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First Look at BeatBlasters III

You could easily be forgiven for having not caught BeatBlasters 1 and 2. This is mainly because they don’t exist. BeatBlasters III is the first title out of Canadian developer Chainsawesome Games and their choice to lead with a title numbered “three” is a little unconventional, but it definitely seems to set the tone for the game.

pirateBeatBlasters III touts itself as a hybrid of a platforming game and a rhythm game. Whilst it’s certainly true there are elements of these genres in there, the product as a whole is decidedly stranger than the sum of it’s parts. You take on the role of either Joey or Gina, a young boy and girl, both fans of music, who arrive in the town of Acapella only to run into the town’s ruler, The Butcher, who promptly throws them both out on account of the town’s music prohibition laws. From here, it’s up to you to help them return to the city and overthrow the tyrant through a series of colourful and musical challenges.

The kids are armed with three abilities: the eponymous Beat Blaster – a bolt of energy they can fire forwards as a weapon, a magical shield bubble around them and a pair of nifty rocket boots that will offer a limited flight ability. The weapon can be upgraded as you progress through the game, allowing you to perhaps return to earlier levels you had trouble with for a better score.

The game itself plays out as a series of challenging minigames, requiring creative use of these three abilities in varying combinations. The simplest of these, the first level, sees you attempting to save a collection of peanuts from a band of thieves on behalf of a family of bugs. This is about as much context as you get in many levels. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to whatever your current challenge might be, you just have to go along with it.

Other challenges have you escorting a rocket-powered Viking longship full of Eskimo warriors across the snow to invade an ice castle ruled by a pirate, or attempting to traverse an obstacle course with a pile of penguins in order to return the spirit of the scientist Dr Penguinstein, trapped in said penguins, to his physical form. It’s all nonsense of the highest order, but the challenges themselves are well crafted, fun, and satisfying to complete.

cutalotThe rhythm element of the game is used to recharge the three abilities, which otherwise all have a limited amount of power before you can no longer use them. An indicator at the top of the screen bounces along to the beat of the music, and by holding down a charge button and tapping the buttons for the abilities you wish to charge along with the beat you can top up the power.

This recharging will begin slowly at first, increasing faster if you can sustain a combo, hitting the beats correctly for long enough. Multiple abilities can be recharged at a time as part of the same combo, so a good sense of rhythm will see you always having the correct tools for the job, otherwise you could find yourself floundering to recharge in the middle of the action. It is worth noting at this stage, that this is all a little tricky to execute on a keyboard; if you don’t have some manner of gamepad plugged into your computer, you could find yourself struggling more so than otherwise.

For a game that features music as its principal theme, the rhythm elements are fairly weak, serving mainly to add balance and pacing to the challenges themselves. However, I feel like the challenges are good enough to stand on their own. There’s a lot of variety in them and they’re definitely creative, if frequently a little odd. They’ll provide a good challenge too, with 32 levels in total to play through, and by level 10 they will already be testing your skills at multitasking tackling the challenge at hand and maintaining enough power to be able to use your abilities. If you’re finding things too easy, there’s also a unlockable harder difficulty to better test you and you can step down to an easier difficulty if you find yourself stuck on a tough challenge.

Overall, BeatBlasters III is by no means without its flaws, but it’s a fun and innovative little title that you would do well to check out.

BeatBlasters III is out now for PC, Mac and Linux. For more information, please visit

Originally posted on The Yorkshire Standard

Hands-on with the Titanfall Beta

This past weekend saw the test drive of Respawn Entertainment’s upcoming Titanfall, and I consider myself lucky to be amongst those able to get to grips with it.

Titanfall is the first title developed by Respawn Entertainment, a company comprised largely of staff from Infinity Ward, the team responsible for the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series, so the game already comes with an excellent pedigree, and the team’s roots are very evident in Titanfall.


Titanfall is, at its heart, a military shooter, and yet manages to stand out and be different in what is rapidly becoming a saturated genre.

Set in the near future, Titanfall sees war raging between the factions of the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation and the Frontier Militia. The player takes the role of a pilot, a rare person skilled enough to control huge mech-style robot walkers called Titans in a combat scenario.

And it is these, the eponymous Titans, which differentiate this game from the countless other military shooters which are so commonplace these days. Battles within Titanfall are a decidedly asymmetric affair; teams of six pilots will begin on foot, accompanied by countless expendable NPC grunts to battle over objectives. As the match progresses, players will be able to summon the massive titans and begin wreaking havoc on the battlefield.

Each player has a timer at the end of which, they can call for a Titan to be dropped from orbit onto the map. This timer can be accelerated by eliminating enemy players, or to a lesser extent, the enemy NPCs. So your performance will be directly tied to how fast you’ll get to play with the good toys. Even if the enemy beats you to the punch, pilots are still capable of holding their own against Titans.

