An update and a bit of a different review: Poor Pandemic Studios

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Post-writing edit: This came out to be a really long one. But damn, do I ever love Pandemic.

Hello again all! It’s been quite some time, both TD and I have been quite busy over the past couple of months, but hopefully we’ll start picking this up again now. Since around the start of March, I’ve had some major computer issues and also moved to a new home in a different part of the country, so I’ve been unable to both play games and get onto the internet for some time now. But, that said, a new motherboard, graphics card, removal of a RAM stick, finally getting the internet up, and I’m good to go again!

But, I’ve come back with something slightly different to talk about, until I’m able to hop back onto some new computer games I think you’d all like to hear about.

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Who doesn’t remember this being the intro screen to Mercenaries?

So, I got a chance to play some console games given my lack of internet and poorly performing PC. I’ve not been a console gamer for years but, now and then, there are games you have on console that either aren’t available for PC or you just feel would be better on a console. In my case, it was a bit of both. But, that said, I got a chance to play through and finish a few games I’ve had for years but never completed: Way of the Samurai, Metal Gear Rising and The Saboteur. Heck, I even went back and had a play on Red Dead Redemption and Star Wars: Battlefront II.

A very keen gamer might notice something about two of those games; they’re by Pandemic Studios. The Saboteur, a game I’ve been playing bit by bit for five years, and Star Wars: Battlefront (both I and II), potentially one of the greatest game series to date. They are games that keep pulling you back. And when I noticed this, I decided to investigate, what exactly have Pandemic done?

In order of release, and ones I consider of note, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (perhaps not as popular as it could have been, the multiplayer was fantastically fun and could be considered MOBA style), Full Spectrum Warrior, Star Wars: Battlefront I, then II (just one year later!), Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, Destroy All Humans!, Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers, Destroy All Humans! 2 (just one year after the last one, again!), Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, Lord of the Rings: Conquest, and finally, The Saboteur. There are exactly four games on that list, the very first four they made, that I consider to not be noteworthy, but there are some other interesting things to note. Star Wars: BF II, Mercenaries: PoD, and Destroy All Humans! were all released in the same year. All very, very notable games.

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This is still a fun game to play to this very day. It looks dated, but is just as fun as ever. But… Why?

All these games are truly great in some way, and all are truly innovative. To this day, I still find it amazing that they could have such a wide array of different ideas in Battlefront. You had your standard infantry, but then you had actual star fighters in ground battles (in BF I, anyway), huge space battles, and droidekas that genuinely rolled up and deployed! And Destroy All Humans! might not have been the most mature game, but it was truly unique, I don’t think anyone else has come close to making a game where you fly a saucer, can literally destroy a city, abduct cattle, and probe humans. Mercenaries was a revolution due to the huge level of destructability of the environment, unheard of in a game at the time. I can’t speak for Full Spectrum Warrior, since I never played (but heard a lot about) those games, and we’ll come on to the other notable games shortly.

But from the ones I’ve noted above, a few things stand out. Firstly, they are all truly innovative. There are mechanics in each game that drove both the industry, and technical limitations. The strange thing about Pandemic is, their games have always felt they’ve been made under a tight budget, yet still come out great. Battlefront was never the prettiest of games, but it sure was engaging and they thought of everything, from the speed and precision of AT-ATs walking, to the droidekas, through to individual hero units. Mercenaries lead the way for destructable envrionments and sandbox gameplay. Destroy All Humans! was… Well… Quirky, that’s for sure. But undeniably, unique, to this very day. I can’t think of any game like it.

But there’s one other feature I’ve skimmed over. I want to go back and play all of them. They still feel appealing right now. Why?

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You could fly your saucer around, abduct people, then park up and wander round the streets using a disintegration ray. It really was something special.

If I’m blunt, I don’t know. They have a recurring appeal. Star Wars: Battlefront is slightly different, in that it has that first person shooter skirmish aspect, so every game is a different game. But Mercenaries? Destroy All Humans? The Saboteur? Why are they so appealing, when they’re purely story driven, single player games?

I’ll use my experience with The Saboteur as an example. About five or six years ago, I traded one of my PS3 games (might have been Mercenaries 2, actually!) with my friend for The Saboteur. It seemed great. Running around Paris fighting the Nazis, blowing things up and generally getting involved in the free roaming experience it was.

But I quickly got bored. After a few story missions and blowing up a few of the freeplay objectives (which are literally just scattered around Paris and require you to blow them up with dynamite), I got bored and stopped playing. A few months (or years) later, I’d pick it up again, do a few more missions, blow up a few more freeplay points, then stop. Finally, last week, I completed the stories, had blown up around 50% of the freeplay objectives, and have roughly called it quits now. So, why did I keep going back?

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It also had a cool style feature; fighting for the Paris resistance, every area you liberated became colourful, whilst areas still under Nazi control were greyscale, with only the red of nazis and explosions coming up in colour.

The story was lacklustre at best. You are an Irish race car driver in Paris trying to get revenge for your friend who a competitive Nazi driver killed. Or something. It’s been a long time, I don’t really remember the story. But the gameplay was engaging and felt different, if a bit repetitive. Blow things up and shoot Nazis in different situations, that’s about it. The whole thing had an arcadey feel, and you were left with relatively open paths in missions; you could be sneaky and use silenced weapons and distraction explosions, or you could go in guns blazing. It felt very arcadey.

That’s not really got us anywhere. OK, so why do I love Mercenaries? Again, the story was relatively poor an uninteresting, for both games. But it was chock full of free play things to destroy and do, with fun ways to do it; you could call in air strikes, vehicles, back up, loads of crazy things. The end mission of the second game sees you using a nuclear bunker buster. It’s exciting. But, repetitive. At the end of the day, a huge chunk of the game is similar free play objectives in different parts of the world. Yet it’s still fun, because that means you have to go about them all in different ways. There was an aspect of resource management, too; you could use that carpet bomb, but could you save it for later for a better use? This was both a blessing and a curse to gameplay, where the destruction aspect was one of the best parts, but you were limited as to when you got to use the best ones. The point is, you can run around in Mercenaries and accomplish nothing towards the story, but still have tonnes of destructive fun.

