Oct 22, 2010

It's one of those weeks, again, where the best that the download gaming sector has to offer is just too damned good. Games like Costume Quest and Super Meat Boy provide the kind of must-have experiences that absolutely demand the focus of a full review. If for whatever reason you don't think these type of games have the same gravity as a boxed game, at least check out the trial.

According to Foundation 9, Xbox Live is already "past tipping point", with around 30 per cent of consumers online and buying download titles. And that figure is only going to rise over the next few years. Elsewhere, you've got the likes of Valve boasting about 30 million accounts on Steam, and Blitz predicting a digital-only future for the next round of consoles.

When it comes to this week's crop, though, it's another healthy one, mixed with some inevitable rejects that sully the good name of the good ship download. Remember, we're here to warn you off the bad as well as celebrate the good.

Swords And Soldiers

  • PSN / £7.99
  • WiiWare / 1000 Wii Points (£7.20)

If you're going to be boring enough to release the 407th tower defence variant in 2010, you'd better make sure it's a good one. Luckily, Swords And Soldiers developer Ronimo Games has a few tricks up its sleeve, including surprise boxing gloves that pop out and bloody the nose of any critic that dares to question its supreme wisdom.

Swords And Soldiers isn't so much tower defence as tower attack, where the emphasis is firmly on sticking it to your opponent before they do the same to you. There's precious little room for manning the barricades and waiting for the inevitable onslaught - you've just got to get up and at 'em as quickly and effectively as possible.

The first priority is mining for gold so that you can purchase all the units and enhancements you'll need; the second is feverishly building them as fast as you can. With its RTS-style build system, you have to continually keep one eye on the fate of your burgeoning army while also being mindful to restock your units and buy upgrades when you can afford them.

Once the game gets into its stride it's engagingly frantic stuff, and is helped no end by a brilliantly intuitive control system that maps one-off special attacks to R1 and unit-building to L1. With very few things to actually control or direct out on the side-scrolling battlefield itself, you're given the luxury of focusing your attention on more exciting matters, such as when to heal, or when to dispense lightning justice on tricky foes.

Swords And Soldiers also has substance to it - tons of campaign missions, Skirmish mode and multiplayer options to keep you going, more than justifying the price. Indeed, with its comic visuals and light-hearted touches at every step, Swords And Soldiers wants to be this year's Plants vs. Zombies, and damn near succeeds.


The Polynomial: Space Of The Music

  • PC/Mac / £5.99 (Steam, with free demo available)

Dmytry Lavrov knows his unblinking audience well, and knows that they're on a journey into space and time, man. This is less a game and more of synapse-melting visualisation experience, where you stare into the alluring psychedelic void of possibilities, never quite sure where you're going or whether you'll ever come back.

Described with inappropriate sobriety as "a 3D spaceflight music game with abstract, mathematically generated scenery and models," you find yourself in a strange, swirling, colourful world, tasked with little more than shooting the bad guys and flying into the good guys while enjoying the pulsing vibrancy of the hypnotic aural accompaniment.

It doesn't really matter whether you're any good at it, or whether you can even figure out the layered complexities of the scoring system. You'll focus your fire on the chomping Om-Noms, head for the rapid-fire collectibles, try to hide in the safe zones, and eventually head into different 'arenas' via the worm-holes. Or you'll just spin around, saucer-eyed with no sense of purpose.

You'll probably 'die' a lot, but it never feels like punishment. Respawning straight back into the action, you simply go again, floating around the fractal void, sucking up the sights and sounds for no other reason than the pleasant things it does to your brain.

Despite the pretence of gaming structure, let's call The Polynomial what it is: an invitation to sit around in self-medicated bliss.


Tank Battles

  • Xbox Live Indie Games / 400 Points (£3.40 - trial free)
  • PSN / £3.99

Quite why Gameloft elected to throw a perfectly decent top-down shooter like Tank Battles into the wilds of the Xbox Indie channel (with zero fanfare) is a complete mystery. Having been previously released on PSN more than a year ago (and now available at a much cheaper price), it evidently deserves a much more dignified fate.

