Safe From Harm: Swarm Arena

By Kieron Gillen on August 20th, 2010 at 4:00 pm.

Read the piece. It isn't what you're expecting.

Dedication Games’ Swarm Arena was released on Steam yesterday for seven quid fifty (though ten percent off in the first week). I’ve only had a half-hour with it, but I think it’s actually worth bringing to your attention. It’s a shame that there’s no demo (at least, not yet), for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I think quite a few of you will find it really intriguing. Secondly, it’s a tricky game to describe and the above screenshot is kind of deceptive. You’re probably thinking some manner of Geometry Wars arena-shooter. Well, it is kind of an Arena-shooter, but… well, imagine being a sun and trying to weaponize everything in your orbits. That’s not helping, is it? I’ll say some more beneath the cut, and present the trailer which kind of makes things clearer…

Basically, you have an aura of control around your ship. By picking up tokens, you release little flighty swarm-creatures. If they’re within your “gravity”, they’ll start to orbit you eratically, following you around like an over-eager puppy, shooting past you and legging it back. If they’re not in your area, they’ll mill around helplessly.

These are basically your bullets, and if you’re influencing them, colliding with an enemy target will annihilate them. Your opposing target is – equally basically – someone just like you, with their own orbiting swarm of bullets. The standard form of play is based around making sure you keep a horde near you – to act as a defence – and knowing when to lash out at the opposition (which will clearly leave you vulnerable). As well as just the inertia of movement, you also pick up special abilities, which – upon activating – makes the bullets all do one task. The shoot makes them all fly away directly from you, which is incredibly quick and violent. The orbit one makes them all basically form a flail, and rotate away from you as a controlled weapon. And, depending on where your bullets are when they’re orbiting, it can have a hugely different effect. For example, if you fire your shoot when all your bullets are on one side, it’s a bloody deadly shotgun blast.

Played in the arcade mode, against hordes of dumb AI, it’s a slaughter with you darting into dangerous positions and exploding, taking down a mass. Played against the more competent AIs, and it’s a genuine duel, with you trying to reduce your opponent’s swarm without giving up your own, all fencing back and forth. There’s multiplayer on a shared machine, with online leaderboards. Single player seems developed, with an achievement chasing mode making a lot of sense – plus, there’s one AI which you actually teach by playing against it, which is an unusual thing to see in any game.

The only reservation is based on not having had much time with it yet. At the moment, it’s all novel, but I don’t know deep its unique control system works – and, when you master it, how much precision you can achieve. And – just as tellingly – how rewarding it will be when you do. It’s a game about momentum and managing it, so isn’t quite the instant-reaction most of us are used to – which isn’t to say that playing it doesn’t require instant reaction. When you’ve lost your swarm for a second, you’re able to dodge the incoming ones, if you’re good enough, for example.

In other words, I think it’s interesting and if you fancy throwing down that six-and-a-bit-quid, you can do so here. If a demo emerges – or I play it more and get some more solid impressions – I’ll direct you to it. Anyone given it a shot?

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25 Comments »

  1. LewieP says:

    Ooh, that’s looks right up my street.

  2. crosslink says:

    Looked at this last night…your review was just the little push I needed to click buy – thanks!

  3. BobJustBob says:

    I checked out the trailer yesterday and was intrigued but planned on waiting for a demo. Now I think I’ll just go ahead and buy it. The core gameplay mechanic reminds me of the bullet-suck ability from Mars Matrix.

  4. Ovno says:

    Looks ace, kinda of inspired by Osmos, Mario Cart and Geometry wars….

    Bought =D

  5. Wilson says:

    Looks pretty neat, but I’ll wait for a demo. I’m not sure how much long term appeal this would have for me.

  6. jonfitt says:

    Has anyone played this on an arcade stick? I was looking for a modern arcade shooter the other day.

  7. Mister, Please says:

    It reminds me a bit of the Ion Assault XBLA game.

  8. NAJoe says:

    Saw this on Steam and picked it up last night, since it seemed intriguing and I’m a sucker for games that implement things like swarm algorithms and learning AI. I’ve played about an hour so far and I think Kieron’s impressions sum the game up very well. The AI duels and the Battle mode (high score mode) play very differently and if you’re someone who likes chasing high scores in games like Geometry Wars then this will probably appeal to you. Keep in mind though that it doesn’t play like Geometry Wars at all and might require a bit of time before it clicks (this is an advantage of buying a game blind and feeling compelled to put time into my investment). I’ve been using a gamepad to play and it works well and I think that a proper arcade stick would actually be very cool.

    P.S. Kieron: I saw you in the top ten on the leaderboard and I was hoping you would post some impressions.

  9. IcyBee says:

    Sort of reminds me of the “combat wasps” in Peter F Hamilton’s “The Reality Dysfunction”.

  10. ylenol says:

    was I the only one disappointed it wasn’t at least somewhat like corewars when it said “evolve your own AI” ?

  11. Lavatein says:

    It’s fun but i’d unlocked every achievement after just 2 hours, aside from the viral “tell your friends” ones. It’s seriously lacking in content at the moment.

