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Shoot Many Robots in Review

The action is equal parts run-and-gun side scroller and any given co-op horde mode. The art style is Borderlands by way of Team Fortress in a cel-shaded illustration style. The transactions are micro and the humor is gratingly juvenile. The game is Shoot Many Robots, a new downloadable from Demiurge and published by UbiSoft.

It made an immediate bad impression on me with comic elements focused mostly on testicles, drinking beer, and “redneck” stereotypes. Had I known that I could pay real money to “nut up” to an “awkwardly large sack” of the game’s currency, I might have passed on the review code. That said, I also might have passed on it if I had known that it’s yet another game in a negative trend that encourages players to continue spending money on the title through an in-game store to unlock new weapons and equipment rather than earning these through gameplay.

Not that the gameplay is any great shakes to begin with, and actually spending enough time with the game to earn enough “nuts” to buy your way into the game’s plentiful wardrobe options and armory would be quite an endurance test. Essentially, it’s a Contra-style game with four-player co-op and as the title suggests, many robots at which to shoot. There are lots of levels and they’re all star-ranked to encourage you to play through multiple times to grind out your nuts (yep), level up, and unlock the more difficult areas. Most are straight-up fights with tons of robots attacking Walter P. Tugnuts (see?) and his cronies but there are also survival levels that test your ability to withstand the robotic onslaught. One touch that I did really like is that if you survive the wave-based areas, you can keep going into bonus rounds.

The problem is that even if you manage to hold your own by machine gunning, freezing, frying, or exploding the many robots, none of the weapons or funny hats that you can buy alleviate the sheer boredom and repetition of it all. This is a single-minded, completely undynamic game despite light RPG elements and although its keen focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s a bad thing when you’re an hour deep into it and you realize that you’re a couple of minutes away from going insane if you have to hear the incessant sound of your bullets plinking against robot hulls any longer.

So you’ll run, jump, and occasionally hold down the trigger to plant your feet and train your fire in any direction. Sometimes you’ll stand in one spot and literally just hold the fire button down, watching the conga line of robots dispense damage numbers before expiring. Keep shooting, and a combo meter multiplies the nuts you can earn. Sometimes, a stronger robot will come out and you’ll have to change position since there’s no way to avoid getting hit reliably. Or maybe you’ll use those fancy pants you bought to slide through the onrushing horde, drinking a beer to replenish your health.

Or, maybe you’ll just get bored and doze off, as I did several times during my review period. There was segment in particular where I would nod off and wonder why I kept returning to this one checkpoint. No amount of “quirky” humor, under-delivered promises of over-the-top mayhem, or been-there-done-that gameplay can make up for a game that is simply so uninspired, unoriginal, and flat out dull.

Shoot Many Robots is exactly the kind of mediocre, ne’er-do-well game that could not exist outside of the low-cost, downloadable marketplace. With similar and superlative genre examples like Outland, Vampire Smile, and Hard Corps: Uprising available through the same outlets- not to mention still-in-circulation classics like Gunstar Heroes- I can’t think of a single element upon which this game can make a case for itself.

It’s not a badly made game by any means, though. It’s completely serviceable for what it is and it’s competently produced but that’s about as far as this wagon will roll. I don’t doubt that some players will get some mileage out of its four-player co-op mode either online or on the couch. But here’s a shocker- almost any game is good and fun to play if you’re doing so with your buddies. And this is a review of Shoot Many Robots, not fun with friends.

No High Scores All-or-Nothing Metascore (on a scale of 0 or 100): 0

Syndicate in Review- Bifurcated Design

My review of Syndicate is up over at the House Mad Catz Built. The long and short of the B- write up is that it’s two decent but not particularly outstanding halves welded together to form a gestalt product that is less than the sum of its parts. It’s a bifurcated design. I really liked what I saw in the early hours as I reported here in my impressions last week, but going the distance with the game revealed a low ceiling over a host of underdeveloped, undernourished ideas. This got me thinking about how utterly screwed up it is that developers are pressured- either internally or externally- to deliver fully realized single player and multiplayer games in a one-size-fits-all package, particularly in the FPS genre.

