March to the Moon

I refused to believe that March to the Moon was a shooter until I played it. It doesn’t look like one, and for a while it doesn’t feel like one either. Be in no doubt, though: March to the Moon is resolutely a game about shooting swarms of enemies as you trudge stoically up the screen. Fortunately, this isn’t all it is.

The thing that really threw me was how much of an RPG the game appears to be at first glance. You control a person who walks through various quest-like environments fighting rats, goblins and aliens. You have access to a variety of spells which you unlock and upgrade as you gain levels through experience points. It’s almost as though someone set out to make a simple, traditional console RPG of the type that seldom works well on XBLIG, then suddenly decided shooters are better but didn’t want to waste all that work.

The premise is basic. You are a person who, Morrowind-style, has been asked to exterminate some pesky rats that are infesting a cellar. That’s about it, really. Once the cellar is under control you find more and more layers of infestation leading into the sewers and even space, and the rats will swap places with aliens and robots, but it’s basically the same mission just getting more and more difficult.

None of that really blew me away, nor did the slow and deliberate pace. The levels progress in their forced vertical scrolling at a very methodical plod, which works perfectly fine but doesn’t create a particularly dazzling first impression. Where March to the Moon blindsided me and really raised its game was in the skill system.

All-punctuation baby names never really caught on

Unlike shooters in general, there’s a lot of freedom here to build your little warrior exactly the way you want to, including badly. You choose one career path at the outset, from which you can choose several skills to assign points to. After you’ve gained a few character levels you can choose a second career path to add to the first, giving you a whole new set of skills to acquire. This makes a huge difference to the way you play the game, as some paths are combat centric, some focus on passive buffs, some involve summoning creatures, and various other functions. You’re free to choose whichever you like, and although picking up summoning and healing will leave you inconveniently unable to fight properly, it’s refreshing to have the chance. Like the aforementioned Morrowind (which I wouldn’t have expected to reference in an indie shooter review) you’re at liberty to mess up your character build without the developer slapping you on the wrist, and when you figure out a build that works for you it feels more satisfying as a result. It’s your build, that you created to suit you.

Engineering degrees had changed since Jon’s day

March to the Moon’s developer wasn’t cavalier about including this freedom. Unlike the now-excessively-referenced Bethesda classic RPG, your ill-advised rat-hunting Summoner-Healer build isn’t irreversible. Once you realise that relying on your pet wolf to fight for you is liable to get you repeatedly hacked in the face, you don’t need to wearily restart the game. Those of us who lack strategic forethought can consider ourselves lucky – March to the Moon’s skill point assignment is fully undoable. You have to keep the career paths you chose, but any skill points you assigned within them can be removed and reassigned. Stuck with a dragon familiar that isn’t pulling its weight? Get rid of it and put those points into a direct attack skill instead. Finding your heal ineffective? Undo it and try out a buff.

The true benefit of this system isn’t simply that it’s forgiving; it also offers the ability to tailor your approach to every level. The game actively encourages replaying levels to gain additional experience and strengthen your character for the battles ahead, but grinding for experience isn’t the only way to overcome a tough level. You might find that a couple of your dependable skills aren’t proving that effective against a particular slew of enemies, but rather than having to just take it on the chin and slog away at grinding, you can give yourself a whole different set of skills for as long as you like, then change them back (or to something different again) later. It is an inspired design decision.

Medieval telemarketers pulled no punches

I have only two real criticisms of March to the Moon. Firstly, the soundtrack caused much gnashing of teeth and wailing. It improves after a few levels, but the music is mainly rhythm, and more than one level is scored entirely with a piercing, repetitive military drum track that felt like the relentless thudding of someone hammering a stubborn tent peg into my forehead. It actually genuinely gave me a headache. Eventually I resorted to periodically pausing the game and leaving the room, just to get away from the water torture-esque relentless tapping of that sadistic drum. This soundtrack alone has done more damage than any other feature to my enjoyment of March to the Moon.

