Origin X

I don’t understand Origin X. That’s not to say I don’t comprehend how the game is played or what I’m meant to be doing, but even as I carefully strove to ensure the survival of my planet I found myself continually muttering “I don’t get it”. To be understood and yet remain deeply confusing is quite an achievement, but not of the sort that pings and awards you points.

The idea of Origin X is to populate planets in a solar system. This is simple enough to grasp. Having selected a planet, you place housing for people to live in, build mines so they can work and earn you money, and construct food supplies and storage so they don’t die horribly in the grim throes of starvation. This is no sim game, though. You won’t build and carefully manage your colonies in Origin X. It’s all very simple, just plonking down one from a list of half a dozen structures, and watching the population and food numbers at the side of the screen. Disappointingly, the colonists themselves aren’t represented by anything beyond their figure on the HUD.

Considering other Xbox indie games, such as Lexiv, at least represent the population as scurrying dots, it’s a shame that Origin X doesn’t make the effort. It leaves the colonies feeling dead and sterile, and when you absent mindedly allow people to starve to death there’s no sentiment about it at all. You don’t see fewer and fewer dots wandering around the houses and mines; you just notice a number diminishing. This might be more excusable if the game engaged with the player in other ways, but this indifferent detachment is pervasive throughout.

Gigantic fireballs are bad for your miners

Privation and exposure to the savage cosmic winds that flay the surface of these barren planets aren’t the only dangers for the colonists. Surprisingly enough, bone-melting heat and Plutonian frigidity also aren’t very good for their health, so you have to make sure none of your inhabited planets drift too close to, or far from, the sun. The mechanic for maintaining a comfortable temperate environment is one of the most awkward in the game, and yet perhaps the one you will use most. This is where the already slightly stale Origin X starts to become Irritation X.

Unlike many sim, management or strategy games, Origin X doesn’t cast you as an invisible overlord guiding events from afar. Instead you control a comet that flies around the solar system, and you must physically visit any planet that you want to manage. As a celestial body you exert a gravitational force that affects any planet you approach, pulling it towards you. This is the means by which you must ensure planets stay at the ideal distance from the sun. Unfortunately it is so imprecise and unreliable that it’s more harmful than helpful. Bear in mind that you must physically fly to a planet in order to build anything on it – with your comet’s gravity in constant effect, visiting a planet immediately dislodges it from its position. You can’t perform any management tasks without endangering the entire world as you accidentally start it plunging into a star or drifting into deep space. Nor can you simply stop its movement by positioning yourself on its opposite side. That could cause it to reverse its direction towards equal danger, or twist it off to one side, or not have much of a noticeable effect at all. This tiresome ordeal is exacerbated by a map that occasionally takes it upon itself to be completely black for no reason, so you have no idea where you and your wayward world are in relation to the sun.

I once played a game of Origin X in which I spent three quarters of my time chasing around after my main planet, trying to drag it back to a safe position, only to make things worse and worse until everyone died. It wasn’t lack of skill that caused the demise of an entire civilisation; no amount of dexterity could suffice to wrangle a manageable effect from the erratic and uncooperative gravity-steering system.

Xx5ithVaderzzz misunderstood the game

Although this planet positioning nightmare ordeal is the main cause of defeat in Origin X, it’s not the one that officially ends your game. Even after everyone is killed off by living half a mile from the surface of the sun, your game will continue trundling along. There’s no hope of regaining lost ground; no matter what I try, I’ve never managed to start a new population once the original one has died out. You’re not a deity, and can’t create people from thin air. The title Origin X is a little ironic, not to mention inexplicable, since originating anything is completely beyond your power.

The thing that will actually finish your game is alien attacks that steal all of your cores. Cores are glowing white blobs that orbit one of your planets, and aliens periodically try to steal them. That’s all I can tell you about it, as that’s all I know. The game doesn’t explain any of this – what the cores are, what they do, why aliens want them, or why losing them all is the end of the game. All it tells you is that you must protect the cores. In fact, it’s entirely possible to continue defending the cores without any colonists at all, through a combination of ramming them yourself and building automated turrets on the planets to shoot for you.

