Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved review

Welcome to day 2 of my Xbox 360 week, which this time is a review of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved for Xbox Live Arcade.

Format: Xbox 360 (Live Arcade)
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Bizzare Creations (Stephen Cakebread)
Genre: Retro/Twin-Stick Shooter (see Robotron/Smash TV)
Region: Global
Price: 400 Microsoft Points

The original Geometry Wars was an extra bonus game hidden away in the garage of Project Gotham Racing 2. It started life as a testbed for some joystick code that creator Stephen "Cakey" Cakebread had created to make sure his code was working properly. As time went on, he kept having ideas for new enemy types, and the game literally evolved into the game we know today. It created something of a mini-phenomenon, with PGR2 owners spreading the word to the wider gaming public until people were buying the game just to experience it for themselves!

When work started on PGR3, the team decided that Geometry Wars should be updated as well. Xbox Live Arcade and the new Microsoft Points business model is the perfect outlet for this sort of game, and it was one of the first (and best) games to appear on the 360's updated Arcade service. I would say it's definitely worth checking out the trial or the demo included in PGR3 and deciding for yourself whether to pay out 400 points for the privelidge of "owning" (if that's the correct term for something with no physical media) the game.

Graphics: 9 out of 10
Some of you may be wondering why GW:RE has scored a whole point more than PGR3 for the graphics, when it uses 2D instead of highly detailed 3D. Well, that's because I'm not judging them against each other. In my opinion, it's not fair to judge the visuals of a full retail 360 game against a Live Arcade title as they are by their nature very different beasts. The score here reflects how well it looks compared to it's other Live Arcade brethren.

That said, when the action heats up the graphics in GW:RE are quite remarkable. There are garish neon particles thrown everyway, hundreds of enemies swarming around you, and a grid in the background that warps and stretches in reaction to your gunfire and the gravitational pull of any active black holes on the screen. When things get really busy it can be quite hard for the player to keep up, but the 360 itself has no problems because of its three processor cores. One is entirely devoted to the grid, another to the enemy and player sprites, and a third to the sound. This guaruntees that the machine has more than enough power to chuck about any numer of bullets, enemies and particles.

Oooooh, shiny!

Music and Sound: 8 out of 10
There is a thumping techno soundtrack that plays in the background, which in itself sounds quite retro in an 80's dance/Commodore 64 SID chip kind of way. The sound effects actually play quite a big part in the gameplay. As each enemy type spawns on to the playfield, they each have their own unique sound effect. This is very useful and the playing area is bigger than the screen and the noises tell you for example that a black hole has just appeared, or dozens of annoying green squares have poured in. When you are busy keeping enemies of your back you can still keep track of when a black whole is about to explode from the speed of the sound playing, and the "sonic boom" style effect that happens when one detonates. In GE:RE, sound is your friend.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
GE:RE is the perfect example of addictive, "just one more go" game design. It is tough, but balanced so that your skills will improve the more you play. There's a score multiplier system which builds up the longer you stay alive and the more enemies you can kill, all the way up to 10x. This will make you try and eke out each precious life for as long as possible in an attempt to beat your previous score. Xbox Live leaderboards have been implemented and allowed you to compare your score against your friends, or against the worlds best. The best players have some scarily high scores - well over 100 million points. When you just start out, breaking the 100,000 point milestone feels like quite an achievement in itself.

Which it is, because just like every other game on the 360, GE:RE features a range of unlockable Achievements which contribute towards your Gamerscore. You will have to be very good indeed to obtain some of these, but at least it gives you something to aim for.

Now that's just insane.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
While GE:RE loses a few points because it's a sequel to an existing game it also gains a few because of the way the game has been updated. The original was a very sparse, quite basic looking game, but the 360 version throws around particles and enemies until the screen looks like a grand firework display, and makes for a very impressive sight. Although the game is the spiritual successor to games like Robotron and Smash TV, it has it's own unique qualities which set it apart. Every enemy type has it's own behaviour pattern, and despite just being a collection of one's and zero's they really seem alive and out to get you.

Value and Replayability: 10 out of 10
Because of it's low low price of 400 Microsoft Points (about £3 in old money), I have absolutely no hesitation in giving GE:RE a maximum score in this category. Especially as you can basically keep playing the game for as long as you want. The game doesn't end until you die, it just gets harder and harder - just like games used to be in the good old days. Some will tire and go back to their Oblivion's or Call of Duty's and never look back - others will continue to dip in for the odd game (and probably end up playing for 2 hours) for years to come. But the beauty of it is, even if you do stop playing because the difficulty is too harsh or you're just not keen on the game, it will only have cost you a few quid anyway and you'll probably have got more mileage out of it than the average trip to the cinema (which can cost more than twice as much).

Overall: 9 out of 10
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved is well worth spending 400 of your MS points on. It's very tough, which may put some off, but stick with it and you'll get better. GE:RE serves as the perfect example of what can be done on the Xbox Live Arcade service and remains the benchmark single player title to this day. What it doesn't really offer is any multiplayer action, unless you consider the leaderboard to be a multiplayer mode. If you're looking for fun simultaneous multiplayer action, check out my review of Marble Blast Ultra on day 4.

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