Secondly, the difficulty curve is all over the place. If you’ve ever tried to draw by hand while riding in a 4×4 along a rutted farm track, you will by happy coincidence have sketched the difficulty curve of March to the Moon. It springs whimsically back and forth between surmountably modest difficulty and bone-searing savagery. Many levels require a few replays to accrue some more health and stronger powers, but every now and then you’ll hit a level than demands an hour or more of grinding the same five minute section over and over. Sometimes even rebuilding your character doesn’t help all that much, and even when it does, constructing and testing half a dozen builds just to pass one level can begin to wear thin.

Going designer baby shopping at Walmart may have been a mistake

Some might want to tack on a third criticism, so I’ll mention it even though it doesn’t really bother me. The visual presentation is pretty uninspiring, with drab backgrounds and amateurish character sprites, and I know for some people this is enough to condemn a game to the bin.  For me it doesn’t really matter, though; I still play old games that would make a gangrenous tonsil look like sunset over the Himalayas.

March to the Moon is definitely a curio. A shooter that looks like it should be an action adventure, with a skill system that is detailed enough to embarrass some RPGs and customisable enough to inject strategy into a genre that isn’t known for it. It’s a grower, that fails to engage at first but quickly peels off layers of itself to reveal surprising complexity that makes it not only worth playing but worth replaying. There’s a lot to enjoy here, provided you can squint past the dingy amateur visuals and stuff your ears with enough small animals to block out the relentless snare drum soundtrack as you March to the Moon.


Null Battles

First person shooters have become so ubiquitous, so close to the default game genre, that I have to fight off a weary sinking sensation whenever one crosses my path. Now and then they defy my torpid scepticism and turn out to be fun – Section 8: Prejudice and Battlefield 1943 spring to mind – but for the most part I’m sick of the damn things. As with so many genres, though, the hope for diversity and bold reinvention lies in the indie side of development. The early build of Shootmania Storm on PC has already begun injecting new life into the flaccid multiplayer FPS, and the Xbox 360’s Null Battles is joining that crusade.

The closest real world experience I can think of to compare to playing Null Battles is something like leaping between giant magnetic Lego bricks in zero gravity. Each match takes place in a room full of large geometric shapes, usually randomly laid out (though this is customisable from the options menu – including the coveted treasure of a genuine level editor). From your team’s base halfway up one wall, you leap out into the arena where you will automatically adhere to the surface of whichever platform you touch. The platforms being 3D shapes, this often means suddenly finding yourself upside down or otherwise bizarrely orientated. It also means that as you spring from surface to surface in the chaos of combat, your perspective will flip and whirl in a way that makes it very difficult to aim reliably. Fortunately, this is where the fun comes from.

Null Battles feels a little like the adversarial FPS games of yesteryear, emphasising energetic lunging and spraying rather than hiding behind a wall and making precision headshots. It also reminds me slightly of the aforementioned Shootmania Storm in that it simplifies weapon selection down to a minimum, and relies on the frenetic pace and unique twist to keep it engaging.

The collaboration between Genesis and Daft Punk confused audiences

You have two weapons: a laser-type gun for ranged combat (assigned to RT) and a standard short-range sidearm (assigned to LT) that acts more like a melee attack than the usual backup pistol. There is no ammunition but, as in Mass Effect, your ability to rain brightly coloured destruction upon your opponents is limited by the build-up of heat in your weapon. Continuous fire will cause the gun to overheat and leave you in the humiliatingly disastrous position of being completely defenceless for a few seconds. In a game this fast paced, having to spend vital seconds running around and whimpering like an alarmed hamster (or an unusually resolute sheep) can be fatal.

How much you enjoy Null Battles will probably be determined by how much you demand precision performance. If you’re the sort of person who derives enjoyment from painstakingly training yourself to shoot microscopic dots in their microscopic heads after aiming for only a tenth of a second, then Null Battles might annoy you. That’s not to say there’s no place for skill here, but the randomly generated terrain layout and haphazard convulsion of gravitational direction lead to a more messy and manic play style. You can’t train yourself to make crack shots reliably because you can’t memorise the randomised maps, and when you move you can’t count on being the same way up half a second later.

Halo 4 really felt the budget cuts

If, on the other hand, you appreciated the frantic, unfettered chaos of ‘90s deathmatching, or you just like the sound of it, Null Battles could give you much more than your 80 Microsoft points’ worth of fun.

