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Tense objective-based multiplayer warfare in a voxel landscape with both unlimited destruction and construction options, all for free.

July 23rd, 2020

Ace of Spades Classic is a multiplayer first-person-shooter that first came out in 2011, developed by a single developer for free. The catch is that every map and world was made of voxels, and any player could dig out and harvest blocks from anywhere, and place more blocks anywhere. Players could dig trenches and tunnels and foxholes, or could build forts and towers. They could take advantage of the terrain, tunneling through mountains and hills for offense or building a sniper fortress on top for defense. They could build their own defensive structures from scratch, or take advantage of pre-existing civilian structures and outfit them to be better suited to defense, instead of merely fighting through them. They could even damage enemy structures and terrain with gunfire and grenade explosions. The possibilities of combat were limitless in the form of the player freedom to alter the map as they needed.
Suddenly, the map wasn't just a static playground for battle but rather an evolving and changing beast of mounting flank routes and trenches and fortresses and outposts and holdouts. Gunfire and explosions tore apart both god-crafted terrain and man-made structures. Some areas received the love of soldiers aspiring for a better defense, and were repaired mid-battle despite the oncoming gunfire, in the name of fortifying the area and providing more cover from gunfire. Strategic areas underwent the most wear and tear of war, while more superfluous areas were maybe used as a passing flank tunnel zone at best. The map was another player in the war of each match, responding to player inputs and altering to favor one side over the other through the course of player action.
The game got fairly popular for basically being Minecraft with guns, so much so that a little company called Jagex bought the rights to make a commercialized version while shutting down the official site for the free version. Despite an excitement and hype that ran high, all they managed to produce was a mediocre product that deviated too much from the original and offered too many twists and gimmicks that ultimately detracted from the experience, all for $15. While players held out hope that the game would improve over time, all it got was a lame DLC that added a few skins and maps and costed way more money, and after all of that, they abandoned the game, stopped updating it, eventually shut down the servers after a few years, and released a spiritual successor by a completely different name that was a little better than mediocre. As a result of Jagex's actions, Ace of Spades Classic almost disappeared off the face of the earth for a little while. It only lives on because a few people held on to the original client executables and were able to reverse engineer a server solution. Eventually, a community formed around this game called Build and Shoot. Their website hosts information about the game, downloads for client and server software, a server browser on the website itself, forums, news, a chat, and plenty more. It's a nice little community that really helps keep this game populated.
Now, all of the Jagex drama is behind us, and the game not only lives on, but it reinvigorates itself, taking a breath of the rejuvenating power of open-source, now that both open source server software and open source clients are available. What matters now is the game itself.
This review is a little different from the last two since this is the first time I've reviewed the multiplayer portion of a game, since all this game has is multiplayer. I'll walk you through a match I hopped into earlier today.

But first, an overview on game modes.

There's a few popular game modes for this game. Some are built right in, while some are made possible via plugins and mods installed on the server. Any ordinary Ace of Spades Classic client can connect to them just fine. All of these game modes are team-based; there are no free-for-all gamemodes, at least that I know of.

Earlier, I hopped into a TOW game. It was a custom server that had bots set to "hard" difficulty filling empty slots until players joined. There were about 6 or so human players on the server total, distributed fairly equally across the teams. I went around, tried to help my team capture all the objectives, and tried out and took screenshots of various weapons and tactics to give you a window into how a match of Ace of Spades goes.

The match

To start this match, I joined green team, picked my favorite weapon, and jumped into the fray. I spawned into a dense desert city map near my team in front of the last point they successfully captured, right out in the open but far away from the opposing team.