The reviews of any number of action games with “tacked on” single or multiplayer suites bear out the fact that this approach does not work, particularly when the game types are very different or incongruous. Syndicate is another game that splits its resources between two halves, weakening its own strengths. It’s hardly an overall failure and it’s definitely a “good” game, but neither half is exceptional. Or complementary.

If Starbreeze had designed Syndicate strictly as a four-player co-op game with a short-form mission structure, deeper customization, variation akin to Left 4 Dead, bots, and more content all around, I think it could have been an A-grade game. But somebody- whether it was EA or Starbreeze- wanted this game to follow on with this bifurcated design concept. Syndicate offers two suites of decent but unexceptional content instead of focusing on core competencies and doing what it does best.

The model isn’t exactly new. Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, and any number of games in the 1990s had this sort of dual-purpose design, but we’re also talking about a time when the cost of developing, making, and marketing games even at the highest levels of the business was literally millions of dollars less than it is today. It probably cost a lot of money to design levels, assets, and gameplay components for Syndicate’s single-player game, not to mention paying for music, voice acting, writing production design, playtesting, and other costs. And all of those resources could have- and should have- been brought to bear on the stronger co-op game. Or, the entire single-player game should have been scuttled and the co-op game released as a $15 download with optional content purchases. As it stands, the single player game feels like a tremendous waste while the co-op area feels lean and hungry.

When you’re looking at development budgets and project plans on a Call of Duty or Halo scale, having a “complete” package that appeals to the broadest audience possible and that has offerings for any type of player coming into the game makes sense. At this level of sales and public expectation, it’s good business to divide development and resources between these two areas. Yet we still see time and time again that the single player tends to be the weaker part, because when you get right down to it it’s the multiplayer component that provides longevity and fosters brand loyalty- not to mention long-term monetization and fewer aftermarket copies in circulation. Simply put the ROI on a strong multiplayer component is far better and long-term than what comes out of a strong single player game.

Then there is the issue that comes up every time a AAA shooter comes out where some people inevitably comment about how they never touch either the single or multiplayer part of the game. And then there’s folks like me that do both. Why are we all being sold the same $60 product again?

The games that fall outside of the Halo/Call of Duty tier are the ones where splitting development along these lines hurts them the most. Did Dead Space 2 or Bioshock 2 really need multiplayer? Has anyone checked in on those servers lately to see if there’s anyone playing them? Could the resources spent to create those multiplayer games have been better utilized elsewhere? It seems like such a waste- both of those games had very strong single-player content, and then a slapdash multiplayer that serves little purpose beyond filling in a bulletpoint and likely appeasing some guy in a suit somewhere.

The point of this is that games like Syndicate are shooting themselves in the foot by adhering to this fragmented product model. Purpose-built games that are very specific and limited in focus are the ones that tend to be the best. Not every game should have a single player campaign, and not every game should have a multiplayer option. If you’re going to half or quarter ass it- witness the single-player “challenges” in Gotham City Imposters, which are nonsense like checkpoint races in a game that should be a strictly multiplayer shooter- then don’t do it at all.

Granted, this doesn’t all fall at the feet of developers and publishers. Whenever there’s public outcry about a game not having a campaign or not having multiplayer, game makers respond. When the top-selling games mostly have extensive multiplayer, then that’s the success trend and it will be followed. When there’s money to be made from one type of game or another, they’ll keep doing this. And as Mass Effect 3 hits next week with a full-on multiplayer game in its traditionally single-player mix, it’ll be interesting to see if BioWare has weakened the single-player content of what will certainly be one of the top-selling and best reviewed titles of2012 by bifurcating its development.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss in Review

