Unveiling the Face of Mankind

I step out from the pale blue illumination of the Vortex portal and onto the sterile metal balcony overlooking the streets of Brooklyn, New York. In the mall entrance ahead of me, a mob of men wearing skateboarding safety gear frantically run back and forth, unsure of what to do with themselves. I push my way through them, walking down the white tiled ramp to the market terminals. I log into one, browsing the created items when a burst of gunfire suddenly erupts behind me. Everyone starts jumping and strafing, like popcorn kernels thrown into hot oil. They start firing blindly to try and defend themselves from this random attacker, leaving me riddled with bullets and energy weapon fire. Welcome to Face of Mankind.

+10 Bike Helmet of Cop Killing

+10 Bike Helmet of Cop Killing

Just like the title of this MMORPG, the game itself seems so vague and obtuse that it’s almost impossible to accurately describe. The closest approximation I can make would be like someone trying to make a Deus Ex MMORPG. I know that sounds exciting, but it’s all based on one primary concept that might alienate a lot of players: everything is player-driven. All the organizations are run by players, all the items are player-made, and even the police force is run by players who actively try to capture criminal players. It’s a pretty high-concept idea, and one that depends entirely on a large and active player base. Due to this, you’ll probably be able to decide if Face of Mankind is a game you can get into or not within the first few minutes of playing it.

It’s very easy to feel directionless. You’re pretty much thrown into the universe after a quick tutorial that explains the game mechanics for combat, resource mining, and item production. There are no classes, player levels, or restrictions on anyone. If your character dies, you’re revived in a cloning facility and lose one of your limited clone bodies, along with all of your unequipped items. If you run out of clone bodies and the credits to buy them, your character will be permanently dead. You pretty much have full access to everything in the game right off the bat. There are very few NPCs around and the few NPC quests available are shallow and provide little benefit. Most of them consist of talking to a NPC, walking across a hall to talk to another NPC, and then talking to the original NPC again. The best way to get started is usually to join one of the player factions, such as the Law Enforcement Department or a corporation. These organizations usually have support for new players and provide a steady income of credits. You aren’t tied to one faction forever and can switch between them every eight hours. If being a mining-focused corporate worker isn’t working out for you, then you can just pop over to the law enforcement faction and try to arrest criminals.

Player leaders can set goals for the corporation.

Player leaders can set goals for the corporation.

Face of Mankind is definitely banking on the idea that you’ll love the random experiences you can come across enough to forgive the tremendous lack of polish everywhere else. The character models are bland, the game world feels empty, and the environments feel like I’m playing a Half-Life mod, but for some reason I just find it interesting to play because of the experiences it offers. Once I started the game, I joined Vortex Inc., the company behind the instant travel teleporters players use to warp between planets and different areas. In the faction chat, one of the wealthy players started ranting against the current CEO, saying he was unfit for the job. The CEO, in standard faction drama action, revoked the complainer’s faction privileges and fired him from the corporation. The fired player ended up spending cash to hire a mercenary faction to camp and kill Vortex Inc. employees around the Tokyo offices, resulting in the Vortex security forces and the mercenaries battling it out. After being killed in the skirmish, I checked a security panel and saw he had become one of the “Most Wanted” players, making him a priority target now for the Law Enforcement Department.

Tokyo High Life

Tokyo High Life

The roleplay focus of the game means most of the player base have higher than average spelling and grammar skills compared to other online games. I was never really able to get into the whole roleplaying thing myself, but if that’s your cup of tea then you should probably consider checking it out. It’s very common for new or bored players to suddenly start firing their weapons in populated areas. This makes the first loading zone, Brooklyn, probably one of the most dangerous to be in. You’re pretty much guaranteed to constantly hear gun fights going on between other players, or between criminals and the police. There is a decent amount of environments to explore, but most of them feel pretty empty. You really have to be able to make your own fun, or get creative with the players and setting to truly get into it.