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Mercenaries: Need to sweep and clear a palace interior? No problem, bring in the tank!

So what really was it? What really made these games so fun after so long, despite the clunky graphics and the feeling of a relatively low production cost?

Well… They were simply fun. None of them took themselves seriously, there was a focus on raw, arcadey fun. You want that person’s tank in Mercenaries? Open the hatch, drop a grenade in, drive and shoot around happily. You don’t like the Nazis on Notre Dame? You’re The Saboteur, go kill one, steal his outfit, then sneak round the place dynamiting all their installations. You don’t think anyone wearing a white T-shirt should live? Adbuct them, disintegrate them, Destroy All Humans!! Even in Battlefront (and Lord of the Rings: Conquest), the overall game is the same but the actual combat is fun and just arcadey enough to be something you never get annoyed over, with a wide range of different things available for you; if I’m playing republic, I love playing as the jetpack trooper, but sometimes I’ll play as regular infantry, or a sniper. If I’m CIS, the droideka is a hell of a lot of fun, the magna guard has some awesome weaponry, and the super battle droid is just stupidly fun. Even LotR: Conquest had various classes and gigantic olifants to deal with!

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Not my favourite game, but I never owned it. Like Battlefront, this was a hell of a lot of fun with friends.

Maybe it’s just me, but you don’t get this much any more. Games are relatively serious, meant to be played to be the best. Perhaps it’s just the games I frequently play: Counter strike, Men of War, Red Orchestra 2… They’re not arcadey, they’re intense. The msot recent review we’ve posted regarding Magicka is an example of a game like what we’d expect from Pandemic: Insane fun, with little care to the actual story, that you can keep going back to for the raw experience of the gameplay itself. There are very few games that come close to that level of raw fun nowadays. Hell, the next most recent review that even comes close is King Arthur’s Gold, and that still feels like a relatively serious game! It’s not something you can just have pure, raw fun at. It’s not carefree run and gun, blow things up. It doesn’t make it a bad game, it just makes it less replayable, even for a game where multiplayer is all it really has.

Alas, Pandemic Studios are no more, so it is unlikely we’ll see such gloriously crafted games as frequently. Few games nowadays value gameplay so much over the initial appearance, with a keen eye to buck the trend. Pandemic knew graphics weren’t everything, and a storyline could only go so far for a replayable game. In 2007, they were bought out by EA, created Mercenaries 2, LotR: Conquest, and The Saboteur under their guidance (probably why they weren’t ever as highly received as their earlier endeavours), and disbanded in 2009, leaving unfinished projects Mercenaries 3, The Dark Knight and The Next Big Thing (genuine title) abandoned.

A quote from IGN on Pandemic states “where Pandemic once had made a pledge to release only polished products, Mercenaries 2 was rough and uneven.” And it’s true, Pandemic’s games may not have looked flashy but everything worked beautifully, and it was under EA’s guidance that Merc’s 2 struggled. The same was felt with LotR: Conquest, and the game was basically ignored. It’s a shame, then, that The Saboteur was the light flickering through the jarred door as it swung close, a light that was truly amazing at times but had clear moments when it wasn’t quite reaching it’s potential. And behind that closed door, the lights for what could have been three more amazing games remained off. Now dusty and abandoned, I wonder if people will still remember Pandemic in years to come?

Article written for Spirit of the Robot by Static.

An update and a bit of a different review: Poor Pandemic Studios

An Interview With Team Reptile, Creators of Lethal League, PLUS, A CHANCE TO WIN YOURSELF A COPY!

Vivid colours and a distinctive art style are immediate hallmarks of Lethal League
Back to make your day just that bit more insane!

A little while back I wrote an article regarding Lethal League, an awesome fighting game that went on a date with pong. Well, we loved the game so much we got in touch with Team Reptile to see if they’d give us some answers to a few questions we ended up asking.

Kindly, Dion Koster, the Game Director behind this crazy experience, got back to us to provide some insight!

First off: Where did the idea for Lethal League come from?
We had the idea from our last game, Megabyte Punch, which in turn was inspired by Super Smash Bros. In Megabyte Punch we kept shooting missiles at each other and then reflecting them back and forth. We thought this was fun enough for a separate game. I then made a prototype with some new a ideas added and it turned out pretty well.

A pong-gone-street-fighter game might not seem like a great idea on paper. What was the thought process to figuring out how the mechanics would work?
It’s an evolution really. You get an idea, you make it, if it’s fun it sticks. A game changing mechanic, like the increasing speed and hit-pause usually comes with multiple new issues to solve. So it’s also problem solving. Sometimes a problem is something that’s missing, instead of something glaring in your face. Solving those is more akin to creation than fixing. The ‘bunt’ solution was one such things, where there was contrast missing to all the high speed action. You could use it to slow the ball down and set it up for a better strike and it stuck because it turned out to be fun.

Bunt!
When you play, you’ll understand what awesome contrast the bunt gives the rest of the game

We absolutely love the colourful art style you guys went for, it complements the hectic fun and really makes Lethal League stand out. Did you consider any alternate art styles? What was your inspiration?
Thank you very much. We didn’t really consider other art styles for Lethal League to be honest. It was a very natural process. My inspirations are from street culture, hiphop and games like Jet Set Radio.

And what’s behind the character design? Mechanically enhanced crocodile? A skateboarding ex-working class robot?
I wanted to have fresh and individual characters, but from the same world and all within the street-theme. The Lethal League world is set in the near future where applied robotics is only just emerging. Every character’s concept can be traced back to many inspirations. For example, Candyman takes from Pacman, Deadmau5, tap-dancers and the puppets from Black Dynamite. Aside from making the characters look dope, I pay special attention to stay away from ‘cheap’ elements. Things like fad accessories or in-your-face pop culture references can bring a game’s value down in my eyes, especially long term.

