The Curious Expedition (Steam Early Access)

Cur1When I first heard about The Curious Expedition, it scared me. The first thing that scared me about it was the title. Something in its verbose vagueness reminded me of Sir, You Are Being Hunted which, while a decent enough game, really needs to throw its cumbersome title out of a high window into a pile of something moist and unhygienic. The second thing that scared me was the ‘roam from encounter to encounter’ format which has become almost synonymous with FTL – at least amongst a certain adulation-hungry section of the indie community. Luckily my fear was foolishly misplaced on both counts.

Maybe this is a reflection of my recent interests but in some ways The Curious Expedition has more in common with board games than with FTL. No, no, wait! Sit down. It’s ok. Board games are cool now. Just ask Wil Wheaton (when is Wesley ever wrong?). Curious (as I’ll henceforth abbreviate it in the name of sparing my beleaguered fingertips) isn’t reminiscent of board games in the way you might be thinking. It’s not jungle-themed Monopoly or some sort of horribly literal Hungry Hungry Hippos. No, Curious reminds me more of something like Robinson Crusoe or Wilderness – its series of procedurally generated expeditions can be imagined as individual games in a campaign, with failure of not only this one brief effort but the entire saga resting on how prepared you are for the roll of the dice.

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The essence of the gameplay is to go out on an expedition in a roughly Victorian imperial fashion, roaming the uncharted (except by the people who live there) wilderness in search of sacred relics to disrespectfully pilfer, and local villagers to accidentally get killed when you make them climb a stone tower without  a rope. As an Englishman, the historical aspects of this make me justly uncomfortable. Victorian England was a dick.

The eventual aim is to be the most famous explorer by successfully completing expeditions, and there are lots of ways to boost your fame in addition to just not dying. Finding the golden pyramid which is present in every region of the world is one way, but those things can sometimes be tricky to locate. En route to the pyramid you’ll probably find various shrines which you can plunder for their ceremonial masks and ancient texts (while no doubt commenting on how quaint they are and how lovely they’ll look sitting on twee doilies in the drawing room). If the locals find out you’re doing any of this they’ll rapidly shift from welcoming to wary, and then to actively resentful. Substitute ‘ancient treasures’ for ‘booze’ and this could be anywhere in Britain. (Maybe that’s what Victorian explorers are really trying to achieve. You do meet missionaries in Curious and they never explicitly deny peddling sambuca to the locals.)

Worse yet, the instant you half-inch relics from a shrine, very bad things happen. Things which mainly involve the ground exploding in one way or another. More than once I’ve let myself become over-covetous and been forced to pay the ultimate price as the very earth itself acted like I’d spilled its pint.

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The biggest obstacle, though, is dwindling sanity. You spend sanity like fuel to traverse the landscape it’s a very limited resource. Tough terrain makes you crazy much faster than a leisurely stroll, while sleeping and eating replenish you for a while. If you don’t come suitably equipped with rope, machetes and other gear to help out with the tough stuff, you’ll find your sanity evaporating at a distressing rate, and your party will end up spending most of their time barging into villages in a panic and demanding the use of their hammocks.

There are other ways to top up your sanity, but it’s hard to imagine a 21st century government promoting them. The 19th century was a different world, and no self-respecting explorer would shy away from treating mental health issues with gallons of whisky and bricks of chocolate. (Having said that, “booze is good for you and walking makes you insane” might be an election winner.)

Once your expedition is done, whether you successfully find the pyramid or have to bail early in your pocket hot air balloon, your success will be judged by how much fame you gained. You can donate retrieved artefacts to a museum to give yourself a boost in renown, but sometimes it makes more sense to sell them like the shallow corporate shill you are so that you can actually outfit your team for the next trip. Like all the most tense games, you need to do both things, but can never quite stretch your resources that far.

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They won’t be hospitable after we nick everything they hold dear.

