In 2012, I purchased a Star Citizen ship. I paid top dollar for a Cutlass Black — a small, sleek freighter with plenty of cargo space for booty — as my friends and I fully bought into Chris Roberts’ grandiose vision, dreaming of when we would sail the high galactic tides as space pirates.

In the decade since, I’ve come to accept I’ll probably never get to live that virtual fantasy (or get my money’s worth) but indie developer Small Impact Studios is offering new hope for cutthroat adventures in the void with their early access survival shooter, Marauders.

It’s gritty, unforgiving and absolutely broken — and I’ve put in more than 20 hours in just a week.

In the alternate future-past of 1992, a 70-year war between three empires has exhausted Earth and taken mankind to the stars. It’s a gritty Dieselpunk setting replete with industrial grunge, gas masks, and all the favorite firearms from any WWII shooter — the STG-44, M1918 BAR, PPSh-41 and more.

Players raid the resources of space stations and facilities to complete quests, rank up, increase their faction standing, and, of course, grab the best gear. 

A raid typically starts with players matchmaking in a server and spawning in their chosen ship within a large space field littered with asteroids, space debris, and the occasional automated defensive system. From here they can duke it out, board other player ships, or head towards the center where there is typically a large station of some kind to dock at — a deep-space prison, navy outpost, or asteroid mine. Rarely, large AI ships will also spawn, ripe for the plunder.

With a 25-minute limit due to available oxygen, players will need to decide how they’ll spend their time before heading to the warp gate extract with enough time to get there.

Before stalking through the sometimes-mazelike complexes, they’ll have to consider what items to bring with them to aid in the search — lockpicks for locked doors or a blowtorch to bust a vault, for example — and then keep in mind what loot they’re after (generally mats for crafting back at home base) and keeping an eye on just how much they can Tetris into their backpacks.

Taking all this into account, it’s get in and get the hell out, with a core loop that’s easy to get hooked on but hard to master, even if it might be familiar to fans of titles Escape from Tarkov, although the systems are much less complicated at this point and players won’t be managing their hydration.

Marauders is also like Tarkov — and to a lesser extent, Hunt: Showdown — in that it is incredibly punishing.

The time-to-kill is low, encouraging stealth and ambushes rather than stand-up firefights which often end in a single spray of bullets, the winner determined more by weapon and armor values than by talent. 

Firefights against AI — which populate facilities and will attack players on sight — can be unpredictable. Sometimes they walk right towards the player and stare confusedly before finally opening fire (if they even get the chance) while at other times they’ll snipe a headshot from who knows where. I’ve even seen the AI wall-hack and try to shoot me through a solid metal partition.

Sound design has a long way to go. Currently, there does not seem to be any differentiation between height and room. That means if another player or AI is walking on a gangplank two floors above a player inside another building, it can sound like that enemy is right beside them, leading to much confusion about where the opposition is.

On a similar note, bugs and crashes are also a regular occurrence. Players who want to dive right in must be very clear on the fact that Marauders is still very much an early access game, along with all that entails. Losing equipment or other tech hiccups can be incredibly frustrating, so be prepared for a game that is not anywhere near final.

And despite all that, I keep coming back.

Even in its currently-janky early access state, Marauders offers an addictive grind that tests the player and rewards them with sweet victory when it all comes together. Those intrigued by the Dieselpunk setting or players looking for a survival shooter to push their endurance will find a lot to love — just be prepared for random rough spots until the game goes gold.

— Stephen Cook

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