By John Walker on June 16th, 2009 at 8:34 pm.
I’ve been having a quick play of Blurst’s latest – as Kieron noted this morning – Crane Wars. It’s a game with some cranes, and they’re at war. I didn’t enjoy it very much. More of this standard of journalism, and my thoughts, below.
Well, I think it’s disappointing. Which makes me sad to say, because Flashbang/Blurst (they seem to go by either name these days) are splendid chaps churning out superb games. Playing Jetpack Brontosaurus (which is no mean feat now they appear to have removed any button letting you access it from the main Blurst site) calms me from any mood and makes everything feel lovely. Raptor Safari is so ridiculously involved, so many different ways to play, so much fun to be had. Blush is a serene and oddly mesmerising way to swish and swoop. But Crane Wars? It seems to be an exercise in frustration.
My strongest feeling from playing is that this is a game of compromises. In fact, all Blurst games are, limited to very simple controls, and only one mouse button. But this is usually a point from which refinement emerges. Crane Wars is just the mouse, beyond pressing space to spy on your rival’s yard, and it leaves me feeling clumsy and out of control.
Your goal is to build towers from blocks, picked up with the crane, and dropped onto plots of land. Being Blurst, it’s primarily about physics, so you’ve got the combination of the sluggish crane moving the weighted line, and the gravity-loving building blocks to balance. And being a game from these guys, there’s multiple ways to approach playing. Do you focus on building super-tall towers? Or do you use your limited time to create many smaller ones? Or perhaps you want to spend your time throwing trucks at the opponent’s constructions? Or ignore him entirely? It’s about exploring the options to find the route to the highest score in the way that suits you best – the secret to almost all their games.
But here I found the process to be too frustrating to persist. By its very design, you’re operating a slow, clunky, clumsy and imprecise piece of machinery. Which is not my ideal list of features for a game. Add to this the restrictive controls and the problems pile you. One of the key elements of crane operation is the combined movements of left and right, back and forth (here handled by it following your cursor) and the raising and lowering of the hook. The latter happens automagically, and is completely out of your control, and whether it’s deliberately cackhanded (again, not a fun gaming choice) or poorly coded I’m not sure, but it’s a giant pain in the arse. Pick up a block (by holding your mouse button over it) and bring it towards a tower and the crane will raise it up above the top level so you can drop it down. But so often it won’t. So often it will crash into the tower and knock it all down. But that wasn’t my fault, that wasn’t my poor choice – that was the automatic feature failing to work.
The second compromise is the camera angle. How exactly do you set this up, a crane operating game? The choice that’s been made is to put you from the cabin-eye view, which makes sense on some levels, but it’s such a horrid angle to play from. This is made worse by your own constructions blocking your view of the site from which new building blocks appear. Again, if it’s a deliberate feature, it’s yet another irritating one. And this weird perspective makes stacking blocks far more difficult than it surely needed to be? I understand that half the game is accurately balancing the towers, but there doesn’t seem to be a rational way of knowing if you’re lined up. Since missing often results in the whole tower collapsing and catching fire, it’s incredibly punishing when you miss. And the traditional gaming trick of using shadows to make up for awkward angles doesn’t work here at all – instead they will just throw you farther off the target.
Finally, where swinging vehicles and blocks at your AI opponent should have been all the mean fun of kicking down a sandcastle, instead it’s a weirdly impotent experience, limply tossing things and rarely feeling any satisfaction if there’s a collision (even holding space to see his site barely lets you see the results of your destructive acts).
There’s only so much of a kicking a game developed in weeks and given away for free deserves. But we’ve heaped lavish praise on their many successful and beautiful games, and have come to expect a lot. I’ve no idea if everyone else on the RPS team will furiously disagree with me over this, and certainly any readers who think I’m out my mind will let me know below. But I don’t feel a desire to return to the construction yard to improve my pitiful 650th place. I do, however, feel very drawn to another couple of games of Jetpack Bronto.