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Hybrid’s Many Questions

Last night I fired up the beta for Hybrid, the upcoming multiplayer only XBLA shooter from 5th Cell. You may recognize that name from Scribblenauts and Scribblenauts 2: Revenge of the Scribbler (not its real name) as well as the Drawn to Life series and Lock’s Quest. “Wait a minute”, you may be asking, “what do these games have to do with a multiplayer only cover shooter set in a persistent online world?” Beats me. Did I mention there are jetpacks? Not Tribes-style jetpacks, but jetpacks nonetheless.

I know you have questions. Trust me, I do too, many of which came about as I stared at deployment screen after deployment screen. Yes, I am terrible at Hybrid. No, this is not a surprise.

The game kicks off with a little speech about how at some point in the future we found something called dark matter. Really, Hybrid? That’s all you got? Dark matter? I know that there was a sentence on the screen about how the tutorial speech wasn’t finalized, but you can’t come up with something better than dark matter? Dark matter was first theorized in the ’30s so at the very least, don’t say that you discovered dark matter, say that you confirmed the existence of dark matter or you synthesized dark matter or better yet, come up with something original like Unobtainium. Ok, that’s not original either, but you get the idea.

In the process of finding dark matter, Australia was obliterated. The world then—wait a minute. Australia was obliterated? Like, gone gone? Is there a giant hole where Australia once was? If so, did the ocean rush in to fill that hole? If so, what did that do to the rest of the world? Speaking of world effects, what would the destruction of an entire continent do to global weather patterns, much less to the global economy? And why Austrailia? Why not North America, or South America. What does 5th Cell have against Australia? What are you not telling us 5th Cell?

The tutorial then goes on to say that the world was split into two factions, the blue guys and the red guys, who are exactly like the blue guys but more sinister. I don’t know what that means. Both are working to collect enough samples of dark matter to reverse the incident. What does that mean? Does that mean that Australia comes back? If so, how does one restore a continent to sinister ends? Killer koalas? Giant, rampaging kangaroos?

The tutorial finishes up by stating that you and the other guys are both trying to get 110 samples of dark matter. That’s a very concrete number. First side to get to 110 samples wins, but they don’t explain why. Is there a machine that both sides have that’s just sitting there, waiting to go, until someone pours 110 samples of dark matter into it? Why 110? And if you got to 109 samples and the other guys got to 110, wouldn’t it be worth trying your machine and not just going “Oh well. They got more samples. Last one out, turn off the lights.”

After the setting is established you’re dumped into the tutorial. Hybrid is a cover shooter that allows you to move from cover to cover via your jetpack. In fact, there’s no running or walking or any ambulatory motion of any kind. You select a piece of cover, hit the A button and jetpack there. You can strafe in the air as well as shoot and use a burst of speed. You can also change to a new piece of cover mid-flight by selecting it and pressing A, similar to how Batman can change direction with the line launcher. If you get to your new piece of cover and find that you’ve made a tactical error, you can hit B and immediately fly backwards to your old cover.

Like every multiplayer shooter, you level up your character and get shiny new abilities as a result. Also like other shooters, you get goodies for kill streaks in the form of drones. Kill one guy and get a drone. Kill three guys and get a better drone. Kill five guys and get a super-ninja drone. I’m not sure killing one person constitutes a streak but for incompetent players like me, it’s nice that I get to get in on the kill streak action too. Drones stick by your side and shoot whatever you’re shooting except for the ninja who heads to your enemy like a homing missile.

I went with team deathmatch and was dropped in a somewhat small map with cover both on the ceiling and on the floor. The jetpacks allow for ceiling based cover but it didn’t make a lot of sense for said cover to be there. I was fighting a battle someplace in South America but was I in a warehouse, a dark matter processing facility, a Brazilian Walmart? Why were there platforms in the air with barriers? It wasn’t a blown up ceiling situation. These were clearly floating ceilings with barriers for cover. Also, if both sides are desperate for dark matter, why are they agreeing to arbitrary “first group to 25 kills” rules like some sort of throwback to the 1700’s when civilized men fought only between 11AM and 3PM and not on Tuesday or if it was raining?

