Wot I Think: Twin Sector

By John Walker on September 30th, 2009 at 3:22 pm.

Wot I Think

Anything that has magic gloves and puzzles is worth a look. Twin Sector comes from German developers DnS Development, a first-person puzzle game with echoes of Portal. Can it live up to such an inevitable peer? Here’s Wot I Think.

In so many ways this is precisely the sort of post-Portal game we should be seeing a lot more of. Smart puzzling, inventive ways to interact with the world, and most of all, first-person gaming that isn’t focused on its gun willy. In many other ways, this is a game that falls short not just at its own ambitions, but in its own lack of ambition.

There’s been an apocalypse. Earth isn’t safe just yet, and a number of humans have been deep frozen until the surface is safe again. You play a be-gloved woman, Ashley Simms, awoken from a cryogenic sleep at some undetermined point in the future to save the lives of all the other sleeping humans. The building’s AI overseer, Oscar, has realised things are going wrong and needs some help, and apparently someone to chat to.

Hello generic game lady.

On your left hand you wear a red glove, and on your right a blue. The red can pull objects toward you, or you toward objects (depending upon whether they’re fixed in place, like walls) and the blue pushes objects away from you, and indeed you away from fixed objects. What this creates is a really smart means for using the environment, and provides a game where you neither need nor want a weapon. And the similarities with Portal don’t end there. It’s essentially a series of puzzle chambers, where you’re asked to use the gloves’ abilities in different ways to successfully reach the next lift. There’s an abstract computer voice semi-guiding you through. There’s turrets and essential boxes. In fact there’s one level where you need to ensure you’re always accompanied by your (weighted companion) giant ball of trash. And while it’s not surprising that Twin Sector falls far short of Portal’s perfection, I am delighted that at least someone is trying to make games of a similar vein.

A level may ask you to traverse some laser beams, open a locked door with a key card on the other side of some glass and fire, and climb your way up a tall tower with narrow ledges. The gloves can aid you in all of this, picking up objects to block beams, smashing glass with thrown heavy boxes and dousing fire with cannisters of water, and pulling yourself upward by aiming the left hand at a high point on the wall. Need to make a long drop? Fire off the blue glove just before you hit the ground to cushion your fall. It’s a good idea that gets to be used in inventive ways.

The problems, however, arrive quickly. First and foremost, the gloves are clunky. Implemented smoothly, this could have been one of the most entertaining ways to get around a game. But instead they’re weirdly limited. Charged up by holding either the left or right mouse button, they have a meter that limits their use. It refills very quickly, just a couple of seconds, but that’s bugger all use if you’re falling down a shaft because yet again it mysteriously failed to carry you across a small gap. One of Portal’s greatest pieces of genius was to let you fall from any height – it liberates the player, letting them experiment without spamming the quicksave button before every footstep. Sadly no such system is in place here. Picking things up has issues too. Pull an object toward you from the other side of a room and it will have gained such extraordinary momentum by the time it reaches you that it bounces off your hands in a mad frenzy. Clearly you want it to zoooooop into your grip, not smash you in the face. Propelling objects away is better, but very often the physics get extremely over-excited and crates or explosive cannisters will perform the most remarkable pirouettes before flinging themselves sideways down a corridor. However, it’s most bizarre failing is putting things down. Just letting go is often not an option, the game insisting on shoving things rather than releasing them. When any of this works, it’s great. Clearing a big gap by pulling yourself toward the distant ceiling, or smashing a window with a crate, or lobbing a burning cylinder of gas toward a fragile door, can feel majestic. If only this were more constant it would have been brilliant.

GlaDOS?

The challenges are decent. Things get a bit repetitive in places – successfully getting past a murderous turret is inevitably followed by being asked to get past another murderous turret. Fortunately it knows to mix things up just enough to keep it interesting. So while climbing up a tower loses its appeal, there will likely be a new twist on it when you reach the top. And things are never better than when you get to switch the gravity off, using the gloves to push and pull your way around chambers, trying to manoeuvre vital objects.

Sadly Twin Sector makes another giant mistake, and one that should have been most easily learned from the games that inspired it. It includes moving enemies. In a game without weapons making the player feel helpless and frustrated is never a good plan. Having those enemies be bloody floating balls is just ridiculous. If they touch you, you take enormous damage. Two taps can be enough to kill you. You can somewhat defeat them. Picking up barrels or boxes and throwing them at them will switch them off for around five seconds. Picking them up in an off state and smashing them into a wall damages them. Do this three times (a very laborious process in a game where you can only move at full speed when going forward – side-stepping and moving backwards are guaranteed death in their presence) and they explode. Most likely to be instantly replaced by a new one. While they can very occasionally be used to explode doors, their primary purpose is to make the game more annoying to play. There’s no other rationale for their inclusion. Climbing up a tower in a series of glove-powered jumps becomes tortuous when you have to hope they don’t bump you at the wrong moment, causing you to fall to your death (your blue meter inevitably empty after trying to shove it out the way half a second before your fall). Their AI is stunningly bad, which means you can trick them into getting stuck under a ledge, but this equally means they can fluke their way into bumping into a door switch and following you interminably. Tracers, these fuckers are called. File them under “Why Oh Why?”

