Archive for the ‘PC’ Category

Trackmania Turbo runs laps around me-too modern racing games

April 2, 2016

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I remember cramming Super Mario Kart in the cartridge slot of my Super Nintendo, so many years after my brother sold his. Hearing the notes of its MIDI theme again was like sucking in air, or discovering a scratched and scraped action figure in the basement. Seeing Koopa Troopa, Toad, and Bowser drive past their pastel mountains, my pupils constricted to dots, and I remembered that this was it. No other game has ever, will ever capture that feeling of channeled chaos—because Super Mario Kart already captured it, perfectly.

Trackmania Turbo, though, comes dangerously close. Recently released to no fanfare whatsoever by developer Nadeo and publisher Ubisoft at a budget $40 price point, Trackmania Turbo is the latest in a long line of cult racers that I have never played. The title screams shovelware, the box art screams shovelware, the unfocused aesthetic screams shovelware.

But Trackmania may be the single most exciting racing game since Super Mario Kart first red-shelled the world 24 years ago. Here’s why:

The feel of the wheel

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Trackmania Turbo knows there’s more to racing than simulation. On a television screen, it’s not enough to be realistic; one must be extra-realistic, surrealistic, impressionistic. No amount of gear-shifting or cockpit detail can compensate for the raw speed and heft of a car hurtling through space. Trackmania feels fast, intense, weighty. These cars scream around turns. They are precise, but oh so arcadey. The exaggerated physics are outrageous and only add to the fun. Trackmania captures the impression of racing. Instead of fiddly gear-shifting engineers, we are invited to become howling children enjoying our very first rollercoaster ride.

Falling into flow

On the first level, your car falls into a nosedive from a helicopter. Your wheels spin at max speed as you hit the half-pipe that begins the track. You whip around barriers into your first U-turn and nudge the brake, which sends your vehicle into an intensely satisfying drift. Should you slam into a barrier (it happens), the brake acts as a totally garbage reverse button. Don’t use it. Hit the restart button instead. In an instant, you’re counting down, 3-2-1, and back in the race. There is no loading to interrupt your retry. Feel the flow.

Simple, difficult pleasures

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Being that accelerate and brake are the only two core buttons, you might think Trackmania Turbo is easy. Ain’t so. Despite its simplicity, this is an incredibly challenging, precise racer. So when you hit that barrier, you already beefed it. You might get the bronze; hypothetically speaking, you might even get silver. But you aren’t getting gold, and you won’t be satisfied with your run. Hit the restart button. It’s the right thing to do; you will feel good about it. Because you’re playing a game that’s easy to learn and hard to master, and you will enjoy the road to mastery.

Tracks and tracks and tracks

There’s a lot to master: Trackmania Turbo shipped with 200 tracks. I assume that many of these are fan favorites from early Trackmania games, because they’re very, very good. The tracks start out shorter in length. Most are one lap only; many are only 30 seconds long. They’ll keep you very busy. There are four different track types: Grand Canyon Drift, Down and Dirty Valley, Rollercoaster Lagoon, and International Stadium.

These tracks are not humdrum ovals. They are massively staged, with landscapes stretching into the distance. These are the type of track where you will ramp over a valley and through the ring of a giant pink donut, or corkscrew up roller coaster rails before flying off and latching onto their magnetized underside. Don’t think Forza. Think Hot Wheels meets F-Zero. More than anything, these tracks remind me of the stage design in Super Monkey Ball—these are tracks you’ll remember. Oh, and there’s a random track generator. And a track builder. And you can play other people’s custom tracks. That’s a lot of tracks. That’s a trackstravaganza.

Co-op romance and bromance

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And those 200 tracks? Every single one is available in the brilliant Double Driver mode. Two drivers team together to control one car, their inputs averaging out to control where the car moves. It is a mode that should not work, yet works flawlessly. Racing games are a very binary genre; strictly speaking, there is only one “right” move. So when you’re both double driving, you’re co-testing your ability to both be totally right at the same time. And once you sink into the groove, you’ll perform incredibly. My single proudest trial time was set in double driver with my girlfriend. We absolutely crushed. We are the best.

Hundred-player online insanity

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At its core, then, Trackmania Turbo is a time trial game. You race against staff ghosts, earn a good time, and then race against your own ghost. This type of gameplay can lead to some pretty lame online: download a ghost, race a ghost, snooze away. This game, though. This game.