Launch games are a tough sell for any console, especially consoles brimming with features other than the customary jump in graphical fidelity. Launch games typically don’t have the benefit of years of familiarity with the hardware and they bear the brunt of increased scrutiny compared to games later in the console’s life cycle. One of the best ways to combat this is to come out with a game from an extremely popular franchise and hope that the combination of quality and nostalgia are enough to overcome any shortcomings. So is the case with Uncharted: Golden Abyss, one of the launch games for Sony’s new hi-tech handheld, the PS Vita. As a game to show off the Vita’s technology, it does a great job of showing the possibilities of the platform. As an Uncharted game it doesn’t fare as well, unable to reach the same heights as previous games in the series. Somehow it all averages out though, giving fans of handheld gaming the thrill of navigating collapsing jungle temples during their daily commute.

Set prior to the events in the first Uncharted, Golden Abyss picks up mid-story, as Uncharted games are wont to do, with treasure seeker Nathan Drake scaling a temple in a Central American jungle while trying to evade a small army of goons. Between the way the story starts at the mid-point before jumping back to the beginning, the move set of Drake when scaling heights and meleeing enemies, and the familiar sounds of Nolan North’s voice acting, it’s clear that this is Uncharted. Not a stripped down port, or a featureless representation of Uncharted, but Uncharted, warts in all, just in handheld form.

As a game used to show off the increased graphical power of the Vita, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a better choice. The lush colorful Central American jungle pops in beautiful detail, as does the temples and dig sites found therein. Drake moves the way we expect him to move, with the same motion captured fluidity of the PS3 versions. Moving Drake around works well, whichever of the various controls schemes you choose to use. Purists can stick with buttons and the control sticks however using your finger to trace a ledge path for Nathan provides a satisfying and oddly futuristic take on platforming. Using the Vita’s back panel for traversing temples isn’t as sure of a thing, in part due to a strange reversal of actions that have you stroking downwards to climb up ropes and vice verse, and in part due to using the same fingers for support as for movement.

There’s a fair amount of touchscreen swiping to be done, even if you forego it when platforming. The QTE’s used in other Uncharted games for counters during melee bouts have been replaced with touchscreen swiping. Similar events pop up when you’re making your way across ledges, requiring you to pay attention or plummet to your death. The same thing happens with the occasional balance beam section, where you have to tilt the Vita to regain Drake’s footing. The swiping is fine, however the balance stuff feels tacked on and worse, sometimes Drake will fall ten feet to his death, a drop much smaller than one experienced by a side character later in the game without death as a result. Even if you don’t do much melee killing, expect a whole bunch of swipe fighting towards the end, as two extended bouts of fisticuffs require you to make with the touching. It’s interesting to see how the swipe motions correspond to Drake’s actions, but these fights go on a bit too long for when they occur.

This being a prequel, not all of the familiar faces of the Uncharted universe are present, replaced with new characters: Drake’s slick and ultimately untrustworthy employer Dante and Marisa Chase, a female archaeologist looking for her missing grandfather and a link between a Spanish friar and a city of gold. The game eschews the global catastrophe and supernatural trappings of the previous games, attempting a more personal tale in the process however time and time again Drake is reminded that this is just a job for him, it’s not his concern, and after a while, you start to believe it. Throw in a general funding a small war via the sale of drugs and looted artifacts, hardly the stuff of the scope of previous Uncharted games, and you have a conflict that seems decidedly lightweight.

Regardless of the motivations behind the gunplay, Drake does get shot at, a lot, and it’s here that the Vita really shines as a platform. No longer constrained to a set of face buttons for moving or aiming, the dual thumbsticks allows you to pull off head shots with the same precision as a standard controller. Better yet, the Vita’s gyroscope allows you to fine tune aiming, providing one of the best uses of the technology I’ve seen on a handheld. Enemy AI ramps up fairly well, with light enemies moving between cover and peeking out from the side of a box, usually when you have your sights trained at the top of their cover. Once the armored enemies show up, they rush with impunity, requiring you to prioritize targets lest you see the familiar black and white screen of Drake’s demise, the sound of Drake’s screamed name echoing in your ears.