There’s a lot of potential for greatness here, but I’ll be amazed if this game goes anywhere beyond the small niche player-base it already has. The design puts a lot of the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of the players to create virtually all of their own content. If there aren’t dedicated players willing to create their own corporate and political intrigue, then there is literally nothing to do in the game. The gameplay mechanics feel too clunky and stiff for FPS fans to get into it and the lack of a solid structured environment for new players gives it a steep learning curve. It’s pretty much the only game of its kind out right now, and free to play. I would highly recommend everyone give it a shot to explore to the different ideas at work here, but don’t go in with high expectations.

Sonic CD is a nostalgic glimpse into the past

Sonic awaits his just deserts.

Sonic awaits his just deserts.

Sonic CD is my least favorite of the Genesis-era 2D Sonic games. I always preferred the speedier pace and flow of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, 3 and Knuckles, as well as the relatively muted, warmer color palettes of those games. The denser and chaotic design of Sonic CD‘s zones demands more precise platforming prowess that at times results in a ponderously paced game, at least when compared to the canon entries of the series.

Despite this, the recent re-release of Sonic CD (on PSNXBLASteamiOSAndroid, and Windows Phone) is the most fun I’ve had with the speedy spinster since the Dreamcast, though this isn’t the first time I’ve played Sonic CD legally and officially on a computer. It was originally ported to Windows in 1996, and was Sonic’s official debut on the home computer. (This was a big deal at a time before the poor blue bugger had been prostituted out to practically every device and platform with a microprocessor inside it.) I recall my brother and I buying the 1996 CD-ROM game with some hard-earned allowance money at an Office Depot during one of our mother’s regular business-related trips to the store. It was probably both the first and last time I was ever excited to go to that depressing place.

Oh, chibi Sonic, you're so cute!

Oh, chibi Sonic, you’re so cute!

I had never played the game before the first PC version, since we didn’t have a Sega CD. While I never did grow to like Sonic CD as much as the other Sonic games I’d played on the Genesis – which is not very unexpected considering the combined Sonic 3 & Knuckles is easily one of my favorite platformers ever – I never regretted buying Sonic CD for Windows, and the game’s box probably still lives in a bigger box full of other fellow game boxes somewhere in my parents’ garage. I loved the soundtrack – the American version, as I wasn’t even aware of the Japanese version until years later – but I did not like the static spin dash that couldn’t be “charged up” by mashing on the jump button. (My dad’s computer’s poor space bar took the abuse for this game and many others.) I also didn’t like the conceptually cool but mechanically cumbersome time-traveling mechanic, and I disliked the “three-dimensional” special stages, which paled next to those found in Sonic 2 and 3.

I don’t remember if I ever did obtain all the Time Stones or all the Robotnik machines in the past timeline, although I distinctly remember finding the animated FMVs for the intro and both endings on the disc and watching them repeatedly. In the years since, I haven’t given Sonic CD much thought after it was eventually uninstalled, or lost in an OS reinstall, or whatever its fate ended up being.

On your marks, gentlemen.

On your marks, gentlemen.

So kind of Sega, then, to re-re-release this game on almost every modern platform imaginable and to lurch it suddenly to the forefront of my adolescent gaming memories. Sega’s ports of other classic games have thus far been disappointing affairs mired in ugly menu presentation and shabby emulation. (Of the Genesis? Today? Really?) How fortunate it is that Sega allowed the multi-talented Australian bloke Christian Whitehead to craft this adoring love letter to this rough gem of a game.

As I said at the beginning of this post, Sonic CD is my least favorite of the Genesis 2D Sonic games, and easily at that. The level design is very busy and ofttimes downright contradictory to speedy gameplay. Indeed, bothering to hunt down Dr. Robotnik’s Marvelous MacGuffins is an exercise in annoyance that slows the game down even more. The time traveling mechanic, while interesting in concept, only serves to hinder you further, and there’s really no reason to visit the future aside from curiosity. Collecting the Time Stones, the other method for attaining the “good ending,” is comparatively frustrating as the special stages can become quite difficult both to enter and clear. Either way you decide to approach it, getting the good ending will likely require quite a bit of save scumming, since beating the game does not allow you to revisit old stages to rescue the future on your save file.