Remember in Battlestar Galactica when Galactica et al realized that they could kill skinjobs all the live-long day, but until they knocked out the Cylons’ ability to resurrect, it was a losing battle? Wouldn’t the smarter thing to do in Hybrid be to say “Screw this battle stuff, we’re winning the war” and try and take out whatever technology is allowing the other side to spawn in indefinitely until they reach some arbitrary kill count? A control point type of match makes sense in the context of this game, team deathmatch does not. While we’re on it, wouldn’t it be awesome if, as you progressed through the levels in Hybrid you could unlock a special Commando level that then allowed you to go on super difficult matches against the best players with the reward being some sort of game changing event that affects the entire world? Like, maybe you go on a mission where you knock out a respawn facility and if successful, for an hour everyone who plays in battles in Asia plays against enemies that can’t respawn or has limited respawns? And if you lose your special mission match, maybe you can’t take on special missions or defend against the other side’s special missions for something like an hour. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

While playing I kept asking myself why I couldn’t see my enemies, who the hell was making that giant blue globe that kept damaging me and why I suck at shooters so much. Then I began wondering if I could drop out or if that would be a dick move, leaving my teammates to go out it with 1/3 fewer players. Then I wondered if, given how many times I was getting killed, I would actually be doing them a favor by not giving the enemy so many free kills. Finally I stopped wondering things because the match was mercifully over. Then I asked myself why I wasn’t playing Witcher 2. Then I played Witcher 2.

I’m not saying Hybrid is a bad game, although I am completely unqualified to make that distinction based on how awful I am at shooters. I can say that the setting needs a little work as the framework it provides only makes things stand out as being “game-y”. Maybe most people don’t worry about these things because they’re too busy being awesome and they don’t have as much time staring at the deployment screen and wondering why 5th Cell hates Australia.

Think of the wallabies, 5th Cell. Think of the wallabies.

Nexuiz in Review

Review, Nexuiz for Xbox 360

The rebels were decked out in JNCOs, the cool girls were sporting The Rachel, and Fred Durst was doing it for the nookie. Back in the late ’90s, there were no cover systems, no lifesaving perks, and regenerating health meant grabbing a med-kit. When Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament dominated the scene, survival required breakneck speed and serious marksmanship, and maybe a rocket-jump for good measure.

Nexuiz (pronounced “Nexus”) aims to pull the sub-genre off life-support and give it a pulse. With no classes to choose from or ranks to work through, Nexuiz is going back to basics; way back. Without features such as balanced matchmaking, methods to boot idle players, or simple character customization, Nexuiz severely strains the divide between streamlined simplicity and under-development.

Team Deathmatch and Capture-the-flag are the only two modes available. That’s all I need to keep myself entertained, but players quitting and/or staying idle through multiple matches are serious problems, and there is nothing that you can do about it. Also problematic are the immediate respawns of flags in CTF (eg no 20-second cooldown after scoring), making it all too easy for a mildly coordinated team to steamroll the other.

Most of the weapons are of the techy-big-barrel-thingamajig variety. You’ll find the expected shotgun, rocket launcher, sniper rifle, and assault rifle. There are a few mild surprises though, such as a pistol that fires miniature missiles in rapid succession, and the reflective shots of the Crylink. Every weapon has a use, and I can appreciate the subtle strategy added by the alternate firing modes. The shotgun, for example, can fire a wide burst for close-range or a concentrated burst for long-range.

Although the nine maps feel small, they are packed with multiple levels, jump-pads, teleporters, and just enough crannies for more tactical-minded players. But, the maps are far too symmetrical. While this ensures a fair game of capture-the-flag, the symmetry makes for a less intense, and somewhat disorienting, deathmatch experience. Outside of capture-the-flag, what purpose does one half of a map serve when it’s exactly the same as the other half? It’s more space for the sake of space.

