Finally, a playable documentary on how antivirus software REALLY works.

In Retrovirus you take on the role of an anti-virus program sent out to track down and destroy a particularly nasty worm that’s infected the computer in which you reside. But as an “Agent” inhabiting a world of bits and bytes that’s shaped to resemble our own, the process is very hands-on: Your tools are the digital equivalent of shotguns and rocket launchers, and the worm and its minions are doing their level best to kill you. It’s not without flaws, but somehow this strange, low-priced indie game turned out to be one of the most entertaining shooters I’ve played in an awfully long time. 

Retrovirus is a “six degrees of freedom” shooter – 6DOF for short – which means you’re traveling in a zero-gravity environment and can move forward, backward, left, right, up and down with equal ease – or just hover in place if you need a break. Enemies can literally come at you from any direction and except for navigational purposes, the concept of floors, ceilings and walls have little meaning. It looks and even sounds very much like Tron 2.0, the decade-old (and sadly overlooked) shooter based on the cult classic film Tron, with all the action taking place in a persistent digital society inside a computer, complete with buildings, extravagant neon lighting and even a population of citizens that works to keep it all functioning. The actual gameplay, however, is much more akin to Descent, an even older game that nonetheless remains the most famous 6DOF shooter of all time.

Your pursuit of the insidious worm begins on (or, more accurately, in) the Desktop and will take you through Email, the Web Browser, the File System, the Operating System and other locales, each made up of multiple levels and under the control of a unique overlord. It’s a fantastic and clever world, with plentiful voice acting that’s actually quite good. QAT, who rules the web browser, is a real highlight and everything you’d expect – friendly, playful, perhaps not entirely reliable but good-hearted, if a bit self-interested – while information and guidance comes from Oracle, the commanding general of the anti-virus army. A parallel sub-plot unfolds via found email fragments that turn up along your journey, telling the tale of a sinister cybercrime; it’s not at all necessary or even relevant to the game, but it is interesting and a good excuse to explore the game world’s many nooks and crannies.

Retrovirus

For the most part, Retrovirus moves at a relatively relaxed pace – even at full steam, the Agent is no speed demon – and when combat does get too intense, which will happen with increasing frequency as the game progresses, it’s usually not too difficult to withdraw to safety for a quick recharge. You’ll face a number of different kinds of enemies, some infected citizens and others a kind of pseudo-organic spawn of the worm, each with its own type of attack, and the computer world is also infested with glowing purple pustules that represent the viral infection. Fortunately, the Agent has numerous weapons and abilities that can be modified and improved by killing enemies and finding “memory modules” scattered throughout the world. More than three dozen upgrade options are available, allowing for a significant amount of Agent customization, and although there’s no way to access more than a small fraction of them, they can be swapped around at will, encouraging experimentation and offering adaptation options for specific situations.

Retrovirus is very well polished but it does occasionally betray signs of its indie heritage. There are no cut scenes and the launch screen is minimal, and I experienced one or two clipping errors during my time with it, where segments of walls would suddenly disappear when viewed at a certain distance and angle. Some road signs did not display messages when scanned and the waypoint finder, a very handy tool for finding your way through the often maze-like corridors, also occasionally refused to function.

And believe me, you will need help finding your way. It’s a feature, not a bug, but Retrovirus is incredibly disorienting, and flailing around in high-speed battles can very quickly leave you with no sense of “up” and no idea where you came from or where you’re going. Color-coded checkpoints and lights in some areas will let you know you’re headed in the right (or wrong) direction, but you can still expect to lose your bearings on a very regular basis.

Retrovirus

It’s also a big game – a little too big, in fact. The settings and level design are great but can’t mask the repetition as the game stretches on, which becomes even more pronounced when you actually end up making a second pass through areas you’d supposedly already cleared out. Taking down the bad guy, only to learn that you have to double back and chase down a presumably even badder guy, can turn things into a bit of a grind. Even so, a variety of multiplayer modes are also supported for those who just can’t get enough of it, although very few people appear to be playing it online.

The fact that I’m complaining about “too much of a good thing” should tell you all you need to know. Retrovirus deserves big kudos for delivering a fresh, imaginative and highly-polished shooter experience. You may not have heard of this game, but don’t be fooled: If you’re a shooter fan, you definitely don’t want to miss it.