Weapon of Choice

There are a couple of types of game that I’m always surprised not to see on Xbox Live Indie Games. One is screen-by-screen action RPGs like the old Zelda games; the other is Contra-like platforming shooters. There are a couple but they’re generally either quite light on the shooting or just not very good. Weapon of Choice gears up for a hefty bout of Contra’s massed carnage but also coats it with a layer of Alpha Squad’s lightheartedness just in case earnest destruction is too much for your frail disposition.

The basic gameplay is nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s done well. You are a soldier ploughing through enemy forces, blowing up everything that moves like a pre-politics Schwarzenegger. One hit will finish you off, so you have to be agile, and quick on the right thumbstick. It’s unusual to see a twin-stick control scheme in a side-scrolling platform shooter, but it makes perfect sense. Enemies will come from all directions, and the levels frequently offer several routes to explore that might see you clinging to the ceiling with your bizarre robotic spider backpack or leaping between unsettlingly organic outcrops, so precision control is a lifesaver.

‘Unsettlingly organic’ is a good description for a lot of the visuals. Right from the first level you’ll stumble across (or under, or into) writhing, chitinous beasts the size of trains, or eye-pocked maws big enough to pick bicycles out of their teeth. Brightly coloured, smoothly animated and bursting with occasionally unpleasant detail, Weapon of Choice is easily an upper-rung XBLIG in its presentation.

There’s more to fun than looking pretty, though. If there wasn’t, then cathedrals would have all the best parties.

Maybe I’d even go as far as ‘upsettingly organic’

From the outset the game spoils us with a wealth of options. There are six difficulty settings and several characters to choose from even before we unlock more. Your choice of character is far from superficial here, as each has their own special weapon that functions uniquely with primary and secondary fire modes, and also a power that activates during a double jump, such as a brief decoy or a short float.

Xerxes Remington, for instance, lugs around a jet engine that he uses as a gun. Its primary fire mode acts more or less like a high-powered flamethrower, but its secondary mode cranks up the engine’s output, increasing its range but also launching Xerxes backwards if he shoots while jumping. Each character has a short file that you can flip through to get an idea of how their special weapon works, and scraps of biographical info if that’s your thing.

Chantarelle Marmalade uses a gun that is more of a flailing quasi-chainsaw; Moses Longhorn unleashes robotic satellites that hover around and fight for him. Each character’s weapon is completely different from all the others, and comes with two distinct modes for different situations. All the characters also have the same back-up weapon, but it’s no mundane sidearm. An assault rifle on the surface, activating the secondary mode sends the gun out to roam around as directed on a sort of prehensile cable. Make no mistake, the weapons are the focus of this game, and the source of both success and sometimes failure if misused. There’s a reason the whole game was named after them.

Genetically engineered cows transformed the dairy farming industry

The roster of characters also does more than provide a selection of distinctive play styles – it serves as a ‘lives’ system too. Your chosen character has one life; if they die, you choose another character to drop in and take their place. The catch here is that you won’t be able to use your original character again unless you can carry them, whimpering like a scolded kitten, all the way to the end of the level. Once out of the level they heal up and can be swapped back in the next time you get killed – though then they’ll have to return the favour by carrying their fallen buddy home.

It’s an interesting system. Weapon of Choice gives you a chance to avoid actually losing a life if you can adapt to a different character’s play style well enough to survive the rest of the level. The game makes you earn your boon, and it works astonishingly well. Just to throw a bit more of a dilemma into the mix, you will occasionally see entirely new characters lying wounded and in need of rescue. If you can get them out, you’ll effectively gain a bonus life for this playthrough, and will have a new starting character to choose the next time. You can only carry one ally though, so if you’ve been killed already you’ll have to decide between saving your old favourite or taking a chance on the unknown soldier you’ve just stumbled across.

The aliens eyed his floating lightchair covetously

Eventually I realised that discovering new characters in this way has one more interesting consequence. It doesn’t just give you a 1UP for this playthrough; it gives you one more life for every playthrough thereafter. As you play the game on the lower difficulty settings and find more characters, it makes higher difficulties more manageable by effectively enlarging your stockpile of lives. But each death means you have to change the way you play, and you might end up stuck with a character you’ve never managed to get the hang of. It’s a beautifully elegant system, and for me it’s the real highlight of the game.

If the replayability of assorted difficulties and a multitude of characters aren’t enough, there are at least three (that I know of) story strands to explore. The route you choose to take in the first couple of levels will determine which plot you follow, which levels you visit and what the ultimate fate of humanity will be. It’s a lot of responsibility for the sort of person whose idea of precision marksmanship is ripping the propulsion from a Harrier and stuffing it in an alien’s mouth.

Jet engine, meet face. Still fractionally more finesse than MW3 TDM.

This replayability is important, because Weapon of Choice really isn’t very long. Higher difficulty settings will take longer to battle through, but the levels in each plot strand number maybe half a dozen at most. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t care about seeing different endings, exploring every level or challenging yourself with tougher replays, then Weapon of Choice might not be worth the asking price. For someone like me though – a chronic replayer of games even when there’s nothing left to discover – the combination of different routes and retrievable characters are a powerful lure. Even without those the hectic, over the top, manic carnage of the amped-up cartoon Contra gameplay is enough to draw me back for a quick blast through from time to time. If you like games about shooting things, and especially if you like them to be unique as well as explosive, this should be your Weapon of Choice.

