So, many moons after the XNA (Xbox Nautical Acclimatiser) was first announced, we're finally getting to see the fruits of all those amateur coders, beavering away over a hot keyboard. Seven preview versions of XNA titles are available from the Xbox Live Marketplace, but will turn into smoke and be blown away on a fragrant breeze in just over two weeks time.
To access the games, you first need to download the XNA Launcher from the Game Store. Then scroll through the blades to My Games, and select XNA Creators Club from the top bar. Hit the Y button and you can start downloading.
The games are, as you'd expect, a mixed bag. Some have their amateur roots proudly on display, others could be added to Live Arcade tomorrow and fit right in. This, then, is not a review but a sort of "previewy roundup", to use Tom's delightful phrase - a critical overview to see what sort of content is being created, how it's shaping up and what we might start seeing once Microsoft's peer-reviewed developer community really starts cranking them out.
- Developed by: Hidden Path Entertainment, USA
Three horticultural mini-games await in this curious compilation. In Bloom Game, you're the curator of a spherical green garden. Nasty weeds pop up on the surface and you must stamp down their botanical invasion by surrounding them with flowers. Rotate the globe, draw lines of flowers, try to remove all the weeds before they dominate the garden. It sounds simple and it is. Accurately boxing in the weeds can be a random affair, however, since you're never entirely sure if your lines are joining up. Is that a gap in your line, or just the normal gap between the flowers? The effect of the flowers sprouting life beneath your cursor is very nice, but it's all too repetitive and vague to really grab your imagination.
Paint With Flowers is exactly what it sounds like. Paint By Numbers, using flowers instead of paint. Scroll around the large grid, selecting the correct colour from your palette and clicking in the right place. Once you've correctly filled all the areas, the game zooms out and shows you your masterpiece. It's almost entirely devoid of challenge, but strangely compelling.
Both of these games earn you "mixers" which can then be used in the third element of the game - the Flower Garden. Here you combine different types of flower to create new colours and designs.
Certainly the most unusual of the seven demos, it's not entirely clear who Culture is aimed at. It's got a very nice relaxing feel to it, but it's not exactly overflowing with gameplay. Somewhere in this grab bag of ideas is the seed of a really lovely game, but it'll need careful nurturing to bear fruit.
- Developed by: Walaber, USA
Now this is the sort of title that grabs your attention. A car? Made of jelly? Who could resist the chance to muck about with such a thing?
As the game succinctly explains, the aim is to drive a squishy car through squishy worlds. Between you and your goal are ramps, obstacles and other pitfalls. You can inflate your car to traverse gaps, and simply watching your gelatinous vehicle burble across the eight preview levels is immediately enjoyable. Calling to mind Crayon Physics Deluxe, the game is cheerful and bouncy in all the right ways, and there's clearly potential here for some devilish level designs. The part in the Factory level where the car is squished between two giant wheels and boinged across the room is a particular highlight.
Control, however, is very twitchy and navigating some of the moving puzzles is a right chore, especially as it's easy to get stuck in the scenery. Checkpoints wouldn't go amiss as well, since nothing drains goodwill more than painstakingly crossing a series of fiendish rotating platforms, only to start all over again after one mistake. Those are easy problems to fix, though, and this is one of those demos where you can clearly see how much fun the full game will be.
- Developed by: Loic Dansart, Belgium
The first of two side-scrolling games, Little Gamers is based on a web comic. My tolerance for smug Penny Arcade rip-offs is incredibly low, so I'll just move onto the game itself.
It's sort of like River City Ransom, as you guide the hilarious Little Gamer characters across a series of nicely rendered but rather bland levels. There are loads of weapons to pick up, and as enemies approach from the left and right you mash the buttons to kill them all. In its favour, the game does mix things up with each new level, introducing vertical ascents up skyscrapers and mech-suit combat, but the core gameplay never changes to suit.
Little Gamers certainly looks good but is neither original nor particularly interesting at this stage, I'm afraid. I'd happily swap all the "l33t" jokes in the world for some better-paced level design.
