Let’s Play: Antipole

In case you’re not aware, staunch and faithful readers, I also have a YouTube channel. I’ve never tried a blind Let’s Play before, but Antipole‘s gravity-warping Michael Jackson antics made me reckless.

Episode 1: I Sack Newton

Episode 2: Mostly Harmless

Episode 3: Remember When?

Three episodes down, but the gravity shenanigans are continuing apace.

Watch the playlist for the series as it happens here.

Or snoop around my whole channel here.

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Miasma & Miasma 2

It’s years since the PS1 was at its height, but even now I keep going back to Front Mission 3. Partly that’s because I haven’t seen everything in its branching stories yet, and partly it’s because I haven’t found another game like it since. I’ve played other turn-based strategies, turn-based RPGs, and other turn-based games that are based on turns (or perhaps turning bases). I never really took to Advance Wars, Disgaea made me sob with boredom, and Agarest: Generations of War was fun but confusing. I never expected that it would be an Xbox Live Indie Game that would remind me most of my beloved Front Mission 3. Enter Miasma and its recent sequel, Miasma 2.

All games of this sort need some form of implausible plot. Here it’s the domination of the world by a mind-controlling corporation called Vilhelm Industries, or VI (which launched me back to 1998 with every mention of ‘VI soldiers’. Something about ‘VI’ ticks the ‘VR’ box in my brain. Damn you, legacy of Hideo Kojima). As usual in any evil corporation/government/empire situation, there is a rebel group controlled by the player. I always think Shinra and Avalanch, but there are at least ten thousand other examples. VI manages to be all of the above evil bodies in one, so it needs a particularly vigorous rebellion to offset it. What it gets is the adventures of a bald man, a serious man and a woman who tends to wear a business suit for no reason, spread across two games.

Standing next to a red barrel? Have you never played a game before? Amateur.

The original Miasma had been on my radar for a while, and the recent release of its sequel prompted me to go back and buy it, because I have a thing about playing/watching series in chronological order. I encountered it quite early in my Xbox indie dabbling, but was put off by the combination of the price and the inaccessibility of the demo. Being new to indie games, I didn’t want to gamble great wodges of points on games I might hate, and turn-based strategy games don’t lend themselves to Microsoft’s prescribed eight-minute window for demos. I backed away but kept it in mind for a revisit. Fortunately, that dilemma is gone now. Although the demo still gives barely any idea of the game, the point-wodgery has been cut down to just 80 MSP. That’s no gamble at all. As it turned out, both of the Miasma games have a lot going for them.

The first game, Miasma: Citizens of Free Thought sees an amnesiac protagonist leading a cell of the rebel group CiFT (an acronym that doesn’t quite work – Citizens…if Free Thought? …into Free Thought? …ignoring Free Thought?). The cell has been cut off from the rest of the organisation and they have to kind of make things up as they go along. The combat, which forms the bulk of the game, is turn-based but immediate. When you give a character an instruction to move, attack, or use an item or ability, they do so immediately but no one else moves. Then after you’ve done everything you want to do, all your enemies move. You get a damage bonus for attacking from the side or behind, and periodically you can use abilities like healing and disabling EMP pulses. It’s not complicated, but it does require a bit of thought to make sure your surprisingly fragile characters aren’t wiped out.

Four pellets to the face, and one pellet pops out to buy milk.

The sequel, Miasma 2: Freedom Uprising, changes this up a bit. It goes for the turn-based-but-simultaneous approach, where you give all your orders, the enemy commander gives all their orders, and then everyone moves at once. This took some getting used to after the first game, but it works well enough. It’s certainly more challenging, because you can’t guarantee that an enemy won’t move out of range or do something to counter your attack, like shooting you in the face while you’re still heaving your sniper rifle to your shoulder. It also means you can’t focus down enemies in the same way as previously. You can’t hit a mech or tank with everything you’ve got at once to take it out before it can act. In a way, this seemed to remove a lot of the strategy because too much depended on luck. In other games that use this system, like Flotilla, it can be very tactical because it requires you to try and cover all the angles. Here, though, you’re always hugely outnumbered so there’s no way of preparing for multiple eventualities.

I have mixed feelings about the altered combat system, then. Miasma 2 does have distinct improvements elsewhere though. The other component of both games, between combat, is conversation. In Miasma, this is handled through dialogue boxes against a slowly drifting shot of a building. I was fine with this – again, it reminded me of Front Mission 3 and its long text conversations in static rooms – but I can see why many people might not be, particularly those who aren’t wizened old game fogeys distrustful of any technology that speaks aloud. (Skynet!)

I like to imagine those options are all being shouted simultaneously.

