Premature Evaluation: Besiege

Besiege’s depiction of war is largely that of the middle ages, with a few fanciful additions - flight and the self-powering of your engine being the most obvious. Flamethrowers, though, actually date back quite a lot further: Thucydides attests to something of the sort being used by the Boeotians in the Battle of Delium in 424 BC. It consisted of a large cauldron of pitch suspended at a jaunty angle below a tube through which air was pumped using bellows. The tube curled back into the cauldron’s mouth, farting air into the burning tar and causing huge jets of flame to shriek out, engulfing the wooden defences and anyone foolish enough to be standing on them. Apparently, combined with the erosive infusion of piss and vinegar, the flames would crack stone, too. (The phrase “full of piss and vinegar”, however, seems unrelated, first appearing in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle some 2360 years later.)

Each week Marsh Davies hurls himself at the colossal walls of Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find and/or soaks the earth with the blood of his fallen foes. This week he is catapulted into Besiege, a beautiful, physics-based, build-your-own-ballista game.

Dr Blam is a killing machine. He does not have a medical licence. What he does have is a trio of metal braziers mounted at one end of a large wooden frame, each cupping an oversized explosive ball. The braziers are also attached to springs, stretched taut and fixed to armatures at the other end of the frame. Press a button and the braziers explosively decouple from their moorings while a set of three pistons gives them a little bit of extra lift, the springs contract, and the braziers twang upwards and forwards, slinging their contents in a long arc. Most of the time they even go in the right direction. Dr Blam is not really interested in surgical precision, but if the patient under his tender administration is a castle or a flock of sheep, then a messy lesson in anatomy is guaranteed.

Besiege has left me jonesing for a game that not only lets you build siege weapons, but fortifications, too - developing new designs to thwart the latest technology. Such was the impact of the cannon, for example, that old rectangular forts with their square towers, were largely abandoned. Circular towers deflected cannon shot better than a flat facing wall, but even they had weaknesses: placed at the extremities of a castle, their curving surface created blind spots for the defenders. The Italians had an elaborate solution in the 15th century, building star-shaped forts that prevented cannons being placed perpendicular to their defences. Each wall could also be covered by archers on another, deterring attempts to undermine them.

The good doctor is just one of several badly named, haphazardly constructed devices I have designed across the course of playing Besiege’s robust, generous and joyous alpha. Each of the levels in its campaign presents a different challenge, requiring you to modify your machine or build anew. Some levels require your contraption to be highly maneuverable, to weave between explosive mines, or ascend inclines. Others need you to fend off ground assaults of pikemen or overly-affectionate sheep. You might be tempted just to cover everything in spinning saw blades, but you’ll have to find some way to maintain mobility amid mounting numbers of corpses. Later, you’ll want to build something stable enough to pluck boulders from the ground with a crane arm, or ascend steps. And after Besiege has taught you specialisation, you’ll need to work out how to combine your designs efficiently, so that you can survive a hail of arrows, kill the archers and still be nimble enough to weave up a steep and narrow path.

My solution for that, by the way, was to redesign Dr Blam to self-amputate. As soon as his barrage was underway, another button would decouple the cumbersome ballista apparatus, allowing the core of the machine to drop out and skitter away up the hill. But skittering is easier conceived of than done: of all the challenges that Besiege lobs at you, simply driving is the hardest. A sensible-looking steering mechanism will often successfully permit a tight right turn, but, despite appropriate levels of symmetry, the vehicle will sometimes strafe diagonally rather than turn left. Besiege has a few such physics quirks to iron out. Even Dr Blam immolates himself as often as he successfully looses his load, and while that is admittedly a fault of his slingshot design, its curious that the results are so variable when the same conditions apply on each button press.

A fortification that you see across the former British empire is the Martello tower - a small cylindrical defensive fort with walls of about 12 metres in height. Built during the first half of the 19th century, they get their name and design from a fort in Mortello, Corsica, which suitably impressed the British forces attempting to take it from the French in 1794. Despite only having 33 men within, and being under bombardment from the sea, the fort managed to significantly cripple the HMS Fortitude and hold off a land army for two days. Though, in taking the name, the British got it wrong (though possibly intentionally), changing it from Mortello to Martello - “hammer” in Italian.

That’s really just a quibble, however: working around such issues is no hardship when construction and execution are such a joy – methodical and chaotic, respectively. And, regardless, the simulation is consistent enough to make the central task of planning and building a bespoke problem-solving siege weapon a valid and engaging challenge. The tools to do so are powerful, plentiful and neatly arrayed, allowing you to quickly clunk components into place, rotating or mirroring them with hot-keys.

