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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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.]

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.