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Wot I Think - Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions

Lovely curves or a bit flat?

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved is one of those classic designs that's so lean and simple it's very hard to improve upon. Which despite everything is what Geometry Wars 2: Retro Evolved managed, through leaving the core game well alone and splitting off aspects of its finely-tuned mechanics into their own modes. Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions (geddit?) has been a long time coming and adds an adventure mode and online alongside its own 'classic' versions of GW – but is it all a bit much?

The best place to start is with why Geometry Wars works. You control a small vaguely U-shaped ship that moves at a constant speed, and has a slight but crucial turning circle – that is, you can't just instantly reverse direction. It feels great to move around, which is why one of GW's very best modes – Pacifism – is constructed around just avoiding enemies. The right analogue stick sends out a steady stream of shots in the direction pressed, and every enemy in the game will be destroyed by a single hit. The enemy types are colour-coded with specific behaviours that never change, and slot neatly together into a kaleidoscope of death.

What makes GW magical is how these ingredients create an experience that changes over the course of a single match – so at the start of a game you'll be shooting at specific enemies, for example. By three or four minutes in you'll be either dead or shooting directly ahead of your ship to clear a path, because the screen is so jammed with nasties that the only way to survive is keep moving and blast out routes. This principle extends to your own skill across games – you learn movement patterns, how to deal with mass enemy spawns, what to do about black holes, and so on.

The point is that GW is a simple game to play but has lots of layers to playing it well. The Classic option in GW3D offers 'remakes' of Retro Evolved, Pacifism, Waves, King and Deadline that are essentially unchanged from GW: RE2 other than the visual overhaul. The new visuals are super-snazzy, with pixelly explosions everywhere, bright neon every colour of the rainbow, and a pleasing chunkiness that all adds up to a gorgeous laser lightshow.

Much more importantly it feels the same. Your ship's quick and responsive, but still feels like it's moving through a thick atmosphere rather than a vacuum, and pulling crazy jukes around lazy purple windmills and frantically waggling away from those green bastards is as exhilarating as ever. So classic mode offers up five ways to play the daddy of twinstick shooters, and looks and feels great.

My only issue with classic mode is that the music feels way off-base. The theme used for the main Evolved game is an aggressive, pulsing classic that got an even better remix in Geometry Wars 2. Here the Evolved tune... it's not bad. It just doesn't feel right, it doesn't get me excited, and it doesn't escalate enough to keep pace with the action. To the point where I prefer to play with the music off and the old tune playing.

With that not-insignifcant caveat, classic mode is great. The more questionable aspect of GW3:D is the Adventure mode, which features 3D arenas of varying shapes and sizes, bosses, and a grind-based star structure. The levels adopt and tweak one particular mode as a ruleset (so a Deadline level will be timed, whereas an Evolved level will give you X lives) but all depend on scoring a particular amount to pass with one star – with two to three stars awarded for further increments.

The action looks stunning, with the whole GW graph-paper vibe translating wonderfully into wireframe 3D shapes, and the camera following the transitions across sharp-angled edges perfectly. The shapes range from simple spheres and cubes to peanuts and cylinders, with certain levels adding surface barriers or warp zones to mix things up even more. An unmistakeable influence is Housemarque's superb PS3-exclusive Super Stardust HD, particularly on levels like Titan, and a range of other ideas are magpied from other shooters into one-offs.

The smart stuff doesn't end there, with a power-up system that depends on quickly blasting away a shape formed from pegs to obtain a temporary mega gun, and Geometry Wars 2's 'geoms' pickups critical to everything – tiny green fragments left behind by defeated enemies for a few seconds, which can be hoovered up to increase your multiplier. Geoms are essential to getting anything done in terms of score, but they also disappear fast and are constantly tempting you into dangerous places – a mechanic that locks into the game's core perfectly.

Despite all this I didn't enjoy Adventure mode, and left it behind with a sigh and a heavy heart. Some issues seem inevitable with the 3D structure of the levels – like I often felt I'd crest the edge of, say, a cube and run smack-bang into an enemy. To be fair to the game you can see a sliver of an enemy near an edge before the camera turns but, at the speed at which GW operates, I'm afraid my brain and eyes just can't co-ordinate fast enough.

More than anything what ruined it was the stars, because every ten levels there's a boss that requires you've gained a certain number. This design choice simply baffled me, because it feels like many of GW3:D's levels are nice one-shot deals – a pleasure to play for the few minutes it takes to one star them. But replaying these same levels in an effort to grind out points quickly turns a neat novelty into an exercise in frustration: in my first hours of playing I noted down how clever the peanut level was, but since then I've had to replay it to squeak out an extra star and now I hate the damn peanut. The peanut level completely sucks.

Gating progression like this feels miserly, blocks players from enjoying themselves, and it ruins what's there. GW3:D isn't a free-to-play mobile game that needs to encourage micropayments – it's supposed to be the next iteration of one of the finest arcade-style shooters around. I've no issue with awarding stars for certain scores, even if I don't especially care for it, but using them to artificially lengthen the playtime and force players to revisit earlier content... nah. The point of Geometry Wars is that you want to replay it, not that you're forced to.

The stars indicate the wider problem with GW3:D. This is the sequel to extremely simple games and, after it's updated those core elements, all it can really do is pile more stuff on. The online multiplayer on PC has been deserted since day one, and I've tried many times, because the multiplayer in a game like this is the high-score board. GW2 already did competition perfectly by showing your friends' high scores on the screen and updating as you zoomed past each one.

The drones from spinoff GW: Galaxies make a return in Adventure mode, and can be upgraded, but they never feel necessary – just more busywork. The local co-op mode offers a handful of levels and a boss, suggesting it was never really a focus. Geometry Wars in its purest form is a game where every element feels essential. This is all just stuff.

With that said, don't take away too negative an impression of GW3:D. Though what it adds doesn't do much for me, what it brings from GW2 is simply brilliant, looks better than ever, and has never been on PC before – and everyone should try Pacifism mode at least once in their life. Parts of GW3:D are wonderful. But the most telling thing is that they're all contained in 2D rectangles.

Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions is out now. It costs $15/£12.

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Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions

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Rich Stanton