Curious is a pretty tough game to overcome and it doesn’t pull any punches. Not only will you never have quite enough treasure to gain as much fame and as much money as you’d like, it’s also surprisingly easy to get killed in the field. If you enter an animal’s roaming range, you’ll often find it comes over to have a sniff and a gnaw on your whimpering face. Even in the very first (and thus easiest) expedition, animals can really mess you up. The exact content of each expedition is procedurally generated for replayability, so you never know exactly what you’ll run into, and it’s entirely possible to get through an expedition without spotting a single beast – but if you do have to fight one, it will tear you apart.

As with a real expedition, the key is to be as prepared as possible. Buy decoys to avoid fights, buy bullets to give you extra attacks, buy better weapons – but all of this costs money or other items in trade. Along with buying ropes and machetes and the like for overcoming environmental hazards, tooling up for combat means trading trinkets in for cash instead of fame. The better prepared you are, the less likely you’ll be to die, but the further away from your fame goal you’ll get.

The process of combat itself is a literal dice roll. You get dice for all your party members, and for any weapons you’re carrying (plus extras if you spend ammunition), and you try to make combos from whatever results you roll. Enemies will do the same and, believe me, even the lowliest beasts have far better dice than your party of explorers. I imagine that swatting a fly in the world of Curious would see it drill through your hand.

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Fortunately the challenge is all in the gameplay and not in the interface. The whole thing is controlled with smooth and easy mouse use. It’s also in a constant state of being refined and improved thanks to its Early Access status. A couple of months ago the combat system was a little obfuscated and difficult to follow, but now it’s populated with handy tooltips which even a delirious Victorian explorer can understand. Developer Maschinen-Mensch is doing good work on not only providing plenty of content but also making the whole playing experience as smooth as possible – an admirable goal (and frustrating rarity) in Early Access.

Curious also excels itself in presentation. The music is generally good and reflects a certain whimsical mood of adventure (though one or two pieces can grate after a while) and the visuals have a faintly Secret of Monkey Island-ish pixel art style, though modernised and displayed in lavish colour. The tiled area map around which you navigate is pleasant enough (though wisely emphasises clarity over flashy presentation) but the zoomed-in scenes which accompany each encounter are well drawn and charming.

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Okay, who packed jaunty waistcoats instead of C4?

In fact, ‘charming’ is probably the best word I could use to describe The Curious Expedition. That’s not to say it’s flawless – the difficulty of an expedition can vary quite widely depending on luck with the ‘random number generator’ and combat is perhaps a little too brutally punishing. I also can’t help feeling a little uneasy about the setting. It’s a lighthearted faux-Victorian romp and not committing any crimes, but as a descendent of the pillaging British empire which this game affectionately parodies, I can’t help feeling a niggling disquiet that when this stuff really happened it was nowhere near this cute or amusing. I kind of feel like I should be scowling with ancestral shame, not frolicking in the digital jungles. That’s not a flaw with the game, just be aware that those of a culturally sensitive disposition might occasionally squirm at the real history there.

In any case, the niggles I do have about the game are minor and don’t do much to impede my enjoyment. It’s also worth a quick reminder at this point that it’s still a work in progress. The Curious Expedition would be easy to recommend if it was a full, final release; the fact that it’s still technically a unfinished but feels basically complete boggles my mind. Between the slick presentation, the tough yet rewarding gameplay, and the replayability afforded by its procedurally generated content, The Curious Expedition has a lot to offer.

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Really? How…CURIOUS. *smirk*

Again, ‘charm’ is a key word here. The game has a tone and a feel all of its own, and you can’t help becoming drawn into the adventures of your intrepid party of explorers, wincing when someone dies or wearily rolling your eyes at the way one particular NPC is always the one who falls and breaks a limb (seriously, there usually seems to be one member of your party who just can’t do anything right. We need a new hiring policy). That charm is present throughout, and it elevates a game which would already have been competent and enjoyable to new tier of quality.

I can’t promise that The Curious Expedition will suit everyone, but I have a lot of fun with it and I have better taste than other people, so you should probably go and have a look.

The Curious Expedition is available on Steam Early Access here for £10.99 (UK), $14.99 (US), or your regional equivalent. 

