getting back into “Quake,” the original “Quake.” The more he played it, the more he noticed a problem with the engine, something that was wreaking havoc on some of the maps he was trying. He hopped into a forum to see how to fix it and discovered the still-thriving world of “Quake” map modding.
“I dove right into it and it occurred to me that making games was possible,” Fox told Variety in a recent interview. “I always wanted to make a game.”
Fox said he tinkered with the engine and thought about ideas for a game for more than a year and then decided to take the plunge.
“I left my job and dedicated all of my time to it,” he said. “I sold all of my stuff, drove to the Florida Keys and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
“I started by living out of my car and just moved my way up. I met the woman who would be my wife there.”
“Wrath: Aeon of Ruin” was always meant to look like, play like, and sound like the way it does, Fox said.
“It’s basically been this from the beginning,” he said. “It’s meant to be absolutely authentic.”
Authentic, Fox said, to the sort of shooters that came out in the 90s. While recreating the experience of playing those classic shooters seems to be on the rise with the like of titles like “Dusk,” Fox said he doesn’t view them as authentic experiences.
“I think these other games tend to pick a single element of those games — they’re pixelated, gory or fast, but they almost end up being a caricature,” he said.
To create “Wrath,” Fox looked to the entire library of games from the era to cherry-pick the best of each.
“I looked at all of these games and picked the best art,” Fox said. “It draws heavily from the combat of ‘Doom,’ the interactivity of ‘Duke Nukem 3D,’ the spatial awareness of ‘Quake,’ and the darker theme of ‘Hexen.’
“Each of these games did something really, really special.”
The story of “Wrath” opens with the player — the Outlander — adrift on an ageless sea stuck between life and death. He finds himself on a ruined world where a being named the Shepherd of Wayward Souls fills the player in on the history of this old world. This world was once guarded by a collective of massive angelic creatures, but over time they turned evil, falling into corruption. The player is tasked with slaying the ancient beings.
While the game has a story, it’s mostly told through environmental storytelling. “We didn’t want to bog the player down with a narrative,” he said.
Instead, the game focuses on building out impressive, massive maps and delivering liquid smooth gameplay.
Because the game is running on such an antiquated game engine, the development team are able to crank up the refresh rate. In theory, the could have the gaming running at a refresh rate in the thousands, but that seemed unnecessary, so instead, they locked it at 666 frames.
The game’s level design is semi-linear, built around a series of hubs — each with distinct visual and mechanical themes.
“The game starts out much more familiar looking, but it’s a dark fantasy and it gets more strange and otherworldly as you progress,” he said.
While players could work their way through the game in seven hours or so, it would take twice as long to explore the entire game and collect all of its bits and pieces.
The developer and publisher has a long, interesting history in the history of video games. Back when it was founded — in the late 80s — it made a name for itself creating the sort of game that “Wrath” now works to recreate: “Duke Nukem Forever” and “Duke Nukem 3D.” But over the years the company shifted ownership getting out of and then back into the game-making business. Most recently, 3D Realms announced “Ion Maiden,” another throwback game tied the a aged development tools, this time the Build Engine.
“Ion Maiden” marked a return to what 3D Realms was best known for in the 90s, Frederik Schreiber, vice president of the company, told Variety in a recent interview. “We wanted to make a first-person shooter using the original tech from ‘Duke Nukem 3D.’”
So 3D Realms assembled a team to create this new game using an old engine, and then announced it as an early access game and it was a huge success.
Once “Ion Maiden” was well into production, Schreiber said the company started looking for what they wanted to do next, something that would be the next step in the timeline of video games, one step forward from that Build Engine game.
So they started looking at the “Quake” engine. They were digging through forums, checking out mods and maps when they stumbled upon Fox’s work.
“We found Jeremiah working on his own game in the ‘Quake One’ engine,” Schreiber said. “It was this small unknown thing. We found it through a forum where people work on maps and mods, and saw a video. It looked really cool and was exactly what we wanted to do.”
So they tracked Fox down, offered to front the game, build out a team for him and publish the title under the 3D Realms label.
“It was the perfect next step and now, a year later, we’re ready to announce and reveal the game,” he said.
As Fox noted, Schreiber said they didn’t just want to latch onto one aspect of 90s shooters, they wanted to recreate the entire experience.
“To do that we needed people who never stopped playing ‘Quake,’” he said. “We have a lot of experience, but we needed to put together a team that were out of this world at this game.”
So they hired “Quake” mappers and modders from around the world to fill out Fox’s team.
“We had to find mappers and models who were making incredible levels,” Schreiber said. They ended up with 25 people.”
Over the course of 30 minutes or so with the game, I shot, and trudged, and cut my way through enemies. While “Wrath” initially looks dated, that all falls away, leaving just the feel of a game that finds its balance quick and locks the player into its zone.
There are plenty of amazing touches. For instance, the game features enemies that can be blown or cut apart, but because the engine doesn’t support physics, all of that had to be essentially faked.
Whenever you slice an enemy, the game quickly replaces the model with a new model with one part of their anatomy now hidden and then it runs a separate animation to make it look as if a body part has been lopped off. The result is a game that plays like a 90s classic, but features some amazing effects.
There’s also quite a bit of smart design in the weapons and artifacts of the game.
For instance, there are no health packs in the game. Instead, the game has a one-use artifact that once activated delivers the damage you deal to an enemy back to you as health for a short period of time.
The game design approach, Fox said, is to make sure that everything in the game, every enemy, weapon, and artifact connects directly back to the core of the play experience.
There are some enemies that will try to eat you with a massive mouth in the center of their bodies. Once killed they drop shattered teeth. Those teeth are used as ammo for one of the weapons.
There are also tons of secrets in the game, though the secret is about how to get to the item not where they are. You can always see the secrets, but getting to them can be a challenging puzzle.
Save points exist in the game, but as with health, the approach is unique. You have to find an artifact called a Soul Tether. When you activate it, it becomes a checkpoint for you. But the portable respawn point isn’t unlimited use, so you have to be careful with their placement.
Another interesting artifact is called the Cruel Aegis, it makes you invincible for a time, but also drops (or raises) your health to ten.
The experience of playing the game is memorable and fun, but currently, it’s also a singular endeavor. There are no extra modes, or ways of playing, at least not yet.
Fox said that the plan is to add multiplayer cooperative with split screen and maybe even try a four-player split screen mode.
An early version of the game, called “First Blood” hits this summer, but the full game won’t hit until 2020 when it will sell for $29.99. The game will be hitting Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in early 2020.