Miasma 2 replaces this with a more palatable first-person wander around CiFT’s base, giving you the option to talk to whoever you choose, in whatever order you prefer. You can choose to chew the fat or just get down to business sorting out their upgrades. It’s a pleasant change of pace from the combat sections, and certainly more engaging than the static conversations of the first game. Having said that, the developers could do with working on their writing skills. When a character says almost out of the blue, “Hey, will you go to bed with me?” it’s more comical than emotional or interesting. It’s also a little jarring after having a near-identical (though actually better written) conversation with the same character in the first game.

The second game also suffers being almost continuously glitchy. Both games have their share of glitches, but while the Miasma has the odd one here and there, Miasma 2 is riddled with them. Characters models vanishing so you have to guess where they are, an enemy tank spawning in the same location as a friendly tank so the two merge and you effectively lose one of your most powerful units. A multitude of other oddities, too.

“I can’t shoot them, the ground isn’t red!”

This is symptomatic of the biggest problem with Miasma 2. It feels like the developers over-reached themselves. They clearly had ambitious ideas for improving on the first game, and while some of those ideas paid off, the price was functionality. That’s not to say Miasma 2 is bad or broken, but it is far too buggy and its increased interactivity depends too much on writing that isn’t up to the job. That’s why, advancements or not, I recommend the original Miasma over the sequel.

The Miasma games have kind of a Mass Effect phenomenon going on. The first game is slower and wordier than the sequel, but it’s also more competently executed. The second is more ambitious but maybe can’t quite pull off everything it aimed for, and whether its modified combat system is an improvement or not will depend on your taste. Regardless, both games are good, and worth playing if you have any interest in turn-based semi-RPGs. They aren’t long, but at 80 Microsoft points each they’re long enough. If you don’t like turn-based grid battles, these games might not be up your street. Even if you do, be prepared to humour their glaring flaws.

Spoids

There seem to have been a lot of tower defence games hitting Xbox Live Indie Games recently. Almost without exception, they have potential but are too flawed to be worth recommending. The Indie Mine has already looked at the well presented but otherwise unremarkable Union of Armstrong and the appealing but bug-riddled and barely functional Zombie Crossing. Now we have Spoids, and I wasn’t tremendously optimistic about its chances.

Well, I was wrong. Mostly.

Spoids is easily one of the most professional indie tower defence games I’ve played. It immediately makes a good impression with its outstanding presentation. Though it doesn’t go in for flashy cinematic sequences or pseudo-3D visuals, Spoids feels polished and professional from its opening moments, with a brief voiceover explaining that humanity’s colonised worlds are suddenly being assailed by an alien race dubbed ‘spoids’. It’s not a deep or detailed plot, but it serves its purpose as a justification for the tower defence format, and it’s used throughout to provide reasons for each mission, whether a colony begging for your help or a shady businessman offering to keep you funded in exchange for protection.

Voice acting is present throughout the game, and while this is generally something I’m indifferent to, here it works very well. The briefing for each mission comes in the form of a transmission from your next client, usually imploring you to hold off the spoid assault while they evacuate/retrieve their data/buy their groceries/walk their dog. This has no impact on the way the levels play out, but it’s a nice touch nonetheless, and I couldn’t help being a little less diligent when I was working to defend the shifty opportunist called Mosper while he boosted valuable gear from an abandoned facility.

Your clients also shout out suggestions or recriminations as you carry out your mission. Again this is a welcome touch of polish, and actually helps you notice if some spoids have slipped through the net. Your computer’s comments are far more practical, if less colourful. The types of spoids can be identified by their shape, but I generally can’t remember which ones are which, so having my digital advisor chime in “zoomers approaching” or “faders approaching” gives me a few valuable seconds’ warning to throw down a suitable turret.

This voice acting isn’t fantastic, but it’s leagues ahead of most indie games, and better than many mainstream titles. For the most part it’s at a Gears of War sort of standard – it’s not going to win anyone an Oscar, but it doesn’t feel like a high school drama class either. Some of the accents are a little on the hammy side, but no more so than the average Hollywood representation of non-Americans.

Tower defence games always see you placing turrets to defend against waves of enemies that vastly outnumber you, and Spoids sticks tightly to that formula. It doesn’t offer research options like Zombie Crossing, an ever-shifting attack route like Commander: World One or an open map with divertible assaults like Horn Swaggle Islands. This never feels like a weakness, though. Spoids avoids repetition by introducing a new mechanic, weapon or enemy type after every mission. Even the way this is done is appealing. The information is presented in an Intel directory that is reassuringly similar to Mass Effect’s Codex. This frequent use of the setting before, during and after missions prevents the game feeling like a series of disconnected stand-alone tasks.

