Hands on with Ace of Spades: a Minecraft FPS about guns, dynamite and shovels


Ace of Spades! It’s a pun, because ‘spade’ also means ‘shovel’ and ‘ace’ also means ‘very good at something’. But what is Very Good At Shovels all about? I’ll tell you: this is the Jagex-published, sort-of-voxel-based, free-to-play-turned-premium FPS. It’s one third-Minecraft, one-third standard multiplayer FPS and one-third a sort of realtime Worms 3D. I’ve played with it for a while, in a room full of laptops and games journalists in that there London town. One multiplayer map featured a giant dragon, which I broke, thoroughly impressing one man who had been watching me do it. So that was fun.

Ace of Spades is a team-based multiplayer shooter for up to 32 players. It’s quite a lot like Brick-Force, though seemingly with more emphasis on building in and around pre-existing levels rather than creating your own from scratch. That also means it’s quite a lot like Minecraft too, which is an influence so obvious that it’s hardly worth stating. Minecraft with guns, you could say, if you really wanted to condense things.

Unlike Minecraft however, which blithely ignores gravity and allows most blocks to hover independently of support, Ace of Spades has a rudimentary physics engine that checks whether its blocks are connected to the floor. If they are not, the structure collapses along with any poor souls standing on it, meaning that it’s possible to tactically alter the available routes through a map using carefully placed explosives around, say, bridge supports. Or at the hands and feet of a meticulously modelled, 40-foot tall dragon statue.
When I played Ace of Spades, this degree of thoughtful, beautifuldestruction rarely came into play however. The Lunar Base map features a low-gravity moonscape populated by blocky NASA-white outbuildings and cylindrical hangars connected by a suspended tube snaking through the map. Players from the opposing team would choose the class most suited to tunnelling before carving a subterranean (sublunarean?) path from their spawn point straight into our base. The opening at our end of their tunnel became an increasingly ruinous flashpoint as grenades and gunfire tore chunks out of the room into which it led. It became increasingly difficult for the opposing team to exit the tunnel as the destruction had created a sort of self-reloading, ever-deepening murder-pit.

I was meanwhile trying to destroy the big tube by digging through the struts holding it aloft and using dynamite to disconnect it from its start and end points, figuring it would give a tactical advantage to my team somehow, or at least impress the man who’d shouted when I’d wrecked the dragon in the other map. It did neither, but it was satisfying to make such a significant change to the environment.
Ace of Spades has four classes ranging from almost entirely guns to almost entirely building and digging. Soldier, Scout, Engineer and Miner classes come with unique weapons and tools, such as the Soldier’s mini-gun, the Engineer’s deployable turret and the Miner’s drill gun. The drill gun is a gun that fires a drill, a drill that digs through blocks for a short distance. There are also defensive mines and, if you want to be decorative, luminous blocks to jazz up your buildings.
That said, at no point while playing Ace of Spadewas there an impulse to build any sort of defensive structure. Games just didn’t last long enough.Pre-fabricated buildings and stairs can be placed in the world to save time, but victory is more certainly assured with a gung-ho advance on the enemy’s half of the map. Creating thingstakes time and effort and requires that you put away your gun and stare at the ground for a while, meaning that the chances of you surviving a building project, at least in the game modes we played, are slim. It’s difficult to be toocreative in this violentsandbox.

By design, player-created blocks are hardier than the environment, so perhaps there’s some sense in constructing a solid homestead, especially in Ace of Spades’ zombie mode. Here, player-controlled zombies can only claw away at blocks, and us this abilityto gain entry to a mansion defended by player-controlled humans. Death at the decayed hands of a blocky zombie causes the defeated player to respawn as a member of the undead team, while victory will go to the humans should they survive a set amount of time. Here, we could stave off zombie death by carefully removing parts of the mansion floor, slowing the horde’s attacks and giving us time to pick them off as they approached.
Ace of Spades makes a lot more sense in this mode. With zombies unable to construct their own blocks and walls, intelligent use of the Miner and Engineer classes suddenly becomes integral to a human victory. Clever construction and fun destruction aside though, basic weapons such as rifles and machine guns feel weedy and ineffective with unsatisfying hit detection — given how rapidly the environment turns to smoking craters, it’s jarring that the game’s gunslack anypunch.And while I’m putting the boot in, the character models fall on the crude side of the vanishingly thin line between retro-charm and box-ugliness. Though maybe that’s a matter of taste.

That said, Ace of Spades’ transforming, Worms-esquelandscapes create unpredictable, probably exploitable methods of destroying other players. It’s ruthless (not always in the best sense of the word), cleverand fast-paced.Ace of Spadeslaunches on Steam in December, will handily support Steamworks features, has a big dragon in one of its mapsand will cost “around $10”.