At first that makes the whole management/strategy side of the game seem redundant. The problem is that reaching a population goal seems to be the only way to complete a level. The success and failure criteria are unrelated, and that just adds another unwholesome globule of frustration to an already awkward and confusing experience.

Origintown was populated entirely by agoraphobes

Notice that I said reaching a population goal seems to be the only way to complete a level. That ‘seems’ can be applied to everything I say about Origin X. I’m all in favour of doing away with condescending tutorials that laboriously steer you through every element of a game down to the most obvious basics, but some guidance would be nice. The only things Origin X tells you are that you have to protect the cores and make sure the planets stay at a safe distance. Everything else has to be figured out as you go. What are cores? Why do they only orbit one planet? What are these buildings? What do they do? How do I get money? How do I move the planets? How do I fight off the aliens? How do I succeed or fail? What the hell is going on?

That is Origin X in a one-word nut shell: “What?!” Nothing is explained or even outlined, there’s no tutorial or instructions of any sort, and you are left alone to work out the entire game on your own. Even now, I might be missing something. I’ve put multiple hours into Origin X and think I finally understand how it works, but I can’t be certain. It’s also worth noting that, uncomfortable though it is for me, I haven’t got past the first level. I don’t like to review a game when I haven’t at least played most of it, but however many hours I put into Origin X I just can’t keep the planets in a safe orbit for long enough to sustain population growth. Sooner or later everyone dies, and then I just sit and let the aliens steal my cores to bring on the blessed relief of a game over.

George W Bush longed to press ‘A’

When a game is so confusing and poorly realised that it takes hours to feel remotely confident that you even know what’s meant to be happening, and on top of that is so poorly designed that hours and hours of play are too little to enable a 25-year gaming veteran to complete level 1, I think “back to the drawing board” is a dizzying display of understatement. I like the idea of Origin X – part simple management sim, part basic real-time strategy, and part alien-ramming minigame. Sadly the whole package is such a mess that I can’t possibly encourage anyone to play it. Between the totally absent game information and the scream-inducingly unmanageable mechanics, Origin X totters right to the very brink of being effectively unplayable, and has the cheek to affront us with bleak presentation and a glitch map while doing so.

Weep for the missed potential if you care to, but make no mistake: the only thing that Origin X originates is its own deletion.

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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.

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.

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.]

Oil Magnate

This review was written for The Indie Mine, though I bought it with my own Microsoft points. Please take a look. Reproduced here with permission.

Oil Magnate has a lot going for it. For a start, it’s one of painfully, worryingly few indie (or mainstream, for that matter) management/strategy sims on the Xbox 360.

The premise is pretty straightforward. You are an aspiring oil baron who must assess different prospective drill sites, buy the land and then fill your drums with black liquid gold, all while three rivals do the same and try to outdo you by fair means or foul. If that sounds exciting, this game is for you. If not, it might still be for you as long you don’t fall asleep during the tutorial. Although there’s still the matter of… No, I don’t want to mention that.

At the outset you can choose from four ‘missions’, which are basically definitions of the victory conditions. In one you must invest a specified amount of money over time, in another you must drive all your competitors out of business, and so on. The details of these missions can be tweaked, allowing you to make the game is easy or as difficult as you choose. You can adjust how much money you start with, how long you have to achieve the objective, and just how high the target figure is.

So far, so good. It’s all very professional. You can even choose the appearance of your office from a few options. This attention to detail is reminiscent of the classic management sims, the Sim City and Civilization series.

'Firmness'... I'll leave that one to you, dear readers.

Traditionally, sim-type games don’t fit very well with consoles thanks to the clunkiness of navigating menus and maps with a controller. Playing Sim City 2000 on the Super Nintendo was like trying to eat noodles by gripping one strand at a time between a pair of fresh haddock. I’m not a fan of controlling games using a mouse and keyboard, but strategy/management games and MMORPGs are the exceptions. Here, though, it all controls quite well with the Xbox pad. The menus are simple groups of buttons that are easily negotiated with the left stick or d-pad, while the minigames that arise during certain tasks arguably handle better here than they would with PC controls.