Comparisons with Kerbal Space Program have been made, but Besiege is a little less technically demanding, probably because it’s largely dealing with 12th century technology employed for mass sheep disassembly. It’s not rocket science – but it is definitely some sort of science, bouncily caricatured though the physics is. (What do you think Dr Blam got his PhD in? It wasn’t the humanities.) Besiege has a rich enough menu of components to allow you to build unassailable tanks, octopedal walking dreadnoughts, or even unleash a barrage of bombs from the skies with helicopters or planes. The missions of the current campaign don’t yet demand much more than Dr Blam’s dubious credentials, but a sandbox environment filled with hazards and other squishier, crumblier things encourages you to experiment with the full mechanical repertoire. And the community has certainly done that, producing machines that exceed what the developers considered possible within the game.

As Beseige amply demonstrates, many siege weapons were as much a hazard to their operators as their targets. The petard, for example - a hand-delivered conical breaching charge - was so dangerous to deploy that it became a macabre idiom: “to be hoisted [i.e. blown to fuck] by your own petard”.

It’s also really bloody lovely to behold. I like everything about the way it looks: how the environments fade away into whitebox design space, the soft lighting and stylised simplicity of the world’s objects. Pike men and sheep don’t animate so much as jiggle along the ground – like tiny puppets, manipulated by unseen hands. The UI is weak-at-the-knees beautiful, elegant and unintrusive but with the occasional characterful flourish: mission completion is heralded by Gilliam-esque trumpets and pendants thrusting into the screen. Sonically, too, it is hard to fault, from the thunk of an arrow burying itself into your catapult’s wood to the ambience of birds twittering, cowbells tinkling and the babble of water. Beneath the environmental sound is a sparse and ethereal music that is somehow just right – all the better for contrasting so sharply with the flippant bloodletting of the game in action.

There’s already a good deal to Besiege – its modest campaign lasts 15 levels, and a handful of hours, but I’ve spent a good deal longer just futzing with different designs and trying to get a plane in the air that doesn’t immediately flip end-over-end. Locked islands from the campaign select menu suggest the amount of content multiplying by five come final release, and the devs promise more components are on their way, allowing for yet more elaborate contraptions. It’s rare to find a game on Early Access this confident and competent. I’ve already had my fiver’s worth of fun from Besiege, but even if I had felt shortchanged, its incompletion is, for once, a matter of tantalisation rather than trepidation.

Besiege is available from Steam for £5 and I played version 0.02 on 04/02/2015.

The longest siege in history is that of Candia - where modern day Heraklion stands in Crete. Then ruled by the Venetians, it came under bombardment by the Ottomans in 1648, who, with 60,000 men, had conquered the rest of Crete with relative ease over the preceding four years. It would take another 21 years before Candia finally surrendered. Good job Besiege has a time-speed slider.

52 Comments

  1. KDR_11k says:

    It’s super polished but I kinda ran out of motivation due to the limited mission count. Ah well, I hope they can come up with enough different setups to fill a campaign and not end up samey.

  2. caff says:

    It’s good fun – picked it up after I read a few people here talking about it on the “What are you playing this weekend?” threads.

    The way the sheep make a popping noise when you run them over is exquisite.

  3. communisthamster says:

    I’ve actually broken my “do not buy/play alphas/early access games” rule for Besiege, and I don’t regret it. It’s really fun, I’m a sucker for physics puzzles and this does Physics Puzzler so well. Even better than KSP, I’d say, thanks to the more defined levels and objectives.

    Visually it’s just really funny. Humour drips from every art asset and design choice. Laughs without characters, if you ignore the little troops with pythonesque names.

    If multiplayer were added, it would be the Robot Wars game we never got.

    • tr76 says:

      I feel really bad for saying this, but the Devs have confirmed that there will be no online multiplayer, because of the physics quirks of Unity. Two simulations will always play out differently, so multiplayer is impossible.

      • LionsPhil says:

        Thin tin lining around that cloud: some people have toyed with local multiplayer by sharing a keyboard (or presumably plugging two in), since you can bind each actuator to separate keys, and they don’t have to be connected to the root block to work or anything.

        Suspect camera-control is a bit of a pain.

        • yan spaceman says:

          The dodgy camera is a common complaint. I predict a follow-your-contraption camera will be implemented in the future.
          Had to acompany the missus to the hospital today, so I took a pen and paper and sketched contraptions in the waiting room. At the moment i’m fine-tuning the controls on a helicopter.

    • Gothnak says:

      There is a Robot Wars game you never got, it’s called Robot Arena 2 and it is frikking awesome. I made a dustbin of death and took on allcomers, highly recommended.

  4. GameCat says:

    One of the best captions I’ve ever seen.

    • Ross Angus says:

      Indeed. Seconded.