If you caught it first time around, you'll know that it's essentially a modern-day riff on Atari's prehistoric (well, 1974) arcade classic, Combat, where tanks must face-off against each other and blast each other to little chunks in a series of top-down arenas.

Now blessed with comparatively lavish effects and detailed environments, Gameloft does a fine job of retaining the original's instantly addictive appeal while adding much-needed depth and variety. With various pickups available to enhance your speed and weapons, you're always mindful of attaining a tactical advantage, while also trying to blast the living daylights out of your similarly-minded opponents stationed at opposing corners of the map.

With around 50 campaign levels to wade through, there's plenty to keep you occupied, but it's multiplayer where the game has most long-term potential. Sadly, getting an online game going is pretty unlikely, so couch-based multiplayer is likely to be your best bet.

Despite its relatively high price (for an Indie game), Tank Battles is well worth a look. At half the price of most of the current crop of XBLA titles, it's a steal.


Dream Chronicles

  • Xbox Live / 800 Microsoft Points (£6.80)
  • PSN / £7.99

The unquenchable popularity of hidden-object games is one of the great modern mysteries of videogaming. Completely devoid of what you might reasonably describe as compelling gameplay, your role as the player is essentially reduced to a prodding monkey, stabbing impotently at the screen until something happens that shifts the story on a notch.

The bizarre thing is how much praise these games are adorned with in the casual gaming community, with talk of "stunning" graphics, "charming" locations and "enchanting" story. Maybe in 1991 it would have been possible to come to such lofty conclusions if you'd never played a LucasArts game, but what we're essentially dealing with here is Myst-lite - and who wants that?

Stripped of the all the interesting explorational and conversational elements of the adventure gaming template, you're forced to tirelessly slog through each of the 18 locations one by one, guiding a sluggish cursor around a static screen, attempting to pick up all the hidden objects and use them in the correct context.

On a PC (or even on an iPad), the close proximity of the high-definition screen, combined with the instant point-and-click controls make sense, but on a home console with a joypad and TV several feet away from you, it's a horribly wonky fit.

Most objects aren't merely hidden, but completely and utterly invisible, to the point where you're forced to click endlessly on everything until, eventually, something is picked up from the gloom. Worse still, because of the finicky detection boxes around each object, you can quite often click on an object and fail to pick it up. Thrown off the scent, you'll only realise much later that you could pick it up after all. Frustration ensues.

The puzzle themselves, too, are usually hilariously basic, or are just drawn out and tedious, like having to play seven piano loops back, one after the other. But the really depressing thing about PlayFirst's spirit-crushing little game is that it'll probably sell enough to result in a deluge of the bloody things, and force us to question the sanity of mankind. Again.


Crime Spree

  • Minis / £2.49

So you thought Crime Spree might be a cheapo Grand Theft Auto, right? Wrong. You need to rewind more than a decade and a half before the original top-down GTA until you're hip-deep in the primordial soup of gaming, back when Rally-X was considered the height of videogame entertainment, for a more apt comparison.

Let's not be too mean to Rally-X, because trundling around a maze collecting flags was entirely acceptable in the eighties. 30 years on there's not quite so much joy to be gleaned out of bombing around city streets, picking up all the money bags and keeping out of the way of the rozzers.

As with Namco's relic, Crime Spree starts off insultingly easy, with just one car patrolling the streets. But every time you complete a level, another car joins the fun, making the process of scooping up the winnings progressively harder.

The real challenge isn't so much the gameplay, but how long you can reasonably tolerate the insultingly basic presentation, and the all-pervading air of having been knocked-up in five minutes by Gameshastra's work experience lad. As an example of how low the standing of Minis games have sunk lately, look no further. You might be prepared to lose a few minutes to Crime Spree were it a free flash game, but at £2.49 it feels like daylight robbery.



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