Anti-Titan weapons will put a serious dent in their sides, particularly if they’re distracted and you can get an ambush. Additionally, an agile pilot with a high ground advantage can even leap atop one and ‘rodeo’ it, whilst shooting it in the circuits. In spite of the Titans’ size and firepower advantage, it never feels like an unfair fight.

Injecting a new breath of fresh air into the age-old run and gun formula are the pilots’ parkour abilities. Each player can easily run along walls and scale tall buildings, and combine these with a jet pack assisted double jump to get almost anywhere within the maps.


See a window high up that building? If you plan your path well, there’s a pretty good chance you can use that as your way in, giving you a tactical edge. It can be tricky to get to grips with, and personally, I’ve had more than my share of humiliating thuds as I land on the floor absolutely nowhere near where I was hoping to be, often in the midst of a pitched gunfight.

But when it goes exactly right, and for some people this will obviously be more often than for others, it’s an incredibly satisfying experience. This it seems, is the core of the whole thing, and what keeps me and many others coming back for more.

The spectacle of everything is such that you always feel like the hero. Whether you’re leaping gracefully across rooftops to reach a strategic position, hanging on for dear life to the back of an enemy Titan attempting to disable it before everything explodes. Even when you’re on the losing side, the game provides one last hurrah, as a dropship comes in to land to escort surviving players out and you’re given one last chance, a brief window of opportunity, to make your daring escape from the field of battle alive.

This would all be pretty compelling in and of itself, but the whole package is wrapped up in stunning visuals. The levels on offer were set amidst the wreckage of a disaster-ravaged futuristic city, and if you dared to tear your eyes away from the combat you would have been treated to some stunning landscapes surrounding the whole affair. The map designs themselves were equally well made.

Of the two on offer in the beta, neither of them was symmetrical, yet neither felt in any way imbalanced; the differing terrain never served to give any team a distinct advantage, and there was never a dead end in sight to interrupt your fast paced parkouring across the map.

In short, the Titanfall beta was one of the most compelling gaming experiences I’ve had in recent times, and now I, like everyone else, must wait patiently for the game to make it’s way into the world on 11 March. It will definitely be one of the most important titles this year.

Via The Yorkshire Standard

Love and Other Games

Quick, name a recent title whose story has shaped the gaming industry. Okay, done that?

The ones that readily spring to mind, and I suspect some of you may have picked, are Call of Duty’s shocking Modern Warfare stories and Bioware’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect stories with their homosexual romance options.

Call of Duty generated a lot of buzz in the press in MW2 by allowing the player to participate in terror attacks, gunning down civilians and in MW3 by graphically blowing up a small child. While it got people talking about it, it’s really serves as a cycle of oneupsmanship to create the most shocking, and therefore by extension the most “mature” game. Though there’s little that anyone could actually call mature about it; quite the opposite, it’s really pretty puerile.

There are often calls, particularly among the “games as an art” camp, to grow up as an industry. A great majority of games find themselves falling into the categories of “shoot the terr’ists” or “save us, chosen one!”, few are willing to tread the ground of genuinely mature territory, that of “serious issues”. It’s easy enough to see why, it’s a risky move on any level. The big boys are only interested in the mass appeal, big bucks type titles, and on an indie level, your success could well be the difference between eating ramen or living in a box.

Bioware flirts with this in their games’ romance options, openly allowing gay and lesbian relationships. It’s a hell of a step forward, no doubt, and hopefully the herald of better things to come, but it’s still only toying with the issue, it’s always optional and never has any real impact, either emotionally or on the course of the story.

Enter Christine Love, a Canadian game designer. Or Visual Novelist. The distinction’s a pretty grey area in my book. They’re stories told through the interface of what looks a lot like a game. And they’re nonlinear, have options and the occasional puzzle. That’s marking them out as being pretty close to a game to me. Irrespective of what you’d call them, in terms of narrative, Love’s works are strides ahead of the rest of the medium.

Her first title, Digital: A Love Story is set “five minutes into the future of 1988”. The player, having recently acquired their first “Amie” computer, joins a local BBS and finds the poetry of a girl called Emilia. From there it spirals into a world of romance, computer hacking and conspiracy. The entire game is played through the Amie interface, and you can respond to any post on any BBS and send private messages to any other user. You never once get the chance to see what you’ve written, though, only infer it from the responses you get. A lot of developers are given credit for a good silent protagonist, but Samus, Link and Gordon Freeman still all had an appearance and a certain amount of personality. By leaving the protagonist as a complete blank slate, it leaves plenty to the player’s imagination, adding a great deal to the story.

Her second title, Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, sees you take the role of John Rook, a high school English teacher in the year 2027. This being the future, social networking is huge and all your students are on a network called AmieConnect, reminiscent of Facebook. The school has arranged for you to be able to view all of your students’ public and private messages in secret in order to better assist them. this obviously raises very strong issues of online privacy. You’ll frequently be presented with scenarios where you can guide your students through tough situations, but you’ll only be well equipped to deal with them by violating their privacy at regular intervals. Being high school, bullying and LGBT issues are also prevalent.