Mutators are the driving force of Nexuiz. As much as I enjoy them, they are the blue shells of shooters, and will surely repel many of the more serious-minded players. After picking up a Mutator, you choose from one of three random effects. It could be something as simple as shielding yourself or beefing up a particular gun, or as outlandish as turning the floors into slip-and-slides. You can spend points to increase the likelihood of getting a particular Mutator, but like it or not, you will get burned at some point.

Call me a traitor, but Nexuiz reaffirms how much I enjoy gaining ranks and unlocking new equipment. A good kill-to-death ratio doesn’t hold the same weight that it once did, especially now that I’m older and have more responsibilities, and less spare time to defend my online reputation. By no means do I consider unlockable content to be a prerequisite or a gauge of quality, but it is a major factor to consider. After all, I felt the nostalgic touch, the desire to recapture the days of hijacking the school’s computer lab for secret deathmatches, but the memories were better left untouched.

Despite all this talk of the old-school, the more I play Nexuiz, the more I realize that it really isn’t that far removed from the multiplayer in games such as Crysis 2, Halo: Reach, and numerous other games of varying quality. Has the genre really changed ‘that’ drastically that we need a homage? Where do we draw the official line between the old-school and new-school? After all, Halo launched in 2001, only two years after Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament. At least with the Halo series I get numerous modes to help keep the experience fresher for the long run.

Nostalgia is fine, but there are methods of merging classic gameplay with modern features. Nexuiz doesn’t so much as try, and, had it not been announced as a throwback, I doubt that we would be having a discussion about the old days. More likely, Nexiuz would only be seen as a competent FPS lacking the remarkable traits needed to stand out from the masses of generic sci-fi-themed shooters.

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

5 Indie Games to Watch in 2012

Contending with the likes of The Binding of Isaac, Frozen Synapse, Dungeons of Dredmor, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP, 2012 has a tough act to follow. By no means is this an exhaustive list, but it does represent some of the most promising indie games to keep on your radar this year.

From: Polytron Corporation
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Release Date: Early 2012

After more than three years in development, I can only imagine how much pressure the developers are currently feeling, but I don’t think that they have anything to worry about. After a life of two-dimensional living, a hidden third dimension is suddenly revealed to Gomez. In terms of gameplay, this gives players the ability to twist environments in order to shift platforms and reveal new paths in the 2D world. Much like echochrome on PSN, it’s not the physical location of a platform that matters so much as the perspective from which it is viewed. FEZ has no combat to speak of, placing the emphasis squarely on exploration, puzzle-solving, and soaking up the wonderfully colorful world.

Spelunky Mossmouth screenshot

From: Mossmouth
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Release Date: TBA

You may have played Derek Yu’s freeware version of Spelunky on PC, but the upcoming XBLA rendition features completely overhauled graphics and four-person multiplayer. Taking a nod from roguelikes, this platformer features randomly generated levels with tons of surprises to uncover as you climb, jump, and bomb your way through stages. During one demo, I rescued a damsel in distress, had to carry her after unintentionally knocking her out with a rock, and further compounded the disastrous situation when I dropped her on a bomb. Circumstances like these don’t occur in your average platformer. Although Spelunky was originally slated for release on XBLA back in 2010, recent appearances at conventions and IGF 2012 suggest an impending arrival.

YouTube video

Lone Survivor
From: superflat games
Platform: PC, Mac
Release Date: March 2012

Remember when survival-horror games were unsettling, drenched in lonely atmospheres, and more importantly, challenging? Lone Survivor features plenty of horrific monstrosities, a smattering of random events, and boss-battles, but most intriguing to me is that side-quests for getting supplies like food and water and coffee imply that survival will require more than a gun. On top of that, developer Jasper Byrne has bluntly revealed that most of Lone Survivor’s multiple endings are thoroughly depressing. It sounds like his heart is in the right place.