While the game itself might be somewhat rough around the edges, Mr. Whitehead’s love letter is anything but. The menus are super slick, multiple save files are supported, and the Steam version runs in almost any resolution you could desire, windowed or full-screen (though you do have to awkwardly launch an external tool to change these options). There are three different settings for filtering the graphics, two of which are provided in case you’re a philistine and happen to hate pixels. The “sharp” and “smooth” options both look like warm vomit expelled directly onto your monitor at such a velocity that its blurry splotches spatter across your face. “Nostalgia” proudly flaunts its serrated corners and is the selection of true scholars and gentlemen (and gentlewomen), and if you choose anything else you are literally worse than a serial murderer. This option is stupidly not set by default, so make sure and switch to “nostalgia” immediately. I’ve included full-size screenshots below so you can see the difference between the three modes for yourself.

"Sharp"

“Sharp”

"Smooth"

“Smooth”

"Nostalgia"

“Nostalgia”

 

On top of running and feeling like a modern PC game, Mr. Whitehead deemed it worthwhile to add Tails as a playable character, only available after beating the game once as Sonic. You can also change to the Sonic 2 style of spin-dashing and mash buttons to your heart’s content. Brilliant!

In spite of these excellent additions, possibly the best part is that Sega was amazingly able to work out whatever licensing issues were required to include both the Japanese and American soundtracks in this release, which you can switch between at any time on the main menu. (It should be noted that they weren’t able to work out every single licensing issue, which means that the Japanese vocal songs are remixed sans lyrics. No toot tooting for this Sonic warrior, sadly.) I played through the game with the Japanese soundtrack for the first time and definitely enjoyed the experience. The Japanese soundtrack feels more thematically cohesive, since the songs for the past timeline were composed specifically for the Japanese soundtrack and weren’t replaced in the American version. That said, I do like both versions of the soundtrack about equally.

That's gross, Tails. Stop that.

That’s gross, Tails. Stop that.

This release of Sonic CD is a revelation: the revelation that modern ports of classic games don’t have to merely settle for ROMs thrown slipshod into a subpar emulator, but can ascend – nay, soar – to loftier heights. The two versions I tried, Steam and iOS, both run fantastically and nothing is lost in the translation to either platform. I imagine the other versions glimmer similarly. At a paltry $5 on all platforms, Sega seems to be making all the right decisions with Sonic CD, and I hope they continue this trend with future games. This release is an essential experience not just for fans of the game or series, but also for anyone who’s played a 2D platformer and liked it.

5 out of 5

Wizorb : A job title, or just a clever portmanteau?

Not pictured - awesome transformation sequence of an old man in robes mutating into that tiny blue ball.

Breakout is one of the most timeless games ever conceived. Its influence from its predecessor Pong is direct, but the transformation into a single-player puzzle game push it to this weird level where it becomes all too easy to get absorbed for hours at a time. It’s available in some variation for almost any platform in existence, including the TI-83 calculator that I used in high school to bust bricks instead of getting any actual work done. Whether you know it as Arkanoid or Brickout, or even a distant cousin such as Peggle, people around the world have been exposed to it for over 30 years. Wizorb, recently released by indie developer Tribute, is yet another permutation of the classic formula, but distinct enough with its changes that it’s worth taking a peek at.

In case you’re in the minority that hasn’t had the privilege of playing a Breakout game before, the way it works is beautiful in its simplicity. You control a paddle at the bottom of the screen above a pit, and bounce a ball back and forth from the paddle to the bricks above, breaking them on contact, and clearing a level when all of the blocks are gone. It’s not rocket science, but it doesn’t need to be in order to be incredibly addicting. Wizorb mixes this up a bit because your ball is actually a WIZARD, and you have a mana bar and spells to cast to aid you in your noble quest to rid the world of the Brick Menace. Mana potion power-ups drop from bricks you break, giving you more power to shoot out fireballs or to alter the trajectory of the wizardly sphere. Again, it’s still not rocket science, but the spell-casting adds another layer onto the basics to keep things fresh and fun.