Trackmania drops you into online matches with upwards of 100 other players, all racing at the same time. They’re real-time ghosts, displaying their usernames overhead, swerving into walls, careening over barriers, hurtling into the abyss. It’s pure madness. But since this is a time trial game, they don’t actually mess you up. You have 5 minutes to race your best lap, with as many retries as you need. Once you finish a lap, you start again and keep going. This works brilliantly because you can jump into a game at any time, and you never have to sit out. You are always racing, you are always learning, and you are always having a good time.

Couch multiplayer monster mash

Many people who play Trackmania Turbo will be disappointed by the game’s versus multiplayer. They’ll play the splitscreen, realize it’s pretty meh, and not play any of the other modes. Do not be this person. Do. Not. Because the best mode is Hot Seat, where players take turns instead of racing at the same time.

As single cars or double drivers, 1-16(!) players take turns racing to see who can score the best time. So what, right? Here’s the rub: Each player has a limited amount of gas. After each person races, the person in last place keeps running the track until they pass another racer or get eliminated. If that player ranks up they stay in the game, and the new last place player has to run.

There are so many reasons I love this mode. I love that the person who performs poorly gets to run the race repeatedly, encouraging them to gain skill as they race and re-race. I love that there’s a palpable tension as players race to stay alive, rankings shifting and rivalries changing. I love that players can take a break to regroup and appreciate the crashes while they wait for their turn to play. I love how much smack talk this mode encourages—even the announcer talks smack. Sometimes he changes accents. Sometimes he’s actually massively encouraging.

You can feel that this is where the team at Nadeo put their multiplayer resources. Hot Seat mode is glorious, practically cementing Trackmania Turbo as the must-have multiplayer party game this generation. And the best part is, you don’t need more than two controllers to realize the mode’s maximum potential. I could write an essay on why this mode is so good.

What I really mean to say

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Only time will tell if Trackmania Turbo is worthy of all the memories it’s rekindled, and solidify whether this is my favorite racing game since Super Mario Kart. There are contenders for that crown: Crash Team Racing, F-Zero GX, Burnout Revenge, Sonic All-Stars Transformed. Let that list decide whether you can be interested in Trackmania Turbo. But if you love manic single-player time trials or no-holds-barred multiplayer grudge races, Trackmania Turbo is absolutely essential. Don’t be fooled by the bland name, the shovelware cover, or the fairly average review scores. In an era of blandly realistic racing simulators, Trackmania Turbo makes everything else eat dust.

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You (really) need to play Eschatos

August 26, 2015

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Maybe you’re thinking: Scrolling shooters, eh. This one doesn’t even look that great… the graphics are pretty Dreamcast, the action looks junky, whatever. And in response I could explain that I had the exact same reaction and, you know, try to explain the details about why I ended up playing Eschatos anyways.

Well, forget all that noise. All of it. Eschatos hits Steam tomorrow, and you should play it, because Eschatos is the fucking greatest.

Reasons why Eschatos is the greatest like wow:

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1. Eschatos is every scrolling shooter rolled into one

Eschatos exists in a universe where scrolling shooter subgenres didn’t break apart and become endlessly specialized; it can’t accurately be called a traditional shooter, manic shooter, or bullet hell. Eschatos is all of these and also sometimes it is Galaga.

2. Eschatos has the best soundtrack of any game not named Chrono Trigger or Chrono Cross

Very few games are elevated by their soundtracks, but composer Yousuke Yasui has created an energetic, emotional soundtrack that stands as one of the best in the medium. It really hits you in the feels and it even makes the shooting more shootier.

3. Eschatos is fully 3D and that’s crazy

This seems like a minor point; there are a lot of scrolling shooters with 3D graphics. But Eschatos takes this a step further, with dynamic camera angles that highlight the action. They’re skillfully integrated, making Eschatos feel cinematic without interrupting gameplay. These camera angles will blow your mind and you will enjoy shooting things like never before.

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4. Eschatos never stops

Eschatos doesn’t have discrete levels. Instead it has one continuously flowing stage, a choice which lends the game a sense of narrative design that other shooters lack. Players are always playing instead of sitting through “fade to black” moments. Think of the intro to Half-Life and how much you enjoyed looking around that tram as Gordon Freeman, and then imagine that’s not boring and instead is great. Eschatos is like that. There are no breaks; you are always playing.

