July 31, 2008

Zen and the Art of Dodging Polygons

Review

Deftly navigating through hundreds of geometric shapes, blasting a path through the mobs closing in on all sides, you enter a state of heightened concentration. Time slows down, and like Neo in The Matrix, you've learned to bend the world to your will. But unlike Neo, as the tiny crescent-shaped ship in Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 for Xbox Live Arcade, you will never truly win. Overwhelmed by the onslaught, you're taken down again and again.

All forms of media attempt to simulate human experiences. We're drawn to great story-telling because we want to feel something; a romance will make us feel love and warmth, the death of a main character in a TV show may make us sad, even mourn the character. But games are an active media, and with that comes a different set of sensations. Imagine an Olympic athlete, focused on nothing but winning, or a soldier running up the beach at Normandy and actually making it. The purely simple, instinctual concentration on winning and survival is something only games like Geometry Wars 2 can evoke.

The green hills and tall mountains of GW2 make for some spectacular vistas.

As games become more modern they tend to shy away from primal simplicity. Most big budget games attempt to mimic cinema, providing a deep story with emotional moments. Casual games are typically so sedated that your grandmother can play them. Have you ever had a heart-pounding experience on your Wii? Multiplayer shooters like Halo are complex enough that you'd have to play at the professional level and essentially be an Olympic athlete anyway. Even the niche Japanese 2D shooters that inspired Geometry Wars are so punishingly hard that nothing short of rote memorization and discipline can conquer them. The magic of this game is that it makes unbelievable moments fueled on pure instinct attainable by a large audience in a simple $10 package.

The recipe behind Bizarre Creation's game is simple: refined controls, clean visuals, balanced gameplay, and hundreds of enemies. The controls couldn't be more basic; move by aiming the left stick, shoot with the right, and the triggers activate emergency bombs. The visuals are more vibrant than ever, with vector graphics providing a vibrant laser light show/fireworks display. The music is fantastic, with catchy remixes of music from past Geometry Wars games and subtle effects like the sound warping when you die. With six unique modes, cleverly prominent leaderboards, and some very cool achievements to unlock, there are enough options that anyone can find somewhere to excel.

Well written dialogue makes for a compelling narrative.

But while the checklist of features is as solid as ever, it's the design that really shines. The game can throw hundreds of enemies at you, with several unique patterns, and yet it never feels unfair. At the same time, it never makes compromises - it's actually far harder than the original Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, and it spends less time holding your hand. It's in the variety of the six different game modes that newcomers will get through the learning curve. In Deadline mode, dying isn't punished, and beginners can enjoy the full three minutes of increasing challenge. In Pacifism, the player cannot fire, and is forced to hone their dodging skills. Sequence throws twenty different challenges at you, and it's in this gauntlet that you'll develop tactics for each unique enemy.

That you can do all of this with four players simultaneously is simply icing on an addicting, drug-laced cake. Sure there's no online play, but it's understandable considering how much is happening - the slightest lag would completely ruin the game. The only downside is a lack of leaderboards for multiplayer, as most of the drive to play comes from besting your friend's high scores. You may find yourself taking turns in single player more often than playing cooperatively.

Four players can adventure together through grimy dungeons and dark forests.

Geometry Wars may be a simple game, reminiscent of the days of Pacman and Galaga, when videogames were shunned as little more than flashy time wasters. It's certainly flashy, and maybe a time waster, but in a sea of games attempting Hollywood storytelling and mostly falling flat, it's nice to see something come along that's this pure. There's no plot to Geometry Wars, just pure gameplay, inciting the simplest of human instincts: survival.
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