Her latest title, Analogue: A Hate Story, has you play a similar role to the first game, a faceless, silent protagonist an unknown number of years in the future when mankind has colonised the stars. You are given the job of a salvage operation on the Mugunghwa a deep space generation ship lost thousands of years earlier. You contact the ship’s AI, but system issues mean you can only communicate in binary choice answers and by showing items of discussion to the AI. By trawling through the logs of the final seven years of life on board the ship you can piece together a picture of their civilisation. Primarily viewed from the perspective of a 13-year old girl put into stasis in the hope that future technology would cure her terminal illness, the civilisation has reverted to a deeply misogynistic culture based on that of the patriarchal Joseon Dynasty of medieval Korea. “Men are honored, women are abased” is the cliché the game asks you to keep in mind throughout. In a society where women are perpetually dehumanised, the game tries to show what life would have been like for those women. All the characters deal with differing degrees of tragedy and scandal, some powerful issues and shocking stories, others merely asides. Ultimately, the dehumanising culture, accepted as the norm for all but the young girl, is the root of it all.

Love tackles head-on issues that most people would rather tiptoe around or turn a blind eye to. Sexism, homophobia, suicide, alcoholism, and complex relationships are all expertly dealt with, even if not always the outright theme. The result is stories that are entirely captivating and deeply thought-provoking, and leave a far greater impact than any dime-a-dozen “chosen one” plotline.

I said at the start that there’s a contingent demanding games grow up, and I can get behind that. Christine Love’s work shows that it is possible, and it can work well. We need to sit up and take note. I think Christine Love may very well be one of the most important video game writers to date.



Free2Play Spotlight: Bullet Run

Bullet Run is a brand new first-person shooter from ACONY Games and published by Sony Online Entertainment.

Honestly, I almost thought I wasn’t going to be able to review this game; the install process was distinctly nontrivial. Between installing punkbuster, patching and setting up an additional Sony Station account to be able to play it took far longer than strictly necessary. And then the launcher helpfully puts an animated bar next to the Play button that looks akin to a loading bar at a casual glance. I waited at the launcher for about half an hour before I realised patching was complete. Oh well, you live and learn, I suppose. It worked eventually.

So what is Bullet Run? Bullet Run is a modern shooter set in the near future where you are a contestant in the hottest new reality TV deathsport. Stop me if that sounds familiar. To be fair these have been doing the rounds for years, after all that was the fundamental premise of Unreal Tournament some thirteen years ago. Unfortunately at some point since UT, someone decided if we’re doing reality TV, we need commentators. This works fine if you’re Uber Entertainment and your writers are fantastic and you have enough dialogue that it rarely repeats itself. ACONY hired two painfully American voices to do a handful of corny lines which get spouted over and over dozens of times per game. It starts to grate, if I’m honest.

The gameplay is in the same vein as Battlefield and CoD, going for gritty realism and high lethality. From this you’d automatically assume I’d hate it, being a staunch opponent of the two, but I don’t. It borrows enough elements of other games as well that it’s more interesting. For starters Battlefield and CoD punish accuracy of weapons while not looking down the sights so harshly that you may as well not be shooting, whereas Bullet Run’s weaponry is still reasonably effective firing from the hip. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but as an old-school shooter fan, the ability to fight without needing to crawl around on my belly staring down a scope works for me. Fulfilling the ‘near future’ part of the description is a bonus array of gadgets to play with to spice up the combat. You get 4 gadget options with a choice of two in each slot. The basic one is a minor healing device or an adrenaline boost for minor combat performance (okay, I don’t know what that is, I couldn’t tell what it did). You unlock the remaining three over the course of a match by performing well. These include a small explosive or stunning drone, pretty much guaranteeing a single free kill if you get the jump on someone, sentry guns and gatling guns among others. By their limited nature you won’t see a lot of these, but they add a little extra flavour to the old ‘run and gun’ from time to time. Another feature lifted straight from a popular modern title is that of the ‘Active Reload’ from Gears of War. Pressing reload will begin a progress bar with a little notch on it. If you right-click just when the bar reaches the notch you’ll get a fast reload, but if you miss you’ll jam your weapon. This can make a or break a heated firefight and once again, manages to mix things up just enough so that things aren’t always boring.

Progression within the game is on similar system to that of Cod or Battlefield wherein you start with basic gear and unlock better stuff as you level up. It mixes this with a typical free-to-play system too, though and you don’t get to play with your new toys until you buy them with in-game currency. So without further staving off the inevitable…

How free is it?

