Version tested: PC
Everyone has a game that they would consider their exhibition piece. A game that - should you be forced to defend your valour as an accomplished player - you can always rely on in order to demonstrate your superior dexterity, quick wits and sheer processing of information. Personally, I would always choose Geometry Wars, a game that remains the very definition of gaming in the zone, and a visual cacophony of fanfare and fireworks.
Waves differs from that most high-profile genre success story in a few ways that aren't apparent until you work deeper into it. Kill enough enemies and you'll build up your slow-motion buffer which allows you to temporarily bring time to a crawl as you gingerly pick your way out of the ensuing mayhem. Also, taking out 10 enemies will activate your bombing ability - although it's only available for a few seconds before it expires. Both these additions give Waves a slightly more tactical bent than its peers - althogh it's still a frenized blast.
The game is also something of a near-death journey through gaming's hall of mirrors. There are the auto-tuned progress updates of a GLaDOS on her more sedentary day off, while the influences of games like Mutant Storm and Geometry Wars are everywhere. In one of the wonderfully lively chiptunes that accompany the action, you'll even detect a hint of the ludicrously pompous guitar solo from Dragonforce's Through The Fire and Flames. Waves won't fail to put a smile on your face as it pays its tributes.
Split into five different modes with local and global leaderboards available for each (10th globally on Rush, since you asked), the staples of survival and time-limited runs - along with bombing modes that cast off your guns in exchange for cataclysmic explosions - are all on offer.
'Survival' is the familiar, open-ended twin-stick shooter experience where you work to increase your multiplier level as the action increases in intensity. Steering a little bauble around an arena, pack after pack of devilish geometric shapes spawn all around you, chasing you to your death. The 'Crunch' mode is a similar affair, albeit with a fixed time limit.
Rather than simply circling the environment while keeping the forward path clear and taking pot-shots behind whenever possible, elimination of enemies requires an unusual amount of strategy and reaction. A biological thing covered in defensive pustules drifts around the screen, bobbing towards you as you race ahead. Present too are the hateful greens of Geometry Wars, who tease and prod at your vulnerable side before running away like the little cowards they are in the face of gunfire.
For no particular reason, an enormous cube potters around the screen, taking umbrage under fire and shooting off at lightning speed in a random direction. Most handy of all though are the moss-like shapes that bloom and expand at the edges of the screen, useful for building combos which enable the righteous bombing of every single hexagonal bastard as you blast through the centre of the map.
In Rush, a clock ticks downward as you race to secure enough points to both increase your level, grab some extra time on the clock, and boost your multiplier. Death on the other hand results in a 10-second penalty. Dilemmas abound - do you grab that Level-Up block hanging dangerously by that pack of enemies, or carry on with your orbit while hoping it hasn't vanished by the time you make your next pass? The latter strategy wins out almost every time, but you'll give in to temptation more often than you'll care to admit.
There is a problem with this particular mode though, and it's one that only rears its head once you reach the endgame of its frenzied activity and the game effectively begins to play itself. Put simply, if you're alive then you're firing. If you're firing, then you're achieving the number of kills needed to unlock a bomb extremely quickly.
Given the sheer number of enemies on-screen, firing off one bomb unlocks another one almost immediately. Barring some wholly misguided navigation, you can breeze through each swarming pack, clear the screen, top up another combo from the green blocks breeding at the edge of the screen, then rinse and repeat. High-end leaderboard battling in Rush becomes more of an endurance test than a gaming challenge.
It's a game mode that would have benefited from the pack spawns that feature in Survival, forming rings of impending doom around your fragile bubble. Such spawns encourage more tactical, thoughtful play and situational awareness, taking clean advantage of bomb-building combinations in order to detonate your charge gloriously as the vultures close in.
The Challenge Mode, which sees you facing off against increasingly tricky waves of enemies as you attempt to reach targets combos and times, also lacks the meat necessary to make a permanent dent on your time, but it's more than ably compensated for by the depth of play found elsewhere in the game.
A particular highlight of Waves is 'Bombing Run', where you arm a bomb by passing over a section of red tiling before detonating the charge on a green area. With weapons disabled, it's a frantic bob-and-weave journey through the rippling backdrop to deliver your cargo within a 10-second time limit and destroy surrounding enemies.
When the blossoming tiles at the edge are destroyed, a one-time shield becomes available to temporarily push back the onslaught. Again, the game dangles a dangerous carrot in front of you - do you go after that Level Up tile on your wayward routing and go for the extra points, or play it cautiously and risk the power-up fizzling away?
As befits a twin-stick shooter, the Xbox 360 controller is perfectly suited to the job at hand with easy access to both bombing and slow-mo on the trigger buttons. While mouse-and-keyboard options are available, for a game as frantic in nature as Waves is, the control set feels a little too close to patting-your-head-and-rubbing-your-tummy for the rigours of global domination. Personal preference and experience will of course be the deciding factor here.
As is almost obligatory these days, Waves subverts the gentle encouragement of yesteryear in place of goading - messages mock you outright if you manage to achieve a high score without taking advantage of the slow-mo, for example. It teases you into making use of all of your tools and, while there's a fine line between charming and tiresome in this regard, Waves walks that line confidently, adding character to its gameplay.
Overall, chalk up another win for the indie revolution with Waves. Despite occasional flaws it's one of the finest examples of the twin-stick arcade shooter genre to arrive in recent years, and developer Squid In A Box has packed more than enough satisfying depth into its more accomplished modes to compensate for its few shortcomings. It's also a frighteningly moreish game that represents ludicrous value for money, and is highly recommended to anyone taken to competitive twin-stick shooters.
8 / 10