These minigames are among the most notable features of Oil Magnate, serving to prevent the game becoming a boring stat-fest. Most commonly you will have to hold a twitching dot in the centre of a circle while drilling for oil, to represent keeping the drill on course. Should one of your wells catch fire, either by chance or thanks to sabotage, you have to run around the area using dynamite to kill the flames before too much damage is done. There’s also another minigame, but I don’t want to talk about it. No really, I’d rather not. Leave me in blissful denial for a while longer.

You’ll notice I mentioned sabotage. This is a nice feature that adds a bit of mischief to proceedings. Tired of buying, selling and drilling like a good little millionaire? Feeling pressured by your superhumanly astute business rivals? Go all Donald Trump on their asses and hire a terrorist to burn down their rigs and storage tanks, or deflate oil prices in their chosen market to cut down their profits. Oil is a dirty business, and don’t think for a moment that your rivals will be able to control their own barbaric fiscal impulses. On the other hand, you run a very serious risk of having your wells confiscated if you’re found out, so maybe you’d be better off sticking to the straight and narrow after all. The price of endorsing terrorism is being made slightly less rich. Who says indie games can’t be realistic?

Logical divisions of the world, there.

Oh alright. Alright. I’ll tell you about the other minigame. I suppose I have no choice.

The third minigame is demonstrated in the game’s tutorial video, which makes it look simple. Unfortunately, as with everything else it shows you, the tutorial video is being slightly less honest than an East End market trader enticing you with his ‘nearly new’ plasma TVs.

I was all set to award Oil Magnate a 4 out of 5, maybe even leaning towards a 5 out of 5 depending on its longevity and replay value. The third minigame made me, in my darker moments, want to give it a 1 out of 5 and tell it to be grateful for my merciful nature. If I could punch a collection of digital information in the face, I would swing a haymaker at Oil Magnate with careless disregard for the state of my knuckles every single time I see the word ‘pipeline’.

I’m getting angry just thinking about it. This minigame is simple in principle, but ferociously difficult in practice. Sometimes when you try to sell your oil stocks, a message will appear telling you that your workers need help laying a pipeline. Presumably this is how they transport the oil to the buyer, though frankly, constructing mile after mile of entirely new pipe every time you make a sale doesn’t seem like efficient retail practice. When I order a new game online, I don’t find Amazon or Gamestation building a monorail to my doorstep.

For reasons we will never understand, this is how your oil is moved in the confused world of Oil Magnate, and like any good corporate fat cat you done your scruffiest trousers and wade in to help the plebs yourself when they’re shorthanded. You must connect the end of a pipe in the bottom right of the screen to another pipe-end in the top left. You extend the pipeline in any of four directions by pressing the corresponding face buttons, making sure you weave around hillocks and the corpses of other oil barons who did this once too often. Probably.

Parachuting in to personally extinguish fires. Business as usual for a billionaire tycoon.

Simple, right? The problem is that you’re racing against an opponent who is trying to connect the other two corners for his own nefarious oil-retail purposes. Still doesn’t sound too bad; a bit of healthy competition to keep you on your toes. But your opponent is flawless; it will lay its pipe without hesitation in the perfect route, without the slightest error or pause to draw breath. You must avoid any sort of delay, since even half a second will cost you the ability to sell your oil this month.

Add to this the fact that some of the obstacles don’t seem to be obstacles at all, looking instead like just part of the ground. Further add to this the fun quirk of control that has pipes extending forward before turning; if you press X to extend left, it will go forward then left, resulting in running into obstacles that you thought you should be clear of.

I’ve played Oil Magnate for somewhere around six or seven hours so far, and out of the dozens of times the pipeline minigame has arisen, I’ve succeeded once.

You might think I’m over-emphasising one small problem, but this is very nearly a game-ruining flaw. You see, if you fail at the pipeline game and can’t sell oil that month, you haemorrhage money. Only this afternoon, one single pipeline game moved me from almost pole position to a miserable near-ruined mess in one month. I managed to slowly get out of the red (though still very much trailing behind the competition) over the course of the next few months, only to be hit by another two pipeline games in a row, utterly finishing off my oil business and costing me the game.

This has happened more than once. A lot more than once.

Compared to the pipeline fiasco, my other complaints – no save game facility and an unhelpful tutorial – are mere niggles. Oil Magnate had been a 4, maybe even a 5. Now it’s a 3, holding on by the skin of its teeth thanks solely to everything else about it being well executed.