Multiplayer doesn’t exist in any form, neither competetive nor cooperative, however Bend Studios gives you plenty of reasons to keep playing once the story has ended, with hundreds of collectibles strewn about the jungle. There are trinkets to find, little stone deities, jade glyphs, pieces of the missing archaeologist’s equipment, charcoal rubbings to be made by rubbing the touchscreen, photos to take using the system’s gyroscope as well as other bits and bobs that help illuminate the game’s story. You won’t get anything for finding all of these, other than trophies and greater narrative insight, but if you have a collectible itch, this is definitely the game to scratch it.

Once the Vita has been on the market for a couple of years and there are plenty of games that match Uncharted’s visual fidelity only without all of the Sony mandated motion stuff, it’s hard to say where this game will fare against them.We’re not there however and despite the narrative failings and occasional technologically mandated frippery, Uncharted: Golden Abyss lets you bring Nathan Drake on to the train, half-tuck and rapier wit in tow. As launch games go, you could do a whole heck of a lot worse.

Dont’ Touch It, It’s Evil!- Fairway Solitaire IOS in Review

Let me clear about something up front. I do not play solitaire variants. I think I’ve played Windows Solitaire, the most popular video game ever made, all of one time when I first got a Windows PC sometime in the early 1990s. I just don’t particularly care for the mechanics of traditional solitaire games, and playing it electronically seems like something that you would do only if you were stuck monitoring some gauges or something in a remote Arctic substation and had absolutely nothing else to do whatsoever.

Thus, I can not explain why Big Fish Games’ Fairway Solitaire, recently released in iPhone and iPad flavors, holds such a sway over me outside of devilry. I mean, I don’t even like golf. What the hell am I doing playing this game?Probably because outside of whatever Satanic pact the folks that made this game have entered into to make it so addictive, it’s really damn good. It has that mysterious X-factor thing that the best casual games have that make them very compelling and effortless to play. It rewards you, constantly patting you on the back and giving you positive feedback. But then it’ll put the boot in and completely screw your perfect round on the last hole. The gopher shows up and laughs in your face, but it’s never not charming.

The golf theme works surprisingly well even though it doesn’t really have anything to do with the gameplay. It’s a simple solitaire deal. You flip a card, and then pull a face-up card off the display of either the next higher or lower number to it. Cards block other face-up cards so there’s some strategy involved, and some cards are face down so there’s a risk factor involved in picking them. Then there are cards locked up by sandtraps, requiring you to find a hidden sand wedge (is that what it’s called?) in the display. There’s also water hazards, and the layouts can get pretty tricky to negotiate.

So what makes this game work is that it hits an awful lot of elemental gameplay buttons. Strategy, planning, tactics, luck, risk, reward, surprise, frustration, and those all-important “eureka” moments. It does all of this in a very casual, very accessible package with a high degree of polish and care. And literally one rule. The design is immaculate, its execution at the very highest levels of IOS quality.

But like any solitaire game, it can come down to the cards. On the advanced courses, the margin for error is extremely slim and you’ve only got one mulligan by default, which lets you undo a play. I’ve found that I miss a lot of “shots” when I get cocky and start rushing it. And that leads to holes that are seven over par. All because of one missed card.

So it creates a sense of skill, reliant on observation and anticipation. But then you’ll hit these long runs where you’re just nailing it, cards melting away from the display with impunity. The game tells you you’re doing great, and gives you money (“Golfbucks” or some nonsense). You use this money to buy special bonuses that impart special abilities like looking at the top card of the draw pile or an extra mulligan. You can also buy clubs for your bag that let you change the card in play to a different value. After the first few courses, you simply have to have these, especially when you get to courses where there’s nothing but fives to start out with and you don’t want to cycle through ten cards to get to a three or four.