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Why I Didn’t Buy Minecraft

I’ve played Minecraft-inspired games before. I’ve put dozens of hours into Terraria and a decent chunk of time into Total Miner: Forge. When Minecraft itself finally hit the Xbox recently, I had to at least play the demo. As it turned out, few demos have ever made me want to buy a game less.

I can understand some people being put off by the relatively sedentary pace or the lack of a clear goal. Not so for me. Let me walk you through it.

The demo puts you in a ready-built area, complete with a pond, a ruined hut, a small town and a castle. I went through the tutorial bits easily enough, fixed up the hut as instructed, then went to explore. After wandering around the castle for a while, night fell. I trotted into the town and holed up in one of the houses. Curious about the monsters that I knew would come out now it was dark, I stood at the window and watched. What I saw was a brief glimmer of green, then BANG! One wall of the house caved in as one of those exploding creatures decided it was in a bad mood. Zombies and spiders piled in, and my flimsy sword could only do so much. Without room to get out of the house, they finished me off pretty quickly.

I respawned without any of my weapons or tools, all the way back at the pond in the tutorial area. I could hear enemies nearby, so rather than trying to get to town, I ran to the hut I’d fixed up earlier. A few seconds later, BANG! Half the building dissolved. Unarmed and trapped again, I didn’t have a chance.

I respawned. This time I had no choice but to make a break for it, but I had to pass the hut which was still crawling with enemies. I sprinted to the tunnel towards town, but they chased me down and tore me apart.

I respawned. Same problem but this time the monster clump had been thinned out by the previous chase. I ran to the tunnel, got through it and almost made it to town, but a spider blindsided me and ate my head.

I respawned. Got through the tunnel, decided to avoid getting trapped in a building again and headed over a ridge to the left in the hope that I’d get away from this main mass of monsters and be able to dig a hole to hide myself in. I managed that, but then found myself just sitting and staring at a dirt wall, waiting for the night to pass. Not my idea of fun. I dug my way out and tried to head back to town, but BANG! A chunk of the hill vanished. While trying to find a new route, spiders caught me and skewered my face.

I respawned back at the pond again. Made a dash for town, got through the tunnel, got to a building. I slammed the door behind me and breathed a sigh of relief. Then CLICK. A zombie let itself in like a rude neighbour. I hadn’t even tried to mine for materials in the dangerous darkness, so I was unarmed. I might have been able to take out the zombie with my bare hands, but I never got chance to find out. BANG! The room was decorated in shades of miner innards.

I respawned. Not knowing what else to do, I ran to the town. The monsters saw me from the ruins of my previous hiding place but I managed to dart into a house across the street. This time I dived straight into bed in the hope that unconsciousness might save me. And it did. I awoke to bright sunshine, wandered to the window and saw a smirking green face looking right back at me. That hissssss of burning fuse began, and I ran to the back of the house to try and hack my way free. BANG! The front wall gave way, and a couple of spiders pranced in. As they chewed me to pieces yet again, I hit what can only be described as The Wall. The “Fuck. This. Shit.” wall of quitting Minecraft, deleting the piece of crap and pretending I’d never seen it.

I died eight times in the first night in the demo. What’s the point of shelter if it provides no protection at all? What’s the point of a day/night cycle that doesn’t allow you to live to see the dawn? What’s the point of a demo that makes willing purchasers run away screaming from your badly designed travesty of a game? I don’t know whether Minecraft has always been like this, whether it’s just the Xbox version or even just the demo. I don’t know and I don’t really care. It’s horrible and I want no part of it.

That is why I didn’t buy Minecraft. Did you?

Awesomenauts – XBLA/PSN

In certain circles, the name Defense of the Ancients (or Dota) is mentioned only in tones of the most rabid passion. Originally a mod for Warcraft III, Dota grew into a separate entity and more or less originated the genre now known as MOBA – Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. Various others have followed – League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth are perhaps the best known – but it’s the beta version of the true sequel, Dota 2, that has received the most reverence in recent months.

Typically a MOBA sees two teams of player-controlled characters, backed up by weaker AI-controlled characters, attacking each other across a map that is split into several paths, each defended by several auto-firing towers. It’s kind of like being on the attacking side in a tower defence game, but with both teams trying to simultaneously attack and defend.

