Tag Archives: stealth

Thief Review: Lost in the Dark

Thief

You exist only in the light or in the dark. There is no gradient and there is no nuance. It is a binary state: can you be seen or can you not? It is a problem with the new Thief game, and it is also every problem with the new Thief game. It is a product wholly comprised of blunt interactions and, occasionally, broken ones as well. But it is perhaps not as lackluster as it is disappointing.

Long ago in an age of video games where standard mechanics and player-interaction vocabulary had yet to be established, Looking Glass Studios set out to create as many molds as it would eventually break. Among the wreckage of abject creativity was Thief: The Dark Project, blazing the path for much of what we consider to be part of stealth games.

16 years later (and 10 after the last release of Thief: Deadly Shadows), we have Thief, a revival of the series more than a reboot or any such thing. You continue to play as master pilferer Garrett, returning to his hometown of The City after, uh, some long time away. Unfortunately, he finds that The Baron has taken over, ignoring the plight of the amassing poor in the streets and the plague ravaging his subjects. Garrett plans to do something about it.

Or something. It’s a strange, unfocused tale including an inordinate amount of mysticism. It’s not that any of it doesn’t make sense. Quite the contrary, for it makes far too much sense because we’ve seen most of it all before, and now in Thief it has achieved some blob-shaped conglomerate form. The plot meanders and plods along until it ultimately reaches some hazy end.

Which is somewhat funny considering that one of Garrett’s primary abilities is called Focus, though it only seems to serve to highlight the unrefined nature of the game’s grand design. You see, there is a great deal of objects in the gothic world you can interact with including objects to climb, traps to avoid, and people to mug. Other than his enhanced ambulatory skills, Garrett’s ability hone in on these things is his greatest asset.

Focus, however, drains an expendable resource. By consuming poppies, you can restore this meter and continue to go through the game with your enhanced perception. Or you can forget the poppies completely and keep using Focus with little to no consequence. So then why in the world would you bother collecting poppies? Thief immediately undermines itself with this decision, but it is a necessary one to avoid you stumbling aimlessly through its levels.

Thief

You find this problem strewn throughout Thief, defeating itself before you have a chance to defeat its purposeful obstacles. Enemies are so incredibly mindless that it renders much of the stealth you attempt inconsequential. Either you are too brazen and get spotted or too slow and get bored. Get in a fight with all but one guard and the last one will peek into the room and shrug his shoulders. But then knock over a vase and he will vow to spend his one life finding you in the darkness.

Indoor areas are so mind-numbing in their linearity that the thought of getting lost is a welcome one. One-way exits and inscrutable leads flatten the spatial representation in the mind rather than expand it. And then you will often find yourself on the tail end of a massively scripted sequence meant to get the blood pumping but will do little more than scramble the brain as you wonder, “Aren’t I supposed to be sneaky?”

Just as importantly, The City’s design is undermined by its own denizens. In what is presented as a Victorian-era environment of caste systems built atop a foundation of astounding poverty, we get guards with an indeterminate range of modern accents and dialects (one bark includes the word “stuff,” a monosyllabic utterance that completely shattered any interest I had in the world) and an obviously blind populace judging by how much god damn jewelry and gold they leave in the streets.

Thief

And for no particular reason, we have a nimble and crafty thief capable of clambering up to rooftops in a matter of seconds and yet he can’t get over a barrel. Instead of a discrete jump or climb button, you have an Assassin’s Creed-equivalent “high profile” button that enables facilitated locomotion. But for all the windows you can open and the vases you can break, so much of the world falls under the banner of Can’t Touch This, leaving you with a bumbling Garrett and an invisible wall.

There are, however, bits and pieces that standout. Sneaking around can be exciting in its raw state. Stepping out quickly from the shadows to snag a pouch of gold before retreating unseen is smile-inducing. There are optional areas you can break into that reveal execution matching the exemplary concept art shown in the loading screens, production value and diligence abound.

But that does little to mask Thief‘s greater failings. Overly linear in places while availing you with a somewhat open world and a thief of limited yet great capacity. A world of amazing genesis but stumbling, muddled execution. Plot points that seem like a regurgitation thrown over one of the great antiheroes of gaming lore. It tries—sometimes too much and sometimes too little—but rarely succeeds. Thief doesn’t steal my heart so much as it has stolen my time.

Thief

+ Occasionally come across areas of inspired design and implementation
+ Darting from shadow to shadow as you pilfer riches can be fun
– Eventually stealing just becomes tiring, as does sneaking, fighting, and playing
– Story is rote despite it overly mystical nature

Final Score: 5 out of 10

Game Review: Thief
Release: February 25, 2014
Genre: First-person stealth
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Players: Singleplayer
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://www.thiefgame.com/‎

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Truly A Game

Truly A Game

Prepare yourself for a tautology: games are games. Video games, no matter how original or artful or steeped in tropes long refined, are just bits and pieces of things we’ve grown far too accustomed, perhaps even weary. More and more, you may find yourself saying a game is trite rather than it is objectively poor.

Good games are the ones that either hide these discrete chunks or utilize their copy-paste nature as a part of their feature set rather than a detriment. It’s a bit like alchemy in that way, where you take something intrinsically less valuable and turn it into something shiny. Consider the active reload of Gears of War. What is it beyond a digitized ticket-spewing skill game tied to a damage boost?

Yet it was considered essential to the whole Gears of War package, a vital component to its success. And it was because it took a necessary action (reloading) and turned it from something mundane into something engaging (which eventually would morph into a shibboleth of pro gamers). It is such an incredibly “gamey” facet of the series.

Gears of War 3

Other games tend to lay their foundation bare. Look around you and you see rebar poking out from the walls, brick beneath the drywall. Two recent releases made me think about this heartily these past few days. The first is Thief, the modern revival of the long dormant first-person stealth series. A full review is forthcoming, but first some tangential thoughts.

As considerably innovative as the first Thief game was (one of many revolutionary titles from the legendary Looking Glass Studios), this fourth entry into the franchise is fully enmeshed in the idea of being a game. It makes no apologies for it, either.

Garrett, the playable character, is a master thief living in a downtrodden, dirty Victorian-era city. True to the setting from which it draws its inspiration, the vast majority of the city’s population is just depressingly poor, people performing jobs they’d rather not or living lives they’d rather end. Abject poverty dwells right out in the streets.

Thief

Inexplicably so. There is gold everywhere. You pick up valuable trinkets and goblets and phat stacks of coin right up off the ground. It feels almost entirely like picking up coins in a Mario game or bananas in a Donkey Kong game. They’re left to bring up a compulsion in the player to leave a clean screen in their wake, a sentiment mashed into our heads since the dawn of the medium.

Soooo many windows are open to being breached, making available the treasures within. Perhaps it’s an allegory to the spending/saving mentality of the modern American society—the one that led us to a largely broken economy—but that is probably a sizable stretch. A sizable, unearned stretch.

