23 Apr 2009

A field of dreams: Blueberry Garden

I know I keep regurgitating the same old observation of how every new indie game I come across is beautifully expressive or lovingly wacky, but as a blanket statement it actually tends to be the case far more often than you'd expect. Currently it seems indie gaming is all about bringing the medium forward by delivering unusual feasts of gaming goodness that differ greatly from the slop we so often have to suffer on the high street shelves. You could say - and I often do - that small independent developers don't feel required to create what they think the consumer would like so much as what they themselves want to play, the product of which is usually off-the-wall content.

You could also be of the opinion that it's a conscious decision to stand out from the crowd. Bold colours and zany characters are the key to success and without a novelty device or some kind of graphical twist they will undoubtedly be left to rot in some darkened corner of the internet.

Without venturing too far along this trail of thought, I'll introduce Blueberry Garden by saying that it's not your standard platformer... but it is your typical indie game. It shows off abstract, hand-drawn visuals, classical piano music and several fruity gameplay twists. It's colourful and accessible, but having said that, it also surpasses the indie gaming stereotypes by being pretty damn good.

The winner of the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the IGF this year, Blueberry Garden is the creation of Erik Svedäng and a game that is well deserving of the praise it has received so far. Soon to be released, Erik has been kind enough to let me take a sneaky peek at his contribution to the indie scene.

'So, what's the deal?' I hear you not ask.

Well, as soon as you load it up you'll be confronted by a game that seems to take its inspiration from dreams more than anything else. As a result it's abstract and pleasantly directionless. Deeper though are the aforementioned additions that twist the gameplay away from what you'd expect from a simple platformer.

Enter the man with a beak on his face. You play as this guy, flying about and collecting various oversized household objects. Giant apples, books, top hats and suchlike litter the landscape which you must then trek across to find. Each time you succeed in doing so, you'll teleport back to the start of the level along with the object you found stacked above you to form a rudimentary tower. Each item you add gives the tower more height which allows you to fly longer distances and reach unexplored territory.

So that's the zany part... and now here I go with one of my many predictable statements: Blueberry Garden is instantly engaging.

When you start playing you'll be skipping about, reading the tutorial signs and trying to figure out what on Earth you're actually required to do and how to go about it. The trees and wildlife offer some pointers. Fruits that grow in the game essentially become power-ups and using these effectively will allow you to access previously unreachable areas in order to continue the search for another piece of the tower.

Within the game world you'll find a bunch of friendly denizens that are all too happy to go about their business, eating the fruit that's dropped and spreading the seeds to grow new trees. Whether this is integral to succeeding, I'm not entirely sure, but it's certainly a workable strategy and using the various plant and animal life to your advantage is part of the fun.

Amazingly, the object of the game didn't occur to me until my second attempt at it. A water level that is virtually out of sight at the start of each new game rises slowly as you play. It's your biggest obstacle and anything you can do to stop yourself drowning is best done quickly. Reaching pieces of the tower before they become inaccessible is obviously at the forefront of your mind, but so too is finding a way to stop it and escape. Have I managed this yet? No. Will I keep trying? Of course. Make that a yes, after a period of obsessive playing.

The most fascinating aspect of the game is that you are left almost entirely without direction from the off. Just like a dream, you're required to make sense of a world that is familiar, but not quite normal. The game contains several references to standard mario-style platformers, but it differs through the use of a few interesting devices. A completely real-time world that continues to evolve off-screen and coexisting wildlife are a couple of things that confirm just why this game received such credit at the IGF awards.

To return to my original comment, Blueberry Garden is your typical indie game, but in the best sense possible. It's original and innovative whilst taking the finest parts of a well-tread genre and expanding them to show what can still be done to keep it fresh and involving.

From what I've seen, I think a lot of people already have quite an affection for Blueberry Garden from just watching the preview videos posted about the internet and if you aren't one of them then what are you waiting for?

22 Apr 2009

Valve give the gift of Survival

For those of you who don't know, today is actually 'International Downloadable Content for Zombie Shooters Day'. It's a worthy cause, with all funds going towards... well, creating more zombie shooters, I expect. As far as I can tell though, Valve Software are the only ones who have really contributed to this wonderful occasion by releasing their long-promised Survival Pack for co-op horror hit, Left 4 Dead.

If you've already bought the game the update will download as soon as Steam is started and after it's done you'll be presented with the Dead Air and Death Toll campaigns playable in Versus Mode as well as a brand new Survival game-type.

The new Versus maps are a welcome extension to the original game and something players been waiting some time for, whilst Survival mode is something altogether different, recreating those intense siege moments that make up the end of the campaigns. Except it's timed. And there is no rescue.

Taking rooms from various parts of the campaign -and one brand new lighthouse map- the premise is to stock up on guns and ammo before triggering the horde and then being torn to pieces within ten minutes. Although you're apparently less likely to make it to five. Ouch.

