Friday, 19 December 2014

2014: What I've Been Playing – Drinking Games

For a while this year, I was convinced I could blog about every single game I spent a decent amount of time with. Then I remembered how life works. Playing something in 10 minute sessions over the course of months, or multiplayer with friends, isn't really conducive to writing about it.

So, over this weekend, I'm planning to post three breakdowns of the remaining games I failed to write up, split into rough categories. Starting with...

Drinking games

Games and alcohol, eh? The two are a reliable cocktail, one I've mixed in various ways over the years.

When I lived at home, games were a accompaniment to pre-drinks – Peggle, WWE Superstars, B.U.T.T.O.N. – with loose drinking rules draped over them. In our London flat, they were for the morning after – Worms, Spelunky, Mario Kart –  a roomful of people hiding their hangovers behind competitive multiplayer.

This year, especially since moving out to a bungalow in the far reaches of London, I finally cracked the post-pub game. Simple thrills that don't lean too hard on your brain functions, that keep you awake with bursts of laughter. I've written about Nidhogg before, and that has stayed in healthy rotation over the course of the year, but there are also some new challengers for the 3am gaming crown.

Towerfall title

Towerfall: Ascension is possibly the purest example of the form. Four players battling on a single screen, each armed with a bow and a limited number of arrows. A single hit means death. Kill or be killed.

That's an incredibly simple formula, but the little details manage to make it feel complex. Arrows embed themselves into the scenery, pin crumpled bodies to walls, waiting to picked up by someone who's prematurely emptied their quiver (it happens to the best of us).

While players scrabble towards this errant ammunition, they have one weapon left in their armoury: a simple Mario-style jump onto an opponent's head, as fatal as an arrow through the chest. That's not the only lift from Nintendo's leading practiser of turtle-head parkour. As in the original Mario Bros, each arena loops infinitely, so that dropping off the bottom of the screen will, bamf, have you immediately reappearing at the top.

 photo Towerfall.gif

All this gives Towerfall the feel of a deadly bouncy castle. A typical game moves moves in bursts. After an early exchange of arrows that's likely to fell the first player or two, the survivors will cautiously circle each other for minutes. But when it's time, Towerfall's action happens faster than your conscious brain can really track – just your bare muscle memory versus your opponent's.

And so the tension builds slowly, and is quickly released, which is where all the laughter comes from. This is the same basic mechanism behind most verbal jokes and it's also, I reckon, the secret of Nidhogg and Broforce.

Broforce

Broforce is the cheap thrill of a Steven Seagal film in the early hours on Channel 5, or of a just-before-the-shop-closes box of fried chicken, in the form of a co-operative shoot 'em up for up to four players.

At first glance, the game looks like a no-frills remake of Contra or Metal Slug. In tandem with its roster of knock-off '80s action stars with dodgy pun names (Rambro, Brominator, B.A. Broracus), you might expect Broforce to rely on retro nostalgia. Being completely honest, it does lean on these pleasures – but vitally, the game is also packed with smart and fresh ideas.

The levels you shoot your way through, for example, are entirely destructible. Over-zealous deployment of explosives can make it impossible to reach the end, meaning that your own weapons are as much of a threat as the thousands of balaclava wearers you'll run into.

Broforce 2

The way that the game juggles its enormous playable cast of 'bros' is pretty remarkable, too. Getting your hands on each new character, they feel just right. A Will-Smith-in-Men-in-Black bro comes equipped with a kickback-heavy Noisy Cricket, plus a Neuralyzer for stunning enemies. The twin Boondock Bros move, shoot and die individually, like Smash Bros' Ice Climbers. A bro version of Rose McGowan's character from Planet Terror propels herself through the air using her gun leg.

But what's even more impressive is the way these characters are built into the game. Levels are peppered with cages, which can be broken open to rescue the bro inside. This gives you an extra life, but also switches you to a random bro. It turns something as simple as a 1-Up into an interesting decision: if you're currently playing as your favourite, do you take the life and risk getting Indiana Brones (arguably the best action hero, but inarguably the worst bro)?

(In the multiplayer, if a fellow player is currently dead – which, given the chaos that ensues when four people play together, they will be – it simply brings them back to life. This is less interesting, though much more helpful.)


Broforce 3

Meanwhile, the game acts as a broad parody of jingoistic action movies, pitched somewhere between Team America and Hot Shots Part Deux. Each level ends with you blasting a besuited Satan then hitching a ride on a chopper as the level explodes below you, all to the soundtrack of a screeching guitar solo.

It's just funny, basically, especially to a brain that's spent the last six hours pickled in long island iced tea. These trappings certainly help but, again, it's the play itself which is funniest. Broforce is the rare kind of game where enemies not only hugely outnumber the player, but actually take more shots to kill.

A single bullet ends your life in a sudden splurt of red pixels, and that's funny enough, but watching a friend single-handedly master the rest of the level with Indy, only to be crushed by a falling square of concrete right on the finish line? That's hilarious.

Jack


I wanted to talk about The Jackbox Party Pack here, too – a compendium of five quirky quiz games, played on the PC and controlled using each player's smartphone – but two of my four multiplayer experiences with it so far have been marred by connectivity drop-outs.

A quick word, though: Two of the games, Fibbage and Drawful, are potential all-time classics, inviting players to offer false answers to a question or Pictionary-style drawing, which let you write the jokes yourselves. Lie Swatter and Word Spud both felt limp on first play.

The final, and central, element is You Don't Know Jack, an enjoyable quiz show-style game marred by the attempted zaniness of its presentation. The pop-culture-with-lateral-thinking questions are inherently funny, but the game tries to oversell them with a lengthy intro and outro for each question, which can weigh down even the strongest round of 'Kangaroo, Peanut, Albert Einstein or Uranus?'.

Jack 2

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.