5. Eschatos has the single most serene moment in any videogame, ever

Eschatos’ narrative strengths and Yasui’s compositions work together to create one perfect moment halfway through the game. Haunting music begins as the player’s ship blasts off from Earth’s atmosphere and into the depths of space, the planet Eschatos looming in the distance. It’s a singularly beautiful moment that I look forward to every time I play.

6. Eschatos’ shield mechanic cuts through the bullshit

A lot of scrolling shooters have a gotcha moment that takes you off guard and generally just ruins your day. “That’s not fair!” you scream, as rain falls outside your window and world hunger continues to be real. But Eschatos actively refuses to be unfair. The player’s ship has a shield which can actively cut through the most difficult waves of bullets, giving Eschatos a sense of freedom that other shooters lack. It’s not completely do or die; you can improvise your way out of certain death. Don’t rely on the shield too much, though—it can only help out so much before it needs to recharge.

7. Eschatos is loaded with content

Eschatos doesn’t mess around, because Eschatos is the real deal. There are three game modes, all incredibly fun, with a bunch of difficulty options ranging from “actually easy” to “this was programmed as a cruel joke.” Eschatos also has a system of progressive score-based unlockables that let you tweak the game’s graphical effects to your liking. Oh, and there’s an endless mode in case you never ever want to stop playing Eschatos.

8. Eschatos actually makes you think about what you’re doing instead of holding the shot button like a big dumb baby

In most modern day shooters, you might as well hold down the shot button constantly, because it covers the whole screen and there’s no reason to do otherwise. But Eschatos’ system of weaker wide shots versus more powerful narrow shots (and let’s not forget the shield!) encourages players to switch between shot types to take out enemy waves. There’s a sense of puzzliness to it too, and it’s really satisfying to work out which shot works best in which situations.

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9. Eschatos’ scoring mechanics don’t require a technical manual to understand

If I’ve got to browse online forums to even figure out how a shooter’s scoring system works, then that shooter is doing it wrong. Eschatos’ scoring is simple and fun—you get bonus points and a point multiplier for killing all the enemy waves as fast as possible. Boom, got it. If that’s not enough for you, there’s an Advanced mode that introduces a lot of quirky mechanics and score candy.

10. Eschatos’ boss battles are short, sweet, and to the point

I hate boss battles where you spend half the time not even damaging the boss, because he has to do some stupid garbage attack before you can even try to take him out. The bosses in Eschatos are all incredibly fun without having neverending health bars or snooze-worthy gimmick attacks. And that final boss. Oh man. I think he may be the best final boss.

11. Eschatos’ graphics are actually kinda good, really you guys

I know, I know. Dreamcast visuals, etc. (Or, god forbid, N64 visuals?) But there are really a lot of great explosions and particle effects in this game, the outer space scenery is unbelievably gorgeous, and the alien designs actually look alien. Plus, the graphical style is like a 3D update to what shooting games looked like in the ‘80s. Eschatos appreciates the genre’s history without being all “hey guys am I retro yet?” about it.

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12. Eschatos comes with two other totally amazing games

Okay, so I don’t know if this holds true for the Steam release—but publisher Degica Games have hinted that they’re going to release the award-winning Judgement Silversword and Cardinal Sins at some point in the future. These Wonderswan Color(!) games are almost as good as Eschatos, and really blew away all my expectations for what a handheld shooting game could be. They don’t feel quaint or compromised at all; they’re really some of the best scrolling shooters you’ll ever play. And, finally:

13. Eschatos really makes you think about life

Like, wow.

I wanna be the Final Boss

August 10, 2015

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Holy crap. How can something so awesome sit right under my nose for so long? Even as a freeware scrolling shooter with just three (incredibly, unbelievably wonderful) stages, Final Boss stands toe-to-toe with the genre greats that inspired it. Gradius, R-Type, Raiden, and lesser-known classics like Eschatos—move over. Final Boss is here.

The developers would, of course, balk at being compared with those classics. There’s love for the genre in every frame of Final Boss, from battles against the Vic Viper and R-Type Arrowhead, to certain Rayforce-inspired weaponry, to an endgame surprise that exceeded my wildest expectations. Playing Final Boss makes it immediately clear how much the developers love scrolling shooters.