Here we have the same old, same old. The two currency system of ordinary credits earned by playing and ‘Station Cash’ primarily earned through real money transactions. Station Cash is a currency used universally among all SOE’s free-to-play games, so if you also play Everquest or Pirates of the Burning Sea or DC Universe or anything else by SOE then the currency is cross-compatible. Probably of minimal use to a majority of players but nice to have as an option nonetheless. In terms of credits you start with 10,000 and earn about 500 per match. Low level guns will run you about 14,000 credits and high-end guns are nearly 80,000, so prepare to grind a bit for those if you’re playing for free. Cosmetic items run you anywhere from 3000 to 15,000 (and one silly viking hat for 50k) with a lot of items frequently on sale, so you should be able to earn these reasonably easily. The game incentivizes you to buy cosmetics with a ‘style’ system. For every item you buy you earn style points which correspond directly to a percentage multiplier to your experience and credit rewards, with a cap of 50%. Style decreases by 1% per day (as your wardrobe gets stale, I suppose) so you’ll need to keep buying new items to keep your multiplier up. In real money terms, weapons cost anywhere from £1.60 to £16 and cosmetics cost from about £0.80 to £4, which at least as far as the vanity items go is much fairer than some games on the market. Whether you think a single in-game gun is worth £16 though is more debatable.

On top of all this is a $15/month or $90/year subscription plan offer. Providing a huge array of perks including but not limited to credit boosts, store discounts, bonus station cash and no level restrictions. This is presumably the domain of the person that really, really loves Bullet Run. That’s not me.

That’s not to say I don’t like it. It takes a lot of the successful aspects of other games and makes a really solid product out of it. But equally, it doesn’t have a lot terribly original about it feeling like a bizarre Frankenstein of Battlefield, Unreal, Gears of War and APB. It’s entertaining but has very little merit of its own, unfortunately.

Bullet Run, by ACONY games is available on Steam or from Sony Online Entertainment.

Orcs Must Die! And Explode. And Dissolve. And Burn… 2

Orcs Must Die! by Robot Entertainment was one of the most successful indie games of 2011, receiving the accolade Game of the Year and being one of the most fun games I’ve personally played in a long time. The anecdote you can oft catch me telling is that I picked it up about three days before PAX East this year and ended up resenting having to leave for Boston just because it meant I had to put Orcs Must Die! down.

Scarcely 8 months later we now have Orcs Must Die! 2. Historically, even the benevolent titans Valve have caught flak for such a fast turnaround on a sequel, so is it up to scratch?

To bring everyone up to speed, Orcs Must Die! is an Action Tower Defence game. You are given resources to buy traps and said traps are instrumental in stopping waves of baddies – in this case the titular orcs – from making it down a gauntlet. That flavour of game gets stale after a while and you end up just resting on the fast-forward button until everything stops, so these days the kids want action. Now you get to run around on foot with a selection of interesting weapons mixing it up in the midst of your carefully lain traps.

Orcs Must Die! tasks you, a War Mage, with the role of defending your world from the barbarism of the orcs. They will break through rifts from the savage orc homelands and charge through a mine or castle or whatever locale the narrative presents you with, intent on breaking forth into your world and wreaking destruction upon it. Armed with arrays of spikes, blades and maces ready to spring forth from the walls, ceilings and floors, as well as jets of acid, ice and flame, a variety of guardian allies and a whole periodic table of elemental fury to throw forth, you’ll get to tackle thousands of the brutes. Performing well earns you skulls which function as currency to buy new weapons and traps and upgrade your existing ones.

There’s no depth to the story, just a host of interestingly shaped rooms and gratuitous violence. One might comfortably argue that you don’t need anything else. And I will. I made the comparison last week talking about Shoot Many Robots: The one thing Orcs Must Die! does better than any other game is that it’s so visceral. When a crowd of oblivious orcs stampedes onto your spike trap while axe blades swing from the wall in unison the sense of satisfaction delivered is unparalleled. It’s a difficult thing to convey using mere words. There’s endless fun to be had setting up combinations of traps and watching the savages blunder into the literal meat grinder. And then the ones that do slip the net you can shoot in the face with a crossbow. It’s good enough to stand alone without anything else to the game.

What the sequel brings to the table over its predecessor is sadly not extensive. The game provides only 15 new levels, 4 new weapons and 6 new traps and could comfortably have been marketed as an expansion were it not for the inclusion of a Co-op Mode. Teaming up with a friend, you can each take control of one of the two different War Mages, one the Apprentice of the first game and one the new Sorceress, the Sorceress having access to more primarily magic based attacks and traps than the more physical Apprentice.

Robot are clearly banking on longevity being derived from wanting to play through the story as both characters on both normal and hard mode, and then probably the new endless mode, too, which as the name suggests pits you against ever tougher waves of foes until you inevitably succumb vying for a place on the high score board and extra bonus skulls to spend upgrading your character. While it’s no bad thing, and there’s plenty of lifespan and fun to be had with the game, the original stood well by itself in a single play-through and I fear this sequel may be found lacking.

If of course you haven’t touched the original then disregard the above. It’ll all be fresh, exciting and above all else unequivocally fun. At the end of the day it’s still quite reasonably priced at £12, which is a hard price point to argue with at any time and I’m certain thrifty gamers will be able to pick it up for less with a little patience. It’s excellent entertainment for the entry fee asked and well worth investing in, even if it isn’t revolutionary.

