Steamroll 8/7/12: Exceed Death Valley's Virus Machine
Games covered this week: The Political Machine 2012, A Virus Named Tom, Awesomenauts, eXceed – Gun Bullet Children, eXceed 2nd – Vampire REX, eXceed 3rd – Jade Penetrate Black Package, Death Rally, A Valley Without Wind, The Void
Shoot-em-ups (shmups) on Steam tend towards either monotonous dreck or sublime beauty. For every Really Big Sky, there’s a Mutant Storm Reloaded wasting space. I face each new one with a mix of dread and anticipation, as if I was receiving a gift from an unknown aunt. Facing three of them in one week is daunting; normally I play each game for an hour, but my time from start to uninstall on bad shmups clocks around 15 minutes. Playing bad shmups for three hours is probably banned somewhere in the Geneva Convention.
So, due to the shooter influx and the multitude of other games released this week, I decided to just play for seven hours total, hopping from game to game as I saw fit. I could quickly blow through the boring ones and spend my time on more entertaining matters… like political campaigns.
The Political Machine 2012 is a turn-based strategy game of the upcoming U.S. election. You and your opponent spend each week going from state to state rousing followers, fundraising, and occasionally mudslinging. It’s a game of issues and polls that barely shift; I often wondered exactly what effect my actions had, only noticing a change several turns later. It’s easy to get around the interface and see whatever data you need, but the glacial pace of change in public opinion made the entire game feel disconnected. Perhaps it is the nature of politics & polls, rather than the game itself. Either way, a good interface can only do so much for an average strategy game. It took me 90 minutes to finish my first match; after that, I really didn’t have any urge to try it again.
A Virus Named TOM alternates between quick-reflex and methodical-thinking puzzles and wraps it all up in a retro sci-fi style I describe as “The Jetsons with a dark sense of humor”. You play a virus trying to infect a futuristic city by connecting entire circuits to your source; an increasing number of security measures stand in your way. The gameplay is nothing to write home about, but the cutscenes displayed after every 10 levels are funny enough to keep me plugging away at it for the next one. There’s also co-op and versus modes, but I didn’t play them. It’s an amusing time-waster, although it may be too short for its cost; I think I completed half of the single-player puzzles in less than an hour.
Awesomenauts also relies heavily on graphic style, namely Saturday morning sci-fi cartoons. The animation quality in the cutscenes and the game itself are astounding. It has a solid gameplay core to go with it, taking the typical Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) formula of “kill stuff, buy loot, destroy turrets” and mapping it onto a 2D platformer. Rather than gaining new powers by leveling up, you buy them just like equipment. Rather than clicking on an enemy to target it, you manually aim your gun at them. There’s also a drop pod minigame to keep you occupied while you wait to respawn. It all adds up to an amusing, simpler version of games like League of Legends that’s great for younger kids or older gamers looking for something less demanding than the standard MOBA.
Ahh, here’s the meat of the week: the eXceed trilogy, three bullet hell shooters released in one package. eXceed – Gun Bullet Children was immediately a disappointment. The resolution looked smeared on my widescreen monitor with no options to resize it, which really didn’t help the lackluster graphics. None of the dialogue was translated. Worst of all, the gameplay felt disjointed. Bullets that should’ve killed me didn’t, and I didn’t learn how to charge up my Special attack until I quit the game and read the instructions for it on Wikipedia. Just skip this game unless you absolutely need more bullet hell; the third game does everything it does much better.
eXceed 2nd – Vampire REX has more polish, better graphics, translated dialogue, and takes its core gameplay mechanic of “switch polarities, absorb similar bullets” straight from Ikaruga, my favorite shmup of all time. This is definitely for experts; you can only clear bullets off the screen by firing your Special, which is charged by absorbing bullets. I only made it to the 3rd stage out of 7 on my initial credits; I couldn’t even beat the final stage alone with them when I used the Stage Select to jump ahead. I love the Ikaruga mechanic, but this is too hard for me; bullet hell fans should love this, though.
eXceed 3rd – Jade Penetrate Black Package combines the polish of the second game with the mechanics of the first one. You charge up your Special homing attack by skimming enemy shots; you also have a load of Bombs that instantly clear the screen of enemy shots. The newest mechanic was Slow mode, which slows you character down and shows her hit box to help you weave through tricky gaps. Between that and the Auto-Bomb option (automatically uses a Bomb if you’re about to be hit, essentially quadrupling your lives), I managed to beat the whole game on Easy on my first try. It didn’t really grab me, but it’s a well-made bullet hell shmup that even casual fans can finish.
Death Rally, the final game released last week, suffers the usual problem of top-down racing games: it’s tough to steer from a bird’s eye view. Aiming your gun from such a view is even harder. The whole game distances you from the visceral impact of blowing other vehicles up. The guns felt more like peashooters than actual weapons, and destroyed cars collapsed into a smoldering heap instead of satisfactorily exploding. It doesn’t help that the game locks everything but the basic car and weapon to start, making you feel powerless. That is not how you should start a game about blowing cars up. If they had an over-the-shoulder view instead of a bird’s-eye view and had more things unlocked at the start, it could’ve kept my interest. As is, it’s too clumsy and slow; I’ll pass.
Which game would I keep playing? That’s simple: I’ve only scratched the surface of Awesomenauts, and its cartoon graphics and MOBA-lite gameplay really appeal to me. I could easily sink a few more hours into it. I could also finish A Virus Named TOM, but I think that would only take me an hour or two. Those aren’t the only games I’m playing, though… I did find enough time during the week to also play A Valley Without Wind and The Void. My first thoughts on them?
Pass on A Valley Without Wind; it tries to offer a lot of options, but the gameplay for each is so shallow it feels like swimming in a 3-foot deep lake. All of its rewards are random, and none of them are diverse or interesting enough to warrant the effort collecting them. The combat is lackluster, your abilities are mundane, and any strategy in the city-building is nullified because collecting buildings is either expensive or random.
The Void is intriguing, but it isn’t a fun game. Fun isn’t the right word for a game where you’re constantly staving off starvation in a dreary afterlife. If I’m not starving, I’m either trying to nurture excess Color to feed the Sisters, or apprentice under the Brothers without enraging them into killing me. It’s vague, it’s dark, and it’s enthralling; perhaps I should write something about those first two hours, and how my slow, wasting defeat compelled me to try it again…
That’s all for this week; see you next time on the Steamroll!