If survival horror is one of the game genres that I tend to rate poorly because of my internal bias against them then real time strategy is the genre that I find myself rating consistently higher for the same reasons. This could be some kind of survivor bias that led me to drop many RTS style games early on in their lives before I could make it to the end to review them (Company of Heroes comes to mind in this regard) but it’s probably more due to my gaming roots being firmly planted in this space having whiled away many hours on the RTS classic, Dune 2. You can then imagine my intrigue when Auralux, a game from independent developer E.B. McNeill, claimed to be the very essence of RTS, cutting away all the peripheral elements until the game was refined to its core.
Auralux, like many independently developed games, has had to make choices as to what needed to be included in the game and what should be excluded. For Auralux this means that there is no story to speak of, you are simply a sun orbited by little dots who needs to take over all the other suns in the area whilst competing with 2 NPC suns who are doing the same thing. The introduction to the game is also quite thin on the ground as well but considering that there really isn’t that much to explain it actually suffices quite well. Your missions start out easy but as time goes on they get increasingly more difficult but you’re also blessed with some additional options to make your time with Auralux much more enjoyable.
The graphics of Auralux are incredibly simple with the most complex item on the whole screen being the suns that dot the landscape. It’s akin to many other ambient titles where the minimalistic graphics combined with the soothing background music make for a very pleasing game experience. The simple graphics are also due in part to the fact that Auralux is also available on Android and whilst many handsets are capable of producing much more elaborate visuals than what Auralux has that narrows the potential market for this game significantly. All that being said it’d probably look a whole lot better on a smaller screen so I’m probably being a bit harsh in that regard.
As I alluded to earlier the core game of Auralux is incredibly simple. You start off with a sun that produces little dots that you can use to take over other, unoccupied suns or to upgrade your own if its capable of doing so. Those same little dots are also your battle units and you can use them to take over other suns owned by the other players. That’s essentially it and the rest of the game is played inside your head as you work out the best strategy to overcome your foes and inevitably take over the entire board with your glowy blue goodness.
Initially the odds are heavily stacked in your favour with you usually starting from a position of power strategically. This serves as the tutorial of sorts as whilst the game play is refined down to the absolute basics its still very easy for you to get into a position that you can’t recover from. The games are also slow and methodical at the start, encouraging you to take your time with each move and consider the best path of action before committing all your available units to it. It’s a good introduction to the idea but it eventually starts to wear thin as you sometimes have to wait for a significant amount of time to pass before you’re able to progress to the next stage.
Thankfully the developer behind Auralux realised this and after a few levels you’re able to unlock “speed mode” which allows you to play the exact same game sped up significantly. This turns matches that would last 10~20 minutes into 5 minute affairs something that is definitely required considering how long it can take to build up and move your army around the map. Once I unlocked the mode I didn’t play it any other way and still managed to eek out a couple hours worth of game time and I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything by doing so.
The bulk of the game stays in either the stacked in your favour or equal footing level of difficulty where you can get by with relatively unimaginative strategies. The last quarter or so puts you in situations where the odds are clearly stacked against you, usually either starving you of resources compared to your competitors or putting you in a really non-strategic position. These maps are the ones that require an incredible amount of strategy to conquer and I can say that these maps took up the vast majority of my total game time.
Something that I feel is key to understanding this game (that is only made clear to you in one of the tips that’s quite easy to miss) is that whilst the AI appears to work differently on different levels it is in fact identical across the board. Now it’s not strict as far as I can tell, it will make different decisions when two options are basically equal, but the way it operates stays the same no matter the map you’re on. Considering the matches are essentially a free for all (or more realistically a 2v1) the game then is usually to get the 2 computers to fight each other so you can quietly build up an army and devastate them before they can retaliate.
Indeed the only advantage you have as a human in this game is the fact that you’re able to think non-linearly. The screenshot below is an example of this as the AI has the terrible habit of putting all of its available units on the front lines leaving its production at the rear incredibly exposed, letting me swoop in to get it. Now if you play like the AI does you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose as the AI is very aware of when 2 of its opponents are duking it out and will take advantage of this so the way to win most games is to wait for an opportunity like the one below and make yourself an unattractive target for the other AI. There may be other ways to win but this was the only way I found to win consistently and even then I’d sometimes lose because both the AIs figured out I was an easier target then the other AI, devastating me in a short time.