Unfortunately Null Battles bears a heavy burden. Like many multiplayer-focused indie games, particularly on the Xbox, it runs a constant risk of suffering from lack of community. There are options for both local and online play, with options for up to four teams for real carnage, but the only way you’ll play other human beings is if you arrange a session with friends. Fortunately the AI picks up the slack here. Much as in Take Arms, the AI participants are reasonably competent and don’t behave too conspicuously unlike real people. That’s even more the case here than in Take Arms, as the erratic nature of movement around the maps means that even human players don’t behave like real people.

Disney’s Knights of the Old Republic III

For some players, just the knowledge that there aren’t genuine gooey biological brains behind the figures they’re shooting in the face is enough to put them off. Weirdly, the same people will happily play Modern Warfare 3, which frequently also doesn’t involve much in the way of brain-driven opponents.

For those who have indie-playing friends or, like me, don’t mind playing against bots as long as they put up a fight, Null Battles is a perfectly sound purchase. It will never dislodge the big-name titles but it’s not intended to. As a 60p diversion with a novelty twist, it offers easily enough customisation options, headless chicken panic and disorientating chaos to justify a purchase. Will I be playing it a year from today? Perhaps not, but I am playing it now, and that’s enough.

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.

Acid Drift: Solar

I was never the biggest fan of Eilte as a whole package. I liked the concept, and the feeling of wandering space with only my own skills to determine whether I lived or died, but it rapidly became repetitive and boring thanks to the endless parade of identical space stations requiring nothing more involved than buying and selling crates of third-rate confectionary.

Xbox Live Indie Games has already corrected a lot of Elite’s weaknesses with Final Rift but that is far from the only XBLIG that reminds me of the classic wireframe space roamer. We’ve already had Project Delta (a review for another time, me-talking-about-stuff fans!) and now in the grim unseasonal downpour of summer 2012 we get Acid Drift: Solar, a game that contains no corrosives, drifts or suns, but successfully reminds me of both Elite and Project Delta without shamelessly copying either.

You are the captain of a spacecraft and you’re set free in a small chunk of galaxy to do whatever you want – as long as whatever you want is either trading, mining or fighting. Space is crammed to bursting with mineable asteroids, to the point that I start to wonder how it can legitimately be called ‘space’. There’s more rock than space, but I suppose ‘Dad, I want to go into rock when I grow up!’ doesn’t sound quite so impressive, unless your dad is Angus Young.

When the game starts, you have a barge. It has a cargo bay the size of a toddler’s shoe and slightly less weaponry than a ham sandwich. The game wants you to be in no doubt that this clump of cardboard and bin liners isn’t going to get you anywhere. Look at the name. Other ships are called ‘fighter’, ‘gunship’, ‘frigate’ – yours is ‘barge’. Not even ‘cargo barge’, just barge. The ability to name your ship as in Sid Meier’s Pirates would be a welcome touch, but our slum-dwelling barge captain isn’t afforded even that dignity. Instead he must slink around the galaxy avoiding conflict with anything larger than a kitten, scraping pebbles from asteroids until his cargo matchbox is full, then selling them for pennies at the nearest planet while swaggering captains of industry snigger and push him into hedges.

The 2012 Olympic committee took their stadium seriously

Or that seems to be the plan, anyway. One of the loading screens states categorically that a barge can’t beat a battleship, but once you figure out the trick to the combat system, I think it probably could. I’ll try it and update the review accordingly. I certainly managed to put a fair few heavy duty military vessels out of commission with my little wireframe USB stick of a ship.

Combat and mining in Acid Drift are handled as minigames, while trading is a straightforward transaction menu. At any of the asteroids that rudely clutter every inch of space you can press X to initiate a brief button-matching session to garner resources which you can then sell on at any of the game’s handful of planets.

Alternatively you can buy the resources of your choice at the market and haul them to a planet where they’re in demand. The trading screen conveniently shows you the selling price at all other worlds, so there’s no brain work involved. Annoyingly for an aspiring trader, you have to select your destination planet while still docked. You can try roaming around on your own but you’re unlikely to find the right patch of space, and you’re unable to change the locator arrow while on the move. Presumably you have to buy your locator arrows at a little kiosk in the spaceport, staffed by a disillusioned old man who just wants to be left alone to wither in peace. Or maybe I’m thinking of Heathrow.