The stealth is unapologetically game-infused, as well. A preface, first: this is nothing like the gameplay of Dishonored. Dishonored was very much a utility towards personal expression, giving you a wide array of tools to be precisely the Corvo you want to be. Thief aims to be a strict stealth game. Hiding in shadows isn’t an option; it’s a requirement. Conflict means you messed up.

Thief

And that’s not a negative statement (keep in mind that this is not a review). It’s just to set you up to understand this: noise is an important part of staying stealthy. Creating any amount of clatter will arouse suspicion from guards and civilians in places you shouldn’t be, which is pretty much everywhere. Your nimbleness is your greatest asset.

Your greatest enemy, however, is a laughable amount of pottery. It is an arbitrary setup to establish difficulty in moving about the world, and “arbitrary” is perhaps the most defining factor of a staple gaming element. These are ginned up obstacles for the sake of increasing the duration or iterations of the gameplay loop. Not a terrible idea considering it does make vigilance a necessity, but it is a barely masked concession.

The other game that stuck out to me was Rambo: The Video Game. You might assume it’s a terrible game (a safe assumption, I would say), but it’s so oddly, nigh impossibly entrenched in video game-ness. It’s an on-rails shooter wholly embodying the strange dichotomy between First Blood and the rest of the film franchise.

Rambo: The Video Game

You earn more points for not killing cops that attack you, where instead your shoot the gun out of their hands or blast them in the chest juuuuust enough to put them on the ground but not permanently out of commission. It stands out so stridently as being a gamey representation of Rambo’s original sentiment. It is a shooter after all. What are you to do besides shoot the dudes shooting at you?

Once again, there’s nothing wrong with a game being a game. That is, after all, what they are. There’s no point in denying their true nature. But as the industry and the medium ages and matures, either integrating or throwing a facade over the essential components becomes more important. It’s come to the point where doing either poorly is remarkable, and not in a good way.

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Forced From Hiding in The Last of Us

Forced From Hiding in The Last of Us

There’s a certain comfort afforded to us in death. If only in video games, it’s a chance to try again but with new knowledge. It borders on precognition, if not prescience. When you fall and rise again, you are the only one keenly aware of this infernal cycle, the only one knowing how this ended before and how it will end soon enough. It’s a bit like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. No one else knows that this is the 100th time you’ve done this, but you do.

Eventually you begin to call out rote patterns of easily manipulated behaviors. From your cozy vantage point of interminable life from a bed and an “I Got You, Babe” alarm or from behind a crate and a rifle scope, choices from autonomous agents become less interesting and more rote, adherence to a strict schedule that you fill in for yourself. If I got here, then he goes there and I can do this, or then that guy does this while I do that and so on and so on. Your list of causes begins to find its effects, pegs to their holes.

In some ways, this is a satisfying loop. It is, at its most rudimentary, a form of learning, albeit an interactive one. Such as in Call of Duty games when you play Veteran difficulty, you end up playing the same two-minute chunk of a level over and over and over again until the AI and routines of enemies and friendlies alike become an extension of your knowledge of the natural world. Gravity pulls at 9.8 meters per second, inertia is a property of matter, and in 10 seconds, a grenade is going to come through that front window and I’ll dodge into the next room so I can shoot three guys coming from the back so that in three more seconds, someone will set off my proximity mine at the side door. It’s the same sort of satisfaction of setting up and fully executing a Rube Goldberg machine except you are every piece of it.

But that is not a very deep type of learning. It can be ingrained in you deeply, yes, but that is not the same thing. These hamster wheels are pure operant conditioning in the cognitive sense; you are punished or rewarded for your ability to tie together cause and effect, a process that borders on simple habituation or rote learning. Memorizing your multiplication tables earns you the ability to recall very quickly what two times two or eight times five are, but they don’t gain you any deeper understanding of what it means to integrate a differential equation.

The Last of Us, the big title release for Sony from Naughty Dog this Summer, is a really good game with a trite but exceptionally well done story, but I’m sure you already knew that since you read our review. Just about everything in The Last of Us is superb from the acting to the graphics to the music to the systemic design of the combat encounters and the game’s mechanics, but perhaps one of the greatest things it does is one that few people ever bring up: it teaches you how to die.

Or rather, it teaches you how to get the most from death. With most other games, when you die and reset at a combat checkpoint, you and all your enemies reset to the same positions. This much is also true of The Last of Us, but then what happens after the game gets set back into motion is wildly different. All that cause and effect stuff that you learned before as Joel remains true (if this guy goes this way, I can go this way and choke him out), but it doesn’t matter; it all changes. That guy will not go that way so you cannot choke him out. You cannot simply sit idly by and wait for you moment to come because by then, they will have found you. And killed you.

These deaths force you to throw away the meta conditioning within conventional games as whole where once you begin to make progress, you keep hammering on that point of ingress until you succeed or retreat to the last point of failure and hammer somewhere else. It’s a bit like the algorithm for depth-first tree traversal except the tree is full of bodies instead of nodes. But in The Last of Us, deaths force you to try new tactics in a more consistent manner. There are still situations where you can get by with simplistic repetition and process of elimination such as with Clicker and Runner patrol paths, but enemies in search mode instead of patrol mode break that warm, cuddly blanket of wait and see.

The best example I can think of is when Joel makes it into the building about a third of the way through the game and fully commits to Ellie (careful to avoid spoilers). There are multiple instances where you enter a new encounter and enemies come in on the other end and are actively looking for you. I would start out behind a couch, move left behind a desk, and wait. One guy would come by, another would come by, and finally a third would strangle behind and I would take him out. Then I moved on until I messed it all up and died.

Then I would start out behind the couch again sans Cher (sorry, Murray). I would move left again to the desk and wait for the three guys to come by again, but instead, one of them comes around the left side of the desk as the other moves along the far right of the couch. My only recourse is the middle, but the third guy can see me from ther—yeah, you know how that ends.

I must have tried this encounter at least five or six times before I made it all the way through. And it wasn’t that I couldn’t have scraped by the skin of my teeth a few attempts earlier (I could have, or at least I think I could have) but I chose to just stand there and take a few bullets to the chest so I could start anew. It’s not that I was desperate for resources and wanted a perfect run. No, instead I knew I needed another lesson. The Last of Us does not allow for passive survivors. Perhaps it was a narrative facet of Joel’s aggressive nature, but it was something I sorely lacked when I first started playing.

And that’s less about learning a new way to play but rather learning a new part of The Last of Us. It is a wide- and deep-reaching systemic lesson taught through death that this does not play like many other survival horror or stealth games. Death in The Last of Us breaks open each knowledge-bearing coconut and makes us drink the juice before asking us again if we get it yet while other games throw the coconut at us and then tell us it threw a coconut at us. We must learn instead of memorize and we must move instead of hide. It is an exemplary design tucked away inside a trite zombie tale, a revelation found only in death’s sweet release.

