PC Gone Mad #2 – Casual Smasual
There’s a myth that you may hear from time to time. This myth is that PC games sales are on the decrease and the platform is dying. That’s simply not the case, just as it's not been case for the last god knows how many years this bullshit has been claimed. Sure, the fairly open ended nature of the platform is a problem as it’s not controlled and monitored by a single company whose best interests lie in the recording of sales and what not. It’s both a strength and weakness for the platform that this disorganised hotchpotch exists. It's a strength because with no controlling company comes no licensing costs or a large bureaucratic bottleneck for content updates, so games can be distributed in a number of ways for a much lower cost and updates can be churned out ten a penny – often for free. More often than not, you’ll pay £10 to £20 more for a console version of a game and that extra content available through Xbox Live and what not will cost you, too. However, the greater range of distribution (well, the high level of online distribution) just isn’t being recorded. A great big whopping chunk of PC games sales are just lost. That’s why it looks like a flagging platform and, to put it mildly, that is a load of old cock. Give it a while, and we'll have the PC Gaming Alliance fixing a lot of what's wrong with the general perception of the industry, and hopefully fixing some of the problems that it undoubtedly has (the lack of complete sales stats and the joke that is 'Minimum Requirements' for a start.) Whatever the case, it's online distribution and the tools and communities surrounding that will usher PC gaming into the new age and make sure everything stays ticking along nicely while consoles are getting ready to engage in yet another damaging 'war' over which brick is best.
One of the fastest growing online sales and community platforms is, of course, Valve's Steam and they're currently doing stupid money providing a a wide range of 'casual' games for a fraction of the price of big blockbusters and, frankly, they're taking over the fucking world. So, for this edition of PCGM, here's a selection of the more notable titles I've personally picked up through Steam in the last months and my opinion on whether you should spend your hard earned pocket change on them.
Ninja Reflex: Steamworks Edition - $9.99
Notable for being one of the first third party games to utilise Valve's excellent Steamworks framework, Ninja Reflex: Steamworks Edition is the perfect example of something that should be done a whole lot more: the porting of Nintendo Wii games to the PC. It's a beautifully elegant idea; the Wii-mote controls translate almost perfectly to the mouse and in an instant an over priced Wii game is transformed into a highly entertaining and, most importantly, budget PC game. What's more, extra effort has been taken by the developers (Sanzaru Games: a tiny but completely excellent development house, who provided some brilliant post-sales support in the Steam Forums) to spruce up the game with graphic elements from Valve's Orange Box. Don't be surprised to see a Strider lurking in the forest, or your Sensei -- wearing Gordon Freeman's glasses -- perched atop his Companion Cube... clearly, they knew their new target audience very well.
The game itself is good. It's far from popular, receiving poor reviews for both its Wii and Steamworks versions, but that seems a tad unfair. The basic premise of the game is to advance through the ranks of Ninjadom, through increasingly difficult tests of reflexes, combat and patience (tests include catching flies with chopsticks, battling troublesome Onis with your katana, catching Koi with your bare hands and smashing seven shades of shit out some fruit with nunchuckus.) The biggest problem with the game is its lack of variety, as you'll find yourself repeating the same six challenges over and over again, but with greater demands on your speed and endurance. This does effectively give you a sense of advancement as your improvements are more obvious with such a narrow set of skills, but it's hard to shake the feeling that you're just joylessly grinding at times. More variety in the challenges would've happily lessened the fatigue you experience as you approach the final belts.
I love it, though. A flawed game it may be, but it represents the (hopeful) beginning of a new and exciting trade. I want more Wii games on the PC and I want them NOW. We'd buy them up in droves, I promise.
Everyday Shooter - $9.99
The famous Geometry Wars was a huge hit on the Xbox 360's LIVE Arcade and, naturally, there's been somewhat of an influx of clones. Everyday Shooter is probably the best of that bunch, by virtue of being a little more than just an interesting cluster fuck of particle effects. The game offers 7 different (and gradually unlocked) environments, each with their own distinctive and rather fetching styles. The aim is to seek out each level's special way to release points (for example, in the first level, just killing stuff will earn you nowt - you have to set off a chain reaction of death by targeting certain entities) in the form of little blocks, and collect them without losing all your lives like a massive idiot. Each level is scored with its own, usually pleasing, guitar theme and your wild, random shooting will contribute messily to this like some sort of epileptic lead guitarist. It's a nice idea and the pre-written stuff really is very nice, but your contribution to proceedings is usually less than pleasing at best.