Orcs Must Die 2! is available for PC on Steam, Gamersgate and Impulse.

Shoot Many Robots

Shoot many Robots is all about the American dream. Living in an RV, drinking beer and shooting killer robots with a rifle.




Okay, I’ll admit I could be a bit hazy on the definition of ‘the American dream’ there. But it plays up a lot of the American stereotypes and I still haven’t figured out if it’s supposed to be ironic or not. You play a bald, grizzled American redneck type character. Your pickup truck is immediately destroyed by robots, shortly followed by your house. Seeking vengeance, you set out armed with a submachine gun, rocket launcher and quantities of health-restoring beer and narrowly save your RV from the same fate as your house and truck. Fortunately it’s the ultimate hybrid of house and truck so you’re pretty much sorted. Beyond that, the plot hopes to merely propel itself on a wave of machine wreckage. No twists, drama or character development, not even the merest token effort, just destroying thousands upon thousands of robots because they wrecked your truck.

So those robots had better be really fun to destroy, right? Alas, not so much. There’s a variety of weapons and upgrades available via a shop housed inexplicably in your RV’s bathroom. There’s a bit of variety in the weaponry too, but a considerable part of the arsenal is just upgrades on the previous model, and honestly, I just keep coming back to the same gear. Fully automatic weapons just chew through most enemies pretty quickly and pretty much the first hat you unlock raises your weapon crit rate to 60%. It’s so overpowered as to make everything else redundant. I suppose you could easily artificially raise the difficulty by simply not using said items, but since when did any gamer volunteer to nerf themselves?


Interspersed throughout the standard levels are a handful of survival mode levels. These are a bit more challenging and will throw wave after wave of enemies at you until you succumb to the hordes or kill them all. This will put even an overpowered loadout to the test and it’s quite a lot of fun, too.

The game is a 2D platformer/shooter. Kind of like the old Metal Slug games. Jumping around on platforms shooting at anything that moves. It’s a bit more fluid than Metal Slug though so it plays less like memorizing a sequence of moves and more like an actual game. The graphical style borrows heavily from Borderlands with an industrial, almost cel-shaded look. Unfortunately, the game gets stale pretty quickly. You can mix it up with different loadouts, but once you’ve smashed a few thousand mechanoids it starts to feel like a bit of a grind. It doesn’t even have the same visceral satisfaction that Orcs Must Die! had, and that was a similar principle; at least orcs had the decency to walk into giant whirling blade traps with a sadistically delightful squelch.

Ubisoft keep catching me with my guard down. They keep publishing games that if I didn’t know better I would have called indie. Rather original looking concepts with a low price points, and it’s hard to take issue with that. The idea that it has a publisher at all is poor grounds to make a complaint, no doubt. The problem I have with publishers is that the game never stands on its own merits. I’d heard of Shoot Many Robots before launch, and I’d assumed the hype was due to it looking pretty decent. In retrospect it’s obvious that it was due to Ubi digging into its deep pockets to make sure people heard of it. I mean, that’s their job, right? The faux “indie” stuff Ubisoft keeps publishing never quite lives up to expectations though. They build hype and follow through with a less than stellar offering. From Dust never quite lived up to the promise, either. Sans-publisher these games probably wouldn’t fail outright; they’re well polished and quite entertaining, but they’d struggle to stay afloat amongst much better indie titles.

Shoot Many Robots by Demiurge Studios is available on Steam, XBLA and PSN

Minecraft, Technically Speaking

I make no secret of it, I got bored with Minecraft a few weeks before its full release. I’m not denying that it is a thoroughly excellent game. Few things in this world have the power to connect total strangers in quite the same manner as Minecraft. Everyone gets something different from it and yet people get common experiences and stories they can bond over. My thing was always survival mode; I’m not in any way artistic enough to play in creative mode. But once you’ve survived everything where do you go from there? You build a fort, pyramid, bunker, levitating city, whatever you call home. You have diamond weapons and tools, diamond armour. You look like the Star of Africa, honestly. What do you do with all that? You can sit in your city, glinting in the sunlight or make it your mission to slay every creeper ever as retaliation for that one that knocked a hole in your wall while you were trying to craft. Either way it wears thin pretty quickly.

If anyone asks, yeah I’m still big on Minecraft. It’s a lie, a white lie, but damn, if it isn’t a conversation starter.

I am entirely aware that a lot was added to the game upon launch but for me it was too little, too late. So I now have the opportunity to grind countless more hours of gameplay yet again just to unlock a dragon to fight? A fight so needlessly convoluted that it took three of the Yogscast team over fifteen minutes to fight using cheats, god mode and flying. You know, I’m good, thanks. I can live without that experience.