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The Last of Us Review: Living Among the Dead

The Last of Us

I’ve been punched twice in my life and both were directly in the gut. If you’ve never been in a fight, you should know that they are intense. Your hands are shaking from a briny cocktail of adrenaline and nerves and your vision narrows as it blurs out everything but the guy in front of you. It’s something you don’t really forget, so those two punches and their effects are still rather fresh in my mind. The ambiguously placed pain, the need to double over and just breathe, and way your lungs feel like they’re collapsing from the lack of air in your entire body. I know what it’s like to be hit in the stomach.

And I still wasn’t ready for The Last of Us.

In the latest from developer luminary Naughty Dog, The Last of Us tells the tale of a hardened fellow named Joel and an oddly sprightly young girl named Ellie. The two are stuck together in a journey across the country as they try to survive the perils of suburbia, public transit, and shopping malls. Oh yeah, there are also zombies everywhere. The very real Cordyceps fungus that infests and controls the minds of insects and arthropods (before bursting out of their bodies like the most tragically beautiful piece of modern art you’ve ever seen) has taken a terrible turn and started to infect humans. So they’re not really zombies, but they’re the closest analog you’ll find.

The Last of Us

Anyways, it’s 2033, years since the outbreak began, and Joel has since gotten over—or rather managed to cope with—such an incredibly well done and immensely heartbreaking opening 30 minutes to a video game I’ve seen in quite some time. The rest of the world hasn’t done much better, though, as quarantine zones are overly militant compounds of malnutrition and smuggling operations while the outside is full of murderous bandits and unknown infected. Joel, however, has made a name for himself here in Boston as a smuggler not to be trifled with and eventually falls into an encounter with a rebel group known as the Fireflies, other smugglers, and a whole mess of trouble.

I won’t go into much detail about the story like how Joel and Ellie end up together, their histories, and their eventual destinations along this bloody road trip, but I will say that their relationship is so…genuine. It is disgusting how well realized and heartfelt every word and movement is that comes out of their mouths and bodies. Every prop and compliment must be given to voice and motion capture actors Troy Baker (who is nigh unrecognizable as an old Southern fogey) and Ashley Johnson (who plays 14 years old so much better than anyone over the actual age of 14 has the right to) but the writing is also just terribly immense. Little touches like the conversations they have about music and whistling to how Ellie sidles up right under Joel’s arm whenever they take cover really adds to their relationship so that when you get socked in the stomach, it hurts all the more.

Which is good because without those two and their bond carrying the story, it would be an otherwise run-of-the-mill tale of the undead and a cross country trip (to wit, when things go wrong). Most of the story beats were easily guessed, but the way they are presented and the way they develop are masterful. Even the genre itself of survival zombie horror is a bit tired, but it’s a bit of meta tragedy when you hope against hope that the things you don’t want to happen inevitably happen and you curse yourself for allowing your heart to be fooled again. By the end of it, you’ll definitely feel like you’ve been through a fight.

The Last of Us

The combat itself, however, is less pugilistic than you’d think. For the most part, you’ll spend a lot of your time crouched behind desks and tables and slowly walking behind dudes. Joel—for reasons I won’t get into—is a fairly proficient killer, but he is also still realistically fragile, or at least compared to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted hero Nathan Drake. At least in the beginning, it only takes a few hits for you to go down, so it’s often best for you to sneak around enemies rather than engage them directly. Not to mention that one of the more terrifying enemy classes called Clickers are a one-hit kill, so mind your surroundings.

Clickers are a totally blind enemy, what with their entire head engulfed in Cordyceps fungus, but they can sufficiently navigate based on sound and touch. They emit this unsettling croaking sound that will eventually haunt your dreams, so they’re impossible to miss, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to avoid. A listening mode allows you to similarly echolocate enemies through walls and floors which facilitates your sneaking—which unfortunately and strangely doesn’t work when the game wants to deliberately hide enemies from you to scare you—but you’ll often find yourself battling a mix of Clickers and Runners (generic, fast fodder enemies) and such, which makes it quite interesting to navigate each encounter. And that adds into the feel that each arena feels unique while remaining open, so running away and simply poking and prodding at the rather impressive AI until your hand is forced into action is a totally viable and heart-pounding tactic.

The problem is that each encounter is a specific type of encounter, and you don’t really know which type it is until halfway through. You either have to kill everything in the area before being allowed to proceed, forced to actively engage in open combat with throngs of foes, or you have to sneak by the best you can. Of course, you can always go for open combat if you want, but unarmed melee doesn’t work on Clickers and getting overwhelmed by Runners is a common effect of your brutish cause. But the game seems to present to you the notion that stealth is always the best option early on and then throws that out the window by forcing you to get violent.

The Last of Us

It’s really quite unfortunate because sometimes these encounters devolve from intricate stealth to chaotic brain-bashing due to ineptitude or carelessness, so those moments of pure, abject terror are lessened, a quality further brought to light with somewhat ineffectual boss fights. Especially towards the end where enemies and bullets far outweigh sneaking and shivving, you start to feel like these are less instances of your scraping your way out of a skirmish and more like you are playing into the game’s hands.

Those hands, though, are quite nice as this is a spartan survival game through and through. At first, it feels like you don’t have nearly enough of anything to get you through any meaningful portion of the game. Health packs hover around one, ammo supply can’t fill an entire magazine, and your crafting supplies are dwindling. And as the game progresses, you eventually squirrel away enough to have what appears to be a stockpile before you’re forced to use most of it just to survive a single chapter. This inventory economy and progression is nicely done, and feels even more appropriate when you play on Hard difficulty.

The great thing about it is that you have to make choices. Molotov cocktails are great at taking out clumps of infected and dudes, but they take the same supplies as health packs to craft. Shivs can take out any Clicker or Runner quickly and silently but they also can crack open locked doors that hide workbench parts and valuable training manuals. And you simply won’t have enough parts to upgrade all of your weapons, so you have to choose what attributes and what guns are most useful to you. It’s a nice contrast from most other games that make you choose what to do first and instead asks you what can do you at all.

The Last of Us

A perfectly viable option for not progressing in the game but thoroughly enjoying it is to just stop and look around. In a delicious Cormac McCarthy-ish slant, the world has been reclaimed by the whole of nature. Trees take root where construction workers had once laid down foundation and vines climb up skyscrapers like they would a sheer cliff face. It’s a direct visual metaphor for things The Last of Us and McCarthy’s The Road address: the conflicting will within ourselves for protecting those around us with only keeping yourself alive. There’s a character that you meet about halfway through that shines an especially sad light on this contrast.