The Hunger Games Girl on Fire iOS screenshot

The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire
From: (see below)
Platform: iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch
Release Date: March 23. 2012

I wouldn’t normally be so excited about a movie-based game, despite being a fan of The Hunger Games, but the talent behind Girl on Fire is undeniable – Adam Saltsman (Canabalt), Doomlaser (Hot Throttle), Paul Veer (Super Crate Box), and Daniel Baranowsky (Super Meat Boy composer). Saltsman wants to create something beyond an adaptation, thus Girl on Fire is set before the timeline of the books and focuses on the main character’s affinity for archery and tactical approaches to problems, and draws inspiration from “classic Sega Genesis games.”

Gunpoint Game Pentadact PC Screenshot

From: Pentadact / Tom Francis
Platform: PC
Release Date: TBA 2012

Tom Francis is a video game journalist attempting to put his money where his mouth is by developing a game of his own. The act of rewiring doors, elevators, lights, and security systems to distract guards makes Gunpoint a puzzle-game at heart, but there is no set solution for any given stage. As Francis told Gamasutra, “I wanted to make a game with the idea that the player might be smarter than me. Let him think of solutions that never occurred to me in hours of playtesting, and give him the tools to be more creative than I was when I designed this level.”

What indie games are you most looking forward to?

Through These Fields of Destruction

Brothers In Arms: Earned in Blood Firefight

I am the veteran of a thousand battlefields across all of time and space. From the Halo ring to the remnants of Silverspring my guns have sung their dirges of destruction and my swords and axes have bathed in gore. I have seen wonders beyond belief: the jeweled skies of Na Pali reflected in the shimmering surface of Tarydium crystals, spectral monks flitting through snow shrouded ruins on the coast of Ireland, blossoming fire from an interstellar bombardment enveloping the Strogg citadel. Across the dimensions I have endured horrors unimaginable and left unnumbered dead in my wake.

And yet, as I brood now in the gathering gloom of my obsolesce, there is nothing I can recall quite so clearly as Normandy, Earth in 1944.

I, who stood before the cyber-satan of Mars and laughed my mocking laugh, lay prostrate with terror behind a pile of logs as the combined fire of a German platoon tore up the wood behind my back and span through the air so close above my head that I could feel the heat of the tracers. Smoke and cordite hung in the air, mixing with churned earth and chipped sawdust that stuck in the nose and choked the throat. There was no way I could even raise my head above cover to shoot back without taking a bullet in the brain.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone. Trying to compose my fraught nerves and to make myself heard above the griding din of mechanised warfare, I started to bark out instructions to the two squads under my command. One work to the left, lay down some suppressing fire to give squad two the chance to dash a little nearer. Then vice-versa so that they slowly began to inch their way toward the enemy positions where one, I hoped, could outflank a squad or a machine-gun emplacement, and destroy it.

Those were my instructions. But once those boys had gone, I couldn’t see them any more. I had to hang tight and pray that they could follow my instructions and manage not to get themselves killed in the process. It was a nerve-racking few minutes crouched behind my flimsy cover and listening to them shout and yell to one another whilst rapid crack of their semi automatic M1 rifles mixed with the lower rumbles of the bolt-action German models. But eventually the volume of fire on my position began to lessen. After a couple more minutes I was able to risk a look to try and ascertain where the remnants of the enemy were, then to dash out myself and sneak round behind where my troopers had pinned the last few stragglers and finish them off myself.

With all the myriad of memories that I have of gunfights in the far-flung reaches of space, why do I remember this so clearly? I remember it because it was a moment which was utterly unique. I’d commanded soldiers before but they were just mindless cannon-fodder that charged into the fray at my back, to be mown down like dry grass in the wind. Here, they were my salvation, and I needed to flex some proper tactical muscles instead of just physical ones to triumph over my enemies. There is nothing – nothing – in all my long years of warfare that can compare.

I remember more, too. I remember the cold terror of charging into a bank of mist and engaging German paratroopers in blind, desperate hand-to-hand fighting. I remember directing my men to defend the bombed out shell of a Cathedral as I sat in the spire, sniping at the enemy soldiers through a scope, worrying about their safety and consumed with the creeping fear that armour might show up and blow us out of our fortified positions with heavy weapons. I remember the awe of inching across the desolate landscapes of ruined St. Sauveur under a storm-laden sky, filled with foreboding in case the artillery that caused such destruction was still zeroed in and primed to fire. I remember all this because there was genuine fear in knowing that a single bullet would mean the end and having to start over. I remember it because it was so terrifyingly real, to the point that I could recognise portions of the landscape from photos I’d seen in history books. I remember it because, unlike all the other fantastic places I’d wielded a weapon and killed my enemies, it actually happened.

