Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Not Without Its Faults pt 2

The other game defying my expectations was Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team. I got this for ten bucks on my Xbox 360.

Unlike the giant-budget Epic Mickey, Kill Team is one of those little downloadable titles that publishers more and more frequently release as an apetite-whetting cash grab. Part of building hype for an upcoming triple-A game. Sometimes these are little flash games on websites, sometimes they are more elaborate... like the 2D 'retro-styled' game released in conjunction with Capcom's Dark Void. Usually these little side stories aren't anything to write home about, but Kill Team is now out about a month before the much-anticipated much-hyped Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, and is definitely an exception.

It is actually REALLY good.

The upcoming Space Marine game looks to feature the player in the role of a Marine Captain. In the tabletop wargame Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine Captains are legendary hero-level characters, typically commanding good size armies, and capable of laying waste to whole squads of trooper models on their own. They get their Chapter's pick of the best custom-made armor and weapons, and are typically very old, very experienced war leaders who have seen battle on countless worlds against all manner of enemy. They're also every inch the super-sized no-nonsense shoot-first type of warriors that western sensibilites seem to require. So a Space Marine Captain makes a great player character in the third person blast and chop-fest that this new game is bound to be. One of 40K's iconic enemy races, the Orks ('futuristic' versions of fantasy orcs), appear in most of the screenshots and videos I've seen for the game. Video games based on GW franchises don't always work out so well, but Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine *looks* like it hits all the right marks.

Which leads to Kill Team. This little downloadable game starts of showing an Ork Kroozer (warship) heading into Imperial Space to attack a Forge World (industrial complex planet). Space Marine boarding craft intercept it, and your game begins. I think the game represents a different specific conflict, but is attached to the larger that also encompasses the upcoming WH40K: Space Marine.

You can choose between four 'types' of Space Marine, and the differences in them basically reflect how much balance you want between ranged and close combat. You can also choose between five different Chapter color schemes, for a bit of personalisation. Each Marine type has three different weapons available but the high power ones need to be unlocked through play. The game also provides various levels of buffs (again most have to be unlocked) and you have opportunities to swap weapons and buffs in the course of blasting through each stage. You're never stuck with an unworkable combination. The controls are simplicity itself, the game is a twin-stick shooter. Moving in one direction while firing in another is a piece of cake, and use of special abilities, running and all that are mapped in logical places. There isn't that much to keep track of anyway.

Now for 40K purists there's going to have to be a little give here. The player is expected to run and gun through the corridors and chambers of a large ship killing hundreds of Orks and Gretchin (SF goblins). None of the Marines on offer would canonically be capable of accomplishing this. In the upcoming Space Marine game it might be a bit less of a stretch considering Captains are top-level hero characters, but in Kill Team you are using (for variety's sake) squad leader and lower level heroes. It is a bit like the stretch you have to make when Guile is fighting the Hulk in Marvel vs Capcom games. For the sake of even having a playble game, some bending of canon is required. So if a 40K goober can just have an open mind and set aside the limitations imposed on these Marines by the tabletop game, they'd find most of the rest of the game is a really neat little exploration of the 40K universe.

I read a review (after I'd played it) that said Kill Team's environments were drab and same-y. Well, there are only five levels and they will take the player about forty minutes each the first time through. And all the levels take place on a big Ork spaceship. So a certain amount of consistency could be expected. The devs structured this, actually working to NOT break canon in a sense, similar to the tabletop system's penchant for campaigns, scenarios strung along in narrative form to reach an ultimate goal. Most typically official individual scenarios do NOT range all over the galaxy and pit an army against a variety of enemie armies. 40K game narratives don't have an everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach, though in their own home games players frequently battle with little regard to a functioning narrative. So I found focusing on just the Orks and THEIR environment to be a good idea. Especially considering the short length of the game and the focused nature of the narrative.

As a long-time 40K fan, I found the portrayal of the cluttered, ramshackle Ork ship to be really cool. It had lots of great details, like every time there was an explosion big enough to rock the ship, all kinds of carp lying around would slide across the floor-- the Orks don't tie anything down! There are great vats of radioactive material just open to the air with no safety railings, and catwalks made up of metal planks barely riveted together. And everything is lit with harsh white lights or hellish red and green glows. The game totally nails the anarchic and heedless nature of Orks and their technology. It's a miracle they could build anything space-worthy. For a little variety's sake there is one level in the game where the Orks have sealed off the ship because of yet another alien presence that they haven't quite been able to eradicate. This was a good bit of fun, with a few visual cues here and there (heavy use of maroon and purple) to indicate the 'changed' nature of the region. The player must make their way through this area, of course, and battles a totally different, well-known 40K force, before confronting the Ork Warboss in the finale.