Ah, big ball of trash. If only you had a heart on the side.

No game should have someone spend so much time with their head in their hands. Twin Sector’s load times provide ample opportunities for cradling your weary cranium after your latest infuriating death. Of course, such frustration only occurs when a game is close to being good – a simply poor game would have you switch off. The problem is, I put a lot more effort into trying to like the game than it put into earning it. The gloves are a great idea, and there’s a number of interesting ways to use them, but not nearly enough. The levels are uniformly green-grey and dreary, all box shaped. And while the voice acting isn’t nearly as bad as you might expect, the script is deathly dull. Oscar’s Kevin-Spacy-In-Moon-like voice repeatedly informs you that something’s broken, or the unknown enemy is closing in, and Ashley worries in reply. Over and over. And you can’t switch the tiring music off. But most significantly, there have to be so very many more innovative ways to use the gloves than are realised here.

Oh, and while I wasn’t switching it off in frustration, it was. A peculiar number of crashes (and I’ve never seen a game crash so quickly – it winks out of existence leaving me back at my desktop without even a flicker) became so frequent that I gave up on what I believe is the final level.

Oh, Twin Sector, why couldn’t you have been just a bit better? At £21 it’s a short game that’s hard to enthuse about. It’s a muddled bag of some splendid ideas and some fun glove action. But it irritates too often, whether it’s by glitching, crashing or ruining yet another fun puzzle with a sodding Tracer.

You’ll rarely find a games critic who doesn’t complain about having to put a score at the end of a review – it normally trivialises the hundreds of words that came before it. But in cases like this, where a game is by no means bad, but falls short of being good, that 6 at the end can do a good job of stressing that for all the criticisms above it’s nowhere near a monstrosity. We don’t put scores, of course.

Twin Sector is available on Steam for £21. You can get the demo here.

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49 Comments »

  1. Lack_26 says:

    But we need numbers, how could we possible understand if a game is good and we are likely to enjoy it without numbers. Also, more algebra in reviews would be appreciated, also calculus.

    • DMJ says:

      I disagree. Numbers are so cold. Give us dance.

    • jsutcliffe says:

      Pish, numbers are overrated.

      A number doesn’t tell me if a reviewer whose opinion I trust dislikes things about a game that I too would dislike. That kind of information is much more valuable to me than a mere number — it is why I prefer to read the negative reviews when I’m comparing scores on e.g. Metacritic.

      If a review calls out things that would drive me spare it’s much more useful to me than someone saying “this game is cool because it does X, Y, and Z.” “This game has cool mechanics X, Y, and Z but watch out for shitty thing P” is more like what I want, especially if I hate shitty thing P.

    • Jeremy says:

      I’ve always appreciated a good write up with the inclusion of the numbered review. I think in conjunction they allow a person to gauge a game. Let there be an alliance, this review war has already cost so many lives…

    • Flobulon says:

      Erm, I’m pretty sure he was being sarcastic.

      No-one actually wants RPS to include scores in their reviews… right? RIGHT?

    • Geoff says:

      What Jeremy said.

    • Nick says:

      Or mime. Wait, no, I remember Deus Ex 2.. no mime.

    • bobince says:

      Numbers aren’t that bad. I’d give them a 13. (But I’m not saying what out of.)

    • JonFitt says:

      Well there used to be Optimus Prime thumbs up or Optimus Prime thumbs down, I took this to be scores of 0 or 10. Or perhaps it was 25% for every thumb up.

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  2. CMaster says:

    Another frustration I noticed in the demo, not sure if it carries over to the final, full game:
    When you die, it loads the previous checkpoint. Even if you made a quicksave more recentley than the last checkpoint. ARG!

  3. underproseductor says:

    So, It sucks.

    …right?

  4. Krondonian says:

    Yeah, I’m not a dialogue skipper. I always watch cut scenes. But hot damn the conversation between the lady and the computer was possibly the dullest thing I’ve ever witnessed. The fact that they put it in the demo is just bonkers.

    It’s a pity that everything wrong with the demo seems to be continued into the final game. That Tracer at the end was ridiculous. Slowly fleeing a slowly hovering ball, slowly making it’s way towards you, as you slowly wrestle with the controls to throw something at it.

  5. ZIGS says:

    The biggest problem with this game is the quickloading not being quick, since you die a lot. Which is a bad design idea, making a puzzle game where you can die. Portal got that right, even though I liked Twin Sector better. But yeah, don’t make a puzzle game where you can die. Often. with a quickloading that isn’t quick.
    BTW, I’m stuck in the last level, anyone can tell me how do I beat the boss? Or, you know, link me to a video of the ending? >_>

  6. Clovis says:

    Do you get to euthanize the trash ball?!? 'Cause I'm really good at euthanizing things. Glados informed me that I euthanized my companion cube faster than any previous test subject.

