By Jim Rossignol on June 17th, 2011 at 2:55 pm.
Vertex Dispenser is a game by Michael “Smestorp” Brough, and it’s really rather clever. It’s an action puzzler (and I would put the emphasis on the action, despite the puzzle aspects being quite complicated) in which you battle for control of vertices across geometric territories. It’s a tricky single player game, and a fascinating multiplayer one. I have more thoughts on all this below.
Your focus in the game is a small craft which travels along a grid of vertices. This craft can only travel along a bit of the grid that it has captured by “shooting” in that direction. If a node of the grid is uncaptured then progress is fast, but if it has been captured by the enemy then the point must first be destroyed and then captured, meaning that progress is slower. If all the points of the triangle ahead have been captured then it will actively attack you back, meaning that zooming to a node that is surrounded by enemy territory will likely result in your death. Death might also occur in encounters with enemy craft, which will likely engage you in defence of their realm. Death means a few seconds out of the game before you respawn at one of your nodes. Lose all your territory and it is, of course, game over.
The single-player game in Vertex Dispenser consists in a number of challenges which explicate this strange vertex-capturing dynamic to you, while also introducing the various power ups that the game holds. These are unlocked by another layer of subtlety within the games mechanics, which is that each captured node takes on a colour. The hierarchy of these colours means that you can structure your captures in such a way that you unlock higher level powers if you capture in the right pattern. You are able to delete captured vertices at will, which means you can also correct mistakes as you go along. Sounds complex? It rather is, but that doesn’t really matter.
The reason this colour-matching puzzle tier of the game doesn’t matter too much is that the action side of things dominates. While it’s fascinating that a more cerebral layer of the game is present, the pace of the thing means that you are far more reliant on quick-thinking and timely response to what your enemy is doing than you are on any meticulously executed plan. There are a bunch of power ups that allow you to nuke enemy vertices or capture more of your own, and deploying just the most basic of these, while also choosing the right points at which to attack the enemy grid, are truly the keys to success.
The power ups are, I would say, also one of the trickiest aspects of the game to hold in your brain during play. There are keys for them all, which means you need to be able to hit a range of controls to get the effects you want, and I regular messed up, hitting x when really I wanted v, or F when I wanted G. Combine this with control method which seems you pivoting to watch direction on the grid and you find yourself stuck with a system that is fast and demanding.
If you can get past this mild unwieldiness – I can see from the comments on the demo thread that plenty of people can’t – then the game becomes totally mesmerising. There’s something about the pulse of the game – the beat of capture – that puts me in a bit of a trance. Okay, yes, it’s one of those designs that doesn’t feel quite perfect, but its nevertheless hugely engaging because of the way it delivers it challenge. It’s puzzling, but not really a puzzler, it’s an action game, but not really about shooting. It just feels so /gamey/ – that perfect abstract challenge of not quite being about the colour grids, and not really being about twitchy reactions. It /is/ a game about conflict, weird geometric vertex capturing conflict, and that’s what makes it tick. I love that, and the feel it exudes. I’ve lost several hours to the single-player game, but multi-player is, as ever with this sort of thing, where the real rewards lie, and where I hope people will focus their attention.
The multiplayer offers a range of set ups in terms of power up options and so forth, with up to twelve players on its various maps. I can scarcely imagine how hectic a game of this might be on a sphere with twelve competing parties, but I’d like to give it a go. The game is made for this kind of weird head-to-head.
I should mention that Smestorp is now promising a patch to update much of this sort of feedback, and I’ll be interested to see how the game develops now that it is direct in contact with the wider world of players. If you’ve not played this yet I’d urge you to give it a try. (Perhaps worth noting that the full game’s campaign is a better tutorial an introduction than the levels offered here.)