Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wishing You a Happy Rest of July, Because the Fourth is Gone

You know what makes for a good combination? The end of a semester of summer courses, a well-timed Steam sale, and a blog post. Yes, my tastes are screwy, but this is what I do best. (Sometimes.) I ended up buying three games during the sale, and after playing through them a bit (although some more than others), I'd like to share my findings with you. (I feel like I should be wearing a lab coat as I explain these to you.)

Left 4 Dead 2 - Steam link
Remember how I always used to keep talking about Team Fortress 2 and my undying love for it? Well, that's still in place. But surprisingly, Left 4 Dead 2 is up there in terms of shmups that I actually find to be fun. I'm sure I don't need to explain much about the premise of L4D2, but for the uninitiated, it's a zombie apocolypse again (the "again" because it's a sequel, obviously), and the only four survivors (sorta... remember that it's a sequel) are trying to escape relatively unscathed. You team up with three other players and basically shoot anything that moves en route to the exit point, with a couple of exceptions (namely, each other and witches).

I've not played the original Left 4 Dead, so I'm not sure how much L4D2 expands on the original, but as someone whose main shmup experience lately comes from TF2, L4D2 is a rather refreshing change of pace. In addition to the garden-variety "common infected", you've also got Spitters that vomit acid everywhere, Jockeys that ride their victim and push them towards massive throngs of the infected, and the witch that basically kills you in one shot if you startle her. Swell. Needless to say, this game is quite a bit different from TF2 as you're now faced with a horror-themed zombie film setting rather than a jovial, cartoonish romp.

While the game is intended to be played with four players online, there are plenty of offline modes with computer AI to practice on. I've primarily stuck to the easiest difficulty, and the AI usually does a good job of saving my butt everytime a Charger pommels me. Unfortunately, I've gotten quite used to these near-perfect AI, and that hurt me yesterday as I played my first online game. Even on the easiest difficulty, I think I died a total of three times, and our team had to restart one chapter over again because we all died. The AI spoiled us, basically.

I've still not had the time to look over all of the aspects of this game (such as the numerous multiplayer modes as well as the weekly "mutations" that offer a random challenge to tackle), but Left 4 Dead 2 is entertaining and holding my attention so far. I'm hoping that with a bit more practice, I can become more comfortable with this game and hopefully hook up with more friends for some fun. (Besides, they pressured me into buying the game, so they owe me.)

Shatter - Steam link
First off, let me confess something to you: I really wish this game sucked. I wish I could tear this game limb from limb, picking apart every annoying bit about this game until there's nothing left, solely because I have an amazing arsenal of jokes about this game lined up (the most obvious being what happens when you change one letter in the game's name... and no, it's not Chatter, Swatter, or Shutter).

Alas, Shatter is a good game. It might look like your standard Breakout/Arkanoid clone at first glance, but Shatter makes good use of physics to significantly impact the game. The main mechanic you can use to your advantage is that your paddle (a spaceship, natch) can generate wind to move the ball and blocks in different directions. Hold the left mouse button to suck and the right mouse button to blow (two more jokes I would have capitalized on if this game was bad). Shattered bricks release shards which, when sucked in and caught by the paddle, increase your multiplier for the wave and build up for a powerful storm attack that can clear half of the board if used properly. Sucking can also be dangerous though, as any bricks that hit your paddle temporarily stun it, which puts you in danger of losing a ball. On the other hand, if you do this before launching a ball, the automatic ball-launching timer resets back to zero, and it's possible to clear out the majority of some levels without breaking a single brick. Obviously, there are less points available for doing this, but it gets you through the levels quicker.

One major difference that sets this game apart from most Breakout clones is the use of boss battles at the end of each world to face off against. Each boss has a unique defense system that must be conquered before you can do any damage, and part of the fun of each boss is figuring out how it works. Some follow the standard hit-the-shield-until-it-breaks mechanic, but some require you to suck or blow the boss into a certain position before you can attack. I didn't think it was possible to get one of those "aha" moments from a Breakout game, but Shatter accomplishes it with its fiendish boss fight puzzles.

