It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game like Nexuiz. I know this because I keep hitting the reload button after firing my gun. You know, to keep a full clip. But no such thing happens in Nexuiz, a game that recalls a time before reload buttons. This game, which has a history as a Quake mod, is a throwback to the 90s, as fast as Quake, as slick as Unreal Tournament, and as blissfully unencumbered by narrative as any skill-based shooter.

But if that was all Nexuiz was about, who would need it now that we can play Quake in a web browser? Fortunately, Nexuiz — prounounced “Nexwheeze” in my mind — has something else up its sleeve.

After the jump, the dice are as loaded as the guns

When you get a killstreak in Call of Duty, you unlock a special power. You could say these powers break the rules of the game. Now you can see the other team through walls, or you can drop an explosion directly onto the map, or you can drive a tiny bomb around, or you can summon dogs or helicopters. These occasional breaks in the usual running and gunning are partly what makes Call of Duty great.

Nexuiz works by the same principle, but instead of predetermined powers you get for a killstreak, you basically roll the dice. It’s like a pull on a slot machine, and three powers randomly appear. They then loiter on the lower right side of the screen until you pick which one of them to use. You can hang on to them as long as you like, firing off your chosen power — you only get to use one of them! — when the time is right. It’s a bit like Mario Kart for how it’s very random and very powerful, capable of flipping the balance of any situation on its end. A little chaos and control at your fingertips.

You’re probably imagining what some of these power might be, and you’re right. Unlimited ammo, extra speed, higher jumping, invisibility, and so forth. But Nexuiz isn’t content with the usual stuff. These mutators, as they’re called, are many and varied. Some of them affect just you. Some of them help your team. Some of them cripple the other team. Some of them change the rules of scoring, spawning, or even physics. Some of them alter the graphics, or sound effects, or lighting. There’s a mutator for each of the weapons that gives you a superpowered version of that weapon.

But then there are the truly tricky mutators. Steal another players mutator at random. When the other team hits you with a crippling mutator, flip it back at them. Instantly summon the rest of your team to give an opponent a nasty surprise. Or — my personal favorite — instantly summon the enemy team to your location. Why would you ever want to do that? Maybe because you’re falling to your death and you want some company.

The basic gameplay and graphics are familiar almost to a fault. We’re all thinking it, so I might as well say it: this is pretty much Unreal Tournament 2004, even if it is made with the Crysis engine. But there’s some real craft to how effectively the mutators mix up the game and how well they’re integrated into such fast gameplay. You can play games against bots, which are certainly good enough to make this a viable single-player game (although it’s disappointing that you can’t include bots in multiplayer games). However, Nexuiz fares best as a game about human players trumping other human players, and being trumped in turn. Plunging four enemy bots to their death with the evil summons mutator isn’t nearly as satisfying as doing it to guys on Xbox Live with names like thrillkilla667, hijumpboy, isnipeu, and teh_d3mon.

As you play online matches, you earn points you can use to push die rolls toward your favorite mutators. This is a strictly long-term prospect considering the sheer number of mutators and how slowly you earn points. But it does give Nexuiz a mild sense of persistance without veering into the full-blown RPG elements that are anathema to an arena shooter.

It might seem limiting that you can only play with two teams of up to four players, and that the only game modes are vanilla deathmatch and vanilla capture the flag. But once you start to appreciate the mutators, and especially the way they affect the flag in capture the flag games, you won’t call anything in Nexuiz vanilla. This game is crazy Neapolitan through and through, with a sense of mad glee for how frequently and flagrantly it breaks the rules.

4 stars
Xbox 360