Already, we can see the game's construction come into play. This was a building designed into the level by the level builder, but someone used their shovel to modify the building to have extra holes in it, and used their blocks to build a staircase to ascend the building. This is one of Ace of Spades greatest strengths over other shooters; in other shooters, you navigate around the buildings and you have to figure out how to make them best suit your playstyle. In Ace of Spades, you don't need to find the doorway to a building when you can just use your shovel to just put a hole in the building you can walk through, and then you can carve out windows and holes to shoot out of instead of adhereing to what the developer left for you. Of course, modifying the building is a double edged sword. It lets the enemy know you're there and gives them an idea of where you'll be popping out to shoot at them from. Leave a building completely untouched, and they might pass it by thinking it's empty, allowing you to shoot them in the back as they run past you.
Back to the game, I needed to get my bearings and go fight with my team, so I pulled up my map.

This map is really useful for getting your bearings. Not only does it show you where your teammates are, it also shows you where they're facing, where the objectives are, and even the general flow of gunfire across the battlefield.
So, I decide I want to get closer to the enemy. I'm carrying a shotgun, which benefits greatly from getting into medium to close range with the enemy and brawling it out. To get closer to the enemy, I pay attention to my minimap, work my way towards the gunfire, and I try to stay inside by tunneling through buildings with my shovel.
So, I finally get to the front line. I'm inside a building. I know they're outside. So, I shovel through the wall to create a window a few blocks above my head.

I have a window to fire out of that I am not yet exposed through. However, I need to get up there. So, I go ahead and build a staircase leading up.

Now that I have a window to shoot out of and a way up, I decide to peek out and take a few potshots with my shotgun.
However, I whiffed my climb and climbed on the window, exposing myself too much, and concealment and cover isn't enough to keep you alive if you're not using it right.

I could go on about what I did after I respawned, but I'm sure you get the idea. You can form up with your team, cooperate, carve out some cover around the front lines, peek out at enemies at medium range, and get a few kills. However, that's just one tactic I was using for this game. There's all sorts of other ones afforded by the sandbox of Ace of Spades. Here's a few off the top of my head.

The scope of Ace of Spade's "combat sandbox"

Those are just the tactics, too. Don't even get me started on the weapons.

Oh no, I'm getting started on weapons.

I'll go ahead and get the weapons and tools that aren't guns out of the way before talking about the guns you can pick. You spawn with all three of these.
The shovel is useful for destroying and harvesting blocks, adding them to your inventory. You can also whack players with it to kill them up close and you can use the alternate functionality (right click) to dig out tunnels faster at the cost of not harvesting any of the blocks.
Speaking of blocks, you spawn with 50 of them, which is the max amount you can carry. You can place them by left clicking, or you can hold down right click to place down a line of them, which is incredibly useful for quickly building walls and stairs in the heat of battle. You can also place them in whatever color you want; copy the color of a block you're looking at with "e", or use the arrow keys to select a color out of the corner of the screen.
Finally, grenades. You get three of them when you spawn in. You can cook them before throwing by holding down the button to throw them, or you can just throw them by clicking once. They have a 3 second fuse time before exploding. 'nuff said.
Of course, two of these three tools are finite and run out if you use them too much, and they're not alone; you've obviously also got limited health and ammo for your main weapon. So, if you ever run out of ammo or grenades or blocks, or you're low on health, you can find one of your team's tents around the map like the one pictured below.

Crouch inside of it, and you'll get ALL of your health and supplies back (including grenades and building blocks).
All that said, let's get to the primary weapons. There's three of them, and you can only equip one. You pick one at spawn. Three doesn't sound like much, but they're all very distinct and reasonably specialized, and they all have strengths and weaknesses, some more utilitarian and situational than others. So, there is a weapon that's meaningfully more convenient than the other options for whatever tactic is on your mind, despite the small number of different weapons.

The rifle

A slow firing battle rifle. Has a 10 round magazine and starts with 50 in reserve. It's slow to fire and reload, but it does plenty of damage per shot, and, most importantly, can normally kill any player in the game with a single headshot. It also takes a while to run out of ammo with if you've a good aim and you don't waste all your ammo. However, in comparison to other weapons, it can be cumbersome to use in close quarters. It also does somewhat mediocre damage on a bodyshot. If you use it for bodyshots instead of headshots, you'll likely lose gunfights to people with rifles who can hit their headshots. If you fight someone up close, you'd better be good at hitting headshots at that close distance; miss your one shot, and they'll mow you down with an SMG or blow you away with a shotgun in the time it takes for the next one to be ready. It's the most commonly used weapon in the game.