  12. Csauli says:

    Has anyone so far seen the Pandora AI actually “learn”, yet? I seriously suspect that it cheats…

    • DG_Simon says:

      Hi Csauli. I can promise you, the Pandora A.I. does not cheat. There are certain parameters defining the actions of an A.I. that make up it’s personality. The only differences between the Teacher and the best one, Genesis, are these settings, the personality. The Pandora A.I. can modify its personality based on it’s experience. It is rewarded for hitting the enemy and punished for being hit. It constructs a “feeling” for what’s good from its memory.

      Therefore it can adapt to different environments (rules) for example. It can learn things like to pull the trigger all the time. This would not be a smart move against a good opponent, but maybe it is against you. That’s the sort of personality you will get from this unique concept.

  13. sofarukus says:

    Nice review! :) I need to give it a try.

  14. RobF says:

    On some of the later stages in score attack you’re really at the mercy of the game which is quite the bizarre thing. A couple of times I’ve had a good scoring run interrupted by it spawning things right by me destroying pretty much my entire swarm in the process.

    It’d probably be annoying if I could bring myself to care that much about the game. It’s polished enough and all that but modes aside, it all seems kinda half finished and not fleshed out nearly enough.

    The way the initial storyline disappears within 30 seconds makes you wonder why they even bothered putting that in, that there’s only really one kind of enemy to face over and over again just slightly different as you progress and then the rando-swarm steal on top of that means it’s not nearly as interesting or as entertaining as it could be.

    A nice start and an intriguing idea but definitely needs a whole lot more.

    • Tacroy says:

      Aww, the video looked pretty exciting but if there’s not much depth I probably won’t buy it – maybe if they pull a Shattered Horizon later on.

    • RobF says:

      Hopefully they will.

      As a concept it’s pretty sound and the actual swarming stuff (even though you’re limited to two moves in score attack – a circling thing and blasting them out) feels really good if a tad imprecise. The sense of doing something quite balletic when it comes together is just what you’d want from a game like this.

      At the moment it’s more like an 80 point XBLIG only ever so slightly more fleshed out – not that I’m complaining about the price there, it’s just y’know, the 360 is overflowing with stuff like this on the indie channel and this doesn’t really set itself much apart from a lot of those.

      What’s really odd is the way death is lingering and often unrecoverable, as I sort of mentioned in my last comment. As you progress, it obviously spawns more nasties. The more nasties it spawns, the more chance you’ve got of one or two annihilating your swarm not long after you’ve spawned or worse still, spawning and hitting you with one of the barely visible enemy swarms.

      If you take a hit, you lose your given powerup for that wave, get hit twice and your swarm is completely useless. To counter this, it respawns the power ups up to 5 times. Problem is, you’ve got to wade through a load of enemy swarms to get to them. So you end up in a really depressing loop whereby you get hit, make a dive for the power up, get hit, make a dive for the power up, get hit etc… and all the time the remnants of your swarm are getting eliminated and there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it.

      At this point you’ve only got the slightest control over them anyway, so you might as well just suicide rather than drag it out as due to the imprecision of the shoot/circling things, a small swarm might as well be no swarm unless you hit lucky.

      Nothing that can’t be fixed up and padded out here, I’m just not sure how these things didn’t get picked up and addressed before release as they’re quite glaring flaws for a score based game.

      Still, the music is great and I don’t regret the purchase at all. Just couldn’t really recommend it as it is right now.

    • DG_Simon says:

      @RobF

      Hi Rob, let me tell you a bit about the game’s design – maybe I can make the experience less frustrating for you. The game is about controlling the swarm. This is something no one is used to, so there’s a very high entry level. I did my best to make the game as accessible as possible, but there’s simply a lot to learn before the game itself can unfold.

      Examples:

      A great Battle Mode ruleset (in my opinion) unlocks with one of the last achievements – It makes you lose your level when you change ability. This would be very frustrating for beginners, but it gives the game an incredible component because you can weaponize bonuses by pulling them to the enemy.

      Or if you lose your inactive swarm to a new wave, it is because you risked too much spreading them out in too many directions. If you get hit and lose your entire swarm, it is because sometimes you should have stayed with the drones and hold them active as good as possible.

      Another example (someone mentioned it), about the bonuses in Battle Mode that spawn at random positions. As this may be frustrating at first, it is the reason you have to battle for ground. The more ground you control by pressuring and blocking the enemy, the more spawning ground you own, the more advantage you may get.

      These are very good examples of how the game is designed to be more interesting the better you are in it, to make it fun for a long time. This also means that there can be frustrating moments in the first phase of learning. If you feel like it’s a good game, take your time with it, you will not be disappointed as your skill grows. I can assure you that all this was made with very much thought.

      Thanks for your interest in Swarm Arena,
      Simon

  15. RickD says:

    I think you just need to protect your swarm and keep it active? I like the game.

  16. Enrique says:

    got it, it is hard first but it is much fun! i saw in the credits is only one guy!? really?

  17. MadMatty says:

    Im game for anything novel, and i like particles ´n shit flying around….. if im lucky my dual-core will be back up by the time the demo comes out (it muss!)

  18. sofarukus says:

    go get it. its not that expensive anyway. and its good fun! :)

  19. bab says:

    yep, really.

    just read a small feature on our local online paper (sorry: available in german only)
    simon programmed this game within 3 years – all by himself. design, marketing, promotion and – of course – lots of programming.

    said he wanted to play a good game that you could play with someone else on one pc, but was disappointed of what was out there.

    so he decided to use his knowledge of swarm computing to create this game…

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