The in-game player and enemy models are also worth mentioning. I read somewhere that these were basically the assets from the Dawn of War strategy game series, but jazzed up with a few extra details. I haven't played Dawn of War (aversion to PC games, aversion to strategy games!) but the characters and enemies are all perfect for this type of game. The game is played in an on-high isometric view, very much like you were looking down on a tabletop wargame. You get a pretty wide field that you can see to allow time to see what's coming at you-- though the game has a lot of ambushing going on-- and to give room for many enemy to be on screen at once. Consequently, the actual size of the models for most of the game is quite small-- again, like a tabletop view, but every now and then the camera zooms down in for a slo-mo enemy death scene and then the level of detail in the scenery and characters becomes apparent. It isn't Halo Reach levels of sophistication, but there's a lot more texture and bling than was really necessary for such a cheapie twin-stick arcade game. Interestingly, with all the details the dudes in this game all look like well-painted 28mm figures, with the figure proportions and chunky details... as opposed to the upcoming Space Marine game's properly proportioned realistically rendered game characters.

There might be a lot of video gamers who will look at this game and think it is some kind of science-fiction ripoff of stuff from World of Warcraft, but GW's designs, both fantasy and futuristic, were full-fledged and established well before even the first early generations of Warcraft came along.

This game doesn't really do anything new, mechanics-wise. If you can play Robotron 2084, Expendable, Loaded, or Geometry Wars you're good to go. It just has everything tuned really well. It makes it seem ludicrous that no one has applied the twin-stick formula to 40K before. The graphics, the sound, the voice over (sounding rather like Patrick Stewart or Sean Connery at times), it is all just badass.

And the game is just as fun, if not moreso, in two-player couch-cooperative. The powerups, and their judicious use is pretty critical to getting through the game and Kill Team lets both players share the advantages of a powerup that either grabs as long as they stay in proximity to each other. Players can then stack the powerups in a way you can't do in single-player. Player one can grab the power field creating a dome around the Marines impervious to enemy fire. Player two can then grab triple fire, granting awesome sprays of bullets. So for as long as these pickups last, both players are protected, both players have spread guns. It really encourages the players to strategise together and not just be every-man-for-himself and dick the other guy by grabbing the good shit. Since my kid is a 40K fan, this game is tailor-made for he and I to just pick up and play. And it was actually fun trying to find all the hidden medals and acquire all the weapons and buffs. The usual confusion ensuing from two players wreaking havoc is a major part of the fun because with all the cooperative aspects, including reviving a downed partner, it almost never causes a game over. I never found the camera a problem either, and in fact its dynamic tracking actually added a lot to the game.

I've also read some complaints about game length, but to me it was perfect. I'm so damned tired of games that require such a huge commitment in time and effort... even fun games can bog down. This game is only four hours for one play through, as I've already said. But it was really fun on repeat plays and it rewards the primary player with unlocks, achievements, etc even when played co-op. So I've put much more than four hours into it, and none of it has felt like a chore or grinding.

Other writers seem to largely agree with everything I'm posting here. Even non-40K fans give the game a lot of props. BUT. I have to go along with the one huge glaring fault:

NO online co-op. Let me repeat that. A pick-up-and-play game with an expansive user-friendly field of view and multiple aspects to encourage teaming up, but has NO WAY for you to play co-op other than with a friend in the same room. Local two-player ONLY. Wow.

Now for me this isn't really a problem. I have a fanatical kid gamer and 40K goob right in my own home, and I'm not that big for online play anyway. This does, however, seem like an absolutely massive oversight. I can only think the money ran out. Since the game is so well-done in just about every other way, maybe the room wasn't in the budget to implement this. I don't know what all it takes to enable smooth netcode but looking at this game it isn't much of a resource hog. I can't believe it would require anything like a Halo or Street Fighter game to banish lag and get really efficient bandwidth usage out of it. It has a mostly fixed view, tiny characters, and minimal, straightforward controls (son not a lot of inputs to have to read).

Anyway. Huge oversight, yes. But for me personally, this is the best cheap game I've bought all year, and one of the better games overall regardless of price. I don't feel too keen to diss Mickey, and I'll admit to 40K frothing probably enhancing my enjoyment of Kill Team... but I'm probably not going back to the Disney game. I will, however, spend a lot more time in the Ork Kroozer icing greenskins.

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