Ellie and Joel will, in fact, remind you to breathe every once in a while. Walking through the woods, Ellie remarks to her grayed and grumbling companion that it’s a remarkable sight to be seen. It’s a reminder that all the horrible things that they do and see (both of which Ellie will comment on with stark relatability) are still in service of a blissful hope, and that’s necessary in such a dark game. The Last of Us is unequivocally tough to play; you will feel exhausted and drained at the end of each session.

There is one thing, though, that tends to break this cohesion created by the world: your companions. All of them are fully capable of handling themselves in combat, but as a concession to you as a player, their actions are nipped in the bud during stealth sections and never alert enemies or anything. So they never ruin a perfect ninja run for you, but seeing Ellie run headfirst into a Clicker and bounce off with zero consequences is rather world-shattering. The incredibly impressive enemy AI with its flanking and retreating and searching tactics more than makes up for the necessarily blundering companion AI.

The Last of Us

However, that is a fault I’m willing to give considering how much better off the gameplay is for it. And there’s still so much in The Last of Us that just works. Joel and Ellie are now ranked among my favorite duos in any sort of fiction, let alone video games. They help spin an unbelievable and somewhat rote tale into a humanized and empathetic story of loss and compassion. And the combat and systems therein craft an interactive version of that narrative where a strident brutality manifests in figuring out when to kill and when to let sleeping Clickers lie. How many other games have enemies react differently when you brandish a weapon?

The Last of Us is a massive story and enormous emotional undertaking and substantial mechanical device. It presents a complex woven fabric of morality and questions of what it means to live and love and need that occasionally gets torn by the game itself, but perhaps that’s because of its heft. Such a heavy game is bound to put stress on the struts, but I do love it all the more for that. Even after getting punched in the gut and the face and everywhere else, even after feeling like I just finished a fight with the biggest kid in gym, The Last of Us is something that simply won’t be forgotten.

+ Believable and heartbreaking relationship crafted by amazing actors and fantastic writing
+ Genuine horror moments brought to you by Clickers and darkness
+ The immensely depressing and overbearing world of an infected land is totally engrossing and tonally and thematically consistent
– The dopey companion AI breaks the narrative fabric you envelope yourself in
– Pulls a bait ‘n switch on open stealth tactics with generic gameplay scenarios

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: The Last of Us
Release: June 14, 2013
Genre: Survival horror
Developer: Naughty Dog
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3
Players: 1, 2–8 online
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://www.thelastofus.com/

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Gunpoint Review: Short Grift, Long Con

Gunpoint

Tom Francis is a writer. He’s been one for quite some time, having spent more than a few years as an editor over at PC Gamer. As a consequence of such a profession, he has probably played and forgotten about more games in his career than you’ve thought about buying in your entire life. He’s likely encountered trash that you would look at and assume it came from a box of cereal. He’s found gems so far off the radar that convincing anyone to give them a go would be like asking someone to give you their foot.

He also made a game. After teaming up with a couple artists and a few musicians, Francis made Gunpoint, a 2D stealth game about a freelance spy named Richard Conway. After being found in some less-than-desirable circumstances that would lead the authorities to believe he killed a woman (he didn’t), Conway gets caught up in some Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest level of backstabbing and flimsy loyalties. Aside from an above average talent for casual snark, Conway is just a regular dude who dies from single bullet wounds. But he does have a pair of hypertrousers that allow him to jump super high and fall from any height as well as a thing called a Crosslink, a device that allows him to rewire pretty much any piece of electronics.

It’s worth noting that Francis is a games journalist because Gunpoint is—if nothing else—a streamlined experience. It screams of the tastes of a man who has played so many video games now that cutting away the cruft in his own game seems like the only sane thing to do. Your mission briefs are short and to the point and yet still totally skippable at the press of a button; rather than committing to any particular upgrade and forcing you to grind for more money, you can simply refund those that you don’t want to buy the ones you do; and death is nothing more than a mouse click-sized speed bump on your way to the end. After years of being forced to watch cutscenes and listening to NPCs teach you how to use new techniques and devices and find discrete save points before quitting, Francis saw fit to rectify all that in Gunpoint.

Which makes the sentiment that those decisions are a shame quite odd. There’s just so much to like about Gunpoint that shortening it to a three-hour experience seems wasteful. First off, the writing is genuinely entertaining. All of the dialogue takes place in little text speech bubbles and smartphone chat, the latter of which allows you to choose response options and recap the case file. Conway can often choose between agreeable, frank, and sardonic dialogue options, all of which lean into painting a rather interesting portrait of man who loves trenchcoats and espionage. The story itself can get a bit loose and becomes somewhat unraveled towards the end, but the act of ingesting it plenty of fun.

The music is also superb, though it feels a bit disjointed. This seems like the inevitable end to working with three different composers for the game, but the individual elements are still good ear candy. There is smooth and sleek old school spy jazz going on in some parts (in what might best be described as “smoky”) and there is excellent upbeat, frenetic music in others, but none of that or anything in between feels like part of a cohesive aural whole. It’s still good, though, and maybe worth downloading from Bandcamp.

As for the gameplay, Gunpoint is easier to talk about because it is unequivocally good. You move about with WASD, but they also provide contextual use for interacting with your environment, so hacking, going up and down stairs and elevators, and generally doing things is easy and intuitive in the same way just holding your stick towards your objective in Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine felt right. Holding down your left mouse button allows you to charge your super jump and reveals a trajectory arc similar to what you would see when you throw a grenade in a first-person shooter. Doing so affords you the ability to jump up and cling to walls and ceilings, tackle guards before punching them in the face, and diving into and out of windows like a badass.

Gunpoint

Save for the punching part (and using guns, once you can get your hands on one), all of that is vital to getting around the game, but only one thing could possibly trump locomotion as a requisite utility: the Crosslink. It’s a device you can buy that allows you to flick up on your mouse wheel to highlight all the electronics in any given level and allows you to connect them as you so desire. So if you want to make it so a hand scanner opens a door that knocks out a guard, you can do that. If you want to turn off a light and then make it so its switch electrocutes anyone who turns it on, you can do that, too. It’s a wonderful system that allows you to poke and prod at a system of interacting rules and objects that appeals to your inner rulebreaker and tinkerer more than anything.

The rolling autosave feature plays into this idea; you’re never further than five, 10, and 15 seconds away from correcting a mistake and optimizing your run (better stealth ratings regarding violence, noise, etc. impact your rating and your earned monetary commission). This, however, makes the game feel egregiously easy. Well, this and the fact that everything like store and upgrade refunds and how towards the latter third of the game, the choices you make within the level feel a lot more linear and far less experimental. It got to the point where I kind of questioned why even bother putting so much thought into elegant solutions when quick, brute force ploys would work just as well. And at three hours of gameplay, that is a total shame.

