GUNS OF ICARUS ONLINE REVIEW – “PLAYER TEMPERS ARE SKY-HIGH”

Here’s a bit of information that’ll surprise nobody: people suck.

And here’s a bit of information that’ll somehow be even less surprising than the previous one: people who play online multiplayer games suck even more.

I mean, is it even up for debate at this point? Between the pathetic shrieking, the inability to cooperate cheerfully, the ugly personalities, the permeating, eye-rolling belief that every game is the final match in some lame eSports tournament and that those who aren’t min-maxing every piece of gear are somehow not worth your time… It’s all infuriating. Why don’t you just relax and have some fun, you jackasses? You’re the collective reason why anybody with any brains at all sticks to the calm, clean waters of single player, rather than take the risk of jumping into the diseased community pool that is online gaming.

Yes, maybe I am a little bitter. I’ve never been a man for multiplayer in any major way, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good design and understand that playing with others can add a certain spice, especially when certain choices complement that spice. Watch_Dogs is now accepted as a pile of bland wallpaper paste and Hot Topic t-shirt scraps, but that hide and seek invasion thing worked pretty well, mainly for the ability to watch other people wet themselves when they realised someone was reading their browser history. And Dark Souls figured out pretty early on that the best way to minimise the problems of online gaming is to keep the dialogue and communication to a minimum, with clear goals and objectives for everyone involved. After all, nothing brings down the experience of playing with other people like… Well, other people.

And thus we come to Guns Of Icarus Online, which is a game I only found out existed last week, but had secretly always wanted in some form or another without quite knowing it had been done already. I can’t tell if I should be pleased or annoyed by that fact. I suspect that those who read a lot of my work will be able to guess.

The basic concept of this game is that everybody gets booted into a multiplayer server, and there’s a bunch of heavily-armed steampunk-pirate-ship-blimp things that float around like the inhabitants of Fallen London had decided to re-enact a battle from Star Wars, and the result is as lethal as you’d expect. Up to four players who are all seeing everything in first-person totter around on each ship trying not to vomit, and they’re all required to perform various roles if everybody’s going to make it out alive and bring down the enemy craft.

20161011140807_1

The landscapes and level design in Guns Of Icarus are often hauntingly beautiful and even a little chilling. This mood is frequently ruined by the static-ridden moaning supplied by your teammates.

Which immediately brings out the problem of shared responsibility, and the failing of one person quickly becoming something that everyone has to deal with. Whether it’s the captain steering you all into a cliff, or the engineer just spending the whole game cooking marshmallows by the glow of a small engine fire, the blimp getting smashed to bits is still going to mean death for everyone, whether you’re Amelia Airhart or Ted Striker.

But normally I wouldn’t worry about this sort of thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the enemy ship that bursts into flames or if it’s ours, the gameplay is still fun and shooting at distant targets is satisfying enough to be worth the effort, win or lose. It’s not like GTA V, where one person getting killed in the online mission was a genuine pain in the neck, as you all got thrown back to the start and lost progress. Yeah, you’d forgotten how much that sucked, didn’t you? I’m going to hold that grudge until the end of time.

But back to Guns Of Icarus, and let me say that the element of teamwork is a fundamental mixed bag. In my mind I was hoping for something like those scenes in Firefly or classic Star Trek, where everybody’s coordinating tactics and having a great time doing so. And when I was lucky enough to be playing with friends that was certainly the case, especially when you realise that the game is instantly made twice as good when you put on a pirate voice.

It was all rather thrilling. From my position at the helm I’d spin the wheel and turn us hard to port with a great thunder of wood and sails, bellowing commands and watching my loyal crew scamper around, wisecracking and generally enjoying themselves. Or maybe I’d be some lowly engineer cabin boy (represented by yours truly putting on a tremulous Oliver Twist voice), dashing between various parts of the ship at the whim of my commander, trying to fight back the flames and keep everything running. It’s fun, it’s endearing, it’s nuanced, but most of all it feels good to do…

… Until you enter a public lobby by yourself, and everything goes to shit. I admit that there’s not much the developers can do about their customer base acting like piss-stained chimps, but perhaps they could stop giving them abilities to annoy other people with? One particularly galling factor is that any captains in the lobby can extend the timer before the game starts, apparently indefinitely. Why the fuck is that there? What purpose does it have other than to be abused? If people aren’t ready to play, they could always just back out of the lobby and adjust their knick-knacks there, though I doubt they need it. The developers do give them two hundred seconds of prep-time at least, I’m sure they can cope with that.

