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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Uprisings and Updates

The Indie Games Uprising III is over now, and there’s plenty to review once I’ve spent enough time with the remaining games. In the meantime there are some quick look videos on The Indie Ocean’s YouTube channel.
I can tell you right now, though, that one of the Uprising games has displaced a regular diner at my Captain’s Table of the finest Xbox Live Indie Games. Congratulations to Smooth Operators: Call Centre Chaos, which offers us a management sim smooth, professional and addictive enough to rival the classic likes of Theme Park. And for only 80 Microsoft points! That’s almost offensively good value. If you’ve ever got even a moment’s enjoyment from a Theme, Sim or Tycoon game, go and take a peek at Smooth Operators.

Smooth Operators: Call Centre Chaos

MegaCity

There have been a few interesting Sim City­-inflected hybrid games, combining city-building elements with parts of other games. In recent months, Lexiv spliced Sim City and Scrabble to surprisingly enjoyable effect. Prior to that, City Rain and Megalopolis offered puzzler gameplay with some city/landscape management flourishes. Now we have MegaCity.

Like the other games I’ve mentioned, MegaCity is more a puzzle game than a sim. You are presented with a grid of empty grass squares in which to place buildings. You can’t choose your buildings; they’re queued up in a randomly assigned order to the left of the screen. Each game starts with five houses at the top of the queue, but after that it’s anyone’s guess.

The idea is to gain a certain number of points along the leftmost edge of the grid. In the first few minutes the target will be four points, but this increases as you progress. When you reach the target number of points, that column will slide off the screen and a new one will appear to the right. This is how you gain more space to build and avoid filling up the grid – which would be game over.

It definitely has a 'SimCity on the Super Nintendo' look to it

The key buildings are the residential ones – houses and apartments – as only these can generate the points you need. They can’t do it alone, though. Other types of buildings have effects on the spaces around themselves, causing any residential tiles to either generate or lose points. Some buildings, like landfills, only have negative effects and have to be kept out of the way. Some, like hospitals, have only good effects. Others have bits of both. Each building has its own pattern for the effect it has around it.

This probably sounds very confusing, but once you sit and play it, it’s quite simple. Like many puzzle games, simple doesn’t mean easy. The queue of randomly selected buildings reminds me of Tetris and, like Tetris, the luck of the draw can ruin your game. Many times I’ve had a pretty good run, then found myself drawing nothing but landfills and factories from the queue when all I want is a single house. And that’s that: game over.

Blue = good effects, red = bad effects. Colour coded for kiddies of all ages, or something.

Aside from this main mode, where the main aim seems to be to get a high score, there are also challenge modes. I haven’t managed to pass even the easiest one, but they at least mix up the gameplay. The challenge modes place certain buildings on the grid before you start, and always give you the same tiles in the same order. It’s not entirely clear what the aim is though, and the game itself doesn’t tell you. These modes certainly add variety, but it’s hard to enjoy them when you don’t know what you’re meant to be aiming for.

I recommend MegaCity, but not without reservation. It’s very much a puzzle game rather than a city management game, though it does have some SimCity touches in the way buildings affect each other. It’s easy to learn and addictive, but the main mode gets repetitive after a while, particularly when you have to keep restarting because you happened to draw some bad buildings. The challenge modes could alleviate that, but instead they’re just confusing.

Not a game that will keep you playing for weeks, but a lot of fun for a little while, and there’s nothing else quite like it. Well worth 80 Microsoft points – just don’t expect perfection.

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.