The sub machine gun

A fast firing weapon with a 30 round magazine and 120 in reserves to start. It's weak per shot, has a slow reload, runs out of ammo completely faster than the other weapons, and lacks the instant kaboom power of a shotgun blast up close or the plink of a rifle headshot from afar, but it can kill people at both ranges using short controlled bursts for the head at long range or sprays at close range. More impressively, though, it's the best weapon for destroying blocks, forts, and terrain; the blocks take a fixed amount of damage per hit regardless of the weapon, so this being a fast firing weapon that puts out lots of low damage bullets, you can use it to force enemies to keep their heads down, or you can shoot apart the cover they hide behind. It's a great weapon for new players since it's versatile enough to be useful at nearly any range, it can be easier to control since it's not an all or nothing headshot weapon and it has a fast rate of fire, and the downside of running out of ammo quickly doesn't matter if you're a noob who's going to get sniped before then anyways. Note that this doesn't necessarily mean it only has value as a "noob gun", either; if you're going to move with a squad of people, having a few machine gunners to put the pressure on fortifications and enemies can be very invaluable, and it can take coordination and skill to use the SMG to it's fullest extent in this regard since the machine gunners need to know where to be, when to be there, and why.

The shotgun

The shotgun has 6 rounds to a load and 48 in reserve when you spawn in with it. It does a massive amount of damage spread out over pellets that spread themselves out. It's near useless at long range, sort of lackluster at medium range (2 or so headshots with a slow firing weapon in order to kill an opponentis fine, but doesn't directly compare to the one tap potential of a rifle or even the retaliatory spray of a machine gun, so you'll need to find other ways to gain the advantage in that fight), but extremely devastating at close range; you may not even need a headshot to get an instant kill on a full health player. The reloading is also noteworthy; Unlike the other guns in this game, the reload is fast and interruptable, meaning you can jump into a battle up close with multiple enemies, shoot them all once each, begin to reload one shell, see another enemy round the corner, and stop reloading and fire the shell you just loaded to kill said enemy, only to resume reloading right afterwards. With any other gun, you're stuck with that reload and you're caught with your pants down. However, you can't catch a shotgunner with their pants down quite the same way as a rifler or machine gunner. This can make a shotgun player terrifying to fight up close. However, the issue is getting close enough to where the shotgun has it's advantage realized. Most player carry rifles and SMGs, meaning they'll be able to shoot you before you can reach them. So, if you want to take advantage of the shotgun's potential, you have to get way closer to your enemies than usual, which can be very challeinging, often times more so than spawing in with a rifle and shooting them all in the head. As a result, the shotgun is the least used weapon in regular Ace of Spades Classic multiplayer, although it's still far from useless and is sometimes used effectively, especially with defensive tactics that revolve around waiting for an enemy to come to you and ambushing them.

Ultimately, it's up to you which weapon is best for your situation. If you're unsure, pick the rifle and try to get good at hitting headshots with it. If you're playihg around with some friends, it's worth it diversifying your squad. Maybe it'll be mostly rifleman with a few machine gunners to supress enemy cover and one shotgunner appointed to run in and risk it all. Either way, there's a surprising amount of freedom and depth packed into the choice between just 3 different weapons.

