I’m cheating slightly for this week’s column, as Selaco is not an official Early Access game, although you can still “access” it “early” via a free demo that recently launched on Steam. Nevertheless, I urge you to play it. In fact, I order you to play it, right now. Forget work, forget your partner/child/pet/anime body pillow. Forget your basic bodily functions like digestion or circulating blood. Selaco is more important than any of them.
Designed and published by Altered Orbit Studios, Selaco is a first-person shooter with two primary inspirations, the 1995 immersive sim System Shock, and the 2005 FPS F.E.A.R. It sees you play as a youthful anime lady named Dawn (who’s dressed like she should be piloting Voltron’s leg) as she blasts her way through what I initially thought was a space-station, but is in fact an Earth-bound underground refuge for the last remnants of humanity.
The first thing to note about Selaco is that it is built in GZDoom, a source-ported version of the engine that powered id Software’s 1993 masterpiece. The second thing to note about Selaco is that it is one of the best-looking shooters I have ever played. What Altered Orbit has achieved with GZDoom is nothing short of astonishing, blending incredible sprite-work with modern lighting techniques and one of the most distinctive colour palettes I’ve seen in any FPS. It’s such a huge elaboration over the baseline Doom tech that the game doesn’t really look retro at all, instead occupying the same exciting hybrid space as a game like Amid Evil, right down to the sprite-based weapons that trick your brain into thinking they’re 3D models.
This suffusion of old and new ideas extends into how Selaco plays. Selaco throws you into the action within five seconds of starting a new game, with Dawn awakening in her room to the rumble of distant explosions as the facility is invaded by an unknown military force. Moments later, those explosions come knocking, blasting her door open and forcing her to dash through a gauntlet of heavily armed mercenaries.
It’s an opening that really grabs you by the throat. You can almost feel the detonations wracking the facility through your fingerbones, while the way Dawn throws up her hand to protect her face is a pleasing immersive flourish. The fact you start without a weapon threw me slightly on my first run, however, not least because the environments are quite mazey and dense with objects, and I thought that I’d missed something important.
Eventually I navigated my way to my first gun, at which point the Selaco demo properly kicks off, with you zipping around the maps slide-tackling enemies and shredding them into purple goo with your jackhammer of an assault rifle. It isn’t just your opponents your bullets rip through either. One of Selaco’s two big nods to F.E.A.R is how destructive environments are. Your shots rip gaping holes in walls and ceilings, obliterate environmental objects like vending machines and desktops, and shatter the many windows and panels in the facility, scattering glass across the floor that crunches underfoot. It’s a shooter where you’re not just a participant in its action scenes, but the director, setting off all manner of special effects baked into the environments.
Yet it’s the other feature borrowed from F.E.A.R that truly makes Selaco’s combat. Your opponents are not mindless cannon fodder. They’re cunning, adaptive foes that work together, constantly trying to flank you and evade being directly targeted. They also communicate with each other, calling out your location to their teammates, requesting backup, or cursing as you in panicked fashion as you kill another of their teammates. Selaco convinces you that you’re fighting against thinking agents, and that makes it all the more satisfying when you pain the nearest wall with their magenta insides.
It’s a tremendous proof of concept, thoroughly entertaining and, despite being heavily bookended with disclaimers, impressively slick. That said, I could identify a few quibbles if you handed me a microscope. As referenced earlier, the path forward through levels is not always clear, and the flow of the combat was occasionally interrupted with a few minutes of searching for the next area. Moreover, Dawn’s character design doesn’t quite fit with the broader aesthetic. Selaco’s cultural heritage is distinctly western, yet Dawn looks like she got lost on the way to an Evangelion convention. It’s an odd combination, although given Selaco is played in first-person, one that doesn’t matter that much.
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. Like all the best retro shooters, Selaco takes a bunch of dusty ideas off the shelf and mixes them up to produce something fresh and invigorated. It shines a light on systems that, had they been pursued further at the time, may have resulted in a very different trajectory for the genre. If the final game is anything like the experience the demo provides, oof. What a treat you’re in for.