We really can’t ignore the music, some of the best music we’ve ever encountered in a fighting game. How did you go about finding the artists behind the tracks? Have you ever thought about releasing a standalone Lethal League soundtrack?
Pretty early on in development we decided that we wanted to feature multiple artists in the game to have some fresh variations. 50% of the tracks are from artists we already knew from earlier projects or we knew from elsewhere. FlatAttack and RE by ZeroScar are from the guy who also composed the Megabyte Punch OST. We know Klaus Veen (Ordinary Days) for years already as a close friend. We found artists like Grillo, Bignic & Ishanna by listening to a lot of different playlists. If we heard something that would fit Lethal League we contacted the artists to see if we could work together. We definitely thought about releasing a standalone LL soundtrack but we thought it’s better to support the individual artist through their own pages/bandcamps/soundsclouds.(Note from Static: Honestly, check out the artists featured in this game. They are some truly creative minds worth supporting.).

Dice's special arcs the ball, rather than sending it in a straight line, which can totally throw off an opponent.
You can see the artist being played on the boombox. Convenient and a cool feature!

Have you got any tips for the players in general? Any tactics they might not have utilised?
Well, you probably noticed that timing is key in the game. However you can ‘cheat’ by checking out the boombox. The little volume sliders fills up during the hitlag of a player. The moment that meter is full is the same moment the ball releases from the player. A pro-tip which is not explained in the game itself is the parry. The parry is very useful when other players are trying to hijack your ball directly after you hit it. While you’re in the hitlag you can press B (the bunt button) to use your meter to parry and slightly stun incoming opponents.

The most recent addition to the League is Dice, but do you have any plans to release more characters? Or even any more arenas, or game modes?
We don’t have more content planned right now, but there is stuff in the works. That’s all I can say really.

And finally: My personal favourite is Switch, I can’t help but constantly ride the ceiling to drop for a down smash, but who is your go-to character?
I can’t choose a favorite, but lately I’ve been picking Raptor a lot. Mostly because I like his movement and jump speeds.

I'll stick with my amazing skateboarding robot.
I’ll stick with my amazing skateboarding robot.

Additionally, Team Reptile were kind enough to provide us with one more gift to you: A free copy of Lethal League to give away! So now is your chance to win yourself a totally free copy, courtesy of a fantastic game developer!

All you have to do is comment on this article with a link to your Steam profile, and join the Spirit of the Robot Steam group, which will let us keep you up to date when all our new articles are released! The point of this system is to stop people gaming the giveaway, keeping it fair for everyone.

The winner will be drawn on the 22nd of March and will receive a copy of Lethal League.

Make sure to tell your friends and we hope you enjoy reading all our articles! Article written for Spirit of the Robot by Static.

An Interview With Team Reptile, Creators of Lethal League, PLUS, A CHANCE TO WIN YOURSELF A COPY!

Nosgoth – Vampires versus humans? That could be pretty awesome.

Competitive gaming style title screen. Says a lot immediately.
Competitive gaming style title screen. Says a lot immediately.

I should really give credit to TD for this one. He found it, we played it, and I decided to review it. This was probably a wise idea on his half, since it’s taken me a long time to get round to a point where I feel I can take the plunge and actually give an opinion on this game.

So, Nosgoth pits vampires against humans in sets of two, five man teams going head to head in shooter style combat. Only, both sides seem to be taking part in an alternative Victorian steampunk style world. Humans are armed with crossbows, guns, are various types of launchers, whilst vampires are armed with the gifts the bad lord gave them, including climbing walls, spewing goo, and mauling you to death.

Despite being bow-based, the action is still very fast paced.
Despite being bow-based, the action is still very fast paced, with your typical life being very short.

Vampires might be a strong word to use here. Recently, we’ve had so many different types. The traditional Dracula style, blood sucking, cape wearing, castle residing person is not present in this game. Nor is Twilight’s poncy self-hating angsty teenager vampire. Not even Underworld’s alternate Gothic, leather spangled vampires make an appearance. In fact, what we end up with is positively not what I would consider a vampire to be in any light.

Rather, Square Enix went down the path of creating a few beasts, not seeming to find a better name for them and using “vampire”, since they can regenerate health by feasting upon corpses. But honestly, there is nothing here I’d consider a “classic” vampire. You have guys that leap for miles, engaging hit and run tactics. You have big muscle men that can charge through and act as your tank. You even get deadly, lightning fast winged beasts which can swoop down and pick up a lone human to drop him from a great height. These are not what I consider vampires, but alas, Nosgoth does.

Some pointy teeth and a lovely flowing cape would suit you nicely, sir.
Some pointy teeth and a lovely flowing cape would suit you nicely, sir.

But let’s take a step back and assess the gameplay. Rounds consist of one team of five humans going head to head against one team of five vampires in a straightforward team deathmatch; that is to say, their only goal is to kill each other. At the end of the round, they swap sides and the humans become vampires and vice versa. At the end, the kill count is tallied up and the side with the higher overall score wins. Good system, easy enough.

I have to admit immediately that gamemodes are a bit thin on the ground at the moment. It does feel like it lacks variety, and I sure wouldn’t mind seeing a Capture the Flag, or King of the Hill. But this is probably all round due to one incredible factor about this game. It is balanced.

Trust me, a balanced game with asymmetric sides is rare.
Trust me, a balanced game with asymmetric sides is rare.

Nosgoth has to compete with itself to maintain a balance. Humans are stuck on the ground, with frequently defensive abilities. They heal by using designated healing points, which can only be used once in a while, forcing them to rotate round the map to stay alive. Meanwhile, vampires regain health by eating corpses, forcing them to be aggressive. Their abilities lie in devastation and disorientation, and have access to almost everywhere on the map. Can you imagine the difficulty in balancing a team that could choose to entirely consist of people who swoop from above to drop you from the heavens against a load of guys armed with crossbows and gunpowder pistols?

That said, Nosgoth does a fantastic job. Whilst playing, TD and I couldn’t really decide who had the upper hand overall, though we did think it was vampires by a very, very fine line. However, this was less for the individual units than the fact that it’s easier for an individual vampire to do more damage than for an individual human. Meanwhile, humans do require a lot more teamwork. With that in mind, we often found that we lost when playing with a team that refused to stick together, and won with a team that stayed focused as humans, and attacked all at once as vampires.