Not your father’s Minecraft

All the above negative cynicism is rendered invalid in the light of new developments though. A compilation of Minecraft mods known as the Technic Pack (or Tekkit in multiplayer) has recently made itself known. It’s been around for a while; Lewis of the Yogscast demonstrated it some time ago, but at the time I thought it looked unnecessarily convoluted. A nice diversion, if you’re into that kind of thing, but I wasn’t. The rest of the Yogscast crew, it seems, have continued playing it in comparative obscurity, with Duncan providing a well made in-depth tutorial of nearly everything in it. Duncan has now joined Simon and Lewis to use Tekkit to build a Jaffa cake factory, getting distracted along the way in their usual inimitable style. This was the inspiration it took to garner my interest, it would seem. Such a creative and uniquely inspired idea, and definitely only possible with a lot of trial, error and learning new things in Tekkit.

So I promptly installed the Technic Pack (what with the BM Minecraft server being unsuccessful and all) and dived in. I was easily a couple of hours in before I even got to building machines, the amount of content added is so great. I was tripping over exciting new features right from the start. I spawned in front of a pyramid – and not one of those vanilla MC ones with a silly TNT trap – this had bedrock catacombs stretching the length of the desert, terrifyingly complex, especially for a player starting out with few resources. Finally making it, dirty, sweaty and hungry, outside with my loot I was greeted by and slain by a werewolf. A werewolf! I’ve had bad nights in Minecraft; once I lost two pet wolves to a creeper. The werewolf tops it, though. It’s fast, vicious and damn near unstoppable (I now know it’s weak to golden weapons. Isn’t hindsight wonderful?).

So I sheltered in a nearby Japanese town (courtesy of Millenaire, long before the Testificates appeared on the scene) and set up a better camp in daylight. I got a few simple automated systems going. I moved on to building a factory. The Equivalent Exchange mod uses alchemy to transform any item into resources of equal value. Around eight thousand dirt blocks are equal to one diamond, so getting enough stone to build a rather large factory building was trivial. Power was now the consideration, coal wouldn’t last forever. Wind was my first attempt, but being set up near sea level, the resources needed to reach the altitudes necessary were excessive. Water mills worked but produced so little power as to be near worthless. Solar, then. Solar produces a much better output, wiring it up won’t cost you all your diamonds, but as in real life it’s only going to work on sunny days. It was a massive learning experience, just to make things switch on. But once things worked, the satisfaction was immense.

So now, I have a quarry automatically digging up half the continent, with specialised tubes to sort everything it finds into valuable items, ores which end up smelted into metal bars and useless junk which gets alchemically converted into whatever I happen to need. It runs off three solar arrays which produces just enough excess power to keep my electric jet pack charged up. That last bit? Yeah, the jet pack. Now that’s the best bit. You haven’t lived in Minecraftia until you have a jet pack.

Or a Lightsaber

I’ve barely scratched the surface, this much is abundantly clear. There are entire mods within the pack I haven’t even begun to touch. Forestry, I know at least lets you automate all types of farming for starters, likely more I don’t know about. I’ve seen beehives dotted around the world, and I know you can take up bee-keeping if that’s your bag (insert “covered in bees!” joke here). Most of the items in the absolutely invaluable recipe book look distinctly arcane, both literally and figuratively, I don’t even know what mod they’re in.

Ultimately, the sheer amount of depth this pack adds to the game has given it a new lease of life that I never thought possible. If you have a spark of an idea, it’s probably possible to do it somehow. My grand plan is to glass the desert I spawned in. Quarry it, smelt the sand to glass, grind the stone to sand and smelt that to glass, and then put it all back. But making Jaffa cakes is a noble cause, too.

The Technic Pack is a free mod for players of Minecraft.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is your standard 2D adventure platformer with a lot of bite and a harsh organic style. You’ll traverse, submerge, and blast your way through an infected alien Sun that’s spreading its shadowy organic filth all over the rest of the solar system!

Through the twisted catacombs, lakes, voids, pipes and caves you’ll find may different changes in scenery. All are strikingly coloured and each presenting new obstacles and bosses to thwart. I love the atmosphere between environments. The style mostly boils down to layered silhouetted 2-D gears teeth and lots of spikes. Coupled with impressive visuals, that’s seriously all it needs to be to look fantastic. The spaceship itself is 3-D, which allows for some nice tilting movement while you’re going around corners or dodging incoming projectiles. It makes ITSP look a lot less static than it could have been and doesn’t stick out quite as much as it does in a lot of 2-D / 3-D crossovers.

For its type there’s a surprising amount of gizmos for your space ship to play with. A scanner, lasers, guided missiles, circular saws, shields, grabbing arms, etc. Each is found throughout the adventure and all are necessary to find hidden extra features. The scanner is the key to figuring out what in seven bells you have to do. Given that there’s no text or dialogue in this game either. But mostly you’ll only have to scan new obstacles once to get the hint. After that it’s just a case of using the gizmo or weapon available, or having to come back to that section later once you’ve found said gizmo or weapon. You’ll quickly recognise the task at hand the second time you fly past it. There’s a lot of re-playability in this game. Finding artefacts, concept art, getting all the weapon and shield upgrades, having to track back to access areas previously closed off to you.