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There was an old man from Flotilla, who looked too much like a chinchilla…

I am a tactical dunce.

I can just about battle through the early stages of a turn-based strategy like Advance Wars but fall quite dramatically on my comically contorted face as soon as the enemy commanders stop taking to the field blindfolded and hung over. Don’t even get me started on real-time strategies. I got about three or four missions into Red Alert before I started crying tears of mortal terror and burning shame. Only last year, Dawn of War kicked my ass with a boot the size of a small cottage. If I had been left in command of the Light Brigade, their charge would have plunged them off a cliff before even leaving camp.

There’s a reason I’m telling you this. I want you to understand just how inept a tactician I am so that you’ll understand the magnitude of my meaning when I say Flotilla makes me feel like I’m Ender.

You begin the game as an experienced captain of a tiny flotilla (of course) of two spacefaring warships. You have only seven months to live before a mysterious disease/parasite/exploding moose finally saps the last of your strength/eats the last of your spleen/showers you in intestinal moosery. It’s not clear what’s going on, except that you will be dead.

As a bold space explorer and/or pirate you want to have a final few adventures before the end, so you take your pair of destroyers out into the wild vastness of space once more. This is the back story, and it’s really of no importance other than providing an excuse for your encounters and justifying a limit to the number of them you can have. A full Flotilla adventure usually runs to around the 30-60 minute mark, but they’re randomly generated so it’s easy to replay whenever you’re in the mood.

Flotilla comes in two parts. One is the framing bit, where you select planets from a map of space and speed your ships over to them to read an often silly encounter. Sometimes a haughty royalist deer will deny you entry to his people’s territory. Sometimes a crazed hippo will blindly open fire on you, or shady penguin crime lords will seek your head as payback for disrupting their operations. It’s all a bit Douglas Adams, and it’s quite charming as long as you get in the spirit.

'Elp me, guvna! Yer me only 'ope!

The meat of the game jars with this a bit. Defy the haughty deer, defend against the hippo, and stare down the penguins – battle must ensue. This is where the game’s subtitle, ‘Orbital Battleship Maneuvers’, comes into play. Unlike the adventuring parts, the battles are serious, strategic affairs that play out in stark orange against the depths of space, full of gauges, trajectory arcs and flat plane grids.

When I first played the trial version of Flotilla, this was what put me off. I played a one-off skirmish, and the whole thing was so confusing that I deleted the demo and barely gave it another thought. The problem is that Flotilla doesn’t explain itself very well. It’s actually quite simple once you realise what’s going on, but to a non-strategic person with only the eight-minute trial period to work it out, it might as well have been a thousand graphs of insect mating statistics for all the appeal it had.

It was only months later, when someone on a forum mentioned loving it, that I went back to give it another try. Armed with a little foreknowledge about the key bits of combat, I found I really enjoyed it.

The adventure sections mostly just serve to get you into battle, along with the odd non-combat incident that gives you chance to gain more ships or trade some upgrades. The aim in each battle is to eliminate the opposing fleet, but it isn’t as simple as just landing hits on them. These engagements are turn-based but simultaneous – you give orders to your fleet, the enemy commander does the same, then all ships carry out their orders simultaneously for thirty seconds in slow, balletic near-silence.

This unusual format isn’t the only thing you have to cope with; orientation of ships is vitally important, and can decide whether yours cruise away victorious or get ripped apart. Every ship is heavily armoured on the front and top, but very lightly armoured at the back and underneath. They don’t all have the same weapons though, and some have the advantage of range while others can rip right through your armour.

True to the idea of space combat, ships don’t just power forward; they make a quick shove for momentum then spin and roll as directed, in order to present their strongest defence to the enemy.

That guy's rear and bottom are taking a pounding. Ho ho. Ahem.

To win battles in Flotilla, you must predict how your opponents will move, how fast and how far, which of your ships they will shoot at, and manoeuvre to attack their weak spots while not exposing your own.  Baiting them into moving the way you want is an effective strategy, but a risky one. More than once I’ve lost ships just by underestimating the speed of a beam frigate. Flotilla requires some thought and a little luck.

When things do work out, and you manage to obliterate the assorted anthropomorphic animals that want you dead, Flotilla hits its peak. I have had some really awful battles where I was torn apart in a couple of rounds, but I’ve also had some spectacular victories. It’s deeply satisfying to face down a fleet of five powerful warships with just two tiny destroyers, and emerge victorious with not a single casualty. This is why Flotilla makes me feel like Ender. Despite my traditionally appalling strategy skills, something in this game makes sense to me.

For people who aren’t very experienced or comfortable with strategy games, I can heartily recommend Flotilla. Don’t be put off by the illusion of complexity; once you realise that it’s all about rotating your ships to keep them safe, the whole thing becomes easy to understand. Those of a tactical bent might find the game a little easy, but there is a hardcore mode that I haven’t dared attempt, and I think the lighthearted tone of the encounters and the shortness of each complete game makes it a lot of fun for an occasional play regardless of expertise. I don’t often recommend indie games priced at 400 points, but Flotilla has earned it.

You won’t spend all day playing it, but you might find you come back every few weeks for a new adventure, and to kick a smug deer’s ass one more time.