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Prototypical: Pirates Of New Horizons

Okay, so, let's work out what would go in the ideal computer game. Clearly pirates. And robots. Both pirates and robots. Then of course if the game's going to be any good at all we're going to need to be able to double-jump, right? And then there's having a grappling hook, obviously. And collecting coins. So in many ways, the four-man team at Exit Strategy Entertainment are onto a winner with their plans for Pirates of New Horizons. Rather sensibly, the indie devs have released a prototype of the game, giving you an example of three different ways the game plays, including a rather large level to run around in. Play it, and then they ask you to complete a survey about it at the end.

Short of jetpacks, it really is as if they tried to include everything that makes me switch off my critical faculties and just dance around in glee. I think double-jumping should be an extra five percent on any score, instantly. Even in a text adventure. And obviously every game in the universe would be improved for having a grappling hook. Take Empire: Total War, for instance. So putting both in the game is an excellent way to start. Theming it around pirates, and letting you pick pocket everyone you talk to, works even better. Especially when there's robots hanging about too. And all the pirate ships can fly.

The game's being built in Unity, and as such works as both a downloadable, and embedded in a website. And of course it's just a prototype at the moment, so rather rough in places. But it shows a lot of promise for a cute third-person actioner.

I'm a little frustrated that games like Ratchet & Clank, and Jak & Daxter don't make it to the PC. Cute, bright, third-person action/platforming is a much under-used genre on our boxes, for which there's little excuse now most people are realising a 360 controller is a necessary accessory. In fact, Exit Strategy state that the game is fully intended to be played with a 360 pad, and while there's mouse/keyboard support they're very dismissive of it. Which is strange, as it works very well. Having leant my pad to a housemate, and it being gone 2am, I couldn't get hold of it tonight, and then found the poly-buttoned approach was just fine. The in-game instructions are entirely in 360-speak, but were quickly self-evident.

This is to be a game about a 14 year old pirate setting out to steal enough money that she can retire. Which is a cute idea straight away. You begin on board your pirate ship, being attacked from all around by enemy flying vessels. Her one-woman crew means she has to dash about trying to fire off cannons as ships fly past, frantically taking out the baddies before her own ship is too damaged (although I'm fairly sure it can't be in this version).

Complete this and you arrive at what is likely to be the game's hub. Here you must get your ship fixed by a robot mechanic, and then figure out how to get a lighthouse to light up. There's plenty of other people to talk to here, and every time you chat your character will attempt to pilfer some coins out of people's pockets. Once the lighthouse is lit, it fires a beam off into the sky that you can follow in your freshly fixed sky vessel.

The light points you toward what's currently the game's only action area. It's a huge floating volcano, riddled with tunnels and full of purple aliens trying to thwart your progress. Here you meet the prototype's biggest weakness - some really shoddy combat. You've got a block and an attack, and so do they, but these feel slightly broken. You flail around until they're all dead, really. It needs a lot of work.

But the real goal is finding vast amounts of treasure to pour into your ship's hold. This involves lots of platforming, including learning the three different ways the newly acquired grappling hook works. So you're quickly leaping, double jumping, and grappling your way around large rooms, hoovering up as much treasure as you can find. The grapple also needs a deal of fixing, often poor at offering your the reticule that lets you attach to a new target while flying through the air. And when you're attached it feels awkward, not very fluid.

But there's a good deal going on here. It's the details that make this seem impressive, if the tech can be smoothed out. Arriving at the volcano, you first meet a man protesting against the treatment of the aliens within. It adds an odd touch to the combat, wondering if you should be slicing them to bits with your shield. The level design also shows a lot of promise, with nicely spaced platforms to make sure you're always enjoying the double-jumping, and lots of little tweaks and twists, forcing you to explore, and explore vertically as much as horizontally.

Two of the team behind this are ex-IO Interactive, and a third worked with Crytek. But perhaps most crucially, lead developer Soenke “Warby” Seidel says that he's won many awards for creating custom maps for games, indicating a good sense for level design that shows itself in this demo.

It's surprisingly charming, if a tad crude at this point. But I love the idea of a developer releasing a free prototype and then asking players to give them feedback. I'd like to see their survey form giving a bit more space for comments about specific features. They don't even ask about the combat, which seems a strange omission. But it remains a great idea - they're genuinely asking people: is it worth our time making this into a full-length game?

So have a play - there's around an hour's stuff to do in there. And let them know.

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