I’ve never encountered anything less threatening.

Enemies correspond with their settings, the Organic Zones have plenty of plant-like spore creatures, that sometimes explode.. The Ocean Zone carries plenty of large and dangerous sea life, as expected.. And the Ice Zone which is full of “@$%ing Snowflakes! All are brilliantly designed to mess up your spaceship.. Manoeuvring to avoid or buy time to engage a specifically effective weapon is the only way to evade crashing into a multitude of creatures and environmental hazards.

All Bosses are fixed solidly into their environment, and it’s definitely not a case of blasting every spiky crevice with lasers. Experiments are required to find out how to beat each boss, all the while you looking like a delicious appetizer from some giant toothy gaping maw. Everything needed to finish each battle is within your grasp, knowing what you have to do is half the trick, and sometimes it involves being closer than is comfortable to large and hungry shadow beasts.

The multiplayer feels like more of an after thought to be honest. It’s more of the same takes, only they generate a score and you benefit more from having the extra players to watch your back. However, if multiplayer is your thing, you’re gonna want some physical people to play Local with. Since I’ve seldom encountered another player in the online mode, it’s just not quite captivating enough to hold your attention.

Organic amazingness!

But unfairly, my major gripe with ITSP is its connection to Windows Live. I’m all for signing up to another service if I feel I’m going to get a lot of mileage out of it, however, I’m not personally a Live user. There’s utterly no benefit for me using this service except to link up ITSP’s multiplayer . But I’m more prone to playing these locally with friends than setting up and online match. Which suits me find because there’s seldom anyone else hooked up to the online multiplayer. Not only did I feel reluctant to have to sign up to Live after already purchasing it with Steam, it managed to link up with an Xbox Live account that I’ve never heard of and is certainly not mine. I can only apologise to this user and hope he / she appreciates whatever points I’ve given them while trying to formulate an opinion of the game. To give it credit, I’ve not actually received any junk mail from Windows Live, like I would have anticipated, and it hasn’t actually hindered my experience of the game. It only left me slightly bewildered. I may not be so reluctant to try this again when next encountered.

There may not be a lot original about ITSP, save for its painstakingly animated environments, but that doesn’t diminish its enjoyability. It takes a lot of common features that are fun in their own aspect and gathers them in one place to provide an entertaining, long-lived and challenging gaming experience.


~ Scribble

Free2Play Spotlight: MicroVolts

MicroVolts, by NQ Games is a title I’d seen before. It took me a while to realise it, though. Almost two years ago today a trailer for a Korean game appeared and made some waves in Team Fortress 2 communities. It appeared to advertise a class-based shooter and on the face of it was an exact copy of TF2 with the mercenaries we know and love replaced with dolls and toy robots. The trailer very obviously lifted scenes straight from the TF2 launch trailer. The game was H.A.V.E. Online. MicroVolts is H.A.V.E. Online re-branded for a western audience.

If you’re still reading after that, do not be dissuaded because, for all that the trailer sells the game as TF2, it doesn’t really play as TF2. What MicroVolts actually is is a fast-paced third-person shooter with a diverse set of weaponry available to all players because – and this is the important distinction – it’s not actually class-based. Yes, yes, I saw the trailer, and that very much looked like a scout and a soldier and a heavy and a sniper and a demoman to me, too. But the way it actually works is that every player is given access to all seven weapons so you can mix and match to suit the situation.

Matches are incredibly fast-paced. Fights rarely last longer than a couple of seconds and respawn times are less than five seconds. Keen eyes and quick wits will serve you well. If the players moved a little faster I’d be quite content to make the comparison to the arena shooters of old: Unreal and Quake and their ilk. As it is, it still comes close, the thrill of running around with a ridiculous arsenal on your person blasting others to bits is recreated nicely.

The style is essentially that of Toy Story. A lot of toys running around in oversize environments. Usually. For some reason a few of the levels decide to not stick with the toyland theme and are scaled to a normal size. Weapons are all rather toy-like and mêlée weapons include silly things like pencils and hotdogs. There are four playable characters, two of which need to be bought initially; a hip hop action figure, an anime girl doll, a scantily clad demoness doll and a toy robot. These are all extensively customisable through the in-game store.

Which obviously leads us conveniently to the usual question: “How free is it?”