This old brute prepares to feast on a corpse. Nice.
This old brute prepares to feast on a corpse. Nice.

The balance is definitely a huge help, but the main draw to this game will be how active it is. These are not slow games, and I’m tempted to liken them to Smite in terms of activity. Whilst you have a powerful base attack, the true gameplay is revealed in each unit’s customizable abilities: Placing lines of fire, spewing poison, spawning minions, disabling and snaring units. Given that each individual person has a set of skills to help their team, it’s as much about having the right units to respond to the current enemy team as it is about using them at the right time. My favourite vampire unit had a great ability to reduce incoming damage by 80%, but the flipside is he couldn’t attack during that time and it had a half minute cooldown. So, I purely used it to run away without dying. This worked for my team as, before that, I’d charge in and begin the assault, taking most of the damage in that time.

So I expect we’ll see Nosgoth becoming a competitive game in the future. The opportunities for teams to develop tactics and train up, learning the intricacies of why that 0.4 second increase on that particular ability makes it no longer worthwhile, is too damn high. That said, for now, the random public matchmaking works well for finding a game, and there is a party system so you can play with your friends. Which, honestly, you’re going to want to do because matchmaking can put you with anybody of any skill (though, they do counter this by allowing low levels to purely match make within low levels).

The human healing and resupply point.
The human healing and resupply point.

There is one more gameplay fact to mention. This is a freemium game and it’s going for a League of Legends model. That means, there is an entire meta-game to help boost your ingame play (or improve your character appearance). You can buy new abilities, classes, skins, and boosters to help you progress. As a result, you can expect some people to be better than you, because they’ll be able to get the best of these items. In some respects, it’s a shame, since it unbalances a very balanced game. Of course nobody is going to take the 5% speed increase when there’s a 10% damage buff on offer, but if that 5% speed increase is free an 10% damage buff costs you $4.99, you might decide to stay free. But that’s always a risk with this marketing model. That said, and in Nosgoth’s defence, they do give out a daily taster on a random ability item each day, and I just made up those two items above. So, maybe they are more balanced. But my point still stands, there will always be some items more tasty than others.

The armory is where the meta-game mostly goes down.
The armory is where the meta-game mostly goes down.

All in all, for a freemium game, Nosgoth is damn fun. It’s been produced to a very high quality, which was surprising at first but explained by the fact that the team behind it are Square Enix. The graphics and sounds are excellent, especially given the freemium status, and the gameplay feels balanced and enjoyable. That said, at it’s current stage, I do feel like it has work to be done in getting more variety into the game. However, we are looking at Early Access and, so, there are many things that may yet change. It’s definitely worth a try but, unless you’re a fan of the growing area of ability-based gaming, you probably won’t stick on it.

And I still think “vampires” is a big stretch of that word.

Nosgoth is developed by Square Enix. You can find it on Steam for freemium. Article written for Spirit of the Robot by Static.

Nosgoth – Vampires versus humans? That could be pretty awesome.

King Arthur’s Gold – An example of a massively overlooked title

I only wish this had more players
I only wish this had more players

When I come to reviewing a game, one of the most fiddly part is getting screenshots. Often, I’ll be having a lot of fun and have to really bring myself to press F12 during the heat of the moment, to capture something amazing, when really I’ll want to be stuck in. King Arthur’s Gold took this a step further, and as a result, my collection of screenshots for this is slim.

But unfortunately, when I went on to get more today, I couldn’t. Why? Well, it’s pretty much midday and everyone’s doing working life stuff, but ignoring that, this game is unfortunately rarely populated. At any one time, I estimate there are a maximum of 80 people online worldwide. This is disappointing, as it’s a primarily multiplayer game and fun as hell.

Blue yonder
Defend the sea wall!

This might sound hard to believe, but I actually came up with the idea of King Arthur’s Gold when I was sat in a GCSE English class about seven years ago. I said to my friend, “You know what would be cool? A game where you could build castles and fight over them. A 2D sidescroller, with soldiers and builders, so you could build up big castles or tunnel under them, and have huge battles at the gates.” Only, at the time, I thought it would be a two player game played as a turn based strategy. I never thought about it again for years until I saw this game, and I had to have it. They’d perfected the idea I had privately come up with years ago, only they made it a real time game, and everybody controlled one of the men on the field… Okay so, I had the base concept and nothing else, sue me.

This is a simple, arcade game in every way. The general controls are movement, attacking, picking items up, and blocking (if you’re a knight, anyway). The only slightly more complex parts are building and item construction.

The reds suspect nothing!
The reds suspect nothing!

The game is primarily multiplayer and focuses around three key gamemodes: Capture the Flag, Take The Halls, and Team Deathmatch. I won’t discuss team deathmatch, as it’s nothing more than knights and archers trying to kill each other, but the other two gamemodes have something fantastic: Construction!

At the start of the game, you will start with a basic spawnpoint and either a hall or a flag, gamemode dependent, obviously. In Take The Halls, your objective is to control all the Halls on the map. Think strategic points in other games. In Capture The Flag, you, well, need to capture the flag. Get across the map, grab the other team’s flag and get it back to yours, twice.

However, the initial map really is nothing but what is said above, then open land, water, and maybe some wild animals. You get, at the start of the game, five minutes to build up defences. This means your entire team (should) switch to the builder class, cut down trees, dig up stone, and build a huge fortification, ready for the enemy onslaught.

Defences can be great or, in this case, pretty heavily damaged.
Defences can be great or, in this case, pretty heavily damaged from all the war.

It makes for a really great game. I love the mining and building at the start of the round, preparing new and awesome defences for when the enemy arrive. Special blocks you can place, like trap blocks that only the enemy can pass through, or doors that only your team can pass through, make for interesting designs. Platforms allow one way movement, so they’re often used to make archer platforms where they can fire out but nobody can fire in.