There are plenty of other ingredients to the mixture as well. Wizorb carries some strange devices from other genres, such as an RPG-lite town to wander around, boss battles at the end of each area, and a simple world map. Bricks also have the chance to drop coins and gems, which you can use in between brick-breaking-bouts to fund the distraught town, which will give you a variety of bonuses the next time you head into the fray. Getting keys to open locked areas in the stages (usually bonus rooms, full of extra lives and other goodies) and even building a castle rampart below your paddle to protect your Wizorb from falling into the pit below are a couple more notable examples of new spins on the old formula.

The presentation is no slouch, as the game has an appealing retro look. The sound design and graphics put it somewhere in the 8-bit to 16-bit spectrum, though I’m not quite sure where exactly it falls. The animation is fluid and the color palette plucks the nostalgia strings in your brain. The “old school” style is nothing unique, but when it’s done right, it can stand out from the rest, and this is a clear example of how to do so.

Wizorb is available on Windows, Mac and Linux at Gamersgate, Desura and Gameolith (see each store for platform availability) for $2.99 USD, so the next time you’re pining to break a few bricks paddle-style, there’s a very affordable way to do it with some new flair. I mean, if you have the choice to knock out some bricks with a ball, or to do it with a WIZARD BALL that can shoot FIREBALLS, which option sounds more appealing?

4 out of 5

Review: Limbo

Just me and my fun boat, going to have some good times together. What could possibly go wrong?

Wait! Don’t leave just yet, hear me out! I know, it’s crazy to think that a Limbo review is coming out in the year 2011, and while that may be the case, you should be aware that everyone has a backlog of fantastic games that they haven’t played with the excuse of, “I’ll get around to that at some point, I swear.” This just so happened to be on my list, and the purpose of this review is to tell everyone else who has this on their respective backlogs to get off their lazy cans and hop to it, since Limbo is something that deserves the attention. If you’ve already played it, then you don’t need me to tell you that it’s something special; if you haven’t yet taken the dive, then be prepared for an exquisitely-crafted foray into gloomy adventure.

You’re dropped in Limbo without any clues or concepts of what you’re supposed to be doing. It initially appears to be a simple sidescrolling platformer, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that it’s much deeper than that. As you progress further along, there is a steady progression of puzzle-solving mechanics to get from one area to the next. It is not uncommon to die several times just trying to move on (often in a gruesome fashion) due to the diabolical hurdles that lie in wait, but the checkpointing is spot-on and the continues are infinite, so you can retry as many times as it takes for your brain to squeeze out enough theories to crack the code of each riddle. The rate at which new mechanics are showcased is fantastic, though several times you’ll have to think long and hard to work on a new and sturdy enigma with a “think outside of the box” mentality.

I’m not going to cite any examples, since I don’t want to spoil any solutions, but I can easily recall a few obstacles that had me stepping extremely far out of my personal comfort zone in order to overcome them. On top of that, Limbo occasionally subverts expectations regarding the frequency of deaths with an incredibly unique twist, where you think you’ve just encountered a new and grotesque demise. But in reality the puzzle has NOT ended, and the realization that you still have control over your character sets in. It’s beautifully executed each and every time it happens, and it’s a great example of the overarching lack of lucidity that the game presents.

There is a great sense of foreboding simply in the way the game looks and sounds. Everything is presented in silhouette without any color. The backgrounds are foggy and muddled behind a depth of field filter, leaving you to rely on the impressive lighting to figure out what’s going on. You won’t lose track of your character even if the screen is pitch black, because of his cleverly-designed white blinking eyes. The environments you go through all seem incredibly foreign, even if you can distinctly tell what they resemble. Wandering through a forest is much more frightening than it may sound, since it may be littered with lifeless bodies suspended from wooden cages, and working your way through an abandoned factory may leave you wondering, “Who designed this machine-operated labyrinthine hell?” The ambient background music constantly fluctuates between tones of relaxation and confusion, and the sound effects are all disturbingly visceral. Everything works together seamlessly to create a world that fills you with apprehension, but also the intrigue to keep pushing forward.