- Developed by: Brian Cable, USA
Visually, this is unlikely to set any hearts pounding, but the core concept has the sort of simple genius that typifies a great puzzle game. Offline multiplayer only (at least in this demo form), you and up to three friends take it in turns to place randomly assigned numbers on a grid. If you place a higher number next to a rival, it turns to your colour. If your number is lower, you reduce their total by two. Place a number next to a piece of your own, and you boost its value by the same amount. When all the grid is filled, the player with the highest total wins. From that basic framework, Proximity extrapolates a satisfying strategic experience.
Is it better to go on the attack, and use your highest numbers to steal rival spaces? Or should you use low numbers to bolster your high-scoring tiles, making them harder to steal? Unfortunately, at the moment too much depends on the luck of the draw, meaning that it's possible for a player to stand very little chance of success. For most of one game, for instance, the first player received only one tile with a value higher than 10 while the second was regularly receiving 18, 19 and 20 score tiles. It may feel like a minimalist Catan or Carcasonne, but with a little more balancing and more pizzazz in the presentation, Proximity has the makings of a fine strategy game.
- Developed by: Fuel N' Spark Games
All I know about dodgeball I learned from Ben Stiller, but it's hard to see this overly busy update of America's most bully-friendly pastime turning into anything special. Two teams of two face off across an annoyingly narrow playing field, lobbing balls at each other, and using rocket power-ups for more powerful attacks. Get knocked over too many times and you have to do a quick burst of button-matching to get back on your feet.
Control is a little stiff, with the claustrophobic play area separated into two horizontal planes of action. You shuttle between these like table football, but have smoother movement left and right. You have to pick up balls by pressing A when standing over them, which feels rather clunky, and then throw it straight ahead or use it to block throws from the other team. It's all too manic, while the stiff controls mean that simply grabbing a ball and throwing it with any accuracy is a hassle rather than an intuitive gameplay component.
It's execution rather than concept that seems to be holding Rocketball back. With a larger play area, the ability to freely move around and automatically pick up balls, and more varied power-ups, this could be something fun. Right now, unfortunately, it isn't.
- Developed by: James Silva/Ska Studios
Certainly the most professional-looking game of the seven, The Dishwasher is another scrolling button-masher like Little Gamers. This time the tone is dark and nasty, as a humble dishwasher from the Foghorn Caf awakes to discover his heart has been torn out and bad guys are out to get him. He grabs a pair of cleavers and sets off to slash everybody to pieces.
While the scratchy and gloomy comic-book style sometimes combines with the frenzied gameplay to leave you confused, there are enough compelling gameplay elements here to impress. Even in the first demo level you'll discover a fairly rich combo system, a hierarchy of power-ups and support items that can be purchased or earned, and a well executed boss battle.
The only major criticism that can be levelled is that the game doesn't really do much to disguise its debt to Alien Hominid, but that may well be a recommendation to some. Polished and balanced, this is the sort of game that could easily command an 800-Point asking price on Live Arcade.
- Developed by: Edison Prata, Brazil
A sometimes-bewildering mixture of Tetris, Puzzle Quest and dominos, TriLinea deserves praise for trying to find a new combination of well-known puzzle elements.
It's a competitive two-player game where you have a board and a procession of pieces to place. The pieces are like dominos, with two halves each bearing a colour and icon. Drop them on the board, form coloured lines of three horizontally or vertically, and do damage to the other player. The stroke of genius here is that there's no taking turns. You're each playing at the same time, on the same board. Keeping an eye on your opponent, stealing their lines and fouling up their plans is the order of the day.
To aid you in this respect, you can choose four spells to take into battle, each of which impacts the board in some beneficial or aggressive way. You can also trigger special events - tornadoes, meteor strikes and so on - by matching the icons as well as the colours. Some will almost certainly find it too fast-paced, as the game gives you little time to get your bearings. There's even a story mode - which is where the Puzzle Quest comparison comes in. While it can be a little crude graphically, it's clear that a lot of thought has gone into the gameplay and the result is a game with a lot of potential.
So, get downloading. It's not like you have to pay, and the more you play and talk about them online the more their creators will be able to adjust and learn from the experience.