By Kieron Gillen on April 22nd, 2010 at 10:48 pm.
In short: Top Gun with Samurai Robots.
I’m pleased this has turned out as well as it has. Just over a year back, while I loved the purity, the art design, the vision of the thing, I didn’t think it’d be to – use my younger comrade’s vernacular – tight enough. An arcade game needs to be close to perfect. This is a multiplayer arcade game that longed to be as pure and beautiful as Joust, Speedball 2 or Quake 3. Back then, it simply wasn’t. Now….
Well, it’s a poetic and beautiful game about Samurai Robots.
You play a tiny robot. You kill someone, you get their energy. This makes you a little bigger and faster – and, more importantly, gives you a different coloured trail of light which bobs after you. If someone kills you, they get all their energy. If you kill them, you get all their energy. This leads to energy all getting collected in one individual who eventually gets so fast and big that your computer explodes and a robot rampages across the world with a rainbow trail dancing after them.
You score points by choosing to explode, effectively banking the energy you’ve earned. Ideally, you explode in a way which takes the opposition with you. Partially because it enormously increases the points you earn, but mainly because it’s much funnier that way. In short, the game’s primary higher-level strategy decision is when it’s best to bank. Don’t trust your ability to not be killed? Bank swiftly and often. Think you’re the main man? Bank less often, and risk coming bottom of the board.
But there’s more than that at play. Each match has a micro-RPG system. By earning points, you also earn the ability to purchase nine categories of boostability. Running quicker, performing multiple jumps, targeting your enemies faster and so on. So you may figure that getting a few points earlier to get you some boosts earlier will pay off in the long run
The higher level abstract concepts are all very well, but don’t really grasp with the physicality of the game, and that’s what captures you. Your little robots? They’re nimble. They’re insanely nimble, flipping elegantly across the level with an open disdain for gravity. That you’re this incredible little thing, like the uber-child offspring of Spider-man impregnating the all the Olympic Gymnastic team.
And they need to be, as the levels are all about the tyranny of Gravity trying to re-exert themselves. The simplest of the levels are Mario-Galaxy esque floating spheres, where you’re chasing your opponents around this perpetual globe. More complicated ones are structured around multiple gravity wells, with your characters – if they make the jump correctly – able to propel themselves between them. “Which way is up?” becomes a fundamental tactical question.
In other words, you’re playing characters who move at enormous speed, and can strike from any direction, in a world which tries its hardest to redefine the concept of any-direction on a second-by-second basis. This could get confusing. The game fights against that in a handful of ways – firstly, because the enormous Newtonian arcs you make in space are ideal for making sure you grasp everyone’s relative positions. Secondly, things like – we return to the RPG elements – the sixth-sense abilities which tell you when someone’s trying to get a target lock on you. And if you know someone is angling for a shot… well, you start acting like there’s a cross-hairs on your head. It’s a terrific device to help remove the empty frustration of a kill coming from nowhere, and when developing my character, I’ll take it above the shield ability which actually allows you to stop those attacks. The best defence, for me, is getting the hell out of there.
Which leads to the other key part of the combat system. As you approach an enemy, you’re able to start to power-up a sudden-strike attack by holding down the left-mouse-button. When the targeting reticule goes red, releasing it should – and there’s always the chance of them countering or dodging – lead to you zipping across the distance and slicing them asunder. It’s just a question of getting close enough, for long enough, to them to get that lock…
And here’s where the Top Gun comes in. More than any other game I can remember, this gets the visceral sense of close-up dogfighting. Seeing your sixth-sense ability kick in, leading you to change direction quickly, spinning in the air to try and work out who exactly has decided to go for you. Can’t find them? What to do? Take a tight route through the scenery, ideal to lose the opposition or take an enormous parabolic leap into the firmament, meaning that anyone who comes after you will make their intentions clear, or…
Well, that’s the elegance of the game. Can I get the lock? What can I do to stop them getting the lock? What can I do to make sure my lock works before theirs does? The enormous Tron-like light trails only add to the sense of being in a physics-textbook set to war. There’s a mathematic perfection married to an undeniably visual punch. The first time I played a Capture the Flag map, seeing a half-dozen enemies bounce towards me, along the enormous Ringworld-esque arc in space was as stirring as anything I’ve seen this year in videogames. While the retro-music choices are iconic and cool, as Quinns noted, this a game which excels with a personal soundtrack. I’ve played it with everything from Daft Punk to Los Campesinos to Mogwai to Annie and found something to smile at in each.
The problem is that it’s only close to close to perfect. Simple things like changing your target are difficult to pull off in a game as high-speed as this – something in the mouse-wheel, perhaps? I don’t know – which has lead to me being far more dogged in pursuit of an enemy than I would. As much as I like the race-horse thrills, when continuing chasing seems the easier route than getting a new target, something’s a little amiss.
The bigger problems for me are in the more structural issues. Have too many players on a level, and it becomes too chaotic, the dogfights becoming an insensible bumblebee swarm. There’s levels which suit most numbers of players… however, on most servers their population limit is set far higher than what maps should accept. Playing 20-players on a map which really would like 8 or so isn’t seeing the game at its best. There needs to be more smartness somewhere somewhere in terms of the map-rotation patterns related to max-server limits. There’s also a sad gravitation towards straight death-math as a mode. Which is a great mode, I stress – but does leave some soil fallow. The Godzilla mode – where one player gets to be the enormous beast hunted by ninja – has it charms and the explode-at-set-place is interesting enough, but the real loss is the team modes.
If you get on an active server, the team-modes both gain and suffer from stepping away from Deathmatch. They gain because it adds direction and strategy to the crazed melee. The scene I described earlier about a line approaching? That wouldn’t have worked in deathmatch, as they’d have all engaged one another. In standard play, you’re primarily either hunting or engaging an already-existent fight. With teams, you start playing odds. Outnumbered? Fall back. Have a wingman? Cover each other, triumph then go to the beach and play volleyball. The subtle structure of having sides turns a straight mass brawl into something like a WW1 dogfight, robotic knights of surrealist-level skies aiming to triumph. At its best, it’s wonderful.
The problem being the game isn’t designed for team-play. Alec argues that there’s something fundamentally selfish in the design which cuts against it. Presently, he’s right – but I wish some tweaks were made to encourage another approach. For example, in team play, you still score your individual points by performing the explosion-to-bank-point routines. While your team will win the game with flags, you come top of the tables by doing the individual hero thing. Why bother going for the flag when you’re not encouraged to? There’s not even a proper THIS SIDE HAS WON! end to the game. The Facing Castles map especially seems designed to punish anyone who’d even think of looking at the flag. I spent a good five minutes trying to get the jump right to return the flag once, which is simply ludicrous. When trying to play capture the flag on a capture the flag level is viewed in such obvious contempt, it’s not hard to see why no-one’s playing it. There is a fundamental conflict between the play at an individual and the team approach, and unless Beatnik engage with that conflict, expect the team modes to remain unloved.
The final problem is one of simple economics. This is an indie multiplayer game. While you can currently get a game at any time of day, there’s no guarantee the community will be there in six months time. At the price – ten dollars – I don’t think that’s a problem. Get in there now, play while there’s people there and you’ll get your money – and memory’s – worth. If the game isn’t popular in a year’s time… well, you haven’t lost. You’ve won, because you played a brilliant, unique game and the rest of the world never will.
Because that’s the key thing. The sensations which Plain Sight offered me aren’t mirrored significantly in any game I’ve ever played. It has grace. As mentioned earlier, it’s occasionally an awkward grace, but as I catapult around an impossible world, waiting for that targeting reticule to turn red it’s a grace that’s undeniable and irresistible.