    • FuriKuri says:

      Total abuse of the alt attribute though, it’s really not what it’s meant for… And good luck reading any of it on a mobile device. ;)

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        Harlander says:

        Isn’t the title tag what you’re meant to use for that kind of thing?

        • FuriKuri says:

          Yeah, but personally I’d avoid that too because;

          1) It’s too easy to miss for your users to miss.
          2) It isn’t a nice experience to read more than a sentence of text in a tiny tooltip.
          3) On hovers and mobile devices just don’t mix.

          But RPS should definately avoid alt abuse, yeah the internet is rife with it but we should hold ourselves to higher standards.

          • Koozer says:

            What would be a better solution? I would say having a popup paragraph set inside the img when hovered over.

          • Cinek says:

            It’s meant to be easy to miss and it’s meant to be unfriendly. It’s sort of tiny small secret available to long-term RPS users on their PCs (oh, and by the way: text to speech readers can read alt tags just fine, no reason for bringing up disabled gamers as something to validate your personal point of view on the matter)

          • FuriKuri says:

            oh, and by the way: text to speech readers can read alt tags just fine

            Well, duh, that’s precisely what they’re for! But they’re not meant for putting in little side jokes; they’re supposed to give semantic meaning to an image which is otherwise missing from the body text when using such readers.

            I’m bringing up ‘disabled gamers’ because they’re the ones that suffer from this misappropriation – if you’re still unclear as to how/why I suggest some googling on the subject.

            What would be a better solution?

            Just do what print has been doing for centuries: put your caption directly under the image as plain text, easily readable and accessible to all.

          • LionsPhil says:

            Or, y’know, use the title attribute as suggested above. This is pretty much what it’s for, and its caveats are actually desirable for RPS’ little tee-hee semi-secrets.

    • Bimble says:

      I am more learned.

    • SuicideKing says:

      True, I ended up reading them instead and just skimmed over the article.

  5. LionsPhil says:

    It’s well worth the ~£5/$7. Get it from the developer’s Humble Store widget to save a tiny bit of money and get DRM-free versions as well as Steam.

    Some of my designs are over here (the Warulax 3-6 is pretty fun to drive), but the /v/ threads for it tend to be a far more impressive collection of webms.

    • hawken.grey says:

      Great tip about buying from the widget on their page, thanks!

    • Nixitur says:

      The /v/ threads on it vary between horribly offensive, extremely funny and just dastardly clever.
      For examples in all these categories, there’s loads of swastikas, Wolf or Metal Gear Ray from Metal Gear Rising and a design that carpet-bombs the entire map.

  6. kaisergav says:

    Basically a siege-themed series of Scrapheap Challenge. I’ve really enjoyed the alpha so far, there’s a lot of scope to imagine something ridiculous and then immediate build it rather intuitively despite the limited toolset.

  7. JB says:

    Great alt-texts, Marsh. If you like some fortifications (specifically Italian in this instance), check this out: link to allworldwars.com

    I’ve posted that link before and I’d imagine I’ll post it again. It’s some lovely stuff.

    Also, Besiege is a lot of fun so far, I look forward to trying more insane stuff out.

    • Spacewalk says:

      Yeah, WIkipedia’s got nothing on these alt-texts.

    • Canadave says:

      Those sketches are quite lovely. I’d definitely go for a game that’s all about designing star forts.

  8. donkeyspaceman says:

    The trailers I’ve seen remind me a bit of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, which is a very good thing.

  9. Jimbo says:

    It’s brilliant, and it has so much potential. I don’t even really care about the mission aspect (Nuts & Bolts is the game you want for that, which is also fantastic), I just like messing around with it like a Mechano set and watching everything I make fail spectacularly.

    This is how to really play this game: link to youtu.be

  10. RedViv says:

    It’s one of those games I am really quite rubbish at, but which are fun nonetheless because I can get a ridiculously shite construct to do AMAZING AND GRAND DESTRUCTIONATING anyway.

    It’s a Mekboy sim, is what I am saying. Needs more paint.

  11. John O says:

    This game provides early 2015 with a heartwarming story about creativity and craftsmanship in videogames. Also death and gory destruction.

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    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    Watching slow motion replays while playing classical music is a joy no other game has ever provided me.

  13. Dominic White says:

    The developers have openly stated (right there on the Steam store page) that there’s at least another 1.5-2 years of development left to go before Besiege hits V1.0.

    I expect it to be a matter of months, maybe even weeks before the forums are full of idiots screaming about how they’ve been scammed and how the game isn’t done yet, because that’s how early access works, right?

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Oh, God, don’t. I added a bunch of EA titles to my wishlist, and started reading the forums for them as well as the ones I’ve already bought, and heartily wished I hadn’t. And people wonder where the “entitled gamer” stereotype comes from. GAME IS OUT FOR 2 WKS STILL NO UPDATES Y U SCAM ME??? etc. Jesus wept.