Fast cars and immolated models. Not really representative of the content.

As I said, Oil Magnate has a lot going for it. Mostly I quite enjoy it, and maybe you will too. It has enough management sim aspects to appease an anally retentive streak, but is simple enough to be reasonably accessible to management dunces such as I. The vampire of statistical tedium is warded off by the garlic of minigame diversions. Though the tutorial misses out most of the important stuff, and the inability to save your game if you realise your dinner is burning detracts from the experience, they’re just inconveniences.

The ill-conceived pipeline minigame, though, almost derails the whole thing. It can drop you from triumphant front runner to abject game-over in a matter of seconds, not because it demands skill but because it tricks you with poor visual design, confounds you with bizarre movement control, and demands computer-like perfection to defeat the eternally flawless CPU opponent. As someone who has been playing video games on a regular basis for 25 years, I have skills. But I can’t beat the pipeline problem, and sadly Oil Magnate itself can’t quite overcome it either.  A fun game, but every moment is a countdown to inevitable disaster.

Maybe it really is going for realism.

Zombie Crossing

This review was written for The Indie Mine, though I bought it with my own Microsoft points. Please take a look. Reproduced here with permission.

Now I know how school teachers feel. Not because teachers routinely set up chaingun turrets to contain the influx of shambling students (though I’m pretty sure it crossed my metalwork teacher’s mind from time to time) but because it’s very frustrating to watch someone, or something, with real ability fall on its face because it’s too lazy to try.

Zombie Crossing (formally uncapitalised as zombie crossing – not a good start with a pedant like me) is a tower defence game that benefits from some nice ideas but also suffers badly from some awful design choices and an evident lack of any sort of playtesting.

There are far too many zombie-based games on Xbox Live’s indie channel, but this one actually makes good use of the theme. A zombie apocalypse is a logical basis for a tower defence game, involving as it does hordes of mindless enemies advancing stoically against a beleagued defensive line. The presentation is pretty good, particularly for an Xbox indie. It’s not uncommon for games on this service to look like they were drawn in Microsoft Paint, but this one, while not XBLA standard, has real game-like visuals with character models and convincing environments, plus a couple of nice touches like the blood trail that denotes the horde’s route in the first couple of levels.

Upon first playing Zombie Crossing, my impression of it wasn’t great. Its control scheme is an immediate problem. On top of the awkwardness of navigating the in-game menus using the triggers and D-pad, the left stick control is too responsive for the small size of the spots where you can place turrets, meaning that you often twitch back and forth for several seconds trying to get the cursor in the right place. This is inconvenient enough even pre-attack, but reaches a new infuriating low when you’re trying to add new defences in the middle of battle. The issue finally passes through rock bottom and splashes into the sewer when you try to upgrade a turret; the ‘upgrade’ button is so narrow that its almost impossible to hit. I have yet to successfully upgrade even one turret thanks to this miserable design oversight. Having someone playtest the game for more than five minutes would have revealed this problem, but I assume that never happened.

The turrets also don’t face the way you tell them to. You can rotate each one to aim in a particular direction, but more often than not they will ignore your instruction. It doesn’t sound like a serious problem, but turrets take so long to rotate and open fire that you can end up with legions of them never opening fire because they can’t rotate in time.

This lack of playtesting is evident throughout Zombie Crossing, and the problems I’ve detailed above turn out to be the least of them.

The idea behind Zombie Crossing is a pretty good one. You aren’t just defending against a certain number of waves; you’re trying to amass enough money to purchase a nuclear strike, which will bring a final end to that level and move you on to a new map where you start the process over. Advancing from level to level unlocks extra options in the research menu, enabling you to buy barricades, slowing effects and the like.

As I persisted with Zombie Crossing I began to forgive it for its flawed controls. The research side of things is barely explained, but I soon worked out how it works. The objective is also not explained – the game tells you that you should try to buy a nuke, but makes it sound like a friendly suggestion rather than the aim of the whole game. It took me probably 30-40 minutes to realize that nuclear bombardment is how you progress to the next level. I’d been starting to think the game had only one level! This is a problem, but not a crippling one. Besides, maybe I’m just dense.