It’s also a waste because I feel like so much more can be done with what Gunpoint has thus far set up with its systemic methodology of stealth and game world alterations. By the time Conway’s interesting but ultimately confusing story wraps up, you feel like the game is just barely scratching the surface of what is possible and what results can be achieved with further experimentation in level design. However, the level editor seems well suited for others to delve into that.

Gunpoint

Perhaps it’s because I’m a games writer, too, that I enjoy what Tom Francis & co. (though he solo’d the design, writing, and programming aspects) has created in Gunpoint. It’s a facilitated experience in ways that I find more agreeable than unfortunate, though the consequences of a quick and breezy run may rub you the wrong way harder than they did me. But the individual components, including a great look and fascinating gameplay hook, are irrefutably good, and I happen to find the end product greater than the sum of its parts. So go play Gunpoint why don’t ya.

+ A great but disjointed package of sights and sounds
+ The interactions with the world make sense and the hypertrouser jump is endlessly entertaining
+ Crosslinking things to make guards do dumb things and make me look like a god damn genius is great
– It might come across as too easy and too short for some people
– The story gets muddled in its latter half and results in me totally not caring about its conclusion

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Gunpoint
Release: June 3, 2013
Genre: Side-scrolling stealth action
Developer: Suspicious Developments
Available Platforms: PC
Players: 1
MSRP: $9.99
Website: http://www.gunpointgame.com/

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Systemic Joy in Gunpoint

Systemic Joy in Gunpoint

Rules are a funny thing. For all our dependencies on rules, they are often shirked for the better. Laws are overlooked when they impede progress, regulations are broken when they’re frivolous, and cheating can be pretty fun. Fire trucks run red lights when there are some flames that need quelling, permits for yard sales are largely pointless, and you just got away with taking two cards off the top of the deck instead of just one. Rules are made to be grabbed, smashed, and thrown out the window.

Which is pretty much exactly what Richard Conway does, the protagonist of Gunpoint. Gunpoint is a 2D stealth action game from Pentadact, aka Tom Francis of PC Gamer, and a team of artists and musicians. In it, Richard dons a pair of superpowered pants that enable him to jump really fucking high and fall without any physical consequences. This means he can launch up three stories into a room and tackle a guard all the way down to the ground before getting up and dusting himself off just to do it again.

Oh yeah, there are guards. Richard is a freelance spy who, after a botched job, finds himself embroiled in an ever maddening web of deceit and general trouble. He has to infiltrate offices, bases, and labs as he attempts to suss out where things went wrong.

The most notable thing about Richard, though, is that he has this thing called a Crosslink, a device that enables him to see all of the electronics in a level and, well, link them across each other. So light switches, motion sensors, automatic doors, cameras, and so many other things are at the mercy of Richard and his desires.

Or rather, your desires. Gunpoint is a game all about testing the rules and then systematically breaking them. You play from a broad view where the entire level (or most of it) is within frame, so you can see where everyone and everything is at any given moment. This affords you the most information possible to help you decide when and where to do what and to what end. You can hook up a light switch to a door so it opens instead of a light coming on, but what if the door was on the bottom floor and the switch was at the top? The wide, holistic perspective informs you of why you might want to do this.

Instead of seeing how two dominoes react (i.e. one falls into the other), now you can see how the entire scheme is put together. You can orchestrate elaborate plans of never subduing or encountering a guard while they simply incapacitate or distract each other. Or you can put them all down at once and then saunter through the building like a Rockefeller. Pulling out from a localized view to a global one is key to Gunpoint‘s allure; you can see all the gears turning, but now you get to find out why they turn.

That appeals to our inner rule breaker. This shouldn’t be confused with a sense of rebellion and breaking things because we can (though that is some of the appeal, too). No, it’s because we’re curious. More than any other feeling, curiosity fuels our every action and subsequent emotion. Your desire to poke at things and find out what happens when you poke them drives our love, our anger, and our everything. Being content is dangerous, so Gunpoint made sure to surface everything you would need to never be content.

For instance, some games have similar systemic ties that open the door to testing the boundaries of interaction and possibility. Most stealth games, in fact, fall under this umbrella. But they can be punishing and lack checkpoints or force you to commit to decisions that you wish you could take back. Gunpoint, on the other hand, has an autosave feature that kicks in every few seconds. When you die, you go back no further than two or three seconds, or you can opt to go a few steps further back and really find out where your tree branches. There is absolutely no punishment for dying or for experimenting. Feel free to try every variable and run every trial. This is an open lab for your testing pleasure.

There is some funneling that takes place, though, directing you to understanding that this is the purpose of the game. Richard’s deaths, which are numerous and rapid, are unceremonious. His death receives about as much fanfare as someone sitting down in a chair. It’s quick and nigh imperceptible, much like a trademark Family Guy pratfall. It gets and deserves so little recognition because that’s not the point of the game; the point is for you to move moment to moment between setting up the trap and springing it.

The simplicity of which you can cause mayhem and tragedy is also important. Complexity is what appeals to us because it gives us more folds to uncover and more details for us to discover on our own, but complication befuddles us and makes us want to quit, to walk away and never look back. Gunpoint is complex in that it has many very simple systems all interacting with one another, but the interactions you take with it and the rules that it abides by are binary. Either a guard sees you or he does; either the light is on or it is off; the door is open or it’s closed. Instead of turning dials and moving sliders, you flip a switch between stop and go, something so simple that we made a game out of it for kids to play on a playground.

This exposes the bare elements of the endeavor. For the kids running around on the field, it then becomes about reaction time and physical speed, two things that even five-year-olds can keep in mind. For Richard running around in Gunpoint, knowing simply whether something is active or inactive, on or off, is quick and easy to discern and makes watching the system run after you seed and manipulate the input all the more fascinating.

That’s what makes breaking the rules of Gunpoint fun. You operate within a framework that supersedes the rules established for doors, lights, guards, and whatnot and allows you explore what it means to cheat a system. Get two guards caught in an infinite loop of turning on lights, get allies to electrocute each other, and get to breaking those rules. That is, after all, what we were made to do.

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Shine a Light on Low Light Combat

Shine a Light on Low Light Combat

Wolfire Games is more than an indie darling. It’s probably more accurate to just call them an oddity. Consider that Lugaru: The Rabbit’s Foot, their first commercial game, is about a giant anthropomorphic rabbit named Turner with rather advanced combat training under his belt. It’s ridiculous and strange and funny and, actually, quite good, especially considering it was made almost entirely by Wolfire’s founder David Rosen.

Perhaps what is most endearing about Wolfire is that they’re so open. Now four-person studio, they regularly put up videos on their YouTube channel detailing design decisions, art assets, development progress, and even songs from game soundtracks. And with most of these uploads, narration accompanies the visuals and offers fascinating insight. For example, one video discussing combat changes to Overgrowth shows how the AI predicts your movement and how that influences player combat.