After the construction time is over, gameplay changes slightly. Whilst builders need to maintain the defences, they could also move to the frontline to make an outpost, helping your team hold the ground they’ve advanced to. Or they could start tunneling under the enemy fortifications, so your knights can pop up from behind and slaughter everything.

Meanwhile, knights and archers will be pushing the frontline, trying to break through enemy fortifications, and generally keeping the pressure on. Knights get access to bombs and gunpowder kegs, which can help blasting through enemy defences, using their shield to block arrows, swords, and explosions alike. Meanwhile, archers have access to bomb arrows and fire arrows, which can punch holes in key areas or set entire wooden forts on fire. Additionally, archers get a grapple hook to pull themselves up to high areas, or move quickly. They also get the ability to play dead, and to hide in trees.

Survey the field, my friends. Keep watch for the enemy!
Survey the field, my friends. Keep watch for the enemy!

But quite often, it is the humble builder that sways the tide of battle. Their forward defences can keep the enemy locked in their castle, and they themselves can simply dig through the front doors to enemy castles, or even underneath them!

But when builders don’t work, KAG has one more solution up it’s sleeve. Siege weapons.

Catapults, ballistae, war ships, long boats, all of which have huge destructive ability. Ballistae and war ships act as mobile spawn points, with the ballista able to use huge bolts to shoot down enemy defences, and the war ship with the ability to ram through enemy sea defences alongside a top-mounted heavy bow to shoot enemies. The catapult can fire stone to knock down enemy walls bit by bit, or loaded with boulders or kegs to really do some damage. Heck, you can even load yourself to be flung over the enemy walls completely! Finally, the long boat can move quickly and very quickly bring down large enemy fortifications, simply by ramming into them… Of course, that requires a good few members on your team to all row the boat in the same direction.

And everything I’ve said makes for a hugely active, frantic battlefield. Games can go on for minutes, or over an hour, depending on how well the defenses are maintained and the tactics used. Games sometimes even end in stalemates, quite frequently due to the ground between enemy bases having been turned into nothing more than a gigantic crater due to the amount of explosions and damage. I mean, there’s nothing stopping you trying to make a bridge but there’s nothing necessarily stopping the enemy from using it, or setting it on fire…

And finally, as one last note, KAG has dynamic physics. That means, if a structure isn’t supported, it will fall, and kill anything immediately below it. So if that huge frontline wall is not only stopping your advance, but also protecting the entire enemy army behind it… Well, perhaps you could solve two birds with one stone and plant a gunpowder keg at the bottom, bring the wall crashing down on top of them… And probably you. But the rest of your team can then charge!

All in all, I absolutely love this game. Whilst it can get tiresome quite quickly, especially when a battle reaches a stalemate, the creative aspect and the simple but frantic combat makes for an awesome experience. My only real gripe comes from the fact that not enough people play it. Whilst you can happily hop on any evening and find a game, most people only play Capture The Flag, potentially only filling two servers to 75% of their 24 player capacity. Finding a game of Take The Halls, my personal favourite gamemode, is even harder. If there were more people playing this game, it would be constant, amazing fun. However, the game really has fallen on hard times and you can really only play what is available. The flip side of this is, there’s a very tight knit community, and even a few clans floating around that take part in matches. If you have a few pounds to spare, this is a great game to get and mess around on, even more so if you have a group of people you can play with. Highly recommended.

King Arthur’s Gold is developed by Transhuman. You can find it on Steam for £6.99, or you can get a four-pack for £22.99. Article written for Spirit of the Robot by Static.

King Arthur’s Gold – An example of a massively overlooked title

Stranded Deep – Survival games now fall under the law of Darwinian evolution

Eerie.
Eerie.

I’ve been putting off writing this review for about a week because I just don’t know where to begin. It’s not like it’s a large game in any way; in fact, it’s only just gone into alpha, but has already received considerable attention for its quality and potential.

So what is this game? Well, it’s a survival game. Another one, you say? Yes, another one. Like all survival games, it has its “catch”. Just as DayZ has zombies, and The Forest has natives, Stranded Deep has… Islands. Yep, just islands. No immediate threat from some savage beast, you’re generally safe, and your biggest threat is the elements.

This is your spawn, after the tutorial. In a life raft with a paddle, and your watch.
This is your spawn, after the tutorial. In a life raft with a paddle, and your watch.

The goal is the same as any other game of this genre: Survive. From my experience so far in this game, it’s not been too hard. After getting on an island, its a trivial matter of making some crude tools, a fire, killing some crabs, collecting some coconuts (for their juicy, juicy milk) and sitting around until there’s nothing left to eat or drink. Then you paddle over to the next island and repeat until you get bored.

But that’s really playing the game at the basic stage it’s at, and I can only assume that a significantly large amount more content will be added. There is plenty more to do, even now. You can build rafts, simple houses, fire pits (which are permanent features, useful for signifying places you’ve already been), beds, and hunting spears (useful for fishing and hunting sharks).

Cutting down trees is an enjoyable experience. You cut the base and you can watch them tumble over. You can then cut them up into logs and sticks to build with.
Cutting down trees is an enjoyable experience. You cut the base and watch them tumble over. You can then cut them up into logs and sticks to build with.

Oh, did I forget to mention the sharks? Well, this is a game technically about hopping between scarcely resourced islands to survive, so putting something inbetween to make that slightly more difficult makes sense. At this stage of the game, they don’t do much at all (I’m not even certain if they can attack you), but you can hunt them for meat and it’s every so slightly scary to see one when you’re half way to another island circling your little rubber raft.

However, there’s also fish in the sea. And you can hunt them to eat them. To be honest, you’d have to be a fool to die of starvation in this game, since these seas and islands are chock full of tasty creatures to eat. It reduces the challenge, definitely, but this game is very early alpha and we could see a huge change in the future, potentially making the creatures less numerous, or spawn less often.

Your watch, aside from displaying the time, temperature, and days survived, can also show your health, hunger, and thirst.
Your watch, aside from displaying the time, temperature, and days survived, can also show your health, hunger, and thirst. The state of your arm also indicate any status effects. For instance, a bleeding wound will require a bandage.

