It’s been almost a year since I did my writeup for Bastion. It’s proof positive that game developers with fresh ideas and stories to tell don’t need to hitch themselves to the wagon of any particular publisher. If I recall correctly from TotalBiscuit’s interview with Supergiant Games’ creative director Greg Kasavin, that little game sold 1.7 million copies. I, along with many others, have been wondering what would come next from this charming studio. That question was answered at PAX East 2013: Transistor.
There it is.
They teased us before the event with a trailer, which you can see here. Their booth was set up with images both familiar and new: Rucks, Zulf, and Zia from Bastion on banners that partially concealed the images of the flame-haired woman with the odd weapon that apparently gives the new title its name. The line was long, but the wait is worth it. Even though the demo only ran about 15 minutes, it highlighted the crux of the gameplay, introduced a fascinating new world, and whets the player’s whistle for more; in other words, it’s a demo that kicks ass for a game that looks to be every bit as good as Bastion if not better.
While the game does introduce us to an isometric view of a silent protagonist smashing things with what appears to be a rather nasty blunt weapon, the world is not the empty post-Calamity landscape of Caelondia, but the lively city of Cloudbank that might actually be in the process of a Calamity of some kind. Mechanical menaces that vaguely resemble refugees from Aperture Science (white hulls, red camera eyes, etc) appear to be reformatting the city and removing people that can stop them. On their list was our heroine, Red, and while they stole her voice, they didn’t quite finish the job, and she’s left with the Transistor, a unique and powerful weapon that speaks with a voice from beyond the grave.
The Transistor also seems to interrupt the processes of things around Red, including time itself. It changes what appears at first to be an isometric bash-em-up to a thought-provoking tactical game that rewards careful planning and mixing strategies. The thinking behind the construction of the UI and skill set is that the Transistor is already the most powerful weapon available; rather than entice us to play more with new weapons to unlock, different abilities look to allow the player to vary their playstyle to their liking rather than being stuck with bashing away. The enemies, as well, vary in how they approach Red, from duplicating teleporters to big burly jerks that destroy what little cover you can find. All of this is conveyed in the high-quality art style of Supergiant Games, and Logan Cunningham lends his voice to Red’s unique weapon.
Instead of simply a sequel or retread of Bastion, however, Transistor is already carving out its own niche. It feels decidedly more science fiction than Bastion’s fantasy adventure. The music has a more electronic bent to it, as well as being more feminine in its voice, while every bit as haunting and memorable as the soundtrack of the previous game. Red seems to have a bit more agency than the Kid, and the voice of the Transistor is very different from the voice of Rucks: less seasoned, more nervous and desperate, an immediate in-the-moment character rather than a reflective old man. Put it all together, and you have a game that, while familiar in many ways, promises a new story with which to fall in love coupled with gameplay that will challenge you, spark your imagination, and make the points of said story all the more rewarding.
A lot of games are called “sandbox” games. They are games in which you can, allegedly, do anything you want at any time. Usually this term is applied to games like Grand Theft Auto or Just Cause 2. But those games have a lot of things set up for you: buildings, other people, weapons and so on. I recall a time when playing in a sandbox meant you had little more than the sand in the box and your own two hands. Or when all we had was a bin full of LEGO bricks and the admonition not to leave them where Dad could step on them in the middle of the night.
If your memories of that time are anything like mine, Minecraft is carefully calculated to tap those memories. With its simplistic design, intuitive crafting, dynamic lighting and HUGE map, the game is surprisingly immersive and innovative in spite of its looks.
Yes, the map is blocky. It’s all blocks, in fact. Just like some games that characterize themselves as sandboxes that boast “fully destructible environments,” Minecraft’s environment is 100% malleable. The only thing you can’t mine or move is the bedrock, also called “Adminium.” Other than that, you can change just about anything, explore the caverns generated by the world when it’s generated by carving mines down to them, construct any sort of building you can imagine and even do battle with zombie pigmen in Hell. It can be a construction sim, an open-ended exploration game or an action adventure. It’s up to you.
This mostly applies to single player, since at the moment the multiplayer aspect is devoid of damage. The zombies, creepers and spiders still exist, but you can’t damage them and they can’t damage you. Basically all you do is rub up against each other as the excellent sounds creep you the hell out. But this is fine, actually, since the game is still technically in alpha and being coded and constructed by one guy. ONE.