    I rank that accomplishment up there with beating Ninja Gaiden (NES).

    (hey, do I only get a post counted when I use the forum? I'm tired of being a Snotling)

    • Poindexter says:

      You beat the original Ninja Gaiden? I couldn’t beat it as a kid. I bought it on the Virtual Console on Wii last year thinking it couldn’t be as hard as I remember. I was most definitely, epically wrong. Still stuck on about the 4th level.

    • Clovis says:

      Heh, if you want to feel depressed do a youtube “Ninja Gaiden speedrun” search. It takes the guy like 10 minutes. It was one of the few games I owned so I played it a LOT.

      If I picked up Ninja Gaiden today I don’t think I’d get past more than 1 or 2 levels before ragequitting. In fact, I almost get panic attacks when faced with such difficulty in games now.

  7. scoopsy says:

    I tried the demo out of curiosity.

    I came across a door where the switch was broken. Thankfully though, there was an “emergency backup switch” twelve feet above me on the ceiling.

    I uninstalled the demo.

  8. Vague-rant says:

    The clunkiness seemed really apparent in the demo and the whole “you can’t drop things” is ridiculous. I spent almost 10 minutes stacking up 3 barrels that I’m never getting back.

    The one bad guy in the demo was quite cool though. I remember running back a room, panicking, then as it passed a laser trap I pushed the barrels away with a glove so it got fried. Without a puzzly set piece for every enemy though I probably wouldn’t find it interesting.

  9. Jazmeister says:

    I got horribly stuck on the first room after the demo ends, that tiny room where I’ve discovered via forums you need to fire a box at the grate in the floor. It’s just so fiddly. I love, love, love the gravity-jumps. That first enemy is great, too, but as I said, I haven’t progressed far enough to encounter lots of repeating enemies. I like being chased, you know?

    I recently made the mistake of including a weapon-limiter in a game. It’s easy to think you’re making it more balanced when you’re just stamping on the fun. Also, all of my crashes were fatal, OS-killing juggernauts.

  10. Heliocentric says:

    I like it when Walker is in love, this feels like a bad break up. Don’t be sad John, plenty more games in the sea, so to speak.

  11. meh says:

    The sad part is, that was the first place i looked.

  12. ZIGS says:

    I also like how the crashes are so fast, you can just double-click the shortcut immediately after and resume playing (this is called “looking at the positive side of things”)

  13. malkav11 says:

    This just screamed bargain bin game to me. Depressingly shoddy production values (not low, per se, but definitely shoddy), a reasonably clever idea clumsily executed. Personally I uninstalled when I couldn’t get back up a ramp after several tries. There just hadn’t been any sign of anything worth pushing on.

  14. Schadenfreude says:

    Funnily enough, that’s probably faster than quickloading, too.

  15. Schadenfreude says:

    The reply button works in mysterious ways…

    I only played the demo but I rather liked it. Not so much as to not waiting patiently for a price drop, though.

    And speaking of drops, hey, game programming people in general: I decided I can live with that mania of yours of putting jumping puzzles in first person games, what the hell –BUT if you really really really need so badly to do that, at least LET ME SEE MY GODDAMNED FEET!! >=(

  16. Schadenfreude says:

    Hey?!

    I’ve been cloned!

  17. Hmm says:

    You know, I liked the demo. I took the “perceive this game as a fun physics puzzle solver” and found the game enjoyable. I didn’t find gloves “clunky”, rather “balanced enough not to make you feel immortal”. I can see enemies becoming annoying, though.
    Overall, I think I might buy this.

  18. Luke says:

    Does the full game work with xp sp2? The demo did, but the minimum requirements for the full version are said to be xp sp3…

    • Toronto Limousine says:

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  19. The Unbelievable Guy says:

    I was most definitely not impressed by this game. Even had I not played Portal beforehand (I kept on catching myself thinking ‘shut up Oscar, Glados is way cooler than you’), I would’ve still found this pretty weak.
    1) It falls into the old everything-is-a-shade-of-grey-brown trap. Really, it’s startlingly ugly.
    2) Dull plotting and dialogue and character.
    3) The glove controls, especially the charge-up required to do anything of importance, were very clumsy.
    4) So the emergency door release button is on the ceiling? And I need to throw things at it so I can have the privilege of doing a first-person jumping puzzle? Instant uninstall. I couldn’t even summon the willpower to get onto the enemy segments (also enemies in a puzzle game =/= fun. That was my one beef with the Research and Development mod)
    5) Seriously. The emergency door release is on the ceiling. That’s one of the first puzzles. That is all you need to know about this game.

    Things I liked about this game:
    1) Important words in the subtitles for Oscar are CAPITALISED. I don’t know, that tickled me for some reason.
    2) Reminded me of Portal.

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