Crafting in this game is unique, as far as I can tell. Unlike other games, where it generally involves using a recipe and crafting in your inventory, Stranded Deep requires you to drop all the items into a pile on the floor. This will then present a menu which will display all the things you can make with what is currently in the pile.

There are things I like and dislike about this system. On one hand, it makes crafting a lot easier and give you a slightly more realistic inventory. No longer does the game need to give you the ability to carry fifty tonnes of material to craft, so your inventory space is more realistic (note, more, not perfectly realistic). However, it does mean that things you might not have expected to work together might present you the ability to build, much to your surprise. For people who hate discovering crafting recipes, this is slightly helpful (though you have the internet anyway), and it makes crafting a lot faster. However, it’s a wonder that any person could one day throw a pile of items down and suddenly think “You know what? I could make a sword out of this.”

I truly have a love-hate relationship with this crafting system, but it's slightly more love.
I truly have a love-hate relationship with this crafting system, but it’s slightly more love.

I’m very glad it’s done away with the minecraft way of making things, or simple combination recipes. I just don’t know if it is quite perfect, yet.

There is one other major feature to Stranded Deep I haven’t yet mentioned which, to me, is a defining feature. Exploring ship wrecks.

All around the shores and seas of stranded deep are ship wrecks. One can only assume that this area is effectively the Bermuda Triangle. There tends to be at least one ship wreck per island, with more in places and at sea. Then it’s a matter of getting into the wreck. For ones on shore, this might be as easy as walking over to it and finding a chest to open. For deep ocean ones, you’ll be diving down amongst the sharks, rifling through cupboards, grabbing what you can and returning to the surface to gasp for air.

I found a bottle of water. I really hope that seal is tight...
I found a bottle of water. I really hope that seal is tight…

Ship wrecks contain items you simply cannot craft. Lighters, good quality tools, torches, lanterns, bandages, buckets (for collecting rain), even motor parts so you can craft a powered raft to traverse the seas more quickly. As a result, you’ll spend a good amount of time exploring these wrecks.

My only problem with this at the moment, and I’m sure it’s something that will be fixed, is the game gives you no indication of how direly you need to breath. You can be thinking “just a few more seconds, just a few more seconds” and then find your character blacks out to “You have died”. Disappointing, but again, this is an alpha game.

Now, let’s just touch on one thing that really annoys me.

You spot an island out of the corner of your eye. “Wow, that isn’t too far! Let’s head that way.” As you slowly turn your head, the island gets further, and further, and further away. And suddenly you realise, for whatever reason, you have binoculars on the side of your head.

Irritating. Not least since it takes a long time to paddle between these islands. It actually makes exploring kind of boring, because you’re just sat there holding left mouse wishing you could accelerate time.

But for all this bad side, there are some incredible cool features. As I’ve said, cutting down trees feels fantastic and immersive. But another feature, which took me a long time to figure out, was dynamic water levels.

I picked up a bucket in a ship wreck. Obviously, it was full of sea water. I couldn’t figure out how to empty the sea water without drinking it. So eventually, I just put it on the ground. After dropping it, there was a splashing animation surrounding the bucket, and I just thought it was an effect to symbolise how it was full of water. However, in picking up the bucket and trying to rotate it, I noticed that if the bucket stood up, it didn’t make the animation. And I then noticed, there was actually a liquid in the bucket model. Holy shit, that wasn’t a buggy animation, the water was actually pouring out of the bucket! I played around with this, and realised I could actually watch the water level in the bucket go down. Sure, the water itself isn’t dynamic, but the fact you can see a water level in the bucket itself that rises and falls blew me away! I can’t express how amazing it is that they actually created a dynamic model that displays how much liquid is in the bucket, that reacts to it’s position. It’s something I’ve never seen in a game before.

My camp is small and simple, but it sure is cosy.
My camp is small and simple, but it sure is cosy.

All in all, Stranded Deep is looking to be a survival game that stands out. Nowadays, with the huge host of survival games about, they all need something to stand out, and Stranded Deep manages it by presenting that necessity to explore in a beautiful, procedurally generated environment. I have high hopes for this game in the future and can only sit here eagerly anticipating future updates. It isn’t too expensive to buy right now, but I’d personally wait until a little more content is added before splashing cash on this.

Stranded Deep is developed by Beam Team Games and is in Early Access. You can find it on Steam for £10.99. Article written for Spirit of the Robot by Static.

Stranded Deep – Survival games now fall under the law of Darwinian evolution

RUNNING WITH RIFLES – Not new, not finished, but one of the best indie games available today

Comes with interactive title screen!
Comes with interactive title screen!

A few years ago, I discovered Desura. I loved this huge abundance of mixed indie titles, but really didn’t like Desura. As much as I hate to say it, Steam has a (rightfully earned) monopoly on the digital distribution world, and Desura just couldn’t stand up to it. Despite this, I still ended up buying two games on Desura, one of which was this, RUNNING WITH RIFLES (capslock intended).

I didn’t play much back then but when I learnt I could activate my copy again on Steam, I jumped on that like peppercorn on a steak. Now in the last stages of Beta, RWR is painfully close to being released and, honestly, it might be one of the best games around at the moment.

Pew pew!
Pew pew!

RWR is a simple game. It is a top-down shooter, where you play as one individual soldier in a large battle, consisting of hundreds of other soldiers at once, some of which might be players if you’re online. The general objective is to take over the map by killing off enemies and holding areas. Once you’ve won one map, it usually rolls straight over to the next map, where the aim is the do exactly the same. And so, RWR could be seen as a casual game, but it’s your choice to take it casually or seriously.

To add to the fun, most of the time there are three factions on any one map. Green, brown, and grey. Each has their own set of unique equipment and are vying for control of the map. This makes for some interesting gameplay, especially when all three factions meet at one point for some seriously intense warfare. Throw in the availability of APCs, jeeps, tanks, call-in artillery and deployable MGs, mortars and sandbags, you have the makings of a very intense combat game.

