Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cellblock Squadrons: First impressions

What would gaming be without sci-fi starships blowing the everloving snot out of each other? I mean, the whole thing kicked off with SpaceWar, right? And other than the simulation/shump split (Space Invaders or Elite, if you will), it's pretty much been variations on those themes ever since. Cut forward a decade or so. The mainstream gaming biz has forsworn its roots; other than Rogue Squadron and the occasional Gradius remix, starships seem to be the things in the cutscenes of sci-fi FPSs that explain why our hero is in the ass-end of nowhere fighting giant amoeba with a plasma rifle. The germinal genre has been driven underground; the largest-profile release is a Geometry Wars update for XBox Live Arcade (not to say such a thing is unworthy, mind you) and its fans have turned to the dusty frontier of gaming. Startups gun each other down at high noon, and press gangs for EA roam the high desert. In the back of a clapboard farmhouse, an infant, swaddled in whorehouse laundry, realizes it has lungs and makes sure everyone in a half-mile radius knows it. The infant is Cellblock Squadrons.

Alright, so the word is not 'out' per se, other than a celebratory, though demure, entry buried somewhre in Manifesto Games. But it is worth repeating, because, if my first impressions lead me to believe that it's a triumphant celebration of all things Starfighter Simulation.

Mercifully, the good folks at Super Furious software have chosen the fast, minimal, and accessible route. The plot is quite minimal, and is explained in a ten-slide voice-acted introduction. The Earth has united under one government, but is under attack by aliens from without and rebels from within. Much like Mad Cows and Unexploded Ordnance, the powers that be have decided that the best way to solve both problems is to pit them against each other. Naturally, you are a member of the titular penal squadrons. You fly until you die or pay your debt to society (rebellion, apparently, is a $500,000,000 crime, which you pay off by the mission). The between-mission briefing and setup is framed as you in your cell recieving the mission information on a PDA; the missions tick foward a week at a time, giving instantly a feeling of isolation and cabin fever. It's a great setup. And then you get into the mission.

There are less controls to learn than your average first person shooter; in fact, the control scheme *is* the same as your average first-person shooter, but even simpler. Ships have a forward-firing battery fired with the left mouse button. Most ships have a special ability, such as a short duration shield or a ram attack. Most ships have a boost function, which gives heavy thrust for a fixed duration. WS is throttle, AD is roll. Targeting has been simplified to a locked/unlocked toggle; in unlocked, it brackets the target nearest to boresight and gives you damage bar and a lead indicator, while locked mode holds on to the last target until unlocked again. There's a 'kill throttle' button, and a look backwards button. And, really, that's all you have, or need. Every function provided comes in handy at some point, and you never feel you're lacking for something. It's a very nicely executed control scheme, combined with a nice fisheye radar system that seems awkward at first, but then becomes very effective - edge of circle is 180 degrees back; center is forward.

The combat seems very yank-and-bank Descent:Freespace type shit for a while - shoot targets until dead, and so forth, until mission is achieved. After a while, you start noticing things:

1. Whoa, there's a wingman count in the bottom left, and the number is, like, sixty-eight.
2. There sure are a lot of laser blasts flying around. A lot more blue ones than red ones.

Right off the bat, the sheer size of the furballs you get into is staggering. Those used to Freespace-like battle sizes, with thirty a respectable number of ships in play, will find these battles staggering. The sprays of projectiles and the screen-filling energy beam weapons have a patterned, shmuppy quality; combined with the minimalism of the ship design and interface, the game is compellingly abstract, despite having a strong premise backing it up. Instead of fiddling with energy levels, shields vs hull integrity, missiles vs guns, targeting subsystems, etc, it's two hordes of totally AI-controlled starfighters duking it out, and the only thing that matters is dealing more damage before the other guy does the same to you. The simplicity is liberating.

Despite the complete lack of squad commands, the tactical choices available quickly become obvious. The enemies come in three levels: fighters, frigates, and capital ships (well, that's what I'll call them, anyway). Do you focus your attention on clearing the fighters first, or do you straight for the throat and take out the heavy hitters? One you choose an enemy, you have to choose an approach. Your squadmates choose targets in a totally autonomous manner. You can tell very clearly by the patterns of laser blasts in the distance who is engaging who, and where the concentrations of force are. Do you pick off stragglers or go for a popular target and let your buddies soak up the return fire?

The look of forty of your wingmates swarming a capital ship while the latter blows them away one by one with enormous energy beams, the victims erupting into incandescent fireballs, has a surreal beauty of the kind usually seen in, say, Grid Wars. Remember the panoramic view of the final battle in Return of the Jedi? It's like that, only you can fly into the middle of it and affect the outcome. And isn't that what epic gaming is all about.

Did I mention that this is just the demo?

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