Final Boss also makes clear just how much has gone wrong with the genre. Look, I love scrolling shooters too. I love them to death. I’ve written about them on this blog plenty of times. But when I think about them as they are, right now, they’re a dying genre. They’re so niche, so specialized, that there’s nothing for new players to grasp onto except for the occasional Jamestown, Sine Mora, or Ikaruga. The reasons for this are plenty: Shooters have trended toward magical girls instead of mecha; toward too many bullets; toward a lack of narrative flow and meaningful progression; toward scoring systems that require technical manuals to understand.

Final Boss strips away the genre’s bitter rind to reveal the pulp inside. While playing, I was struck time and time again by just how much the developers have gotten right. Each level flows from scene to scene, pitting players against diverse challenges culminating in a breakneck boss battle. That’s nothing new. What’s new is that Final Boss offers players real choice. Beat the first level and you can choose one of two subweapons to use for the rest of the game: Rear fire or side shot, each of which drastically change the way players approach enemy swarms. And Final Boss offers another subweapon at the end of every level, each choice more impressive than the last, so that subsequent stages bring with them new opportunities, challenges, and a tacit understanding that the player is one step closer to becoming the Final Boss.

And god, these stages. There have been essays about how level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. is the perfect tutorial—Final Boss’s stages are exactly like that. Each blistering act teaches you everything you need to know, right as it happens, and they progress from beat to beat to beat without halting the action for a second. They contain as many ideas as any three levels in another shooter, the third level in particular being absolutely sublime. At one point, the player sees a glimmering tower in the distance and descends through the clouds toward it, where coils a mecha-serpent ready to strike. It’s a marvel, calling to mind the Mode 7 bosses of Konami and Treasure at their best. In any other shooter this technical showpiece would be the end of stage boss. In Final Boss, it’s just another part of the level.

This level of polish and perfection is apparent in every aspect of the game. The graphics are chunky and authentic without pandering to retro cliches. The scoring system is direct and effective, tasking players with destroying enemies in quick succession. There aren’t any slow-moving bullet hell waves to scare off new players, rather, shots are fast and furious volleys that test players’ skill and reflexes. The game is tough but fair, awarding players with extra continues as they play and replay stages. It’s damned good, and totally accessible to new players.

I can’t say enough good things about this game. I’ve spoken with the developers, two humble peeps from Finland who insist that Final Boss still feels to them like some “indie freeware shooter.” I’m going to respectfully disagree. To me, that’s like calling Shovel Knight “just some Megaman wannabe.” There are some rough edges, of course. The game is too short, obviously, and it has Engrish-ey scrolling shooter memes sprinkled awkwardly throughout. The devs have stated that these memes are already removed in their latest build, and were holdovers from when the project was less ambitious. Even in its unfinished state, I consider Final Boss to be in the upper echelon of shooters; there’s very little about its design that doesn’t feel considered, warranted, wonderful.

So play it. Here’s the link to the three-stage demo. Tell me what you think. Tell the developers what you think. I want to see the day when Final Boss is released; I want to see scrolling shooters change, and grow; I want them to have a future.

But, most of all, I want you to experience what it’s like to be Final Boss.

The politics of Hatred

December 18, 2014

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“At the end of the day you, gamers will judge if we were able to do a game that’s simply fun to play,” reads a press release from the developers of Hatred, a game about killing everyone you meet and then yourself. The trailer shows brutal stabbings and shotgun executions of civilians and policemen; the developer’s website describes it as anti-trend, a reaction to games “heading to be polite, colorful, politically correct and trying to be some kind of higher art, rather than just an entertainment.” Because the real way to create a mass-murder game that’s just entertainment is to infuse it with a politically charged message of artistic and authorial intent, obviously.

Members of the gaming community expressed outraged that Valve removed Hatred from Steam Greenlight after a petition was signed against it. There’s a constant worry among gamers that outsiders are going to take their videogame guns away, as if there’s any actual danger of violent games going extinct. Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Destiny, Halo, Hotline Miami, Tomb Raider, Last of Us, Battlefield — videogame nice guy Nathan Drake makes a charming quip before gunning down two hundred nameless soldiers. Violent games aren’t going anywhere.

Case in point: Hatred is now back up for votes Steam Greenlight.

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PC review: Doom

July 15, 2013

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Twenty years later, Doom remains the last word in fast-paced single player shooting. First person shooters have become an incredibly diverse genre, venturing into roleplaying territory and stealth action, but there’s very little out there that rivals Doom’s purity and speed. No game’s outstripped it in its own territory. Very few even try.

Having only recently played it for the first time, I was impressed by how well it holds up. Doom still feels incredibly fresh and increasingly relevant.

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