Also boats.
Also boats.

Controlling your soldier is easy. It’s WASD to move around on screen and your mouse to point and shoot. The game is 3D, with the ability to climb buildings, hide behind objects and move safely out of sight behind hills, so the game figures you’re aiming where you point the mouse and creates a line of sight. If you can see the area your mouse is at, the icon turns green, but if you can’t, it’s red and a grey line of sight appears showing you where you can’t see. Very intuitive, and very nice.

Throwing grenades, crouching, proning, knifing, calling it airstrikes and commanding your squad all add to tactics in the game. If you’re pinned down behind a car, you could chuck some grenades over to try and force the enemy away, or perhaps even call in for a paradrop of marines nearby. If you’re on a ridge and under heavy MG fire, going prone might just drop you out of sight.

Armouries around the map allow you to change your kit or access to special weapons, like C4.
Armouries around the map allow you to change your kit or access special weapons, like C4 or body armour.

Being at the frontline in this game is an awful lot of fun. Grabbing an assault rifle or LMG whilst gunning down enemies all around you is excellent fun. But this game has an additional side which many players take a while to discover: It has stealth.

You can opt to take a silenced MP5 and stick to knifing and silently killing enemies, potentially sneaking round the frontline to place C4 on the enemy radio tower, disabling their ability to call in airstrikes, or potentially stealing their newly spawned tank. Either way, the sneaky side of gameplay allows for some excellent options, by enabling you to kill enemies without raising alarm. The fact you can do this in a top-down game says a lot, and proves they’ve thought this through.

Different weapons have different abilities. LMGs can spew out bullets, but sniper rifles allow you to pan the camera further than normal.
Different weapons have different abilities. LMGs can spew out bullets, but sniper rifles allow you to pan the camera further than normal.

There’s a lot to this game, but you can just as easily hop in and feel like you’re useful. Killing enemies is as simple as point and click, and it rarely takes more than a few seconds to respawn and run back to the frontline. I often just jump on, spend ten minutes running round getting kills, then log back off. When I’m feeling more serious, I can go on, help really make a difference by targeting enemy radio towers and weapon caches, and lead my squad on missions deep into enemy territory, calling down artillery and paratroopers on enemy positions.

The gameplay, coupled with the lovely cell shaded graphics, make for a light-hearted game with some surprisingly serious moments that you can choose to embrace or completely ignore. The funny thing is, I actually recognise I’m missing out a lot of the gameplay mechanics, because there’s just too much to talk about. It’s all part of learning and enjoying the game.

The tactical map allows for a grand overview of the situation.
The tactical map allows for a grand overview of the situation.

I love this game. In an era of gritty, sepia filtered war games, this stands out by being simple, fun, and yet embracing for tactics. You will be punished with death for charging into 10 enemies, and the tides of war will see the frontline swaying both ways constantly. Given the excellent AI in game, you won’t feel like a lone super-soldier either, as the AI is as accurate as you are and will also run for cover when under fire.

If you want a light-hearted war game, this is definitely for you. It stands uncontested in the top-down war shooter category, the only similar titles I can think of all being zombie survival games with more complex survival and crafting mechanics. All you will be doing in RWR is killing, dying, and repeating. It is a simple, beautiful game.

RUNNING WITH RIFLES is developed by Modulaatio Games. You can find it on Steam Early Access for £10.99. Article written for Spirit of the Robot by Static.

RUNNING WITH RIFLES – Not new, not finished, but one of the best indie games available today

The Escapists – An indepth look at modern prison lifestyle

"Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane." And here I am hoping for a good game.
“Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”
And here I am hoping for a good game.

OK, the title is a lie, but if you want to recreate The Shawshank Redemption in 8-bit glory, this game might be for you.

The Escapists is the grand return of Team 17, most notable for their thirty billion different iterations of their IP, Worms, the delightful little game that sees worms trying to blow each other up in a turn based artillery strategy. The Escapists, however, is as far from that as you could possibly be, the only similarity being the 2D art (and let’s not forget Worms 3D… Ugh).

So, about the game. You have to escape from prison. That’s it. No catchy hard-coded objectives like “Knock out the guard to steal his keys, then make a break for it.” There’s plenty of ways for you to escape, it’s just up to you to decide how. Otherwise, this is an entirely sandbox world.

You get to rename all your inmate pals and prisoners. As you can see, TD was in this prison. Probably for something nefarious.
You get to rename all your inmate pals and prisoners. As you can see, TD was in this prison. Probably for something nefarious. Like not writing enough articles.

Once you’ve chosen a prison, a character, renamed your inmates and guards and got into the game, you’ll find yourself waking up in a cell. Then, your first day will play out and, although you can choose to play it how you want, I almost guarantee you’ll do the exact same thing I did when I was learning to play: Follow the daily routine provided to you by the guards to the books, maybe complete some easy favours for your fellow inmates, have a good wander round and then go to bed for the night.

In reality, it sounds boring, but it’s good. You subconsciously pick up the guard routines, where people go at certain times, all information which will be vital for your escape. But beyond what you’ve learnt here, you still don’t know much about what you can do.

Excercise is good for you! Well, not if you're playing this game, since you're just kind of sat there...
Excercise is good for you! Well, not if you’re playing this game, since you’re just kind of sat there…

Following that, in future days I looked to do more favours, earning more money and the friendship of fellow inmates, allowing them to follow me and do my bidding, if I so wished. I never successfully fought a guard, both because I was took weak and they too well equipped. I started buying items from fellow inmates to make sure I had a good supply of items to work with. It was all going so well.

I quickly figured out that things with red names were contraband, and worked not to get caught with them. For me, this meant hiding things in my desk. Although, sometimes the guards search your cell, so I was on the eye out for a better spot. Remarkably, I actually found one: I noticed the guards never, ever checked solitary confinement, so I left all my contraband there when I didn’t need it, and the guards never found it.

Not contraband, and not that lethal either.
Not contraband, and not that lethal either.