    • Gnoupi says:

      I don’t know, it seems quite full fledged as it is, and a lot of fun. And the level of polish goes far beyond the “technical proof of concept” that a lot of early access games are on release.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        It’s not that some Early Access games aren’t rushed out long before they should be, put together by people who don’t realise making games is hard, etc. They totally are, and Besiege looks much more promising than many of those. But the majority of people on the Steam forums, in my experience, seem to react exactly the same to every Early Access game, regardless of its merits. If they don’t get daily updates, an unending stream of bug fixes right first time, optimisation tailored to their specific PC right out of the gate and probably intimate back massages as well they start screaming SCAM straight off. It’s beyond stupid.

        • Gnoupi says:

          Then again, I did read this particular thing this week : link to forums.toucharcade.com (“Sh4rP EYE”‘s messages). So I guess you are probably right about gamer’s entitlement.

          And that’s not even for early access, and the game costs $2. I mean, the time spent complaining and asking for updates and a refund literally costs more than the game. But hey, he’s protesting… well, I don’t know what, the right to get free stuff, I guess.

    • Cinek says:

      2 years?! What exactly do they plan to do in all that time? o_O

      From what I see – all they need is some more levels added to the game, perhaps a level editor? That’s about it – otherwise this game looks like a finished product.

  14. Jakkar says:

    Ah, this game is delicious.

    I took a bit of a hit to my interest in playing when I reached the level in which the only objective is to kill a large number of passive AI animals in their pens. That just rings distasteful, and very boring, to me. Aggressive humans with swords and bows, their castles, synthetic constructs in military conflict, that’s a lot of fun. I hardly shed a tear for my victims in Manhunt, vicious and un-PC as the game reputedly was, but smashing sheep who don’t even explode with a heroic ‘Mehehh!’ per the Worms series just seems too… Sociopathic, for my tastes.

    Was flamed to hell for mentioning this on their Steam forums, and when I emailed to ask if they had a level skip function in the works for those who aren’t in the mood to run a medieval abattoir, their response came across as rather cold and snarky.

    Am I the only one who feels a big drop in interest in a game when its developers give a bad impression, ethically/socially?

    .. nonetheless, an absolutely wonderful toy. I don’t regret buying it in the slightest, on a whim when it appeared on the storepage a few weeks ago. Everyone should play this thing.

    If anyone else has any strong feelings about levels in which you slaughter large numbers of passive animal AI, do weigh in, though. I don’t personally see a huge difference between slaughtering civilians in something like that awful-looking Hatred (?) game and killing passive domesticated animals with a siege engine. It’s cartoony, but they still go ‘Meh!’ with tragic finality ;-;

    I guess if I find anyone else who shares these thoughts, it’ll be on RPS =)

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      Maybe you could imagine you’re just preparing a huge banquet for some people with very low animal-cruelty standards?

    • LionsPhil says:

      I thought you could skip levels; I seemed to be unlocking two ahead of the one I completed.

      • Llewyn says:

        You can. I haven’t slaughtered the sheep at all, but I have completed the final level.

        Although I haven’t slaughtered the sheep yet because there’s no way any of my contraptions will stay in one piece long enough to kill so many things in so many different places.

    • Kefren says:

      I wondered if I’d find a comment like this, since it’s what I thought too as I read the main article. I would probably stop playing at that level, based on past experience. It’d be like playing Doom, but where half the enemies were kittens.

    • Gnoupi says:

      I find that turning off blood helps. Creatures (humans included) just disappear in a little “poof” of smoke.
      It reinforces the cartoony effect which can be conveyed by the general graphic style, instead of that of a brutal slaughter.

      (Admitedly, it’s less fun when fighting humans, but the option is easy to access to switch it on demand)

  15. Sythonz says:

    Really been enjoying this game over the last few days. /v/s (4chan’s video game board) threads on it make me feel creatively bankrupt, the amount of crazy shit that comes up.

    In its current state, you’ll breeze through the challenges in an hour or two and most likely run out of ideas an hour or two later. Whether you get your time out of it or not depends entirely on whether you seek out the various online communities that are springing up around it, i think.

    • Jakkar says:

      On the contrary, I hit the fifteen hour mark before getting halfway through the available island, Ipsilon. I have certain guidelines for how I complete a level, for example the machine being reliable, its technique repeatable, and the machine surviving the challenge.

      • LionsPhil says:

        BOMB TRUCK, READY FOR DISPATCH.

      • Nixitur says:

        But that way, you miss the best parts!
        I’ve seen someone solve one of the wind levels by “Kerbal-ing it”, as he put it. Instead of throwing a bomb at the target, he dropped a bomb behind the machine and flung itself at it.
        It was glorious.