Pimp My Ride was under-qualified for its space spin-off

Combat is the most exciting of the minigames, but it has a pretty straightforward tactic that I figured out within two fights and mastered within five. It’s a sort of one-on-one Space Invaders. Your ship and the enemy face each other across the screen and let rip with your space pixel guns while sliding from side to side. It’s a pleasantly inventive way of handling combat, but it doesn’t take Darth Revan to notice that you can win at least 90% of the time by sidling slightly ahead of your enemy until it gets nervous and sidles back, then repeating until explosions occur. It’s hard to describe but trust me that it’s simple and works on every type of ship. I noticed this in my first or second battle, and now you will too. Enjoy.

Although you take out most (if not all) types of ship with your basic peasant barge, buying new ships makes things a lot easier. Every ship in the game is for sale, and you get a discount for trading in your current ride. Well, the game says you do but you actually don’t. I’m pretty sure you could take the ship showroom to court for that kind of chicanery. Stan would be proud.

This early section is a bit of a slog. With small cargo capacity, neither trading nor mining is particularly profitable, and while you can make some money tussling with pirates it takes so long to wear them down with your barge that it feels like your hull will rust before you make enough money to buy lunch. When you do eventually manage to offload your pauper’s wagon in exchange for something with a bit of style, the game hits its stride and it’s pretty fun as long as this samey space fighting/trading thing is up your street. That’s not sarcasm; it’s up my street and I know there are other people on this street with me.

Tetris just got real

Sadly, after maybe an hour, perhaps less, the game hits its second slump. You’ve got to your ideal ship (I stopped at a destroyer because I didn’t fancy the lack of mobility I’d suffer in a battleship) and you know how to make money at a reasonable rate. All that’s left to you is to chase the two ultimate goals listed in the planetary menu. One is quite easily affordable by the time you get a good ship, but the other requires quite a lot of grinding for cash. Even with a cargo hold the size of St Paul’s and firepower that would make Goku whimper in embarrassment, making this immense sum of money takes patience. It’s unfortunate, then, that the ending is the most anticlimactic event in gaming since the release of the Virtual Boy. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything. There’s nothing to spoil.

You have two aims to work towards, both listed in the planetary options: retire to a mining colony or retire to a private moon. Of course the moon is the real ultimate goal here. After a lifetime spent trading, fighting and scavenging in my now battle-scarred (presumably) destroyer I eventually managed to accumulate just barely enough money to buy my very own natural orbital satellite. With a swelling feeling of pride and anticipation filling my chest, I moved with portentous slowness down the menu to the final climax of the game, and anxiously nudged the A button.

‘You retired to a private moon’ said the game.

I’d expected a brief paragraph describing my retirement, or a picture of the moon in question, or even just a rundown of my stats – enemies killed, resources mined. Something. Anything. What I got was one short sentence on a stock deep space background; the same background used for the close-but-no-cigar mining colony ending. Even Goolin managed to muster an insipid ripple of fireworks. Here, nothing. I bought the bloody moon! The sentence might as well have been ‘the game is stopping now’ for all the sense of fulfilment it delivers.

Shepard’s friends hated his boring shopping lists

Most of Acid Drift: Solar is a generally enjoyable, if brief and shallow, space trading and combat escapade. If you enjoy the Elite variety of game at all, you’ll probably find some fun here. If you’ve never played a game of that type, this is as good a place as any to start. The orange wireframe visuals are hardly lavish, but they have their own style and feel, which is more important than maximum graphical sheen. Combat is unusual enough to be fun for a little while, and wandering around space as you please is as liberating as the fairly small game world allows it to be. Unfortunately the game’s simplicity costs it longevity, and the imbalance of the beginning and end is discouraging. If the opening trudge doesn’t put you off, the final grind might – and if it doesn’t, you too might feel a little resentful at the ending’s refusal to match your hard work. The apathetic conclusion doesn’t detract from enjoyment of Acid Drift’s gameplay, but when you’ve spent half your time with the game just working gruellingly towards that one distant dream, something slightly grander than ‘fine, you’ve done it, now piss off’ would have been nice.