20161008143026_1

Gunfire and explosions are what makes this game fun, whether those explosions come from your cannons, your engine, or your hydrogen-filled balloon “Hindenburging.”

There’s other irritants you’ll have to endure if you want to get at the pearl of good game design. For example, I do understand why the pilot is always the de facto Captain once you start playing. He’s best positioned to survey the area, he can maneuver the ship to get the optimal angles on enemies, and in a game about teamwork it’s still probably helpful to have somebody who can buckle down and take charge when things get hairy.

That’s the theory, at least. In practice it only means that one little git with a pile of Mountain Dew bottles stacked by his chair gets a power rush to match his sugar rush, and will scream unendingly at those unfortunates who don’t do what he tells them straight away. Oh, and captains can also see what loadout you’re using and recommend different ones, which only puts more power in their hands. No, I don’t want that kind of hammer using up my limited equipment space. Yes, I know there’s no limit to how many times you can make that text box ping at me and tell me to change it, you little sod.

And see how far declining that offer gets you – either a tirade of abuse in your ear or some mouth-breather giving a disgusted groan into the microphone before he lengthily explains why your build is completely wrong and inefficient. Dude, I’m just here to blow up airships with my flamethrower turret. Why is everybody making this so goddamn difficult for me?

Because on the few occasions that the dominoes fall into place and you get a good game going, it’s actually very engaging. The maps are huge and all thick with fog, which is placed around in a manner that manages not to be overly obstructive, yet adds a layer of stealth prior to every dogfight. Hell, it manages to be creepy and tension-raising to a legitimately startling degree. There’s something skin-crawling about the silence as you float past looming mountains or damaged skyscrapers, the only sounds being the creaking of rope and timber, constantly straining your eyes to see if that’s the glint of an enemy craft inside that wall of cloud-bank.

Then, BANG! Cannon fire ‘cross the starboard bow, sir! Aagh! Get on the port turrets, you scurvy dogs! I’ll swing this tub around to greet ‘em! Mister Engineer, keep watch on those propellers, I’m pushing ‘em to all they’ve got! Direct hit, sir! Wait, what the hell’s that sound? Captain, second target approaching from the stern! They’re below us, sir! Then man your stations, and full speed ahead! Prepare to fire on my command! CHARGE!

20161011134649_1

Hmm… Might need to break out the ol’ toolkit for this one.

At least, that’s how it should be. And with the right friends, that’s what you get. Bombastic, climactic, volcanic airship action, that comfortably blends strategy with heat-of-the-moment thinking and a nicely designed backdrop. But if you go in solo and end up with a mismatched team of nose-picking goons, you can watch something that should’ve been superb get completely ruined as an experience. Hoo-bloody-rah.

So my advice to anybody considering a purchase is this: buy if you have at least one other friend who plays, and only go on it when you know he’ll be backing you up. And when you hop into matchmaking, take your own ship and pray to god that all the other crew members besides you and your bestie are just the quiet, cooperative bots, which are clearly superior to the pond life that might replace them. Those of you who don’t have any friends up for airship battles are advised to stay clear unless you have an insanely strong stomach, and not just because of air sickness.


6.5/10

With a better community this easily could’ve been an eight or even higher, but the fact that players are permitted to act like dicks and even actively encouraged to do so means that the biggest foe in Guns Of Icarus isn’t the enemy – it’s your own crew. Scoop this one up if you’ve got comrades who you love and trust, otherwise you may want to keep your feet on the ground.

