The XNA tree is over a year old now, and has already borne the fruit of Weapon of Choice, Biology Battle and Easy Golf. But what other succulent delights are hidden amongst its lush foliage? Armed with my special community hat and a strong intention of inverting media distribution pyramids, I peeked under its ever-spreading branches.
Content is coming thick and fast now, with regular weekly updates, and the catalogue has burgeoned considerably. What you see here is merely what jumped out at me and proved to be enjoyable, and each game offers either a time- or feature-limited demo, so there's no excuse not to get your hands dirty and try a few for yourselves.
- Developer: Binary Tweed
- Price: 400 Microsoft Points
The lovely, watercolour stylings of Clover have made it the most easily recognised of this batch of titles, and its promotion has been the most noticeable. In many ways it's also the most professionally produced of the games on offer here - beautifully drawn, with a soothing, piano-based soundtrack and a well-written script. Essentially it's homage to the Dizzy games of yore, a fact heavily referenced in both script and mechanics. For those of you who were mere eggs themselves when the yolky adventurer was king, gameplay revolves around the collection of objects and the solving of various genial puzzles, all in a platform-based format.
Player-character Sam is a resident of a kingdom which has recently come under attack by dastardly pirates, leading to the enactment of some troublingly draconian security measures. As he explores the world, Sam becomes party to increasingly complex political and religious intrigue, discovered via the medium of drunken farmers, myopic arms-dealers and sleeping cats. The political message is clumsily implemented, and somewhat at odds with the gentle, convivial nature of the gameplay, but it does get its point across.
I didn't discover any ways to die in Clover - the worst punishment I received for touching an 'enemy' was to drop the items in my inventory - mildly annoying at worst. Other than this the only thing to watch out for is your 'crime' level, an increasingly audible heartbeat and de-saturation of the world, which indicates a violation of one the intentionally invasive security measures put in place by the king. Letting this reach a certain level - sometimes instant, sometimes after a few seconds of intransigence - means Sam will be 'arrested' and taken to the castle jail, although he's instantly released with no penalty.
The major flaw with Clover is really an over-faithfulness to its roots. Initially having only one inventory slot means that a great deal of back and forth is necessary to progress, especially when active puzzles can be at opposite ends of the map. Traipsing from end to end isn't a mammoth undertaking, but realising that you've left a necessary item two minutes away is a tut-worthy experience. There are also a couple of traditionally non-linear puzzles, which prompts a bit of trial-and-error gameplay, although nothing holds you back for more than a few minutes. A switchable 'hint' system shows highlights interactive objects if you get really stuck.
Once your inventory expands fairly early on, and you learn to keep a rough note of where items have been dropped, Clover becomes an extremely relaxing and enjoyable experience. Just don't expect it to offer too serious a challenge or a pulsating political manifesto.
- Developer: Oesis, Inc.
- Price: 800 Microsoft Points (GBP 6.80 / EUR 9.60)
A full 3D shooter, Jonny Crush is the ugly third cousin of Serious Sam and EDF. Playing as itinerant exterminator Jonny, players are tasked with clearing swarms of up to 1000 bugs from a number of identical city levels, using a number of enjoyably over-powered weapons. Enemies, which are basic but cleanly modelled, crawl en-masse over buildings and streets alike as they converge on Jonny's position, where munitions connect with satisfying impact as the bugs subsume to lumps of green goo.
It's the gaming equivalent of watching Rocky with a six-pack of Stella, although without any of the emotions or montages. Brutal and fun with all the refinement of a kick to the sex eggs. At its best, Jonny Crash is entertaining enough to overcome the annoyances of its occasional slowdown, awful voice acting and disappointing lack of aim-sensitivity adjustment. For most people, however, 800 Points is probably too much for a game that can be polished off in less than two hours, despite some really pointy difficulty spikes.
Having said that, taking on a cloud of butterflies with dual-wielded shotguns is worth thinking about, and the nature of the unlocking system and selectable levels makes for good replay value. A mindless blaster with its heart on its sleeve, Jonny Crush offers more than a screenshot might lead you to expect.
- Developer: Stegersaurus Games
- Price: 200 Microsoft Points (GBP 1.70 / EUR 2.40)
An absolute bargain, Tank Strike is a passable Tanks/Worms clone with the twist of being able to re-supply in-between rounds. It's a concept which will never really grow old - static guns shooting stuff at static neighbours, firing arcs affected by wind, angle, power and weapon choice, with destructible scenery constantly altering the battlefield dynamics.
Whilst obviously not up to the production standards of Worms, Tank Strike nonetheless offers some intriguing and well-executed variations on the genre.
The nicest touch is the choice of level themes. These not only vary the substance that makes up the 'land', but the tanks themselves, the projectiles and the explosions. Thusly 'Clay' sees tiny tanks firing blobs of Plasticine around the screen, which blossom into lovely little bursts of squidge upon impact, whilst 'squid' turns your tanks into what actually looks like a tiny octopus, shooting shells of ink across an underwater landscape. It's a nice touch and, along with the pleasantly inventive selection of weaponry available, fleshes the game out considerably. In addition there are various shields, shot modifiers, gravity effects and the damage-for-cash mechanic that funds the interval shopping sprees.
Multiplayer is obviously the key attraction - although the levels of AI available should cater for all tastes, too - offering perfect post-pub argument catharsis if you've had one too many Babycham cowboys to focus on Gears or COD4. Up to eight players can huddle round in hotseat mode for local play, but there's no option for play across Live.
Tank Strike gameplay might have pretty much all been done before, and the endgame can drag a little once your weapons stocks are depleted, but for the price of a half of lager, there's nothing to really complain about.
- Developer: Louis Lavallee
- Price: 400 Microsoft Points (GBP 3.40 / EUR 4.80)
Opening with a slideshow cinematic in which a peeved sun fries a couple of swim-suited pretties for encroaching on his beach, Karnn Age starts off quirkily, but soon reverts to type as a top-down bullet-hell shooter. This is no bad thing, though, as it does the job admirably.
To switch things up a bit, the central grassy play area is bordered by a strip of sand, which is the sun's territory. Spend too long on here and Helios' rage gauge will begin to rise. Once he's gotten his shiny little chops sufficiently het up, he'll charge on-screen and begin shoving you around. Shots will push him back but not damage him, so he'll need to be managed and avoided until he stops being such a hissy little queen and buggers off back to his deckchair.
Power-ups spawn randomly around the small map, offering temporary protection, health replenishment or brief increases in shot power. The left stick manoeuvres and the right one fires, dispensing a rapid spray of bullets toward the oncoming giant fish, turrets and cybernetic triceratops trying to erase you. A health bar at the bottom of the screen is the only UI.
You won't need any of this explanation if or when you come to play it, however, apart from the sun thing. Karnn Age is one of those gloriously simplistic and self-explanatory games which can be enjoyed almost instantly by almost anyone. Hearts mean health. Anything which shoots or moves and isn't you must die. The end-of-level bosses are designed according to the school of thought that twins weak spots with large flashing lights.
It's fun, challenging and off-kilter enough to have personality, but also very short. There are three themed 'levels' - although all take place in the same arena, changing only the enemy types. Each of these levels-within-a-level consists itself of three sections: a basic level, a tougher section featuring more enemies, and a final boss. There's replay value for high-score hunters and perfectionists, and the difficulty level will test most, but there's not a huge amount of content here, really.