What’s Overgrowth? Well, it’s a “spiritual successor” to Lugaru, though it seems to be directly following the events prior with Turner’s lingering anarchistic maneuvers, but whatever. It looks pretty neat and somehow improves on a game no one thought they wanted until they played it, but what’s more interesting is a game attached to it called Low Light Combat.

To be perfectly clear, LLC isn’t a part of Overgrowth, but it is free with a preorder, though you could also buy it for five dollars. It was created as part of the Mojam 2 charity drive, so 100% of the money they make off of it will go to either Camphill California, a residential care facility for adults with developmental disabilities, or Blender, an open-source piece of 3D modeling software.

LLC is back in the first-person perspective, a reminder of their last game Receiver. But whereas Receiver was about delving as deep as possible into the mechanics of operating an actual firearm and using it within a traditional (if minimalistic) video game environment, LLC is about exploring the relationship between power and vulnerability.

In LLC, you play as a ninja, and in keeping with the game jam theme of endless nuclear war, you are powered by nuclear energy. You have 60 seconds of power available to you, but you can earn more time and power by killing other ninjas (the point being that you are fighting to determine what the Illuminati will do next). The problem is that to kill other ninjas, you have to either fire off your laser shotgun thing or use your sword, the former costing you 15 seconds of time and the latter only being able to be used while running which drains your energy four times as quickly.

The biggest issue, though, beyond the constantly ticking timer on your screen of your imminent death is that you can’t see much of anything. True to its name, LLC takes place in some rather low light and ninjas, apparently, are constructed almost entirely out of shadows. So the only time you can really catch a glimpse of your enemies is when they attack or turn on their flashlight.

Make no mistake; LLC is about stealth, but it is fast and reckless stealth. The games move as quick as a Counter-Strike game but with a lot more breathless stalking and swords swinging. The brilliance of this whole setup is the timer. Competitive stealth (or even non-competitive or single-player stealth experiences) is often about lingering. You wait and you wait and you wait until your moment arrives. The Assassin’s Creed multiplayer is a fine example of this. You spend most of your time biding it, trying to see if an opportunity presents itself before you expose yourself. There is less a literal timer and more a race between the mining of opportunities.

A discrete timing mechanism, though, tickles a very fundamental portion of our human brains. In Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, it ticks up, and you immediately want to stop it from doing so. The only way to do that, however, is to finish the level, so your stealth is an active measure of avoidance rather than hiding, usually in the form of running and screaming like a child. In LLC, the timer goes the other way and ticks down, counting your remaining steps until inescapable death. Now, the slightly advanced mental actuation of considering the reduction of time turns into the extremely simplistic notion of beating the time. It is one abstracted layer less and one more notch towards a primal instinct of competition.

And on such a low level of operation within your mind, the impulse is native and trumps the superficial desire to hide in the shadows. The immediacy of the risk-reward analysis is simple and lives as a little nugget deep at the core of your brain: choosing to fire or run or simply wait in the dark is as simple as breathing. This allows higher level functions to determine how to go about it rather than if.

Of course, on some level, that still persists across all mental calculations, regardless of complexity or residency in the brain. But rather than being filtered through additional gates of considered causality and risk aversion, the idea that a timer has to be beat and maintained shutters every hurdle and hits the NOS.

It’s not necessarily an increased impetus or a push against reason. It’s more like a direct line access to being “in the zone.” And that’s how you can determine the good players among the sea of bad and average fodder. When your instincts are finely honed enough to match your slower, more deliberate and thoughtful actions, you are a notch above. It’s like the difference between someone who can intuit if they’ve fired off every round from their revolver or someone who just kind of thinks they might be out. It’s a learned but deeply ingrained type of knowledge that separates the professionals from the hobbyists, the chefs from the Food Network fans.

It’s when you know you have to make a move rather than taking the time to calculate run and gun utility costs and estimate your chances of success. It’s more just thinking that this is an opportunity and more knowing it is going to be yours. It’s an impressive feat to construct a design so human and fundamental over the course of a 78-hour game jam, to so easily tap into what many other games attempt and desire to do. Or maybe it’s less impressive and more odd. This is, after all, Wolfire Games we’re talking about, and this is Low Light Combat.

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Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine Review: Thievery in the Third Degree

Monaco: What's Yours is Mine

Are you familiar with the saying “it’s not about the destination but the journey”? Of course you are; you’re not an idio—you’re an erudite-lookin’ fellow and it is a rather trite cliché at this point, bordering on a platitude. It is, actually, a bastardization/generalization of a (possible) Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “life is a journey, not a destination.” But if you’ll follow me one step further into the land of reappopriation, I’d like to throw one more up on the wall and see how it sticks.

Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine is not about the destination but the journey.

Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine is the latest out of Pocketwatch Games, Andy Schatz’s development studio. If either of those names sound familiar to you, it’s because either you’ve been keeping up with any amount of video game coverage in the past few years (Monaco has been in development for over three years, winning the Seumas McNally Grand Prize and the Excellence In Design award at the 2010 Independent Games Festival) or you’ve played one of this other Wildlife Tycoon sim games.

Monaco: What's Yours is Mine

Monaco is a grand departure from both Venture Africa and Venture Arctic, though, as it’s top-down, four-player co-op stealth game about stealing stuff. Well, I guess it’s as much about actually heisting things as Moby-Dick is actually about a whale (hint: it’s not). Instead, Monaco is a grand experiment in multiplayer, cooperative chaos. Through two to four players connected either online or in person, they’ll guide eight characters through various mini escapades as they hide, run, and loot together.

Granted, you don’t need to play with other people; Monaco works fine on it’s on as a single-player game, but it thrives on having people around you to share in your nonsense. By yourself, it’s still an incredibly charming and hectic little game, but the insanity takes exponential leaps similar to how adding just one extra player to New Super Mario Bros. Wii amplified the anarchy to the nth degree. Nothing is gated off to having a party with you or to particular characters, though you will find some bits much more annoying or tiresome. Just know that you’re missing out on half of what makes Monaco fun if you dive in solo.

That is, to say, teamwork, or rather the attempt and failure at it. Starting out with the four initial characters, their interplay makes sense: the Cleaner can knock out non-alerted enemies, the Locksmith can open locks super-duper fast, the Pickpocket can hide in bushes really quickly and send a monkey named Hector to surreptitiously pick up coins, and the Lookout is incredibly quick and mobile but can see all NPCs when sneaking. Each person on a four-man team can assume a role and get things done without much oversight or coordination. Just know that if you die, that character is done for the remainder of the job.

Monaco: What's Yours is Mine

Once you introduce the other four characters, though, and you’ve got some interesting things going on because then interactions actually happen. The Redhead can, in addition to seducing guards, revive fallen comrades in a snap while the Hacker and the Gentleman can synchronize disguised movements and hacked security systems to crack open a safe. The Mole is an interesting wildcard as his ability to crazy useful (digs through walls) but also causes a lot of noise, so his actions must be carefully considered. All jumbled up, you eventually begin to decipher the special use cases of each character and how they can align, enabling optimal setups for each particular mission.