I have these memories thanks to the Brothers in Arms games Road to Hill 30 and Earned in Blood, about my favourite video games ever. They were hardly flawless. Tactical shooters such as these, especially ones that put such a weight on the behaviour of friendly units, live and die on the strength of their AI and that of the BIA games weren’t quite up to the enormous load that the game model put on them, although I’m not sure even modern hardware and software could quite measure up to that challenge, so what we got back then was truly outstanding by the standards of the time. But ultimately I can’t really disagree with the critical consensus that weaknesses in the AI made the game occasionally frustrating in the extreme. It’s pretty hard to watch as you order a fire team into cover, observe two of your men follow your orders to the letter showing that your command has been understood, while the third stands bolt upright in the open and promptly gets his head blown off. It’s harder still to watch this performance repeated over and over again as you try and replay that section of the game.

But in the end the game was easily – easily – absorbing and original enough to compensate. Nearly every other game in the “tactical shooter” genre with which BIA got lumped involves creeping through unlit, unpopulated corridors for ten minutes and then waiting behind a pillar for a further ten minutes to try and understand the movement patterns of the guards before someone spots you and cuts you down in a hail of gunfire. Not entirely my idea of fun. But in BIA you got a seamless blend of furious FPS action with a real-time tactics game that simultaneously challenged you to twitch like a demon and think like a general.

Brothers in arms Sherman firefightThat would have been enough to make it a brilliant game, but what lifted it into the realms of the extraordinary was the attention that developers Gearbox gave to authenticity. Many of the missions from the game were lifted direct from history, and many of the environments painstakingly re-created from actual historical photographs. If you know any world war 2 history, hell, if you’ve ever watched Band of Brothers (which the developers clearly did and had) you’ll feel an ominous sense of dread and recognition as you approach the town of Carentan or the Battle of Bloody Gulch. The game exudes detail and atmosphere from every pore: artillery pieces you’ll plant charges on and tanks you’ll ride on are perfect replicas of the real thing, and they even remembered to include the characteristic “ping” noise that M1 rifles gave off when their clips were empty, to let the user know it was time to reload. It was built into the mechanics too: you couldn’t aim accurately unless you stood still, and under fire your gun would wobble precariously to simulate the stress, so you absolutely had to leverage the tactical element of the game in order to succeed. Most brutal of all was the injury model where even a couple of wounds could kill you, and a sparse save-point pattern which discouraged risk-taking and came the closest that a game perhaps ever could to making the player genuinely fearful about the prospect of being killed. The combination of intense, challenging game-play and authentic atmosphere lead, for me, to a truly unequalled sense of immersion in the game world.

Of the two games, I think I loved Earned in Blood the most, even though it got lower critical scores. People rubbished it a little because game-play wise it was identical to it’s predecessor and they felt it should have been released as an expansion rather than a stand-alone game. But I didn’t care: it had better AI, a more compelling story, a free-play sandbox mode for multi-player or bots and more historical weapons and missions, more of all the stuff that made the franchise so engrossing in the first place. Sadly I don’t own a current generation console (shock! horror!) so I’ve not managed to play the sequel Hell’s Highway which looks excellent but abandons a little of the realism of the earlier games in favour of a more casual and exciting model which probably has slightly wider appeal for the majority of gamers: still, it’d certainly be the very first game I purchased for a new console should I acquire one. I’m still hoping there might be another sequel set in the Battle of the Bulge, although there the series will have to reach its conclusion in terms of story arc, since that was the last major action the 101st airborne fought. But it was also, arguably, the most difficult, the most heroic and the most likely to make for an astonishing story and experience. If they do choose to do it, I hope to God that they get it right.