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Safe From Harm: Swarm Arena

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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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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