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The Endless Mission is a Jack of All Trades, Master of None

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In modern gaming, the line between developers and players is becoming smaller. Fan mods form the basis of full-fledged games, from rule changing in CounterStrike to creating a whole new genre in auto-chess battlers. User-generated content is the key draw to Super Mario Maker 2, with the near-infinite supply of new Mario levels dwarfing the title’s campaign. Within this space, The Endless Mission hopes to draw a crowd of inventive creators, offering tools for game development similar to the Unity interface. Developed by E-Line Media, which is best known for educational arctic platformer Never Alone, this genre-mashing, level-hacking, code-teaching game is wildly ambitious, but not much fun to play in its current early access state.

The Endless Mission begins with the player stepping into the Terminal, an intimidating architectural marvel that houses a variety of games. The titles should be divided into different categories: platformers, real time strategy, and racing genres, but due to a data leak the worlds are bleeding into each other. Worried about the safety of the AI inhabitants of the games, the player is sent into the computer to help from the inside, using the ability to hack the virtual world to save its troubled citizens.

Gameplay broadly falls into three categories: finished levels created within the program, a single-player campaign, and the toolset for user-created levels. Each aspect is woefully incomplete at this stage of development. Two levels are present in the finished section, dubbed ‘The Hall of Genres’.

The Endless Mission Blackclaw

The first is a 3D platformer starring a pirate cat named Capitán Blackclaw. Her level is an open exploration collect-em-up, reminiscent of Banjo-Kazooie or Super Mario 64. Unlike those stellar influences, however, Blackclaw is extremely unpleasant to control, with slippery physics and a stuttering frame rate making the platforming puzzles an exercise in frustration. Blackclaw’s movement simply feels wrong: her jump is far too long, with overshooting platforms a common problem, and her tall stature makes jumping on the heads of enemies awkward. One fun feature of The Endless Mission is the ability to change the statistics of objects on the fly, which in theory would let one create tighter controls, but Blackclaw’s jump is sadly unavailable for editing. Movement problems are exacerbated by the lack of gamepad support, since analogue sticks often provide the best control scheme for tackling a 3D platformer. Blackclaw’s level contains five objectives to be completed within a 20 minute time limit, but the goal is nigh impossible due to the poor controls.

 The other finished level is a real-time strategy map, which unfortunately also faces some serious issues. This world uses a voxel system for graphics, which results in smoother performance than the platforming section, but the units are hard to read. The map uses three archetypal troop types: fighter, archer, and mage; but they are hard to distinguish from each other thanks to their blobby grey helmets. Lacking any instruction, figuring out how to create new buildings (selecting a worker rather than any of the structures) may take quite some time, and the absence of a pause function allows little time for experimentation. The enemy AI does not function correctly; in one match, I had been thoroughly beaten, stuck in the loop of being unable to create any new structures due to losing all my workers, but the enemy never went in for the kill, just danced around menacingly near my town.

These two levels are the very first things the player is shown; they must both be played before the main campaign is unlocked. Such a lack of polish leaves a terrible first impression, and the absence of basic control explanation would leave many confused. Most players would be able to muddle through the platforming controls, but might miss the double jump and air-dash techniques. The staples of the RTS genre are far less well-known, on the other hand, and are more variable than the standards of platformers. Judging from the art and humour of the title, The Endless Mission is skewed towards a younger audience, many of whom might have never played an RTS before. As a celebration of genres, the finished levels should be well-explained and represent shining examples of what the powerful creation tool can do.

The main campaign, dubbed adventure mode, fares better than the example levels. Travelling through the blocky RTS world in first person, the player helps troops beat back a computer virus by hacking the game with one hand, and swinging a sword with the other. Hacking objects can be done in relation to three aspects of an item: its global, spatial, or physics aspects. This results in activities such as growing, shrinking, and rotating platforms to progress; damaging enemies with a blast of ‘reduce creature health’; and programming back in a win condition upon collecting a pineapple. This system is easy to pick up, and, unlike the example games, is explained well. The hacking is also a great introduction into how putting a game together actually works, demonstrating if-then statements in an easy to understand manner.

The campaign is still incomplete, with platforming and racing worlds yet to be implemented and is not without buggy behaviours. After several attempts to defeat a boss enemy in the second mission, the creature failed to load in at all, making progress impossible. An option to ‘restart section’ in the menu would be helpful, rather than requiring the player to replay the lengthy mission from the beginning.

Finally, the game features a Hall of Celebration, where the most popular user creations are displayed. The title did not have user-generated content at the time of playing due to its pre-release state, but the development team has populated the section with examples of what the engine can do. The 3D platforming is transformed into a 2.5D city exploration in one level and an endless runner in another. RTS levels offer more defined goals, and in one case is transformed into a twin-stick shooter. These levels still present some inherent clunkiness, but do a solid job of showing off the variety of genres the title is capable of creating.

A big ‘your game here’ sign invites the player to try game creation for themselves, but the creation tool is rather intimidating. Loading up the tool presents the player with a large grey field, with an enormous library of assets listed down the right hand side of the screen. Objects can be dragged and dropped from the asset list onto the blank canvas, and then assigned stats much the same way that objects are hacked in adventure mode. Getting further than this step, however, is a struggle. At present, the game lacks a tutorial for level creation. A button for ‘video tutorials’ loads a browser window full of short video clips, where the core concepts of creation are explained, but the slow, dry presentation of facts runs counter to the personality of the game, a serious study of development rather than a primer for beginners.

Since the goal of The Endless Mission is to make game creation fun and compelling, a bit more structure here is vital. The lack of approachability is somewhat balanced out by the real world skills gained, since creating within The Endless Mission is very similar to programming in Unity. However, when the competitors in the user-generated content market offer highly intuitive interfaces, such as in Roblox or Garry’s Mod, this dense wall of study is intimidating. Perhaps a compromise could be to implement a series of short levels where the player needs to fix something, an extension of the campaign’s item manipulation that would go deeper into the cogs of level design.

Although clearly still a work in progress, with stuttering and slowdown commonplace, the presentation of The Endless Mission is coming along nicely. The stark contrast of the ultra-modern Terminal to the tropical beaches of Blackclaw’s world to the blocky voxel RTS land makes each area feel distinct, a grand adventure through a virtual reality. The voice cast of The Endless Mission is a veritable who’s who of the voice acting world, with Laura Bailey, Jennifer Hale, Alix Wilton Regan, and more lending their talents to the story campaign. The writing is a bit cringe-inducing, with the AI assistant Ada immediately getting on one’s nerves, but younger players should enjoy the constant joking around.

In its current state, The Endless Mission is hard to recommend. Performance is rough across the board, with long load times and a lot of stuttering on a reasonably high-end rig. Online and offline saves are incompatible, which is highly inconvenient for those with a poor internet connection. The project is aimed at younger gamers, but lacks accessibility for those who might be encountering a new genre for the first time. The developer might have been better served in polishing one section first, rather than presenting three half-finished modes out the gate.

However, polishing a game is what early access is all about. E-Line Media has a clear roadmap for future development, with the racing section releasing in December and multiplayer early next year. The developer has a strong background in educational software and could well find a way to make crafting within the engine fun and approachable. Only the most die-hard amateur game creators should jump on The Endless Mission right now, but the game’s potential is certainly endless.

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