Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (Xbox 360)

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved was the title that really kicked off the whole Xbox Live Arcade thing. It combined classic simple gameplay with high production values at a low price, making it hard not to like. It's been quite some time since then, and this whole notion of small scale downloadable games on consoles has really taken off. And after all this time we now have a sequel, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2.

Honestly, I wasn't super excited for this release. As good as Geometry Wars for its time, a lot has happened since then. The core formula was really simple, and since then two-stick shooters have become as ubiquitous on XBLA as first-person-shooters on the PC. I just couldn't see how this little game about shooting shapes in a rectangle could really evolve into something more interesting.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

You see, the original Geometry Wars was pretty hardcore. The whole scoring mechanic celebrated The Perfect Game. Dying reset your multiplier, but the difficulty of the game constantly increased, so a mistake early on prevented you from getting a decent score. The beginning of the game was really easy, so it took awhile to see if you were going to cut the mustard and walk away with an awesome score. But difficulty skyrocketed from trivial to ridiculous in a short time period, and pretty soon you were dead and stuck with too many enemies and no multiplier. The end result was largely decided by one little split-second mistake. Although I appreciated the skill involved in it, I just wasn't interested in getting that hardcore over a split-second.

The sequel innovates in a couple of key ways that dramatically improve the experience. First, your multiplier is not reset when you die, so there's no need to get overly frustrated when your perfect run is flawed. Second, your multiplier is not defined by how many kills you get, but instead by these little green geoms that drop from defeated enemies. This forces you to balance your play between adding to your score and increasing your long-term score potential by gathering multiplier. It also forces you to play aggressively, flying head-on into enemies instead of endless circling. Finally, the game features a couple of truly innovative modes that feel unlike anything else out there and emphasize the best parts of the new Geometry Wars gameplay.

Probably my favorite of these modes is King. In King there are bubbles where you are protected for a short time, but you cannot shoot while outside a bubble. This creates a brilliant pacing between aggressive and defensive gameplay. One moment you're unleashing carnage, the next you're racing for your life. It's one of the most brilliant gameplay innovations I've ever experienced. It effortlessly blends strategy into an action-packed twitch-fest.

GW2 also introduces multiplayer to the franchise, and King with four players is one of the best multiplayer experiences I've ever had. It's not head-to-head in that you don't shoot at other players, but that's not to say that it isn't brutally competitive. Do you put yourself at risk to farm multiplier or do you stay safe and shoot? Where do you shoot so that the geoms are most likely to benefit you and not your opponents? How do you plan your movement between bubbles so that you have a safe escape route at all times? How many bubbles can you pop to limit your opponent's options without impeding your own strategy? The amount of stuff going on is gleefully overwhelming. And at the core of this is a fast paced action game, so pretty much every part of your gaming brain is being tickled at once. It's incredibly fun, and thoroughly addictive.

King is great, but Pacifism is pretty awesome too. In this mode you can't shoot at all. The only way to kill enemies is to fly through gates that explode as you cross through them. Instead of dealing with sparse nimble enemies you deal with lumbering swarms. By having your offensive capabilities crippled you're forced to focus completely on movement, frantically bobbing and weaving through overwhelming odds. As far as I'm concerned the mode could have been called Balls, because without them you will fail. Just as in the other modes you have to balance multiplier and score, but in Pacifism getting that multiplier often means launching yourself directly towards the oncoming swarm. Seriously, balls.

Singleplayer turns out to be just as addictive as multiplayer in GW2, primarily due to the tight integration of friend leaderboards. You are constantly aware of your friend's high scores and encouraged to better them. It feeds that competitive drive, but in an oddly social way. My only complaint is that there is no persistence to multiplayer scores whatsoever.

Achievements are often misused in games. They should add something to your game experience, not entice you with ridiculous goals that exploit your inner obsessive completist. Geometry Wars 2 strikes a perfect achievement balance. Each mode in the game has an achievement that encourages you to play it in a different way. Instead of merely awarding excellence, the achievement gives you new stuff to do. It enhances the core game.

All told, I'm happy to have been proven wrong. I wasn't really looking forward to this game, and it's completely surprised me. Geometry Wars 2 has brought some serious innovation to the two-stick shooter genre. And it's only $10. So, um yeah. Hot.

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