I can only think of two minor quibbles to file against this game, and neither one is terribly significant. First, of the three shapes that the levels will come in (rectangle where you play on the side, rectangle where you play on the bottom, circle where you play on the bottom), the circular levels are generally annoying. It's hard to predict where the ball will go with each bounce. I'm partly tempted to outright accuse the game of completely botching natural rebounding physics on this one, but it's just a game and it doesn't much matter here. Also, the keyboard controls seem oddly designed, but it's likely set up in such a way so that you can share the keys with a same-computer co-op player.

Beyond that, there's way more to this game to love than to hate. I won't lie, this game probably first caught my attention for the catchy music in its short preview video (watch it here), but the game itself more than met my expectations. Even if you're only an average player, the game seems to be designed to give you little boosts when you need it (such as 1-ups appearing more frequently when you suddenly run low on lives), which makes this game harder to put down. Of the three games I bought in this sale, I've probably spent the most time with this one so far, and I'm thoroughly glad I caught it when it was on sale.

Thief: Deadly Shadows - Steam link
Writing this bit is going to be interesting, because this is the game I've had the least experience with, and equally so, the least positive experience with. As it turns out, after downloading this game the other night and having a small power failure earlier yesterday that took my computer down, Thief seems to have disappeared from my computer. I'm laughing about this irony now, but I'll wake up tomorrow and wonder if that's a sign of things to come. Anyway, for the time being, I really can't make any screencaps, and I'm stuck basing the majority of this review solely on what I've experienced in only the first level, the tutorial.

Thief is a game where for whatever reason, you play as a thief who sneaks around and steals things. There's apparently a backstory in previous games that I don't know about, so I'm kinda in the dark here. Honestly, I decided to give this game a shot because I've never done a stealth-based game before, and it was only three dollars. In the tutorial mission, my goal was to steal someone's purse. (Okay, it was a satchel of some sort with a MICROSCOPIC SPOILER special medallion in it, but you catch my drift.) Even though I've only played the first level, I can already see I'm in for trouble.

The controls start out intuitively enough, with the standard WASD to move and mouse to look around. However, this quickly becomes cluttered with all sorts of commands for different actions. Control to creep, X to crouch, 8 to select the water arrow, F1 to select the flash bomb and I to throw it, Alt-P to renew your Netflix account, whatever. I know that eventually I will have to make a cheat sheet in order to play this game so I can quickly figure out where each command is.

Despite this level being a tutorial level, I quickly ran into trouble with the bit on lockpicking. The instructions only tell you that you right-click to start picking a lock, and by moving the mouse around, you will eventually find a "sweet spot". Stay in the sweet spot long enough (how long?), and you will get past each tumbler in turn. The game tells you that you're near the sweet spot when the little tumbler icon is making the most movement. This apparently isn't true, as where I found the tumbler to be moving the most wasn't the sweet spot at all. In fact, after two or three failed attempts, I actually had to look up a walkthrough to get past this part. As a reminder, this is still the tutorial level. Having to look up the solution in a walkthrough on the tutorial level is not a good sign. (Or I'm just thick, but let's not jump to that conclusion. Yet.)

As far as the more stealthy bits go (what few there are in the tutorial), I couldn't really decide if the AI was too dumb or too smart. The guards who keep an eye out for suspicious movement (and announce their findings in comedically melodramatic fashion) seem to either walk right by you when you're inches away from them, or spot you because of a square inch of light from that candle you didn't notice making you completely visible. Perhaps playing a bit more (if/when I re-download the game) will reveal some of the finer points of stealth, but for now, I'm just not getting the hang of it.