And make no mistake: Monaco is all about those careful considerations gone awry. I have no doubt that some players will have a knack of creeping through the entire game without alerting a single guard or camera, but most people will leap before they look and end up in a Benny Hill-like chase. And that’s okay! Monaco has a modern take on stealth in that it is very forgiving. Well, allow me to rephrase: it’s forgiving in that it doesn’t punish you for making a mistake, not that guards are totally inept (though they do seem to have extremely poor vision and hearing) or that you can sneak through an entire level without trying. If you get caught, it’s no problem because you can just as easily complete your mission while on the run.

In fact, “on the run” is how you should spend most of the game because 1) it’s more fun that way, and 2) it makes you complete levels faster, which is the only metric the game has for your completion status. Missed coins merely add seconds to your finish time and affect your leaderboard rankings. There is a certain pride and joy to be taken with completing a job as intended, but the serendipity of when things go wrong just can’t be beat.

Monaco: What's Yours is Mine

Perhaps the only two things that can compete with that sensation of OHGODOHGODOHGODKEEPRUNNINNNNGGGGGG are the art style and the soundtrack. Composed by Grammy-nominated Journey songsmith Austin Wintory, the piano-laden, pop-ragtime beats of Monaco really keep the atmosphere going. From when you’re sneaking around to when you are blitzing your way to the getaway with an irresponsible and reckless abandon, the score is pretty much perfect and always keeps your heart rate similarly thumping along.

And if the music keeps the mood going, the visuals are what set it. All you can really see of the world is a darkened, monochrome version of it where you seem to only get a visual, grayscale representation of some blueprints. This, thematically, makes sense as you are professional thieves, but it also opens the game up to its unique line-of-sight lighting system. It’s being borrowed now by many other indie games, but at the time, Monaco was maybe one of two or three others that utilized this mechanic: only things you can make direct eye contact with are illuminated. This means that as you pass by a row of pillars, colors seem to explode out of your character and highlight doors and bushes and guards.

It’s a bit disorienting and confusing at first (and, in some cases, consistently as objects are sometimes difficult to discern from the background), but it’s utterly enchanting and taxes your spatial memory in ways it rarely is otherwise. It can induce sections of trial and error where you poke and prod at the level design (which is, for the most part, fantastic) until it becomes seared into your mind for facilitated navigation and pilfering, an invocation that can get tiring in the later, more challenging levels, but it is a skill so rarely utilized in most other games.

Monaco: What's Yours is Mine

This welcome addition of cognitive load works hand-in-hand with a simplified control structure. All you really have are directional controls, an item button, and a sneak button. To activate doors and computers and whatnot, you simply press against it and fill up a meter. To reload a weapon, you just collect more coins, which is a bit off-putting at first. And for all the zany runarounds you’ll engage in, the game actually moves at a rather slow pace. It simply feels quick. It comes across as the video game equivalent of the tone set by The Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven; they’re slick, cool rides down a thievery-infused mountain.

That breezy, smooth slope, however, hits some bumps towards the end when the difficulty makes the game a chore. It becomes tedious as you have to go back through the same stages on the second tier but with the added goal of getting every collectible. It’s simple on the smaller, earlier missions, but as the number of things you have to snag get unwieldy, you’ll feel like throwing your controller against a wall after sneaking around for half an hour only to realize you’ve missed a single coin somewhere along the way.

Monaco: What's Yours is Mine

Of course, that is a minority portion of the whole game. It’s a problem that permeates the entire product to varying degrees, but they are merely bumps on an otherwise sharp, deft ride. It’s a design philosophy that mirrors the game itself; you are given a beginning and an end but everything in between is up to you, and you may cause a lot of bumps yourself. The difference, though, is that those of your own creation are fun and those inextricably tied to the game are not. But after an otherwise fantastically designed journey, it’s hard to find fault with either it or the destination.

+ Looks and sounds great and totally unique with an abundance of charm
+ The characters and their bits of slowly meted out story are fun
+ A streamlined control scheme enhances the cognitive load as more pleasurable than taxing
+ Provides a great argument for couch co-op games
– The latter portions of the game become difficult in an aggravating way and kind of makes you want to yell

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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Some Sort of Stigma

Some Sort of Stigma

As video games continue to exist and be an openly available consumer-based industry, stigmas begin to form. Some already exist and apply to the world outside of the game, such as gender and age markets, platform price points, and the sobering hiring-firing cycle of traditional development, but the ones that pertain to the products themselves are just as multifaceted and interesting. They can begin as one thing and slowly change and morph into new predilections as standards and practices evolve.

With a shooter, you come to expect certain things because that’s just the way they are. You expect some sort of indicator to come up around the reticle when you’re damaging something, you expect a variety of weapons that cover a set array of utilities, and you expect some sort of shooting/meleeing interplay. That’s what we’ve been trained to believe a shooter will provide, even though that wasn’t always the case. Save for the plethora of firearms and their distributed use, these are modern conventions brought about by relatively recent titles.

These stigmas can go on and on for most every other genre, too. Fighting games have metered super moves, racing games have driving lines, and mobile games have in-app purchases. They may not be categorically true, but the fact that the majority (or majority of significant releases, anyways) hove close to this stricture makes it certainly seem that way.

Take stealth games, for example. When you think of sneaking around in a video game, you think of waiting in the shadows, not getting spotted, and accomplishing some task unseen. You get in, get out, and don’t get caught. A perfect run in any stealth game is obviously the one where you accomplish it like a ghost: invisible. We know that because Splinter Cell taught us that a good sneak-fest ends with zero alerted guards and zero trigger alarms. Metal Gear Solid taught us that the punishment of fighting enemies in some strange combat framework was reason enough to warrant us channeling our inner 90s Swayze.

Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, though, begs to differ. Andy Schatz’s stealth co-op game is all about being sneaky little thieves and accomplishing furtive goals under some searching gaze. The difference, however, between Monaco and the Dishonoreds and Mark of the Ninjas of the world is that there’s a timer.

I guess, really, it’s not the timer itself since many stealth games have timers either as a scoring mechanism or individual event-type situations, but it’s what the timer does to you as a player. Whereas other stealth games follow within the general confines of the genre in that all of the non-sneaking mechanics such as shooting and stabbing and whatnot all primarily exist to get you out of a jam and back into a state of calm (or maintain that state of calm depending on how your skill level).

Monaco really bucks that trend because your primary sneaking mechanic is the same as your primary get-out-of-trouble mechanic: movement. Each character has a special ability, but that usually lends itself to cooperative teamwork instead of individual tiptoeing. Instead, your primary action is to simply move, either in a whisper-quiet walk or an all-out run. The difference in input simple and plays into that timer.