It’s a free app store download. I know, this usually means that the game actually costs about a thousand dollars if you don’t want to wait three weeks between turns. Or if you don’t want to grind out hundreds and hundreds of games to earn some kind of scrip currency to buy a cheat that you can otherwise charge to a credit card for a dollar. But there’s only one big unlock and it’s .99 cents on the phone, $2.99 on the pad and it gives you access to almost everything including some 60 courses that are all star-ranked so there is more than enough replayability for the completionist. Even the business with buying the clubs isn’t particularly insidious or borderline criminal as in most “freemium” titles. From what I’ve seen, everything in the game is actually obtainable through gameplay, patience, and playing well.

Fairway Solitaire is a game I never thought I’d like so much. Since I’m dealing with a nasty case of Ascension burnout it’s filled a card-shaped hole in my IOS heart. Just don’t tell anybody I’m playing a solitaire variant. About golf.

Can You Handle Dustforce?

I loaded Dustforce expecting a quirky and lighthearted platformer starring a nimble quartet of obsessively tidy janitors. Within 15 minutes, my ego had been voraciously manhandled and whipped into a delightfully frothy topping fit for Beelzebub’s Sunday pudding.

Playing Super Meat Boy, Trials HD, and Mirror’s Edge are still some of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon, so you know that I am no stranger to challenging games that require vast amounts of repetition. This side of a 1980s arcade, Dustforce is one of the most relentlessly difficult games I have played. It’s not unfair by any means, but the absolute perfection it demands…no, requires, is astounding.

The term, “platformer,” is slightly misleading, as you spend much of your time sliding along walls and ceilings to clean every nook and cranny of the world with a broom and ninja-like flair. At its simplest, Dustforce recalls the heyday of Sonic the Hedgehog in the 1990s. At its most sadistic (ie most of the time), you leap, dash, and slide through narrow corridors of airborne spikes with nary a centimeter allowed for error. Remember The Guy’s level in Super Meat Boy? Yeah, it’s like that.

The controls are incredibly responsive, but not lenient by any means. You can play with the keyboard or an analog stick, although Dustforce is best experienced with a ‘good’ d-pad (ie not the Xbox 360 controller). Most surprising is how complex the maneuvers can be, with hidden ways to perform seemingly impossible feats. Though difficult to describe, it’s the type of control-tweaking usually reserved for the fighting genre, in which players have intensely studied minute variations in animations to develop techniques such as plinking and frame traps.

The fighting game mentality of hidden strategies extends to the characters as well. Each has unique traits, although the game never mentions them. For that, you have to do your research on the forums. It’s a neat idea that encourages players to identify with a character, instead of choosing solely for abilities. But, it’s frustrating to discover that a character’s subtle ability, like a slightly quicker fall-speed, could have saved two hours or more of frustration.

I haven’t beaten Dustforce, and most likely never will. It’s an issue of incentive. There are 16 of 49 stages initially available, and more are unlocked through perfect runs – cleaning every speck of debris quickly and without taking a hit. There are no stories or items to collect, and close counts for squat. Dustforce’s system isn’t ‘wrong,’ but after spending 45 minutes to nail a stage, I’d like more than a “Thanks for playing. Try the next stage.” Actually, the game doesn’t even give you that much.

The time trials of Mirror’s Edge (my favorite part of the game) follow a similar path of progression. The only rewards for good performance are more stages to complete. But, the real challenge in Mirror’s Edge is not only perfecting, but rather, exploring each stage to find ‘your’ best path. In contrast, Dustforce’s stages have, almost exclusively, precisely predetermined paths. At the core, it’s a test of how accurately you can input a series of commands – like data-entry with a pretty interface.

Dustforce is an attractive game with simple, but delightfully illustrated characters and worlds. More than that, the soundtrack from Lifeformed has quickly become a favorite album. These factors alone make it difficult to turn my back, but try as I might, I can’t get into Dustforce’s extreme levels of repetition.