On the whole, the interface is rather crappy. To start, the game doesn't seem to want to work with the Steam overlay, which may or may not be a problem caused by the game's designers. However, fiddling with the F1 key for that flashbomb at the end of the level apparently made me tap the Escape key and some other combination of buttons by accident, leaving me at a "load game" screen. I clicked the "back" button thinking it would return me to my game, but apparently I had already exited to the main menu without even realizing it. This forced me to plow through the tutorial level for a fifth time, because if there was any sort of confirmation request before sending me back to the menu, I missed it entirely. Needless to say, I was rather not happy with the game at this point.

It's also a shame that the game isn't working now, because it seemed impossible to play this game during the day. My monitor, which is usually capable of showing contrast between near-black colors if you get at the right angle, seemed to be worthless during the day. On the other hand, the second level (of which I survived twenty seconds) starts out with you in a well-lit entryway, with two guards waiting for you to catch their attention. The more I played this game, the more I felt like I was missing some essential bit of skill I should have acquired from previous installments in the series.

So between overly-complex controls, AI with seemingly random I, and gameplay that leaves you out in the dark, Thief and I are not getting along right now. I'm glad I have a temporary break from the game due to it accidentally uninstalling itself, so I can focus my attention on my two other new games (and more TF2 in prep for another major update). I'd like to try this game again just to see if I can overcome some of these noob-unfriendly hurdles, but for now, I guess I just have to pretend that I didn't notice this less-than pleasant game, disappearing like a Thief in the... oh.

Late Entry: Turba - Steam link
This one didn't show up in the Steam store until yesterday, so this was technically not part of my purchases, but I figured I might include it here anyway. Turba, which I vaguely remember as a project raising funds on Kickstarter way back in the day, is a music-based match-3 game where once again, your music determines how the game is played. From what I could tell you though, the music seems to have less to do with the game than you'd originally expect, but at least it does a semi-decent job with what it does.

As the song you select plays, the rhythm allegedly determines when new blocks are added to your grid, always from bottom to top and left to right. Blocks show up in one of four colors or a bonus multiplier. Your goal is to keep the grid from filling by selecting clusters of three or more blocks (by left-clicking) and clearing them (by right-clicking). Rather nicely, you can select chains of more than one color (although no more than one chain of each color) and clear them all at once, with a bonus for clearing chains of all four colors in one shot. You can also swap columns to make new matches if you're having trouble finding a natural pair. But to make things more difficult, there are time bomb-esque tiles which explode after so many "beats" occur, leaving behind a mess of ugly debris squares that disappear after time. Errant chains also result in debris, so you've got to be rather accurate when you're panicking to clear the board.

This somewhat unfair "heads, I win, tails, you lose" situation makes levels rather difficult to beat, even when on the medium level. I actually have yet to beat a single song on the medium level, because the board just fills up too quickly. I need to try this again with less rhythm-heavy songs, but for the time being, I can only declare this game as outright hard.

So then, where does this leave us with the game's ability to make a game that actually corresponds to the music? Let's check our little rating scale, which still has only two elements, because no one left any suggestions for other factors, cough cough. In terms of reflecting the tempo and rhythm of the music, Turba would probably score a 5, and maybe squeak out a 4 in terms of reflecting changes in dynamics. (For reference, we're assuming Audiosurf scored a 7 in both categories. 7 is pretty good, but there's always room for improvement.) One of the things that makes it difficult to gauge where Turba falls on this scale is how new blocks (which appear on the "beats") don't show up immediately, but rather, fate into view. There's a soft drum kick to illustrate where it's picking up the rhythm, and it's not always accurate, but it at least makes a gallant effort. I've not yet tried a song with a weaker drum pattern and a more prominent instrumental line, so for now I can only guess that the dynamic analyzers are just picking up the spikes in the percussion. Otherwise, I might bump that rating up a smidge.

If you don't mind being pummeled by the difficulty, Turba can be quite a fun game, and it's not really that bad of a music game either. It'd be nice if a little more could be done with the music, but it's at least a moderately fun take on the way-overdone match-3 genre. It's on sale now for a buck off to celebrate its release, but I'll probably wait until the next huge sale comes around to buy it.

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