It’s human nature to desire to be the best, or at least the best you can be. Getting your personal completion time down to mere minutes is utterly intoxicating, so when it’s so simple to shave entire seconds off, you often act upon that impulse. So you run. You’ll run and charge headfirst into situations you probably should have surreptitiously entered, but that’s because it’s so easy to get in and out of your sneaking and escape modes. If you don’t get caught, great! If you’re seen, then you’re already running, and if you keep running, you get a lower time. Fantastic!

This is counter to the single most monolithic stigma of stealth games: getting caught is a failure. In Monaco, getting caught means nothing except get your ass out of there. All that contributes to your time is how long it takes you to get your job done (steal stuff) and how well you did it (amount of stuff stolen). It’s simple in its ways of pushing you to break every preconceived notion of stealth you have and just go for it, a sentiment usually reserved for platformers and shooters.

It provides a moment of reconsideration in what stealth really is. Look at Pac-Man. That old school arcade chase-around might be the first instance of a stealth game; it perfectly mimics mostly every other title in the genre’s post-alert state. You are on the run and being chased by, ostensibly, guards as you try to steal all of the dots and fruit. The only difference is that there is not sneaking mode (unless you count gaming the enemy AI) and there’s no real true escape; you are always running.

So maybe Monaco isn’t really breaking any stereotypes of the stealth genre. Maybe it’s simply a return to form for what they really are. It’s the thrill of the escape. Even games where the focus is on not getting caught like Splinter Cell and Hitman, they are all really just about getting away. It just so happens that in those cases, the best way to haul ass is to be deliberate and calculated. Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine strips out the cautious methodologies and goes back to the first stealth stigma: all you have to do is run.

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Children Of Liberty: One Coat, Two Coat, Red Coat

Children of Liberty

There’s a lot of Boston going in Children of Liberty. Its developer is Lantana Games, a studio founded by Savannah College of Art and Design graduates that is based entirely in Boston. It concerns the failed raid on British general Thomas Gage, the man you may remember from history class as the military governor of ol’ Beantown who ordered the Intolerable Acts and pretty much set off Lexington and Concord. It also has lots of old brick walls and cobbled streets, both of which I associate with Boston.

Children of Liberty is set in the American Revolutionary War, but that’s not what it’s all about. With the era as a backdrop, Lantana Games takes a somewhat liberal but still historically accurate look at the circumstances behind what allowed Paul Revere to succeed in his storied ride the night before the shot heard ’round the world. Forget what National Treasure and Assassin’s Creed III told you; this is the story of four children and their chance to save the Sons of Liberty and the revolution.

Played from a two-dimensional perspective, the four children set out to stealth around in a three-dimensional world. Going from side-to-side, you can also maneuver between two different depths, sort of like LittleBigPlanet. You normally traverse in the foreground, but step into the background as cover where, if you enter the shadows unseen, you will be able to shimmy right by guards. You’ll have to jump and climb around oddly large crates and use whatever abilities you have to dodge the visible pyramidal vision cones of the red coats.

Children of Liberty

That particular part is very reminiscent of Mark of the Ninja, the stealth game from Klei Entertainment late last year. Mark of the Ninja aimed to remove all the frustrations of traditional stealth action games such as obfuscated or indeterminate actions and reactions by making everything discrete, a major influence on Children of Liberty.

“The visible sound in Mark of the Ninja really made that game,” says programmer Brian Wang. “It’s important in any stealth game that any actions you take and the consequences they have are extremely clear.” And for a 2D game, 3D is actually a very important part of it. “Sound will propagate around corners,” says Wang. “All those dudes at intersections and stuff should be fair game.”

Intersections meaning where two perpendicular planes of playable space meet. This is a bit like Shadow Complex in that regard where you traverse a 3D world by 2D means. At each intersection could be any number of guards either in your plane or on the one adjacent to yours and you can see where the guards are patrolling in both, allowing you to either avoid or eliminate them at your discretion.

Children of Liberty

Just don’t expect to see them. At least not yet, anyways. What I thought was a strange stealth mechanic (seeing vision cones but not the person it’s emanating from) actually turned out to be a limitation of resources. These “Saturday morning cartoon-style animations,” as animator Ricky Bryant, Jr. puts it, are all hand-drawn and they simply haven’t done the side views yet. When you or the British are head-on with the camera, you see smooth animations and classic, minimal-but-heavy line illustrations that look surreal in an interesting way against the 3D lit and rendered environment. Look down a corridor, however, and you just see vision cones since those are essentially free assets when they’re just colored meshes.

Inspiration, at least, is free, though. “Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a big one,” says Bryant. “Just the way cover was handled in that game. We knew we had to bring that in and bring up the stealth.” The art style, of course, recalls a very particular genre-bending Italian plumber. “Super Paper Mario,” says Bryant, “obviously was an inspiration. The camera movement, the game not caring about dimensionality at all.”

Ideas, of course, can’t save everything. What started out as an education children’s product for a local Boston organization, the studio eventually shifted the idea into its own thing, but they’re going up against a lot of stealth indies that are industry veterans at this point. “It’s scary,” says designer Dan Silvers. “When I look at guys like [Mark of the Ninja designer Nels Anderson] and [Monaco designer Andy Schatz], they have a lot of experience under them. They know what they’re doing. We’re still treading water, hoping to find land.”

Children of Liberty

Treading and, it turns out, iterating. Last year at PAX East, Children of Liberty, Lantana’s first real commercial title, was pretty much just platforming and only recently did they amp up the stealth aspects. “The hardest thing,” says Wang, “was getting things working, and we only crossed that hump like a month ago. Like the shark in Jaws, one day, things just started working.”

How well it’s all working, though, remains to be seen. I played a brief demo with only the Joseph character who is the most straightforward out of the four available (the other three described as a freerunner, a tank, and a ninja while the playable fellow they showed is the “classic platformer”) and came away mixed. On one hand, I loved the idea, I loved the art, and I actually loved the action of dealing with guards either in multiples or at junction points. All that combined to make for a compelling (if simplistic) stealth experience.

Where it fell apart was when you dealt with single foes. Granted, this was what felt like an introductory tutorial level, but dealing with guards one at a time was trivial. And some parts such as where you have to leap over a patrolling red coat’s vision cone was clunky; jumping and snapping to grapple points never felt all that great.

Children of Liberty

This is, however, still an alpha. With PAX East leaving them in the throes of bankruptcy, they’re trying to hawk Children of Liberty for $10. For that $10, however, you get Minecraft-like access to said alpha right now, a Steam code should they make it through Steam Greenlight, all future updates, and free DLC. At this point, Children of Liberty is a promising little gem of a stealth game. The narrative is neat, the concept is intriguing, and the art is all the way great. Now they just need to fill in the gaps and pull their lofty thoughts back into a solid product.

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