PONY ISLAND REVIEW – “MOUTH LASERS ARE NOT ENOUGH”

I have a soft spot for indie game development, as everybody who reads my work knows. I tend to be kinder in my reviews, more encouraging in my feedback, and more willing to part with my money when it comes to that final choice of buy/deny.

And that’s because indie game development is very important to the gaming community, perhaps more so than the big AAA stuff that gets the most attention. Gaming was founded on small projects made by people working out of their homes and universities, and even now the indie stuff feels like the most creatively liberated section, willing to take risks and make artistic statements – so good on them.

And because of that, I was approaching Pony Island with a certain amount of hope and expectation. After all, the information I picked up was certainly positive, and it all seemed to gel with the sort of things that I like. Classic arcade gaming with a subtle depth beneath it? Intriguing. Subversion of traditional visuals by infusing them with a darker edge? That can certainly work. Shooting Jesus in the face with a laser made of Matrix code?

… Well, now I’ve got to try it, right?

So Pony Island is a very short game that uses fourth-wall humour and underlying metacommentary in the main story, with a deceptively cheery old-style arcade game appearance presented as a façade over the whole thing. The façade falls away as we progress through the game, and as it becomes more clear that certain forces, both good and evil, are trying to manipulate you into performing actions that will have far greater consequences than achieving a new high score.

20160917104325_1

BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAActually, this rather hurts my throat to do.

Now, I double-checked the timing on Pony Island’s release, and saw that it came out only three months after Toby Fox’s modern classic, Undertale. So I certainly won’t say that Pony Island was made out of some rushed attempt to leap onto an existing bandwagon, because most game development takes longer than three months. And like I said: it’s indie development. I want to be kind here.

But if it’s not guilty of being a copycat, it may be a victim of unfortunate timing. It certainly hits a lot of the same notes as Undertale. There’s a villain who seems exaggeratedly cute at first, there’s retro-gameplay altered in theme to meet modern sensibilities, excessive levels of games-talking-‘bout-games and even the same ending as Undertale, with one of the characters speaking directly to the audience and asking them not to player the game anymore.

An instruction I was all too happy to follow, as this is the question that was plaguing me throughout the two or three hours necessary to win: if Pony Island is a spiritual successor to Undertale, why do I love the latter whilst finding this new pretender rather insufferable?

It might be because the story feels a little bit too much like a gimmick, and doesn’t really know what to do with the good ideas it does have. To begin with, the game is way too excited about throwing away the initial illusion of cutesy “My Little Pony” visuals, which barely lasts five minutes before we get the darker stuff overriding it. We’re not even half an hour through before they’ve broken out the demonic pentagrams and creepy music. Oh look, a game about unicorns jumping over gates is actually a scam utilised by the Devil himself to gather souls. Man, that’s not something I’d expect Uncle D to be using. What? No, I’m not yawning. I’m, uh, silently gasping in terror. Yeah, let’s go with that.

20160917110819_1

Lovey the Flower! No, hold on.

Which brings me to my second point – shouldn’t the antagonist be more threatening? Shouldn’t I feel more of a motivation to win? Undertale made me scared of a smiling yellow flower, and Reigns was clever enough to make a lovable dog seem unaccountably creepy. But the devil here just feels like an annoyance, something that throws a multitude of inconvenient (but by no means concerning) obstacles in your path. It’s like trying to write an essay, and every couple of hours somebody pops up and deletes a random sentence. Pretty weak stuff, I think you’ll agree. And with no real characterisation for either the player character or the NPCs, I never get the sense of anybody actually being in danger or grief. At one point the player is allegedly sent to sleep and trapped for three centuries, but so what? We see no consequences; we don’t become bothered by anything. We just sit back down and keep playing. Why is this supposed to concern me?

And the metanarrative is just as shallow, highlighting why such ideas can either turn out as gold or mould. Maybe I should stop belabouring the point, but Undertale was wise enough to initially keep its bigger ideas in the background as underlying subtext, and then had them emerge forward as the game progressed. So it starts off by drawing us in with characters, then doubles down by connecting the more philosophical stuff to the main plot later on. It also had much more interesting ideas than this game. What would the ability to save and repeatedly reload your life do to a moral mind? How would the ideas of grinding for experience or trying to reach total completion look in a real-world context?