Continuing the theme of hazy confusion, there seems to be a plot buried somewhere, but it’s never inherently clear what exactly is going on, nor the motivations of the character. Even after beating the game, I had more questions than answers about everything I had gone through. It seems to be a deliberate choice to leave it open to interpretation and letting the player fill in the blanks of the story, which fits perfectly. I wouldn’t say that the lack of narration is intensely compelling, but it’s also hard to completely write off what appears to be yet another jigsaw piece of the Limbo puzzle.

My main negative takeaway from the whole experience is just how short Limbo is. Within a sleepy Sunday afternoon, the entirety of the game came and went, and I had seen everything it had to offer – with the exception of collecting all of the hidden “eggs” which don’t seem to do anything other than gift achievement points. There isn’t much reason to replay it beyond achievement incentive, since you’ve already seen all of the tricks it has to play on you, and you’ve already labored out in your head how to do most of the puzzles. The extras are there for the completionists and perfectionists, but don’t do much to add to the high points of the experience.

Replayability aside, Limbo succeeds in just about every other way. The oppressive-yet-uncertain atmosphere, the creative puzzles (combined with the rush you get from solving said puzzles), and the palpable tension from the whole package delivers a very unique and fresh gameplay experience. It’s a bit short, but also in a league of its own, and its uncommon approach has something great that is easily worth the asking price from whichever platform you decide to pick it up on. It’s worth mentioning that at the time of this writing, it is only $9.99 on Steam, which is five buckazoids cheaper than on PSN or 360 at $14.99/1200 MS Points respectively.

4 out of 5

Review: The Binding of Isaac

You'd cry too if your mom was trying to kill you.

You'd cry too if your mom was trying to kill you.

In the biblical account of the binding of Isaac, Isaac is not so much a character as he is a plot device. He accompanies his father Abraham on a test of faith – God wants Abraham to sacrifice his son to prove he fears God. Isaac remains passive throughout, even as his own dad ties him up and raises a knife over his helpless body. The Isaac of Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl’s account is a little bit more proactive.

Your quest in The Binding of Isaac is to guide Isaac as he attempts to escape the misguided zealotry of his mother. You’ll travel through his house’s basement, which seems to be connected to hell itself. Along the way you’ll encounter numerous terrifying creatures and other oddities that can help or hamper you in your quest for freedom.

The game plays like Robotron: 2084 mixed with a Zelda adventure. You can only shoot in the four cardinal directions, and your projectiles and stats can be upgraded through items found in the dungeons. You’ll never quite have the same game twice, as enemy placement, room layouts, item drops and secrets are all randomized heavily. With so many variables in play, conquering the game is as much a game of luck as it is skill. Finding the right gifts out of dozens of possible items will definitely factor heavily in a successful run, with each new item appearing on poor Isaac’s horrified face and body. After several such upgrades, Isaac usually bears closer resemblance to the antagonistic grotesqueries of the depths than the innocent child he began as.

With its roguelike influences so readily apparent, you can expect to fail – a lot. No save system exists here, which is fine since a complete run through Isaac’s basement is not very long. The Binding of Isaac delivers a compact experience in about half-hour bite-size chunks, making it the perfect length as the curious diversion it is.

The art looks like something out of a Flash game, because it is. It might not be much to look at it in still screenshots, but in motion everything comes alive with the sick creativity of McMillen’s imagination. Horrors lurk in every room, and the disgusting creatures within the hellish atmosphere are simultaneously gross and amusing. This is not a game for the kids. The excellent soundtrack by Danny Baranowsky adds to the uneasy tone.

One of the disadvantages of the Flash technology powering the game is that everything runs off the CPU rather than a dedicated graphics device. This means that even with an above-average system, you may run into a lot of slowdown in some of the busier rooms. Ironically, this actually tends to work to your advantage as the dozens of flying projectiles become much easier to dodge in slow motion.

I’m not sure what statement if any McMillen was attempting to make with The Binding of Isaac, or if the source material was merely inspiration for his own twisted vision. It’s an endearing game, as odd as that may seem, and a great value at its $5 asking price. You may find yourself coming back to it again and again, because surprises still remain in abundance even after you’ve seen one of the endings. It’s not for the faint of heart or the easily frustrated, but those who persevere will be rewarded with a unique and unforgettable experience.

4 out of 5