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Whipping it into shape: City Of Brass's Early Access

Arabian Fights

City Of Brass [official site], the procedurally generated rogue-ish Arabian Nights FPS has entered early access today, allowing you to play a version that the former BioShock developers are keen to stress is unfinished, leaving you "likely to encounter bugs, unfair tuning, and general weirdness." But also have some jumpy choppy whippy fun? I've been having a look.

City Of Brass is growing on me, which is perhaps the more tactful way of saying, "I wasn't sure if this was so great." Just beginning its journey through early access today, the more I play of this alpha build, the more I can see that there is a path toward greatness for it. And when it all comes together, wow, it gets close. But it's got a long walk ahead. And skellingtons are trying to kill it on its way.

When we saw the first footage of City Of Brass back in July, there were three thoughts that came into my head. Here's that trailer:

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1) They need to get the whip absolutely perfect for this to work
2) It's going to be a big ask for a game like this to pull of satisfactory layouts when built procedurally
3) I can't wait to be a sneaky thief

I'd say, at this early point, they've scored about 1.5 out of 3. Because...

1) When it comes to aiming to stun enemies, pick up objects, or set off traps, the whip is great. But the swingy from the ceiling thing? Can't find it in the game.
2) This they have nailed, and it's often astounding how well levels fit together despite having been improvised by a computer's brain.
3) Ah.

If there's one thing that COB is not, it's a game about being a thief. It's a game about running from one end of a level to the other before the timer runs out, picking up as much loot as you can gather to spend on upgrades from the genie vending machines, or just to improve your score. No aspect of that even closely possesses the implied finding of a little treasure room in a building and cannily stuffing it all into your pockets before you get caught, and that's a shame. It's as much a game about being a thief as Sonic is.

When the game was announced I interviewed developers Uppercut Games, and suggested to them that it might be the whip that makes or breaks the game. I'm less convinced it's so pivotal having played, but I wonder if that's because it feels less important for unrealised potential? Your weapon is on the left mouse button, the whip on the right, and it has a range of uses. The most immediately useful is defence - aim it at the head of an enemy (apart from the skellies who have their heads encased in cages!) and you can stun them, affording you one free swipe at them with your sword. Or point it at their feet and you can trip them up. Upgraded whips let you reach farther, knock enemies back, and so on, but the base version still packs a punch. It can also be used to pick up distant objects, out of reach treasure, or most entertainingly, trigger traps as enemies pass them.

This might be a spike trap, which you spring just as they're passing over. Or a container of burning oil, exploded with a crack of your whip, thus exploding them and anything nearby. And it's only after repeated plays that I began to realise the potential for entertaining experimentation here, deliberately setting enemies up to fall into whip-triggered environmental dangers, or stunning a baddie in the path of a charging head-caged loon, such that they crash into each other. And whipping the swords out of a bad's hand never stops being amazing.

The other key feature that feels odd at first but works well is you can aim the whip after you've triggered it. It takes about a second from click to hit, and in that time a lot can change, letting you quickly point the camera at a different enemy's head rather than the intended enemy's arm, or whatever it may be. It allows for a much more fluid and fast pace.

Combat is messy just now, and needs a good deal of refinement. Too many swings at point blank range don't make contact for reasons I can't fathom - especially when the enemy is crouched after having his feet whipped out from under him. Sword swings feel just a bit too slow, making you feel leaden in a way that's not quite satisfying enough. All these sorts of things will be refined throughout the early access I'm sure. Along with, hopefully, the upgrade weapons, which in the first few levels (I die a lot, ok) all feel like downgrades.

Also, I think the balance of danger is too much toward traps rather than enemies. I've died far more often because I've stepped backward or sideways onto one of a level's 748 spike traps than because I've been outdone in combat by the skells. Annoying fizzy spark things blast out of far too many walls that are spread across large areas that'd be a lot more interesting to navigate if they were filled with many more baddies to fight.

But saying this, the areas themselves are superbly put together. There's clearly some real smarts behind how the game is interlocking its tiles, in a way that they almost never even feel like tiles. Occasionally you'll get a slightly silly layout of doors and corridors that gives the game away, but for the most part it's generating play areas that feel bespoke, and that's an achievement. (Still, bespoke is one thing, carefully constructed, endlessly surprising hand-crafted levels they are not.)

The first footage we saw promised a very specific game, and the City Of Brass on sale today feels like - maybe - a prototype of it. It's tough, probably a bit too tough at first, and it needs a lot more to be going on in those earliest levels to ensure people want to keep playing through them. The parkour elements suggested by the trailer, and indeed by the tutorial, just don't play out in the game. Which is a shame when it's all in and working.

When everything comes together, the game can feel sublime, and you can see the game it should be struggling to be by the end of its time in early access. The moments when you trick a sword-wielding enemy into swiping at another baddy that's currently attacking you, giving him the kill and you the chance to push him into a pit, then charge off through a door to unleash more destruction. Those are fantastic. If Uppercut can figure out how to string that flow together, to deliver that seamlessly, this could be something.

City Of Brass is out in early access for Windows for £19/$25/€23 via Steam (currently 20% off until Monday 25th).

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