But I still didn’t really know what to do. And so, my Shawshank instincts kicked in. I started looking for spoons to dig my way out and, lo-and-behold, I found a tray full of plastic cutlery in the kitchen. Having grabbed them, I made my way back to my cell, hid a handful of spoons in my drawer, and waited until night to start digging.

Progress was incredibly slow. I found I couldn’t dig through walls, I had to dig the floor. Well, fair enough. It was all going so smoothly until a guard came along and stopped me, taking all my contraband too. But, wait, wasn’t my contraband in solitary? Yes, well, apparently all contraband on the map disappears when you’re detained. A bit of a disappointment.

And for the life of me, I could not figure out how to safely dig. I couldn’t leave my cell at night, since they’d start a lockdown and detain me if I wasn’t in my cell. But I couldn’t hide a hole in my cell, else I’d be detained. There seemed no way around this.

Start digging and you might have a teaspoon of dirt before they find you!
Start digging and you might have a teaspoon of dirt before they find you!

It wouldn’t be until a while after I found the first, glaring flaw with this game. It doesn’t tell you enough. Yes, it’s a sandbox game and you’re meant to learn the routines of the guards, discover ways to escape, and so forth, but some of it fundamentally feels hidden. I actually discovered I could pick up and move my drawers around so as to, say, hide a hole I’d dug in my cell. I only even discovered this since I accidentally right-click my drawers at some point and was dumbfounded as to why it was suddenly over my character’s head.

Other things hidden in the game include the ability to stand on tables and certain other objects, allowing you to see vents above you that are normally hidden from view. Further, it doesn’t tell you what any item does, just that you have it or can craft it. As such, I had no idea that you could use spoons to dig floors, but use forks to “chip” through walls. I mean, why so specific?

And I briefly touched on a major gripe of mine there that is, unfortunately, a major mechanic in this game: crafting. I’m sick of crafting. I’ve had enough of it, and it just now looks like everyone jumping on the survival bandwagon in a poor, poor way. Much like such classics as Minecraft, The Escapists doesn’t tell you what you can craft. You either have to figure it out, or discover it from Crafting Notes gained from other inmates.

You can do favours for your inmate pals to earn some money, to buy things from other inmates.
You can do favours for your inmate pals to earn some money, to buy things from other inmates.

Everything above, I hate. I hate not knowing the rules of a game, sandbox or not. Grand Theft Auto is a sandbox game, but you know shooting people calls the cops, that’s made clear. There is nothing unclear in that game. But there is so much you don’t know in The Escapists, it’s painful. For instance, I had to do a google to discover that I could make a “bed dummy” by combining two pillows and a duvet, which would allow me to be outside my cell at night without worrying about a lockdown.

And that would be fine, except for one thing: The crafting notes. Minecraft doesn’t give you any recipes, it’s well accepted that you learn the recipes through the wikis. But The Escapists does give you recipes ingame, through crafting notes. It even adds them to a journal, which persists between your different games. Afterall, once you’ve learnt a recipe in real life, you’ll be using it again ingame.

And that’s the problem. I don’t want to “cheat” when I play a game, so if I know I can gain knowledge ingame, I don’t want to look elsewhere. So by providing crafting notes, I feel I have to literally grind my way through to discovering all the recipes ingame. And I have a huge problem with that when I know I could easily overlook a part of the game by looking online.

This translates back to the fact I didn’t know I could stand on tables, or that forks were for walls and spoons for floors. The Escapists doesn’t tell you enough, and tries to fool itself into thinking you want to find it out. No, I don’t! I want to escape a prison! How was I to know a fundamental part of this game world was the ability to stand on tables?!

Stats play an important role, which you grind up through various clicking and waiting, or spamming button based activities which, honestly, isn't that fun. I ended up binding certain keys to a macro to save myself getting RSI.
Stats play an important role, which you grind up through various clicking and waiting, or spamming button based activities which, honestly, isn’t that fun. I ended up binding certain keys to a macro to save myself getting RSI.

There were two more things I wasn’t told, relating to certain items, which, upon discovery, meant I was able to escape in a matter of ingame days. As it turns out, a guard uniform will completely hide you from detection by all guards after lights out, allowing you to do literally anything (even dig through walls) without raising suspicion, whilst “contraband pouches” allow you to carry contraband through metal detectors without causing alarm. On finding this out, I simply dug my way out whilst wearing a guard uniform one night, in plain sight, and walked home free.

Kind of a lacklustre finish.
Kind of a lacklustre finish.

And then I felt no incentive to play again. Yes, there are other ways to escape, by tunneling or grabbing keys from guards or so forth, but it’s all fundamentally the same thing. I found myself getting bored of gaming the guard’s routine to maximise my time digging through walls, or the fact that one minor slip-up would mean the guards discover all my hidden contraband within the walls of the prison. I was annoyed I didn’t know what I could do (though, in the game’s defence, it does provide a manual… But who reads manuals?!) and I had to spend most my time grinding to find out what I could do, without feeling like a cheat. I did actually try another map, this one was themed like a Prison Camp, but the fundamentals were the same and, to be honest, I really couldn’t be bothered following the ridiculously tight regime while I gather items to make my escape. And the only way that was shown, was I stopped playing.

It seems like this game has a lot of potential, and I was really excited for it when I first heard about it. The last game like this I played was The Great Escape on the Playstation 2, which debateably covered the idea of prison escape better than this game has, by providing a scenario more about learning the map, finding ways about, gathering specific objects to use during your escape and a storyline to follow. I’m all for sandbox in games, but only when it’s done right.

This is in Early Alpha, though. There’s a lot which could change. I’d particularly like to see a system whereby you’re given a guided tutorial to teach you what you can do, and removal (or improvement) of a lot of the grinding features, like stat-raising and learning crafting recipes. I just fear now that Team 17 might have lost their edge. Perhaps they’d have done better making Worms: The Escapists?

The Escapists is developed by Team 17. You can find it on Steam Early Alpha for £9.99. Article written for Spirit of the Robot by Static.

The Escapists – An indepth look at modern prison lifestyle