Consoles have remained almost entirely MOBA-free. Part of this might be a control matter; like MMORPGs and RTS games, MOBAs demand precision of control and rapid navigation of menus, tasks which have never sat comfortably with the Xbox 360’s ‘side of beef’ controller or the PS3’s ‘TV remote control’ pad. The only MOBA-like game that springs to mind is Masters of Belial on Xbox Live Indie Games – incorporating all the finest (if slightly simplified) elements of a MOBA…except for the multiplayer and online portions. Oops.

It’s a power. There’s a power happening.

Well, times change. Roaring into view with MC Hammer references and hammy French accents comes new 2D MOBA-wannabe Awesomenauts. Gloating PC purists gleefully point out at every opportunity that console versions of PC games tend to be diluted and simplified. If you can get past their hyena cackles and bourgeois sneers they have a point, and Awesomenauts demonstrates it once again. Rather than the half-RTS, half-action-RPG epics of Dota, console owners get Super Smash Bros with upgrades and defensive towers.

That’s not really meant as a criticism. Awesomenauts certainly lacks the depth of the big name MOBAs but it delivers on most of the important points, and its simplified nature makes it a good starting point for those who’d like to try Dota but can’t get a beta key and/or don’t want to cry themselves to sleep for the 700 consecutive days of continuous play necessary to fully understand the game. You can learn Awesomenauts in ten minutes, and feel tolerably competent within an hour. Opting for side-scrolling 2D rather than top-down pseudo-3D hugely simplifies the arenas and the routes available for attack. The upgrade system ditches confusing crafting system and complex builds in favour of simple skill trees – two unique active powers per character, and a handful of passive health/stat upgrades available to all.

Red attacking the blue tower. Trust me, that’s what’s happening here.

The aim is to assist waves of AI droids in attacking the enemy team’s heavily armed towers. With each tower you manage to eliminate, you can advance one step closer towards the final objective – a drilling mechanism that has to be destroyed in order to take the victory. Assaulting towers isn’t a simple matter of charging at them, though. If you attack one alone, you will unceremoniously be killed in seconds. You need to at least have some droids on hand to act as cannon fodder, and preferably some fellow players as well. Awesomenauts doesn’t let you off lightly for throwing your digital life away. Each death costs you in-game currency, which inhibits your ability to buy upgrades and thereby keeps you as weak and vulnerable as a sleeping kitten. Of course, while all this is going on you also have to prevent the other team destroying your own towers.

Split-screen Awesomenautery is a thing, apparently.

All in all, it plays very well with a controller and it’s easy enough to learn that it shouldn’t put off casually curious players. The feel of combat is definitely more Smash Bros than Warcraft but that’s the choice Awesomenauts makes, and it’s a valid one.

It’s not without its deficiencies though. The game’s cartoony sense of humour, while generally pleasant enough, can grate after a while. Similarly, the arenas don’t vary enough to prevent repetitiveness setting in after three or four matches in a row. Perhaps the biggest flaw with the game, though, isn’t really anything in the game itself. The problem is console owners. There are legions of high quality, innovative, original, involving multiplayer games on Xbox and PS3, but most have little to no community because the console community is simply far more prone to sticking to familiar ground than the PC community is. On PC, MOBAs and other non-mainstream genres maintain a healthy following; on console, anything outside half a dozen major franchises is lucky to make a dent for more than a few weeks. I’m not sure why that is, but it does make me pessimistic about Awesomenauts’ longevity. How long will the game’s community last once people start losing the battle to resist the crack junkie siren call of Halo and Call of Duty? Only time will tell.

Some Awesomenauts. ‘Astro’ just isn’t enough for these Nauts.

Awesomenauts is easy to recommend simply because it’s so different from other experiences available on consoles. It brings in the competitive edge that makes online FPS games so popular but does something wholly different with it. If those of us who enjoy Awesomenauts don’t just wander off and leave it to die, this could be a lasting multiplayer action gem. It doesn’t come close to being a real console Dota but it does at least make the attempt, and produces something worthwhile of its own in the process.