It's been a while since I last opted for a bout of Infected slaughter so it seems an appropriate time to dust off my shotgun and get right back into it. Here's hoping more developers will be offering up their support next year on this, the day of undead-depicting-software celebration!

21 Apr 2009

REVIEW: Zeno Clash

First-person action gaming can at times appear rather stale and uninspiring. It seems that we, the players, are often made slaves to the genre staples established by games that were seen as being revolutionary over a decade ago. A great many titles released these days differ little from the norm in terms of theme, colour or expression and there seems to be a fear prevalent amongst many developers of enriching gamers' imaginations or exceeding expectations - a fear of scaring people off perhaps.

Of course, this is good enough if you want to guarantee a quick buck, but the end result is this: You could point most PC gamers in the direction of the latest shooter and they would know - without blinking - exactly how to deal with the nazis, terrorists or aliens that are inevitably going to attack in their hundreds. And those types of enemies, well, they all really equate to the same thing don't they?

So where is the sense of surprise or the excitement of exploration? Where is the continued thrill when it's always just you against identical evils with a gun?

And whilst we're on the subject of guns, anyone who has played a few action titles will already know what to expect. We've become amateur weapons experts. Yes, it's a very basic familiarity, but these sorts of items form a safety net within these virtual shooting galleries along with warehouses, crates, exploding barrels and the colour brown. How on earth would we cope without these genre standards?

It takes only a few minutes of play to realise that Zeno Clash is from a different galaxy to ours. Its feet are firmly on the ground, but its head is way, way up in outer space, scouting around for whatever weird shit it can find and pull into existence. And that's the first point of interest. Almost everything is alien here - not in the sense of spacesuits and laser rifles, but simply... unusual. The landscape, the flora and fauna, the weaponry and the characters are all captivatingly bizarre. It's a jumbled freakshow of a game where anything you see can be simultaneously beautiful and repulsive and rarely standard fare.

Zeno Clash is very much it's own creature, but the laziest way to describe the game's aesthetics would be to label it as cave-punk. It's a stupid term - I'm well aware - but it's inhabitants are often wild in nature, neanderthal and unkempt. The clothing they wear is striking and organic. Bones and animal parts adorn masks and helmets to make the whole world appear as if conjured by a voodoo priest on an acid high. It's so fantastically insane that even if the gameplay were appalling, the eye-candy alone would probably be enough to keep you pushing onwards until the end.

You play the part of Ghat, a human being and son of Father-Mother, a ten-foot tall crow-beast with a giant chip on its shoulder. The game begins with the death of this hermaphroditic monster and after a brief and amusing tutorial on the basics of combat you find yourself on the run from your kin, a motley crew of birdmen, ogreish humanoids and giant rats (to name but a few). The ensuing story is told through a series of intermittent, playable flashbacks as you explain your past to your female companion, Deadra, who bucks the gaming trend by not being at all irritating.

The storytelling is schizophrenic in nature, but the back and forth of the plot suits the style of the game. It's a decent tale and one that's tightly written and compelling enough without requiring any drawn-out expositions to explain what the hell is going on amongst the madness of the game world. The voice acting is also remarkably well-done considering the size of the team involved and whether the often absurd dialogue is down to poor translation or not, it only seems to add to the charm of the game.

The only sticking point for me is a significant lack of characterisation, especially in the case of Deadra, who says little of worth and explains even less about why she's actually following you and helping you out. I can only assume that this will be resolved in the next game, to which there is a feverish nod at the end of this one. So, to all you cliffhanger-haters out there: you may want to prepare yourself for the worst.

As you'll know if you've seen any of the preview videos, the gameplay is strongly focused around the combat system. A good old fashioned fist-to-the-face isn't something you often see done well in first-person games. It's a mechanic that's difficult to perfect, to recreate the brutal satisfaction of hand-to-hand fighting. Chronicles of Riddick is the closest comparison I can draw to what you'll see here, although that game seemed more geared towards portraying the violence of such confrontations than creating completely workable methods of attack and defence.

Zeno Clash handles it admirably. It's a solid enough system that allows you to lock on to an opponent, left-clicking for a sequence of blows and right-clicking for a more hefty thump. This simple control basis eventually opens up a variety of fighting techniques, allowing you to block or peform counter-attacks and once you've pummelled someone enough to stun them you can either elbow-drop them or launch them across the floor in the hope they'll take another down with them. The visual and audio feedback from each successful hit is fantastic, to such an extent that I often caught myself reeling backwards like a fool whilst winding up a powerful right-hook.

On the whole, the combat is well implemented and if you take the time to learn the moves and if your reactions are reasonably quick, you'll soon feel like a champion fighter. However, there's a strong chance at times that you'll find yourself battling the controls when facing multiple foes. The problems come infrequently, but are frustrating enough to mention. Targeting inconsistencies and the fact that the same key is assigned to locking on and picking up health or weapons sometimes means you'll lose tricky brawls because the controls got the better of you.