With freedom comes tactical play and tension

Of course, you're not the only one hiding in every nook and cranny; so is your enemy! And in this game, it only takes a few stray bullets to kill a player, if not one. So, each match is a tense push-and-pull of attempting to maneuver around cover and gunfire, attempting to assemble cover or find a creative way to get where you need to be, and careful shooting as you attempt to hit that headshot you need to drop that guy with the rifle who's shooting your buddies. Despite the blocky and simple aesthetic, this game can feel a little bit tense at times as the battlefield roars with gunfire, explosions, and blocks crumbling underneath the chaos thereof, and each match really does feel like an honest to god moshpit battle. What's more, seeing as though players can tunnel around anywhere they like, they really can be anywhere. You could be on top of a mountain focusing on the main enemy front with your rifle when a few blocks out of a cliff face crumble behind you and you see someone emerge and shoot you in the head with a rifle. You could be digging a trench and backtracking to retreat when you notice paths that weren't there before, and enemy soldiers that also weren't there before, and a hole in your helmet and forehead that also weren't there before. Even without getting creative, merely exposing yourself to the front for a brief moment could be enough for that one dot off into the distance to take your head clean off. As a result, the game can feel surprisingly tactical as you maneuver around the battlefield wary of all your surroundings, despite the unrealistic construction and destruction mechanics that make the game what it is. Maybe the game doesn't approach Insurgency or Counter Strike levels of tension, but it really does sell the idea that you're part of a larger force waging war on a battlefield, and you really need to work with your team to survive, since you alone can't build the fort fast enough and big enough all by yourself, especially when all it takes is one rifle shot to the head for anyone in this game to meet their maker.
It's this ease of death that rewards more methodical play. For example, if you just run up to a building and start thoughtlessly tearing holes in it with your shovel and calling it a fort, you'll get shot from all sorts of angles. If you enter the building, carefully consider where to shoot out from to maximize your line of fire and minimize your exposure, and you carefully dig out the windows to shoot from without standing directly in front of them so that you don't get shot before you even have a chance to shoot back, you'll be way more likely to win fights and survive. Maybe you'll take a look at the clusterfuck battle happening over an area of the map, and you'll take a look at the nearby hill, and you'll decide to tunnel around. Carefully picking a flank from which to enter the arena is way more reliable than just tunneling straight for the enemy; it means you can attack from a place they wouldn't expect that would give you and your team the right firepower in the right place in a way to make winning the fight more convenient and doable for you.
A thoughtless player carves a hole to shoot out of where the enemies can see, peeks out, and gets shot because a smarter enemy saw the hole being carved out and directed his rifle aim there to shoot him before he could peek out. A smart player might find a place out of sight and out of mind for most enemies, such as an area to their flank, or directly above them. Another smart player will dig out 5 or 6 potential positions to shoot from that the enemy can see without exposing themselves, and then they'll pick a random one to peek out of so that the enemy can't predict where they'll be, or what timing they'll use to peek out. A smart player will be aware of the noise that tunneling makes, that walking makes, etc., and they'll know how to sneak around enemy players.
There's always something to consider, always something you can do to improve, always a more careful and logical way to go about a battle, always a more thoughtful approach to warfare, and this game rewards that thought. Carelessness, by contrast, is punished hard in this game. If you want a multiplayer shooter that you can approach a little more slowly and think a little more about, this might be the one for you.

My final verdict

This article progressively stepping out of review territory and into guide and tutorial territory, so I'll give my final thoughts real quick.
For being a completely free game, Ace of Spades Classic is a very fun and engaging battlefield-style experience that successfully combines the creativity of something like Minecraft with the tactical play of something like Battlefield. If you want to try out a different multiplayer FPS experience with friends, give this game a shot. It's free, and you'll actually have more fun playing with friends since you'll be able to move together as a squad of sorts, covering each other's backs and cooperating to build and tunnel even faster and more efficiently, as well as diversify your squad with different weapons and ideas and playstyles.
Now, if you're tired of hearing me gush on about how cool this game is, feel free to check out Build and Shoot to get started with the game.

Happy fragging!

Potato report: Can your potato run this game?

Yes! It's built on a game engine that's older than dirt and there's open source clients for it. I've even gotten this game running well on a Raspberry Pi 4!
There's two free and open source clients for this game, both of which run on Linux: Open Spades and Better Spades.

Better Spades

Open Spades

I hope you enjoyed reading my review of Ace of Spades Classic!

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