Sadly, Spoids does have flaws. Only two as far as I’ve noticed, but one is puzzling and the other is problematic. Firstly, the game’s secondary play mode is hidden. If you perform well enough on a mission to earn a platinum medal you unlock ‘infinite wave’ mode, allowing you to fight off an unending army of spoids for as long as you can. This adds some welcome replayability after completing the main campaign, as you try to perfect your defensive strategy and beat your previous record. Confusingly, there’s no indication as to how to access this mode. It’s not listed in any of the menus or on the title screen, and if you select the mission again it has all the same briefings and objectives as before, including a finite length. In the end I had to ask the developers about it via Twitter, and they told me that if you play a mission for which you’ve unlocked infinite wave mode, it will happen automatically. That’s fine, but continuing to display a time limit for the mission when it doesn’t apply is very confusing, and surely easily remedied.

Secondly, and more importantly, the difficulty curve decided to take the elevator. With new enemies or turrets introduced every mission, the game wastes no time in becoming more complex and more demanding. By level six, you have to manage your turret purchases and placements almost perfectly or you won’t last more than a couple of minutes. Admittedly I’m a mediocre tower defence player at best, but my criticism isn’t that the game is hard – it’s that it shifted from manageably challenging to Battle of Thermopylae hard so suddenly that I got whiplash. Most levels required a few attempts, but I felt like I could see how to improve for the next time. Pretty soon, though, I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth, and then at level six my progress slammed to a halt like someone had erected a concrete wall with ‘no playing beyond this point’ chiselled into it. It took me literally hours of playing this one level over and over before I even got close to succeeding. I’m sure tower defence maestros could overcome this obstacle, but everyone I’ve spoken to had a similar problem at around the same point. This is quite late in the game – the sixth of eight levels – but the change is shockingly sudden. However able you are, the difficulty curve in Spoids is just very badly conceived.

In the end, I give Spoids a recommendation with slight reservations. It would be easy to recommend wholeheartedly on the basis of its professionalism, polish and overall good design if it wasn’t for the bone-shatteringly sharp increase in challenge. Spoids is a good game, and reasonably priced at 240 Microsoft points, but it’s certainly not a game for tower defence novices. By all means play and enjoy it, but be prepared to never finish it.

[This review is also posted at The Indie Mine.]

We will fight them on the hills, behind the huts, and in the patches of slightly different grass

Update  16/1/2012: this game has been lowered from 240 MSP to 80 MSP.

It’s rare that an XBL indie title deviates from the dreary norm of shameless trash and apathetic twin-stick blast-a-thons.So when I play one that does dare to be a bit different, I want to give it credit for that, if nothing else. Fortunately, KGB: Episode One happens to also be quite good at what it does.

KGB is a first-person shooter – a painfully over-represented genre in full retail games, but almost entirely absent from the indie side of things, at least on the Xbox marketplace. I know too little about Microsoft’s development kit and programming in general to comment on how challenging it is to develop an FPS on a budget of whatever change you have in your pocket, but judging by not only the dearth of these games but also the horrific quality of the few there are (which I will revist another time), it must be quite tricky.

Mike, you're in an FPS. Your ride was never going to survive long.

It’s only fair to give KGB credit for its ambition. It isn’t a nigh-unplayable, pale shadow of Wolfenstein 3D (I’ve played one of those), a sob-inducingly dire sci-fi wreck (played one of those too) or a horde-survival game (a few of those) – and that was the thing that really impressed me when I first dabbled in the trial version. KGB genuinely sets out to be a straight-faced, honest to goodness real first-person shooter. You can choose your loadout at the beginning of the game, which is pretty much a miracle. The scope of this choice is limited but perfectly valid, and leagues ahead of most of the competition. You carry one gun, and your choice of loadout determines which one you start with, from a choice of a scoped assault rifle, an unscoped version, a light machine gun, and an RPG launcher. Personally I favour the scoped AR, but if I change my mind later I can easily switch; in true modern FPS fashion, you can swap your weapon for any of the ones dropped by your enemies. Indeed, this is quite necessary at some points, as an RPG launcher is the only way to eliminate a mounted machine gun nest. More on that in a moment.

It should be evident by now that KGB really makes an effort. This extends into the other areas of the game too. The visuals are among the best I’ve seen in an XBL indie title. It’s not going to floor anyone whose opinion of a game’s quality is determined solely by how shiny the visuals are, but it’s impressive stuff for a no-budget release that was probably created by one person in their bedroom. Although it lacks the detail, variation and general professional quality to fully support the comparison, I’m going to go ahead and say that the game that KGB‘s visuals remind me of most is Battlefield 1943. It has perfectly adequate grass and trees, and a more than servicable water effect in its occasional small pools.