Markus “Notch” Persson, a programmer from Sweden, is the mastermind behind Minecraft. With only assistance in terms of music, sound and in-game art, Notch has created a world with solid mechanics, procedurally-generated maps and a surprisingly deep and intriguing crafting system. You start with your bare hands surrounded by hills full of dirt, trees, rocks and the occasional animal or zombie. The world is yours to build, provided you don’t get killed when the monsters come out at night.
Getting in on the ground level in Minecraft is relatively inexpensive at $15 US and will give you unlimited, free updates and support from Notch. Multiplayer Survival mode is at the top of his to-do list, and as soon as it’s live you can bet I’ll be in there with friends, creating strongholds against the monstrous hordes as we play pranks on one another. Like encasing an AFK friend in obsidian and TNT and destroying a good portion of the landscape. Until then, I have caverns to explore in Single Player and electricity mechanics to understand in Multiplayer.
Here’s a few of the reasons why I’m excited by Maschine Zeit, and you should be too.
Good Scary Writing & Scary Good Writing
The best horror stories do not rely on jump-out in-your-face scares. They don’t base themselves entirely on bloodshed or gore. The effective use of stillness and partially illumination of the unknown cause for a much more tense and compelling atmosphere than the tactics employed by your local haunted house attraction. Maschine Zeit is definitely in the “stillness of the unknown” category. The writing and pacing sets the stage for the kind of flashlight-gripping terror that used to define the kind of storytelling experiences that would have Hitchcock nodding in quiet approval as the rest of the audience screamed bloody murder.
Characters That Are People, Not Just Stats
The character creation system, which I’ve tested a couple of times, has a flow to it that puts the personality of the character front and center rather than putting it behind a wall of statistics. While the stats are certainly there, Maschine Zeit again sets itself apart by actively encouraging players to min-max their characters. Instead of having player aim at being good at everything, this system ensures that the character can accomplish certain tasks with dramatic flair and apparent ease while other characters take on other roles. The shy, intelligent James Sunderland type might be good at figuring out puzzles but he’s not going to be as accurate with a pulse rifle as Duane Hicks. It might seem a bit counter-intuitive at first to players of other tabletop RPGs, but it fits right in with the atmosphere of the game and gets you into your character a bit more adroitly than sitting at a table rolling dice over and over again, praying to Gygax for the best stats possible.
An Apocalypse We Can Believe In
One of the best things that Maschine Zeit has going for it is the way its world is grounded in reality. Even as things begin to turn towards the surreal and supernatural, there’s a tone of voice that has the player thinking “Yeah, that could totally happen.” This grounding makes the events over the course of the game that much more visceral for the players. Combined with effective use of the game’s narrative structure and characters that feel more like real people than fantastical archetypes, this realistic foundation of Maschine Zeit’s world and its stories make for a unique and immersive tabletop experience that can be very difficult to find.
But find it you can, thanks to the genius minds behind Machine Age Productions. There are plans for us to play through a scenario tonight, and tomorrow might find me doing a postmortem on both how the game plays and how the characters fare.
Unless of course all y’all would rather I talk about Dan Brown or something.
Fans of Star Trek, brace yourselves. Cryptic Studio’s Star Trek Online is just around the corner. Some are already scrambling to get lifetime subscriptions and all the extra goodies they can, whereas I’m just trying to determine if this game is worth my time and money. From what I’ve seen of the open beta, it could be. There’s a lot going for it, but the game suffers from a few flaws that may prove fatal to the experience of other players.
When the latest Star Trek film was released in 2009, some blabbermouths in the media talked about how it made Star Trek ‘cool again’. Star Trek Online has somehow pulled off the opposite. Star Trek Online has returned Star Trek to the bailiwick of the nerd. I happen to think this MMOG is pretty cool, but I’m a Star Trek fan, and that’s the target audience for this game. Not the general public, but Star Trek fans.
While Star Trek Online doesn’t boast the story emphasis BioWare is touting for Star Wars: The Old Republic, a good number of Trekkies are more interested in becoming part of the Star Trek universe and its ongoing story than they are the universality of the gameplay mechanics. This doesn’t mean that Cryptic Studios has skimped on the gameplay, because there’s plenty to be had. It’s just not the same kind of experience one gets from World of Warcraft or Aion, and that can be an obstacle too great for some to overcome.