Remember those points, anyway? Well, they're there so you can unlock game features such as the luxury to actually choose what level you want to play on, randomise the order of the regular game mode or even buy extra starting lives. That last one is important, actually. When you begin, the amount of lives you start with is pretty pathetic and, frankly, won't get you anywhere fast. You find yourself having to replay the first and second stages over and over and fucking over again until you have enough points to buy an extra life, the cost of which is then DOUBLED for the next time iteration. It basically forces you to do a whole lotta grind before you have the ability to jump into the later levels (unless you're freakishly good), so things get very boring very fast. The unlock idea isn't a bad one, but the items are so expensive and the methods of point collection so tricky on some levels, that it seems horribly unfair.
So; pretty and pleasing to the ears it certainly is. Balanced or much fun after a couple of days it is not.
Trackmania Nations Forever - Free
You can't get much cheaper than free and, in the case of Trackmania Nations Forever, free is an excellent deal. This is basically the stripped down version of the $40 Trackmania United Forever, but the fact that it's stripped down is probably one of its greatest assets. For your lack of money, you get one car (a kind of an F1 type thing) and a whole stack of different tracks for you to zip around in the fastest time possible, collecting medals as you go. You can either do this on your own, or against freaks online. It's as simple as that.
The key to this game is the stripped down nature of its mechanics and how this contributes to it being only slightly less addictive than a heroin laced crack cocaine crumble. It's not a racing game where you worry about car setup, traction control or even basic physics. You point where you want the car to go, make sure you're going at the right speed and hope to hell you don't clip that wall for the fucking thousand millionth fucking arsing FUCKING TIME ARG.
The biggest problem with this game is the forced nature of the limitations it gives you. If you even dare to breath on a barrier or drive along a bit of the terrain you're not supposed to and your arse is busted down to 10 Mph and your time is completely screwed. That jump looks pretty straight forward, doesn't it? Well, no, because you didn't hit the ramp at exactly the right point and so the game has decided to fuck you up the arse and send you spinning on to your roof about 10 miles from your destination. Of course, this all contributes to the aforementioned addictiveness, as it's far too easy to just reset the race, and try again for that next milestone.
Basically, it's a great idea for a game, very slickly executed and it looks lovely, but because I'm so completely infuriated by the ridiculous perfection that some of the later tracks demand, I'm going to say it's a shit game because I CAN'T DO IT WAH, I HATE IT I HATE IT.
The Wonderful End of the World - $9.99
This recently released game is 'inspired' by the famous and excellent Katamari series of games. Seriously, it's practically identical, art style and all. Not that matters, though, as it means we finally have something approaching Katamari on the PC and that makes me happy.
The basic premise is that the end of the world is coming, and only you -- a kind of ethereal, sticky man type thing -- can collect as much stuff as you can to save it from the oncoming apocalypse. At the start you can only suck in small objects, but as you grow larger and larger you can pick up bigger objects until you've picked up the lot. It's really quite an ace game mechanic, as it's probably one of the most satisfying and obvious forms of progression. You know that annoying massive dog that was bashing into you all the time a few minutes ago? Well, now you're sweeping him up in your torrent of stuff, along with a few buses and phone boxes for good measure.
Visually it's hugely simplistic, but this feels necessary to allow for the varying scales and for allowing for it to run on as many computers as possible. Bafflingly, though, players have horrendous slowdown even on high end machines, so perhaps a little more time on optimisation was needed. In fact, with a game like this, it seems unforgiveable that there isn't a bit more of a polish on it all. Granted it must be difficult to build a world around a constantly growing character, but the clipping issues are truly shocking and you can sometimes find yourself stuck under a bookcase for what seems like an age. A game like this should flow seamlessly, and when there are so few levels, I expect more from the mechanics.
Still, this is a great deal of fun and, despite some of the levels being far too similar to each other, gems like 'Arcadia' and the 'Word Forge' levels really shine and pretty much justify the whole game. So long as you learn to ignore that fucking 'wacky' voice-over.
While we're here, let's not forget about the subject of PCGM#1, Audiosurf. Regular updates are still rolling out and the user base is as strong ever, plus let's not forget that it's probably one of the best indie games ever released. That's quite an important point.
Obviously Steam isn't the be all and end all when it comes to the casual games market, but it's as good a place as any to delve into, especially since there seems to be a pretty good level of quality control when it comes to what is released, so you can usually be assured of quality.
In the next PC Gone Mad I'm going to take my horrendously old PC, throw lots of recent big name, big budget games at it and see what sticks, hopefully with hilarious consequences.