The enemies are limited to a range of maybe four character models, but that sets KGB way ahead of its rivals. More importantly, these enemies spot you from a decent (but not excessive) distance, shift between standing and crouching while engaged in combat, and lob the odd grenade. Hell, in true Call of Duty/Halo style, some of them chuck far more grenades than any fashion-conscious mercenary should really have room for in their sleek 21st century combat pantaloons.

The rest of the presentation isn’t as impressive, but still well above average for the indie junk heap. The music is a tolerable lone-guitar chug while wandering around, then squeals and shifts up  a gear with a suitable sense of urgency when an enemy spots you. The exploration music changes in some areas too; there’s a misty minefield region where the aforementioned chug is replaced by a far more accomplished atmospheric acoustic number that I could happily have listened to for the rest of the game.

But this is all icing, of course. However nice the decoration, it’s the crumbly cake of the gameplay that matters. I’m happy to report that KGB evades the (sometimes seemingly inevitable) fate of being a dry, bitter, wasabi-and-walnut monstrosity, and instead reveals itself to be a pleasant Sunday afternoon Victoria sponge. Engagements with enemy forces are understandably less fluid than in full retail games, but perfectly adequate. You can aim down your sights – and when you do, the gun actually raises to your eye rather than just flicking to a scope view. Some full retail games from long-established development houses can’t manage that feat (Perfect Dark Zero, go and stand in the corner).

The aim of the game is quite simple: you are Mike, and you’re dropped off in a troubled wilderness region to soften up the entrenched enemy forces before the main assault. This isn’t revealed through text, incidentally; the (admittedly basic) premise is imparted to you via voiceover during your helicopter drop-off. That’s one more area in which this game surprises by aiming squarely at the genre of ‘genuine modern military FPS’.

Mike’s mission boils down to killing anyone he sees, searching camps (scattered little huts) and setting fire to certain locations (amusingly represented by patches of darker grass). Although this doesn’t give you a lot to go on with, it does the same job as the plot of almost any modern FPS: it justifies you running from place to place while shooting people.

It’s not all gleeful thumbs up and high fives for KGB though. I’m going to disregard the unfair criticisms like ‘it’s not as pretty as Battlefield 3’ and ‘it doesn’t have proper loadouts’. It’s an indie game; there’s no point making straight comparisons to full retail games. It does, however, have its own problems that could have been avoided.

Argh! Fire extinguishers, my only weakness!

Firstly, sometimes enemies see and shoot you through solid rock. Not the edge of a boulder, either; bullets come flying straight through a great outcrop. It’s not a major problem and mostly doesn’t occur, but it is noticable.

Secondly, machine gun nests are more awkward than they really need to be, in several ways. Even though you can see (and seemingly shoot) the soldier manning them, they can only be destroyed by hitting them with an RPG. The game does flash up a message informing you of this, but only after you’ve already had to deal with two of them. For my first couple of hours with the game, I just kept running past these nests because they seemed to be manned by oblivious immortals. Even once I guessed the solution, I thought I was wrong because it’s easy to miss while appearing to score a direct hit. This is solved by quickly strafing so you can see the arc of your rocket, but it’s still an inconvenience. The nests also aren’t animated at all; the soldiers manning them stand stock-still, and the only clue that you’re being shot at is the damage indicator, since the mounted guns produce neither bullets nor any sort of sound.

Finally, and most irritatingly, there seem to be no checkpoints. The need to start over from scratch every time explains why I’ve played for maybe three hours total and not got all that far. Still, this is fine. Being an indie game it’s probably quite short, so playing from the beginning each time makes sense. My grievance isn’t with that; it’s with the no-checkpoint respawn system. Mike the unspecified agent has an unlimited supply of lives but each time he dies he has to walk all the way from the beginning of the game again. Enemies don’t reappear (mercifully) but it’s a hassle nonetheless. The only reason I can see to force this upon the player is to artificially lengthen the game, and it irks me. The play area is quite large and consists of a series of reasonably open spaces, so when you walk all that way only to accidentally step on a well-concealed land mine and have to do it all again, it does cause the teeth to gnash somewhat.

All in all, though, KGB: Episode One comes highly recommended. It attempts something I’ve rarely seen in XBL indie games: it makes full use of whatever miniscule, one-man budget it has to get as close as it can to a full, up-to-date FPS experience. Between the exceptional visuals for an indie game, the largely competently executed gameplay, and the attempt to provide some form of cinematic scene-setting through voiceovers and a dramatic opening scene, KGB Episode One manages to excel and distinguish itself enough to shrug off most of its noticable niggles. The frustration of repeatedly re-treading the same ground does cost the game playability that it can’t afford to lose, but its overall quality sustains it and makes it recommendable for those curious about dabbling in an indie FPS, particularly at the next-to-nothing price of 80 MSP.