Super Killer Hornet

Super Killer Hornet is shooting by the numbers. That’s a joke. You’ll get it later.

The game feel like it should be controlled with one of those chunky old analogue joysticks, sticky from the sugar-saturated hands of a thousand fumbling twelve year olds. That’s my arty writer way of saying it feels like a 1990 arcade game.

The graphics are pretty straightforward, with adequately (but not extravagantly) detailed sprites and some very SNES-ish explosions that would have made Jaz Rignall gasp “ooh, pretty” back in the day. Not much in the way of backgrounds though, so it ends up looking a bit spartan (in the sense of minimalist, not the sense wearing only underpants). The music is better, and can be selected at the start of each level – a small but welcome touch.

The core gameplay is similarly…er…’streamlined’. Tap A to rapidly fire a spread shot; hold A to let rip with a sustained laser barrage that is more powerful but slows your movement in a classic power/survivability trade-off. That’s the idea, anyway. In practice you can spare your thumbs the dreaded RSI risk of constant tapping by just holding X instead, for the same effect. Nor does the power/speed trade work; the beam is quite wide so enemies mostly won’t get close to you, and the slower movement speed actually makes it easier to dodge incoming shots. This has been consciously built into some other games (Redshift) but it seems accidental here.

Yep, that will definitely kill a hornet

So far, so routine as retro vertical shooters go. Fortunately, Super Killer Hornet throws in something of its own to liven up the bare bones shooting. Remember that ghastly term that hung around the early-mid ‘90s like the inexplicable smell of cabbage in a pensioner’s living room? You know, the one that clutched test tubes full of wretched creations like Mario is Missing. That’s right, Super Killer Hornet flirts – in the most chaste and evasive way – with the lingering dread spectre of ‘edutainment’. This game, this retro arcade shooter, incorporates mathematics. Weirdly, that’s actually the best thing about it.

While blasting your way through the descending swarms of alien spacecraft, you will occasionally spot a mathematical function – a ‘3 X’ or a ‘7 +’, that sort of thing. If you collect that, a number will appear a few moments later. Collect that too and you’ll have almost a whole simple equation, maybe ‘3 X 9’ or similar. Plough on through the mayhem without being killed and soon three numbers will appear, one of which is the right answer to the mathematical problem. Grab that answer and…well, what happens next depends on the game mode.

Should have grabbed that 1. Easy money.

The two modes on offer use the maths element differently. Arcade mode is the one that leaves me yawning. You have a limited number of lives and the maths function just acts as a score multiplier. If you’re someone who is motivated by beating your previous scores this mode might hook you like a lecherous fisherman. Personally I find high score chasing only fractionally less appealing than filling in a tax return, so I lost interest in Arcade mode after five minutes.

The second mode, Black Label, is the one I choose to spend time with. It gives the maths element a purpose beyond making a meaningless series of digits at the top the screen change more quickly. I have no idea what the title Black Label refers to, but it’s an enticingly decadent name for a timed challenge. The Arcade mode’s meagre allotment of lives is traded for infinity, but don’t get drunk on the dizzying possibilities just yet. In place of finite lives, the game slaps a huge timer across the screen, unrelentingly ticking away every second until your ignominious demise. Your salvation comes in the form of mathematics; each complete equation extends the timer and buys you a little more life.

Get off! On arithmetic dogfight night, your embrace means nothing to me.

I quite enjoy this mode, and although it’s not interesting enough to sit and play for protracted sessions, it works quite well in short bursts. The use of contrasting brainwork – the observation and reflex of combat stapled onto the logical process of arithmetic – is surprisingly refreshing. I’m not accustomed to using my brain very much in this sort of game, and certainly not in this way. There’s also a nice side effect, in that when you die any incomplete equation is wiped clean, so even though you have infinite lives you can’t afford to be reckless. Death does have a cost, it’s just not as tangible and immediate as in Arcade.

I can’t in good conscience give Super Killer Hornet a recommendation, nor can I bug spray it into oblivion. With the Arcade mode alone I’d say this was too slender a package to be worth your time (shame on anyone who sniggered at ‘slender package’). With the addition of the Black Label mode there’s enough here to give both score chasers and score avoiders their 80 MSP worth of fun. Even with its unusual mathematical additions to gameplay, the Super Killer Hornet experience is just too bare and minimal to get the full seal of approval. It’s fine, but whether just ‘fine’ is enough for you will depend on your taste.

