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.
And... oh, do you really need me to list them all? See on their site. As a whole, they're compulsive but slight. That they're described as party games nails it. For example, the randomly spawning opposition-slow-down power-up in the froghop game leads to an almost certain win for whoever gets it. It's a bit of a giggle messing around with mates, but not exactly a strong piece of classical game design. Their presence is welcome, but not the main course.
The main course itself is solid enough in many ways. That I'm going to have to reach for fairly abstruse or highly specific reasons why it's rubbing me up the wrong way implies that it gets much of the basics right. My biggest reservation is that it's an arcade game where it's possible to "fail" - as in, make it virtually impossible to win, as in to get the best scores, at least theoretically - relatively early, making the rest of the game pointless. It kind of comes with its dual-world structure. You want to stay in the main world as long as possible to earn as big a bonus as possible. Why make the jump without maximising your score? So you end up regretting your mid-game decision of when to go to death mode, removing the fun from the experience. It feels pointless, whereas Geometry Wars constantly balances on a knife-edge. Biology Battle games aren't too long, but they're long enough to realise that a mass of it is grunt-work.
It also blunts its edge in a few other ways. Most crucial is its toughening up of the opposition. A good chunk of the enemies - even tiny ones - take multiple hits to take down, which makes it feel lumpen. This is mainly to leave room for power-ups to come into play, but the semi-random arrangement of which foes you face at any time means some bits are just plain annoying when you haven't received a necessary weapon upgrade. It also doesn't exactly teach you well - the tutorial is deliberately light, just covering one power-up, shooting and moving, which fails to explain any of the concepts you really need to understand. It also leaves the fancier power-ups - like Blast and Black Hole - a surprise when you reach them. Is six minutes into a fast-paced game really the place where you'd want to experiment? Odds are, the first thing you're going to do upon getting the black hole gun is to kill yourself with it. Your initial emotion upon gaining something you've battled towards for quite a while is "bloody annoyed", which just isn't right.
In other words, it feels off-kilter. There's surface polish, but the more you look, the less deep understanding of the genre is present. Upon starting to play, you get two power-ups on your initial pip-gun to get it up to speed. Why not just start with that if you're only going to have ten seconds going pip-pip-pip? Even the most iconic parts of the presentation - that is, having a mass of short phrases which drop onto the screen whenever you do anything significant - starts to grate, with its choice of phrases making the game appear to be the kid who just quotes whatever is in the comedy-show du jour in lieu of being funny themselves. Its wit is second hand. Space Giraffe, when it took from another source, did so with its own personality. Biology Battle doesn't.
I'm beginning to feel a little like a bully. This is mostly well-executed blasting, and its biggest mistake was to price itself as a direct competitor to Geometry Wars 2. Its design, for better or worse, is its own design. I'd like to see what the developer does next. But until then, I'm back to Geometry Wars 2.
5 / 10