Version tested: Xbox 360
The success of Geometry Wars has been something of a happy accident. Originally a fun little extra tucked away inside Project Gotham Racing 2, it was the perfect bite-sized burst of fun to showcase Xbox Live Arcade when 360 hit the shelves. After it was reworked as a standalone release, the mixture of dazzling visuals and moreish gameplay swiftly established it as the standard bearer for downloadable console gaming.
I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that most people will know what Geometry Wars entails, but for the sake of the unfortunate few here's the nutshell version. You are a little crab-shaped spaceship in an oblong black playfield. Enemies, represented by coloured geometric shapes, spawn and exhibit different behaviour depending on their form. You must blast them all, and you do this by moving with the left stick, and guiding your fire with the right.
Every movement, every explosion sends ripples of colour and light echoing across the playfield. As more and more enemies spawn in ever-increasing numbers, the pace of play is matched only by the dazzling visual overdose swamping your eyeballs. In both gameplay and design, it's a template that has been copied far too many times by lesser Live Arcade games - all of which seem to favour of mayhem and noise, missing the subtleties that make Geometry Wars so great.
Now, three years on, Geometry Wars 2 is easily one of the most anticipated titles on Microsoft's nascent digital delivery service. That doesn't say much for the competition, but it has put pressure on Bizarre Creations. What was once a throwaway unlockable in a driving game is now a beloved series in its own right. The shift from cool extra to triple-A status was remarkably organic, and there's always the fear that, in attempting to recapture lightning in the same bottle, mistakes can be made, ambitions can overrun, delicate balances can be lost.
Bizarre Creations knows what they're doing, however. Geometry Wars 2 is as carefully improved a sequel as you could hope to find. For those waiting in the wings to scoff, "It's just the same, innit?" - yes, it is the same as Geometry Wars. It's also completely different, in numerous ways.
The Evolved mode, familiar from the first game, returns. So too does Waves, the variation that graced PGR4, bringing with it the orange rockets that travel back and forth in fixed lines across the screen. The gates from Waves are here as well - able to reflect your shots, or act as a localised smart bomb when flown through, their yellow tips are nonetheless deadly to your ship.
The notion of "geoms", familiar from Waves and Geometry Wars: Galaxies, has also been worked into the mix. These little green sparks, left behind by destroyed enemies, act as the new score multiplier rather than the old chains of successful kills. This subtly changes the gameplay, forcing you to put yourself in harm's way if you want to increase your score, and fundamentally alters the score multiplier, since racking up your score no longer relies on avoiding death. Purists may be dismayed at the notion of a multiplier that stays high, even after death, but it isn't quite the benefit you'd expect since most of the new game modes only give you one life to work with anyway.
Speaking of game modes, there are six in total but when you first play only one is unlocked: Deadline. This gives you unlimited lives and three minutes to score as many points as possible. Continued success in this mode unlocks the next, which then unlocks the next and so on. It's not really a long-winded process - even the lousiest player will be able to access all the modes within half an hour - but it does make you try everything at least once, which is a shrewd move on Bizarre's part.
King is the second mode you'll unlock, and the first to really shake up the formula. This time you can only shoot when inside circular safe zones, where the enemies cannot reach you. Of course, each zone begins to break down as soon as you enter, so play becomes a tactical game of leapfrog, planning your next unarmed dash across open space, hovering up as many geoms as you can, and making sure that you don't leave yourself out on a limb as homing enemies swarm around your vanishing sanctuary.
Evolved is the third mode and much the same as the previous game, albeit with the addition of Waves enemies and geom-based multiplier system. Pacifism is an expanded variation of the Achievement from the first game which required you to survive for 60 seconds without shooting. Beefed up into a mode all of its own, you can now only destroy enemies by flying through gates and as the majority of the enemies are those bastard blue diamonds that home in on you, it gets incredibly frantic very quickly.
Waves is unlocked next and then it's on to Sequence, which involves twenty miniature survival challenges: thirty seconds on the clock, increasing amounts of enemies - most of which spawn in a circle around you - and limited lives. Each life lost bumps you to the next challenge, but it's impossible to fail your way to success for long. Even though, you can play any mode whenever you want, Sequence has the unmistakable air of a grand finale about it and makes for a impressive climactic gauntlet for experienced players.
There's more to this spread of play options than random diversity though. Each mode offers a finely tuned challenge, designed to test and develop different skills. Some rely on your ability to maximise scoring opportunities. Others favour impeccable manoeuvring. When frustration rears up in one mode, switching to another can provide just the right change of pace.
Equally, it ensures that everybody can find a mode at which to excel. My own weakness is steering. Once things get hectic I start shrieking like a menopausal woman at a Chippendales show and promptly crash into easily avoidable foes. That's my burden, I live with it and Deadline mode means that I can now concentrate on scoring without worrying that my cack-handed control is going to end the game prematurely. You'll find your own preferred niche, I'm sure.
Praise for the core gameplay almost feels redundant, given that so much of what is so deliciously right about Geometry Wars was pretty much perfected back in 2005. Mostly it's the balance that impresses most - and what the pretenders to the throne so often miss when blindly copying the kaleidoscope graphics. Every element of the game is designed for maximum efficiency. Even in the wildest graphical swirl, enemies are distinct thanks to their simple colour coding, while instantly identifiable sound effects tip you off to changes in the play area almost subliminally.
Speed and courage are rewarded at all times while the airtight controls continue to impress, allowing bold players to dip and swoop and feint around deadly hazards with barely a pixel to spare. It's a well-oiled shoot-em-up machine, and this sequel wisely opts not to dismantle an engine in such good working order.
Which just leaves the rather controversial multiplayer modes. After fans have yearned for the chance to play properly across Xbox Live, the decision to support only offline multiplayer seems odd and disappointing. Offline, however, things are pretty rosy. All six modes are playable competitively, but it's in the co-operative play where things get interesting. Here you can opt to pilot separate ships, or you can get cosy together as co-pilots. In this configuration, one player steers while the other shoots. This is similar to the basis for recent XBLA release Schizoid, whose claim to being co-op game ever is now rendered almost completely redundant.
You can even have up to four players split into teams. It's a really strong line-up, rich with multiplayer possibilities, which makes the lack of online all the more frustrating - especially since there doesn't seem to be anything in the game that would make Xbox Live struggle. When you consider that even the DS version of Geometry Wars: Galaxies managed wireless play - including a fun "versus" mode where one player spawned the enemies for the other to fight - this is the only area of the game that feels less than satisfying.
The omission of online play aside, Geometry Wars 2 is everything you hoped it would be. It deftly builds on a simple framework without overloading it, and even finds room to make the core experience more varied and accessible to everyone. With so many me-too titles still trying - and failing - to match the original game, it's safe to say that the bar has now been raised for Live Arcade shooters across the board.
9 / 10