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.

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We Are Cubes

We Are Cubes was a huge surprise, mainly because it feels professional from the outset. In Xbox Live Indie Games, where sometimes even seeming amateurish would be an achievement, 1BK’s debut release shows all the signs of careful craftsmanship.

You control a cube travelling along a straight path – maybe it’s a highway, or maybe the game is set in a future where people have finally tired of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and the scrolling path of coloured shapes has been abandoned, giving way to battles between…er…coloured shapes. Actually, that fits better than I expected when I started the sentence. Well done, Alan.

Your cube shoots at other geometric shapes (slightly misnamed ‘spheres’) which weave back and forth across the path. Sometimes they drop power ups when destroyed, all of which are useful to some extent. Some are passive, with effects like allowing to fire two shots in rapid succession; others are bonus weapons activated by pressing B. The passive ones can be a bit of a mystery, because it’s not always clear what they do. The ‘how to play’ menu gives a quick rundown on them, but it’s easy to miss. I didn’t notice it until 1BK pointed it out post-review. Still, it’s not a big deal. These are upgrades; they’re never going to be a bad thing.

If the game doesn’t sound very interesting so far, that’s because I haven’t mentioned some key things yet. Although the ‘spheres’ you’re shooting at don’t shoot back, this is no simple shooting gallery. They can only be destroyed in their weakest form – small yellow diamonds. Larger green, blue or red targets have to be split up into smaller and smaller parts until they reach the yellow diamond stage and can be destroyed. But watch out for their movements – if targets of the same colour touch, they can merge back into a stronger form.

This movement isn’t easy to predict either. Spheres behave in erratic ways, sometimes standing still, sometimes moving straight at you or bouncing back and forth like a pinball. This behaviour is altered by your actions. The stronger targets reel when you shoot them, so the patterns are always changing. There’s no time to mull things over here; like the derelict Guitar Hero of my dreams, the path keeps moving you forward and the spheres will be upon you in moments. You have to adapt quickly to survive.

Yes, survive. Although they don’t shoot at you, the spheres are dangerous. They fight you Glasgow style, by ramming into you at unexpected moments as they bounce around. If you don’t take them out before they reach you, they won’t necessarily hit you – you can dodge round them. They’re not out of your hair once they pass you, though. All spheres must be destroyed, and you let one get past you it will bounce back into the fray and often hit you from behind if you’re not paying attention.

So just spam shots at the targets, right? Well…no. And this is where the beauty of the game lies. Manic though the pace can be, We Are Cubes always remains a thoughtful, careful experience. You see, unless you collect certain passive upgrades, you can’t shoot again until your last shot has disappeared – either by hitting a sphere or by reaching the far end of the screen. This means you have to aim your shots with painstaking care, because an inability to shoot again for five seconds can get you killed as you watch your bullet trundle all the way down to the end like an old lady shuffling to the Post Office. Despite its emphasis on firing at targets, We Are Cubes isn’t really a shooter; it’s a constantly shifting action puzzle game that involves some shooting. And it’s hard.

Maybe I lack precision shooting skills. Maybe the sun was glaring off the TV. Maybe I need to swallow my pride and finally get some glasses (oh, the indignity!). Whatever the cause, the hit detection when you shoot at an enemy is very precise. It’s reasonable and consistent (a refreshing change) but being off target by the tiniest margin will result in a miss. Between this, the limitation on how often you can shoot and the unpredictable movement of the spheres, We Are Cubes feels like a harder than average game, but never unfair or cheap. Once you realise that the hit boxes are quite small, you never feel like a particular miss should have counted as a hit. We Are Cubes adheres consistently to its own rules, which seems to be a rarity amongst indie games.

If I were to make one criticism, it would be the lack of alternative modes. There are two here: an arcade mode that pits you against 25 waves of spheres, and a survival mode that keeps them coming and mixes up the way they come at you. Instead of various normal spheres followed a boss each wave, survival mode throws in bosses and powerful spheres all over the place. I expected the two modes to be very similar, but actually they play quite differently. This does extend the game’s longevity, but We Are Cubes would still benefit from extra modes that vary the play style more or introduce new challenges. One of the nice things about multiple modes is that everyone has their favourite.

Don’t get me wrong, though. This isn’t a problem and it doesn’t let the game down or anything. I just can’t see anyone sitting for long play sessions with We Are Cubes and alternative modes might help. Having said that, I’ve been racking my brains for a while and I’m having trouble thinking of any that would be worth including. Maybe that’s why I’m not a developer. This is why I don’t think the game is too hard (aside from the possibility that it isn’t hard and I’m just not very good at it) – making the arcade mode 25 challenging waves long means the end never feels out of reach but needs practice and concentration to achieve. It’s a good balance, and encourages that old arcade ‘one more try’ feeling.

I can’t leave things there without mentioning the presentation. It was the first thing I noticed when I started playing the game. It has a surprisingly appealing neon wireframe look and an all-round retro aesthetic that’s very well done. The music is very good too, particularly the title screen theme – and as some of you know, music can make or break a game for me. If you don’t agree with me that the wireframe look works, change it. 1BK included a startling range of customisation options so you can tailor the look of the game to suit yourself. There are no bugs or glitches as far as I’ve noticed (except a few seconds of hanging on menus), control is smooth and responsive, and there’s even a clock positioned at the end of the scrolling road, counting down the time you have left to finish off the current wave. Small things can make a lot of difference, and We Are Cubes nails them with a professional standard of attention to detail.

This is certainly one of the better Xbox indie games I’ve played recently, and considering it’s 1BK’s first release I’m very impressed. You won’t still be playing We Are Cubes after twenty hours, but it’s fun in short bursts. Its combination of skilful gameplay and higher than average challenge make it worth returning to for occasional plays to try and beat your previous performance, plus it has a little of the ‘one more try’ compulsion that kept arcades in business in the ‘80s. Based on this performance, 1BK have a lot of potential. Check out We Are Cubes at 80 Microsoft points for a very polished game where it’s skill, not luck or exploiting the system, that counts.