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.

Birth Order

Xbox Live Indie Games has made itself a haven for various things, not all of them good. It’s particularly infamous for the malformed abominations churned out by certain apathetic developers with a taste for easy money. Among the more worthwhile types of game that have made the indie channel their home are retro 2D shooters and genre-twisting experiments. Birth Order grabs at both of these and hopes for the best.

I never really got into scrolling shooters the first time round. The likes of R-Type were mighty names that loomed on the fringes of my gaming awareness but never crossed my path. In that sense, I come to XBLIG shooters as a combination of fresh-faced shooter newbie and wizened gaming veteran. To my eye, Birth Order manages to do a lot of things right and I applaud its efforts.

From the outset Birth Order plays its cards close to its chest. The short tutorial explains the basic shooting mechanic well enough – enemies are marked with an image of one of the face buttons, and you must press the corresponding button to shoot at them. Your weapon auto-aims at the relevant enemies, leaving you free to focus on dodging incoming fire and deciding which enemy types to prioritise. Weirdly, this is the only thing the tutorial shows; all the other features and quirks have to be worked out for yourself. None of it is particularly baffling, but it’s an odd choice to have a tutorial that explains nothing except the one thing that doesn’t really need explanation.

Feeling star-struck. Ho ho.

Beyond the tutorial you find yourself on a game board, which is where the ‘Huh?’ moments begin. Each space represents a level, and you must survive these levels to pass beyond them. The entire board is hidden, except for a small area surrounding you, and another area that’s surrounded by locks. It’s mentioned in passing that you’re hunting your brother, but this has no connection to anything the game has told you so far. No explanation is given as to why you want your brother dead, or why he’s surrounded himself with locks then scattered the keys all over the world. Well, I suppose maybe you don’t want him dead. I’ve assumed you do, but maybe it’s just your birthday and this is some kind of large-scale treasure hunt that your sibling concocted for you. That would explain the Birth Order title. Either that or he’s demanding that you reproduce – but we don’t want to go there…

I’m blue, my brother’s red, it was never going to be a happy family life

The other odd feature that’s never really discussed is cards. It doesn’t take long to notice that enemies occasionally drop what appear to be playing cards, and it’s absolutely imperative to pick these up whenever possible. Your card collection can make the difference between success and failure, not just overall but in each individual level. Cards are accessed from the map/board screen, and have a variety of effects. Most will give you a bonus effect for one level, such a shield or a drone that grants you additional firepower. With no way to tell which levels will be tranquil walks in the park and which will be auditions for Ikaruga, you have to guess based on gut instinct, and it can be frustrating to use your last shield card on a level that a sleepwalking five year old could have completed playing only with their feet.

Other cards are more permanent. They might expand your ship, lay waste to a section of the board or bestow some of the mysterious stars that you’ll collect throughout the game (it’s not clear what stars do, but they’re shiny). Perhaps the most important form of card can only be obtained from the bosses that roam the board like belligerent drunks looking for a fight with the birthday boy. Assuming you can take them down (which often requires a card or two, at least for me) you’ll gain a key card which removes one of the locks around your brother’s treehouse—er, I mean evil lair.

When you said “swarm of Bs”, this wasn’t what I expected

I don’t know what happens once all the locks are gone, because I’ve never got that far. Birth Order is hard, let’s not be coy about it. The weird part of the difficulty is that it’s so erratic. The exact layout of the board and the contents of each level are randomised each time you play, so although the game does broadly start get harder as you go along, sometimes the first few levels will be surprisingly brutal just thanks to the randomisation factor.

Despite its quirks of unpredictable difficulty and lack of explanation, Birth Order is easy to recommend to those of you who enjoy 2D shooters. Even those who don’t might find enjoyment here anyway thanks to the replacement of shooter standards with button-matching and card-collecting elements. At 80 Microsoft points, Birth Order is both one of the better XBLIG shooters and one of the more successful gameplay experiments.

If you ever figure out why we’re meant to kill/hug/impregnate our brother, let me know…