The first and cheapest upgrade you can buy is the sniper rifle, which gives you a first-person view from a rooftop, from which vantage you can pop high velocity rounds into the shuffling undead. A nice touch, I thought. Sniping one zombie at a time seemed like it probably wouldn’t be much use in the grand scheme, but it would give me something to occupy myself with while the turrets were doing the serious clean-up.

In the event, that’s not quite how it worked out. This is where the problems begin in earnest.

The sniper rifle is traditionally a precise instrument that fires single bullets into carefully chosen targets. Zombie Crossing‘s sniper rifle is more like a rocket launcher. As long as your bullet hits a zombie, there will be an explosion that rips apart any others standing nearby. Plus it’s a one hit kill across its whole area of effect. The game soon ceases to be a tower defence at all, and instead becomes a case of just bombing crowds of zombies with your ‘sniper’ rifle as they bottleneck at their spawn point, and positioning a couple of towers close by to mop up the handful that get through. Even the larger, tougher boss zombie that appears at the end of each wave keels over much more quickly by thumping a few sniper shots into it than by shredding it with a dozen turrets. So the control problems become irrelevant, as do the upgrades, most of the research and the towers themselves. You start the game with a few hundred dollars; the sniper rifle costs you $100 to buy, and $1 to activate.

This problem becomes less pronounced as you gain extra turret types a few levels in, and the tower-based strategy becomes actually practical. But for the first few levels (which could be either a brief period or quite a long time, depending on how you choose to spend your resources) Zombie Crossing is barely even a game. It’s more ‘click on a few points in one area’. You know what else does that? Your desktop. Desktops aren’t known for being the height of entertainment.

That’s not all. The sniper rifle issue is idiocy of design, but perhaps not the most glaring example of zero playtesting. When you unlock the barbed wire barricade on level 2, you must never use it. It crashes the game. Not once, not twice, but 100% every single time I use it, without fail. You can, with some difficulty, play the rest of the game without using the barricade – it isn’t completely essential – but that isn’t the point. The point is the game is fundamentally broken, and clearly even the developers themselves never actually played it or they would have noticed this.

Again, a total and sickening lack of playtesting before release. Or if it was playtested, it by someone who was out of the room at the time. Maybe in another town entirely.

There are some other problems that could easily have been picked up on too, but they’re small potatoes compared to the game-crushingly huge ones. I’ll give one prominent example though.

If you pause while sniping, the crosshairs disappear and you get just a pointer instead. And you will do this a lot thanks to the need for coins. Zombies often drop gold coins that you can only pick up by pressing the Back button, yet that same button also brings up the pause menu. Every time you try to collect currency the game pauses, which would be bad enough by itself but also immediately draws attention to the vanishing crosshairs. How did anyone think this was a good idea, and why did no one who playtested it say “hey guys, this is really really annoying”? Oh wait, I can guess…

It’s moronic to a degree that left me breathless with horror and despair. In any other game, this oversight alone would be enough to turn a recommendation into a warning. Here, it’s not even the worst offender.

It’s a terrible shame. The game looks and sounds good, its atmosphere works, the research idea could have been fun, and it seems to be a decent length (though the levels start repeating after an hour or so). The sniper feature is a nice addition in principle, and even with some flaws the game could have been worth a recommendation. I really tried to enjoy it, and at the times when the menagerie of glitches, bugs and design ineptitude weren’t leaping out to punch my enjoyment in the face, it was pretty fun. I don’t want to emphatically tell you not to buy it. If you’re forewarned, you might have fun with it.

But at the same time, I can’t recommend it, particularly as the Xbox indie scene doesn’t lack good tower defence games. As a retail product, this is unsuitable to be on sale. It’s a first draft. I read, check and edit my reviews repeatedly before they reach the public eye, but Zombie Crossing doesn’t extend the same courtesy. I even tried to contact the developers to give them a chance to patch it before I stuck the boot in, but I couldn’t find any contact details or even a Facebook page. Always be reachable, developers.

Zombie Crossing could have done well for itself if it had been released in a finished and tested state, but as teachers often say, “must try harder”. Or as my metalwork teacher always said, “I am a violent man!” After a missed opportunity like this, he should be.

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.