As a side note, for those players who do become adept at brutalising their opponents there is a seperate challenge mode that requires you to confront several tiers of increasingly tricky enemies. It's a nice addition and increases longevity of play with online scoreboards through which you can compete with your Steam friends for top spot. It's an unexpected addition and a great way to keep enjoying the game without having to retread the entire story.

During the main game, when you're not using your fists to hurt others you'll most likely be shooting things at them. Weapons appear periodically and if you can spare the time to pick one up and fire it before some oaf knocks it from your hands then it's useful for keeping enemies at bay. Ammo is thankfully unlimited, but the clip sizes are small and timing your reloading is crucial to keeping yourself standing up.

I have to say that the weapon models and animations are incredible. Technically they handle no differently from standard FPS pistols or rifles, but once you've hunted down a giant rabbit with a couple of fish guns in your hands you'll begin to wonder at what period in the history of gaming did most of the creativity, insanity and pure joy of playing get thrown out of the window.

Zeno Clash brings it all back with formidable style.

And style is where the true appeal of the game firmly rests. What many people may realise whilst playing the game is that the diversity of the visuals is not quite matched by the variety of play. With all the surface material stripped away it could appear to be, in part, a regular corridor shooter. The bare-knuckle and melee action is brilliantly implemented, but there is an awful lot of it, especially towards the end of the game when you'll be pelted with bosses or three or four nasties at once, several times in a row.

In this case the motivation to continue isn't only for personal pride and completion, but the prospect of exploring more of the world. With the environment shifting so much from level to level, it's a tour de force of artistic design, of locational beauty and wonder. For me to give away too many details of what scenes you're likely to explore would be detrimental to those moments of sheer awe that you'll encounter after turning a corner and being confronted by something magnificent, so I won't.

Zeno Clash, however, is not a simple case of style over substance. In fact, most of the game exposes its style in such a way that it becomes part of the substance. In much the same way that the Half-Life series deviates the player's attention from its limited walls, Zeno Clash uses corridor shooting to its advantage, opening it up with fantastical set-pieces and a creativity of design that puts most developers to shame.

Ultimately, Zeno Clash is something that I would encourage every action gamer to try, even if it does lead you to find every subsequent game you play to be somewhat lacking in imagination.

VERDICT: Barking mad and, in turn, an insanely enjoyable experience.

Zeno Clash is created by Chilean developers, ACE Team. It was released today and is available to download from Steam and Direct2Drive.

15 Apr 2009

Thieving Speculation

Yes, it was a dumb joke about System Shock 3, but this one's all non-lies...

It seems the latest speculation flooding the deliciously nerdy end of the internet is that Eidos Montreal, developers of the upcoming Deus Ex 3 have made a teasing post that their next game is soon to be announced. That is literally all they have said so far, but certain hopefuls have taken it upon themselves to draw some significance from the style of font (no, really), likening it to the Thief series' bold type.

This has caused the longstanding Through the Looking Glass community forums to hammer out a forty-plus page thread on the chances of this being what we've been after since the last game's release in 2004. To be honest its high time they threw in another addition to the now legendary PC gaming series, but it will have to be a wonderful sequel.

Personally, I'd be careful what to wish for. The recently publicised Deus Ex 3 hasn't filled me with glee, judging on early screen shots and tidbit info (I loathe cover-systems, okay?).

I remain hopeful and sceptical at the same time, because the Thief series is extremely dear to my heart and they really don't make games like that anymore.

1 Apr 2009

System Shock shock

Still reeling from yesterday's news, I found myself positively bowled over when it came to this titbit of exciting information. Go on, have a guess...

That's right, System Shock 3 is on it's way. Is there anything else I need to say? Probably...

Having apparently been in undercover development for over a year, Ken Levine today let slip some insightful thoughts on the rejuvenation of the decade-old franchise. In an interview with Knee High Gamers he is quoted as saying 'We have no clear idea for a release date, but I can tell you that SS3 is forthcoming. We're currently focusing on rounding off the next Bioshock release before we'll be able to confirm a timescale for completion.'

Take a second to process that information...

Ready for more?

When pushed for further information on the second sequel in the space-horror franchise, Levine offered up very few clues, but mentioned that they were likely to focus 'more on the combat aspects of the game' this time around in order to give it a 'more visceral appeal than its predecessors'.

'We realised after Bioshock's release,' says Levine 'that people really loved the overall style of the game, the way it looked and felt to play. Comparing that to System Shock's slower pace and clunky control system we feel we're now on the right path to creating the best and most accessible game in the series. We'll be carrying over a lot of the things we learned to do right in Bioshock and integrating them into the System Shock universe. Believe me when I say, we are aiming high with this next game.'

It's good news then for those who fell in love with Bioshock's run and gun approach to RPGs and could we even take from this stupidly small amount of information that 2K might be getting rid of inventories and character attributes entirely? Only time will tell.

No further information has been released, but I'll post as soon as it is. I'm half expecting the sky to fall tomorrow.