Pony Island doesn’t seem to have any thoughts on that level, or even any real thoughts at all. There are moments where you step away from the fictional arcade machine you’re playing, and bits where you get on the developer’s nerves by cheating or playing unfinished levels, but there’s no deeper meaning to any of it. It’s just… There. I guess it’s meant to be funny, but I didn’t find myself laughing – the ultimate nail in the coffin of the comedy game.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t parts I like. Or perhaps I should say part, singular. It’s just one scene, but it’s a very clever scene where you have to keep your eye trained on a certain entity to see how it changes, and the game tries everything it can to distract you, to make you look away. I won’t spoil what happens, but needless to say that the game really does pull out all stops and makes it near-impossible that first time you try, utilising the kind of tricks I’d never expect, yet somehow manages not to feel cheap in its tactics. There’s no deeper meaning behind it, but that doesn’t mean the basic idea in that scene isn’t clever and well-made, so due respect there.

Because it’s better than the gameplay, which was definitely getting to be a chore by the end. I suppose it’s in keeping with the joke that this is silly, shallow arcade gameplay, but let’s remember something – you’re still making me play a shallow arcade game. For lengthy periods of time. That might not have been the smartest move to perform on somebody who’s already losing patience with your creation to begin with.

20160917103046_1

Don’t let me type stuff into video games. That never ends well.

There are two forms of core gameplay: the platforming sections and the hacking sections, and they both suck. The former is briefly entertaining until the developers run out of abilities to give you (two), having you jump over obstacles and blast enemies with your mouth laser in 2D side-scrolling perspective. But once it’s gotten those bits out the way, the game has nothing more to offer action-wise, except for the occasional alteration in who you fight. But considering Code Genie, Angry Flying Skull Thing and Lord Giant Boss Demon Monster Sr. all go down with a hearty dose of tonsil beams to the face, there’s no real change that comes across as significant to the player.

But it’s better than the hacking, which is represented by that age-old pipe-water game AGAIN. The game does its best to hide it by adding a heavy computer-code aesthetic, but it’s still steering an object around a grid by swapping out directed sections of a maze. Pony Island, we talked about this just a few days ago. I know Bioshock was an incredible game, but it’s now widely accepted that hacking the vending machines was the one element that sucked more cock than a hungry leech in a chicken coop. Out of all the Bioshock aspects you could’ve taken inspiration from, why that one? It’s like deciding that the best part of National Lampoon’s Vacation is that racist scene in the city slums.

I’m torn on to whether to recommend Pony Island or not. On one hand, it is incredibly cheap at only four pounds, and some people do really seem to like it. Not to mention that if I’m going to give my money to anybody, I do want it to be small-scale artists trying to succeed with creatively interesting ideas.

But on the other hand, I don’t like this game! Four pounds isn’t much, but paying any amount of cash for an unenjoyable experience is wrong. That’s why going to visit distant relatives for Christmas is so utterly depressing, and why you usually bring heavy amounts of booze to compensate. But I didn’t have any alcohol to hand with this one, and when my flatmate asked me to help her tidy the kitchen, I was only too pleased to escape.

20160917102651_1

OH GOD NOT AGAIN

Though I did get to what seems like the canonical ending of Pony Island, the achievement list does suggest more gameplay and narrative hidden in there somewhere… But I don’t care. My work is officially over when the credits start rolling. If you want me to play more than that, you need to seduce me with some good material, and you can consider me as dry as a nun on this one. Maybe give it a try if you like your fourth-wall humour, or have just taken a great deal of drugs and need something entertaining in the background.


4/10

Pony Island has high ambitions, honourable intentions and even a few good ideas – but none of them ever amount to much. Generally inoffensive but nowhere near as original as it believes it is, the game becomes boring and eventually meanders into the frustrating.