Version tested: Xbox 360
Oh my God! It's totally incredible. It's the best shooter I've played in ages. Dangerously compelling, beautifully executed, sonically vicious, mechanistically inspired, scarily polished. I can't get enough of it. It's not only one of the best games on the Xbox 360, but one of the best games of the decade.
Geometry Wars 2 is just as good as everyone said!
I only got around to playing Bizarre Creations' shooter opus whilst reviewing Biology Battle, another one of Microsoft's "community games", for Xbox 360. Since they're both Robotron-derived arena shooters, I wanted to be familiar with the apparent state of the art before offering my opinion on the new pretender. On some level, this is unfair - walking into the room with the hottest person on Earth makes anyone look dowdy. On another level, it's revealing a fundamental truth. They're the same price - 800 Microsoft Points, which is just under seven quid. Which one would you want to play? Well, it's Geometry Wars 2, comrades. Unless there's something about Biology Battle's specific take which means that it's worth owning them both. Is there?
It contextualises its arena shooting more than most of its type. Rather than just dropping you in an enclosed space, allowing you to zoom around firing in a separate direction to the way you're facing and having masses of enemies spawn before trying to hurt you via the medium of high-speed collision, it actually tells a little story. With a Portal/World of Goo-esque ironic sheen, you're positioned as a medical corporation's nanobot going inside creatures to zap stuff. So presumably the arena is a cell, and all the enemies appearing are antibodies. I wish real biology was more like this when you looked down a microscope, as I might not have been bored for all four years of my degree. A term paper on "Lightning Smart Bombs Effect On Intercellular Cytostasis" would have been a definite first anyway.
Its main mechanistic flourish is its life-mode and death-mode dichotomy. In a standard game, you start in life mode, and find your points multiplier increasing by your mere existence. Eventually you'll come across a big baddy who you destroy, gaining access to the Armageddon power-up. From that point onwards, you can activate it at any moment and switch to death mode. If you do so, you gain a one-time 10x multiplier, which doesn't increase again as you go on to face a whole new mob of baddies (with a few different power-ups). Point being, there's a neat tactical pay-off. If you want to maximise your score you'll want to stay in life mode as much as long as possible before switching to death mode to get that 10x bonus and earn some serious points. If you swap too early, you'll have a load of lives to play in death mode, but you'll basically be earning nothing for shooting the pesky antibodies. If you swap too late, you might not have enough lives to maximise points.
That play is most important in the global challenge mode, where you compete on a leaderboard, which is pretty nifty programming given that community games can't access the official servers (apparently it's all peer-to-peer - magical peer-to-peer). While you can't track friends, you're constantly aware of where in the whole world rankings you are and how many points you need to reach the next level. While the lack of friends is a loss, the sense of this simple arcade game being plugged into something far larger adds a lot to the experience.
There's also local play, allowing you to play either by yourself at various difficulty levels or co-operatively with friends, which is ideal if you've got three comrades who fancy experiencing what it's like to be part of the immune response inside the human body. There are also party versus modes, which are for when being part of the immune response isn't enough. Some are takes of arcade classics - for example, versions of lightbikes with a trail bobbling along behind your tiny biology-thing and you trying to force your opposition into colliding with them, or an arena-based shooter enlivened with an ability to drop antonymous turrets. Some riff a little wilder, like the Froghop game, which is basically a Frogger-esque race to a safe point across a screen of enemies.