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'Immortals of Aveum' Is a Shooter That Swaps Gunfire for Spell-Casting

Like many first-person shooters before it, Immortals of Aveum is a game about war. It stars a young soldier who fights across battlefields. Its plot revolves around a conflict between opposing nations, each fielding armies set on the destruction of one another. It is also a game in which all of these familiar martial themes are explored through a fantasy setting where stone citadels float high in the air, currents of rippling energy snake through the sky, and, most notably, players engage in combat not with guns and grenades, but by casting brightly colored magic spells from the protagonist’s outstretched hands.

The debut release from developer Ascendant Studios, Aveum is a fantasy take on the first-person shooter made by a studio with years of experience in the genre. Its director and cowriter, Ascendant CEO Bret Robbins, previously worked as creative director on several entries to the Call of Duty series and 2008’s sci-fi horror shooter, Dead Space. In a call with WIRED, Robbins described the creation of Aveum as his “first opportunity to really make my own game,” a break from the hardnosed militarism of more realistic war games.

“I knew I wanted to do a shooter,” Robbins said of the game’s origin. “I knew I wanted it to be magic and not guns.”

From this starting point, Robbins began to conceptualize what would become Immortals of Aveum through “a back and forth, sort of organic process of thinking about combat and thinking about game mechanics and then thinking about the [game’s] world as well.”

That combat, which sees players swapping between an arsenal of offensive and defensive magical spells, is Aveum’s most compelling feature, in part because it stands in stark contrast to the gunplay of so many first-person shooters. The novelty that makes its battles compelling also created difficulties, though. Robbins said that “getting the magic to feel as good as shooting a gun was challenging,” especially since he didn’t want players to “hide behind a bush and shoot over it,” waiting for their health to regenerate as in a Call of Duty game. The goal, instead, was to have players feel like a “gunslinger, bad-ass battle mage who could walk into an area, have [their] own protection with the shield, and be able to deal with anything in front of [them].”

Central to this approach is a method of fight design that encourages players to experiment with their entire arsenal of spells. The fantasy setting allows for various enemy types—some monstrous, some human—sporting color-coded vulnerabilities. To overcome them, the player has to think on their feet, juggling various spells in a manner not unlike the frenetic gunplay of the Doom series. Avoiding and casting streaks of blue lightning or bright green energy orbs doesn’t create the same sense of danger as the explosions and cracks of passing bullets found in many other shooters, but Aveum’s fighting is still an engaging, often rewardingly tense approach to a different kind of first-person combat design.

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The context for the game’s action, initially, seems like a disappointedly standard riff on well-established sci-fi and fantasy storytelling tropes. Its protagonist, Jak, is born in the slums of a congested city unequally divided along strict class lines. As is always the case with this setup, he is plucked from obscurity and raised to a position of importance due to his unique magical talents, inborn heroism, and desire to enact revenge on the enemy nation.

Jak is hard to like. He’s a real smartass, jaggedly cut from the same cloth as Harrison Ford’s roguish wisecrackers, though without those characters’ charm. The supporting cast isn’t much more imaginative or endearing. His commander is a stern, no-nonsense veteran, and he fights alongside an affable, posh soldier and a taciturn giant whose cold exterior hides a warm heart. There’s a sort of “made for TV” fantasy aesthetic to Aveum’s early goings, defined by villains in gaudy helmets and monstrous aliens threatening our heroes so they can retort with a steady stream of grating, strained jokes.

As the plot unfolds, though, these faults become less glaring, and the game reveals itself to be a far more compelling approach to genre convention than it initially seems. It becomes clear that Aveum is well aware of the character archetypes and plot trappings it draws from, and has points to make on subjects ranging from the useful gullibility of angry young men in warfare to the dangers of fanaticism, prejudice, and militarism in light of pending environmental catastrophe.

It’s easy to read the appearance of these themes as a response to the state of the mainstream first-person shooter. Aveum, as a whole, is a game informed by its creators’ past efforts.

Robbins said that he “really enjoyed working on Call of Duty,” describing his work as creative director on several of the series’ campaigns as being akin to “making a summer blockbuster.” He also said the confines of the series “did feel limiting” from a design standpoint.

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“After a while, you know that the box within which we are designing [Call of Duty] is fairly narrow,” he explained. “It has to be realistic; it has to be military; it has to be all these things. Even when we made more exotic Call of Dutys, like [2014’s] Advanced Warfare, which was a little bit futuristic, it still had to be very, very grounded, and you never wanted to pull the audience too far away from what they’re used to.”

The possibilities afforded by a fantasy setting opened up greater possibilities not just for combat, but for narrative and visual design as well. “That was very liberating as a designer,” Robbins said of the departure. “Being able to think about any kind of enemy or ability, spell, weapon, level location, anything.”

Abstracting the kind of war stories featured in Call of Duty—a series whose single-player plots often consist of feverish Tom Clancy–style nightmares of international diplomacy in violent fallout—also allows Aveum to discuss some of the same topics with a degree of remove. “You don’t trigger the kneejerk reaction,” Robbins said. “People can actually think about [these themes] because maybe they’re not even thinking of it as an analogy until later.” Rather than directly reference pressing issues by name, the inventions of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy can provide a lens that does away with specific preconceptions and real-world complications.

“I think this has been done for forever in genre fiction,” Robbins said. He pointed to Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one example of a horror movie “speaking to the cultural fears of the time,” and credits genre fiction with allowing audiences to examine real-world problems “under a microscope to some degree, in a maybe emotionally safer place.”

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“We definitely wanted to have certain messages resonate throughout,” Robbins said, adding that he “wanted the story to be a little messy” in its portrayal of war and the complexity of its characters’ moral standing within that conflict.

Recent releases like Tango Gameworks’ GhostWire: Tokyo and Luminous Productions’ Forspoken have, like Immortals of Aveum, swapped guns for magic spells in what could otherwise have been fairly standard takes on first- and third-person shooter design. Their goals—and the success of their approach—may have been different, but, together, they show the possibilities inherent in shooters set outside of strictly realistic settings.

Immortals of Aveum is an uneven game, and its greatest successes in narrative and combat are obscured by sluggish opening hours that hide the greater complexity in both aspects for too long. But it’s a commendable, imaginative departure from its creators’ past, and a strong proof of concept for Ascendant’s vision of a mainstream, big-budget shooter that has plenty to say about the world we live in while creating a new, fantastical one to explore.

Immortals of Aveum$60 at Steam Store (PC)$70 at Microsoft Store (Xbox)$70 at PlayStation Store

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