Gameplay in Star Trek Online is divided between ground combat and space combat. Ground combat is typical MMOG fare. You have abilities with cooldowns used to defeat your enemies. When defeated some enemies drop items for you to use, equip or sell. Your primary attack abilities are based on your equipped weapon. It’s nothing terribly new here, but there’s an aspect of it that feels different from other MMOGs that I’ll address in a moment.
Space combat, on the other hand, is likely to be the biggest stumbling block to people, because there’s a good amount of it in Star Trek Online. Space combat in Star Trek has been depicted as battles between capital ships more often than not. The game aims more for that feel than that of a frenetic dogfight. Like the tabletop game on the subject, Star Fleet Battles, or its tall ships cousin, Wooden Ships & Iron Men, the mechanics of space combat focus on positioning, hit location and resource distribution. If you’ve played Wing Commander, you’ll be familiar with this form of space combat and you’ll find it happening at a managable pace from an outside perspective rather than being in the cockpit of a starfighter.
Instead of the traditional quest structure, Star Trek Online divides its content into “missions.” From anywhere in the galaxy, you can hail Starfleet to get a new mission. These missions vary from general exploration and patrols to an arcing story about escorting a diplomat, investigating the theft of precious material or rescuing colonists. Missions are geared to take about 45 minute to 1 hour, slicing the content up into very managable chunks. While most of them fall into a specific pattern – warp into a system, shoot at enemy ships, beam down to the ground location, blast people down there, beam back up for another space battle and warp out – there’s enough variety in the types of missions and stories to keep things interesting.
The party system also bears a mention. If you’re not in a party already, and you warp into a system where others are on the same mission, you’ll be automatically rounded up into a party, and the difficult of the mission will scale accordingly. While this idea seems innovative on paper, more often than not you’ll find yourself staring down a well-armed enemy fleet while you and your fellow players float there in your starting ships. Even on your own, the combat can be challenging. However, when it comes to facing ground combat alone, you’re never really alone.
If you beam down to a location without a group, Star Trek Online provides you with an Away Team. Your Bridge Officers, who have abilities that can assist you in space combat, fill in the empty spaces in your party. Other MMOG players are familiar with ‘pets’ and the Bridge Officers do fall into that category. They have abilities of their own and participating in a mission with them, for me, almost makes the game feel more like Mass Effect than an MMOG. Of course, the Bridge Officer AI isn’t overly complicated, but you do have the option of having a ‘red shirt’ run in front of you to take all of the enemy fire while you come in behind them to clean up.
These somewhat unique elements make Star Trek Online feel like a different MMOG experience. For most MMOG players, though, ‘different’ does not necessarily mean ‘good’. A lot of players are going to be put out by the space combat mechanics, the brevity of missions, a lack of clearly defined ‘dungeons’ and the overall aesthetic of the game. Even some Star Trek fans won’t be able to overcome these obstacles to the fun. It really comes down to personal taste.
The game has come under ‘enemy fire’ of its own for a variety of reasons. It’s not the most graphically advanced game out there. Aion is by far a prettier game. Sector space, the “world map” is huge, mostly empty and somewhat lonely as you move from one system to the next. And expect to see a lot of loading screens as you transition from instance to instance. Every system, ground location and starbase exist in their own instance, and the game doesn’t exactly handle the transition delicately. The levelling system is different in Star Trek Online than other MMOGs, as it is based on skills rather than overall experience, and most of your character’s abilities are based on the weapons, ‘kits’ and other equipment they carry rather than their overall rank. Veterans of other MMOGs may struggle to overcome all of these points, if they decide it’s worth their time to do so. Frankly, I can’t blame them if they don’t.
What nudges this game over to the ‘worth playing’ column, for me, is the sense of immersion the game provides. This feels very much like Star Trek. The music, the sound design, the user interface, the variety of characters and life forms – it all contributes to the atmosphere of a rich and detailed universe that many people have dreamed of joining for years. Hearing Alexander Courage’s music at the completion of a difficult mission seems to have an almost magical quality for me, washing away frustration at pirates or Klingons that was gnawing at my patience. I feel that Star Trek Online has a lot of potential. It’s made some mistakes here and there, but there’s a sense of overall improvement that, hopefully, will continue into the future.
It really does come down to personal taste if you feel Star Trek Online will be worth your time and money. I can’t blame the people who will decide that it isn’t. I, on the other hand, will be setting my course for the release date of February 2, and it is my sincere hope that as much fun as I’ve had so far in the beta, crashes and bugs and lag aside, Cryptic has even more to offer. Cryptic, make it so.