The store, like most f2p games, uses two currencies, in this case Micro Points and Rock Tokens. Micro Points are earned after matches, typically earning 100-200 points depending on the length of the game and on your performance. Rock Tokens are the premium currency with 10,000RT costing £6. A new character costs 20,000MP, weapons cost up to 18,000MP to unlock permanently and costume items are 22,000MP. Lower price points let you use the weapon or item for a shorter time frame. Items bought with Rock Tokens are unfortunately undeniably superior, however costumes cannot be unlocked permanently, with 3000RT giving you the item for 90 days. The advantage any given item provides you is on the whole pretty negligible, with only minor buffs to damage and stats, but with all premium items stacked this would give you a 12% speed boost or 24% extra health. That’s not an insignificant edge. The cost of this full max-power set would put you back about £30 for the weaponry and £10 for the costumes, with the costumes needing to be re-bought again in 90 days, making it a £30 up-front cost and £40 per year subscription, essentially. That is of course assuming you feel the need to buy an edge over your competitors, when a lot of people won’t be buying into this system.

From a personal standpoint, it is a lot of fun, given that there’s not been a good arena shooter since Painkiller, and I could quite comfortably see myself spending a small amount of money on this game. The fact that any costume piece worth buying expires after a time limit rather reduces the appeal somewhat, though, so I’d probably stick to the weapons.

It’s well worth a look, particularly if you’re sick of trudging slowly around brown military environments. And it certainly isn’t the Team Fortress 2 reskin that the launch trailer prophesied. At the end of the day it has failed to escape its Korean stereotype roots, though and the person with the fattest wallet will likely still win.

MicroVolts is free to play now on Steam.

Penny Arcade’s: Fanservice 3

Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is a niche appeal title, there’s no escaping that particular fact. It’s been perfectly constructed from the ground up to appeal to fans of the Penny Arcade webcomic leaving all others both befuddled and bewildered. Fortunately, I’ve been a fan for many a year, so it’s definitely one for me.

Don't act like it's weird

The third title in a planned quadrilogy, headed up by Zeboyd Games after Hothead Games dropped it in favour of working on their Deathspank series, the game takes the series in a new direction from its predecessors. Where the earlier games attempted to mimic Mike Krahulik’s comic art style as closely as possible, with Krahulik himself acting as artistic lead, Zeboyd have instead favoured their own pixel-art retro RPG style. Likewise, the first two games played out in a traditional turn-based RPG style, but this now attempts to modernise a lot of the old mechanics. It’s a joyous blend of the very old and the very new.

One thing has remained mercifully constant. The writing – in its entirety – was forged at the pen (or keyboard, whatever) of Jerry Holkins. A man I hold an immense respect for, he has a way with words like no other mortal. He has constructed a Lovecraftian world of mysticism, the occult and deities that can be slain if you only hit them with a rake hard enough. A dark world with an even darker plot, very liberally filled with puns, slapstick, general silliness and far more Penny Arcade references than you could imagine existed. And yet somehow, it all works. Don’t ask me how; on the creative scale, he’s building whole worlds and I’m just playing with a bucket and spade building sand castles.

Practically Shakespearean

In terms of gameplay, Zeboyd has done a lot right. It’s a lot of little things. Things like your characters fully heal after every fight and items have limited number of uses per battle but fully regenerate afterwards. Where historically games would make you trek back to town if your party was getting ragged or you didn’t have enough potions, this cuts out a lot of the tedious legwork. It’s essentially saying “yes, we know you have the option to go and do that so let’s just assume you did”. There’s no grind, either, which sounds an absurd sentence to ever commit to an RPG title, but it’s true. There are no random battles, they’re all predetermined, with every fight gradually tougher than the last. You’ll enter every fight thinking “Oh God, these guys look tough” when in fact it feels like it’s all very, very carefully calculated to be exactly the right difficulty. It would be quite easy to dismiss this as being more ‘modern game hand-holding’, but enough of the fights are a good challenge without the solution ever being that of ‘go back to the last bit and kill 50 more dudes so that you’re stronger’. A bit of strategy and finesse is required.

And speaking of strategy. Every character has one base class but can learn two more from a selection of fourteen, and these can be swapped around at will between battles because they manifest themselves as badges. By wearing two of the badges your intrepid heroes can become a Tube Samurai or a Cordwainer or a Slacker or a Dinosorcerer or a Crabomancer (among others) in addition to their standard class. Most of them are just as silly as they sound; the Cordwainer (a wonderful old term for a shoemaker) primarily deals damage through an ability called ‘Sole Calibur’ and the Gardenar (sic) can create a garden of dangerous bees that will damage all enemies every turn. By mixing and matching badges you can enhance characters strengths or compensate for their weaknesses and play out battles however you like.

The mighty Elemenstor! With power over elemenst?

Overall, I’d still find it hard to recommend to someone who hasn’t read the webcomic. There’s a quite a lot, damn near all of it if we’re honest, that would just go over their head. It’s too heavy on in-jokes from a comic that’s been running consistently three times a week for over thirteen years. On the other hand, if you’ve ever read Penny Arcade you won’t want to miss this. Zeboyd has worked hard to make it accessible even to those who haven’t played the first two and it’s priced staggeringly cheap for a game of this calibre.

Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is £3 on Steam or 400MS points on Xbox Live Arcade.