Whilst the metagame might not be as rich as other RTS titles it’s still thoroughly enjoyable when you manage to pull off an incredibly risky maneuver that gives you the game winning advantage. It’s true that this is probably the simplest game that you could still reasonably call a RTS and whilst that’s an achievement in itself it also means that the variety of game play possible is also limited. The replayability of Auralux isn’t particularly high if you approach it like a traditional game but for a timewaster on a phone I can see it having quite a long life.
Auralux then is one of those curious indie games that, by necessity, strips back all extravagances in favour of a solid core game mechanic. Auralux does it well and I’d struggle to find anything simpler that could still be realistically called a RTS, even from 2 decades when games had to be simple. Whilst I might’ve cursed its name for the apparent randomness and the AIs ganging up on me I came to realise that it’s all part of the higher order strategy required to conquer your opponents. For RTS fans and casual gamers alike there’s much to love in Auralux and I’d heartily recommend a play through.
Auralux is available on PC and Android for $4.99 and free respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with about 3 hours of total play time.
These days you’d be hard pressed to find a first person shooter that doesn’t resort to the current norm of cover based, infinite regenerating health standard. It seems the days of searching out med kits and carrying ridiculous numbers of weapons is a thing of the past, a part of the first person shooter heritage that will be left behind in favour of current trends. Still there are some who dare to flirt with the old ways and the developers behind Hard Reset, namely Flying Wig Hog (consisting of many people who made Painkiller), are just those people. Whilst Hard Reset isn’t strictly an old fashioned shooter there are some throwbacks to the old ways with some of the new mixed in for good measure.
Hard Reset throws you into a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has been driven to the brink of extinction, pushed back into a single city called The Sanctuary by an enemy of their own creation: the machines. Inside the Sanctuary is a repository of billions of human identities, ostensibly those who were killed in the war that resulted in humanity being in the state that it is in. The machines want to assimilate those memories into their core matrix and as such have been assaulting the Sanctuary relentlessly. You play as Fletcher, a member of a team called CLN who’s job it is to protect humanity from the machines. Things start to get hairy when the machines break through the barrier and begin assaulting the Sanctuary directly.
The setting in Hard Reset is most aptly described as a cyberpunk’s wet dream, being a combination of post-apocalyptic drab combined with dazzling neon colours with Japanese characters littering the landscape. It’s definitely not the most pretty of games, especially when compared to other recent releases like Rage and Battlefield 3, but it’s far from being visually boring like many other generic shooters tend to be. Trouble is that many of the enemies in the game are also visually similar to the world that surrounds them which can make it somewhat frustrating at times.
Combat in Hard Reset is a mixed affair swinging between the dizzying highs of laying waste to hoards of enemies and the frustrating lows of replay a section over and over again because of some surprise tactics that will one shot you. You’re given 2 weapons to start off with the CLG, a typical machine gun weapon, and the NRG, a futuristic energy weapon that streams out balls of plasma. Both of these weapons can be upgraded to become another type of weapon (which you can change on demand) with the CLG being projectile based (shotgun, rocket launcher, mines, etc) and the NRG being energy based (shock field, railgun and a “smart weapon” which I’ll touch on shortly). You can also upgrade your combat armour giving you other abilities like a radar or additional damage resistance.
Now here’s where I’ll admit to finding Hard Reset and absolute chore to play until I got the smart gun upgrade. You see the initial incarnations of your weapons are ridiculously weak with even the weakest of enemies needing a thorough thrashing with them before they’ll keel over. The NRG upgrade that creates an electric shock field mitigated this somewhat but it was still extremely tedious to set up the field, wait for it to off all the enemies inside it and then wait for the next wave to arrive. The smart weapon, an upgrade that shoots projectiles that home in on your enemies and can shoot through walls, took much of this tedium away as I could simply scan around for incoming hostiles and launch volleys at them before they could get to me. This became very helpful in the later game when boss fights (like the one pictured above) when it would lock onto the places I needed to shoot at. Granted they were pulsating orange so I wouldn’t of had trouble finding them otherwise, but the knowledge that I was guaranteed to hit the right spot made those somewhat tiresome boss fights a lot easier.
The story itself is rather thin on the ground, with the majority of it being told in slides between levels when the game is loading. There’s a little interaction between your character and some others in the game, but they’re just through poorly animated avatars in the corner of your HUD. As a medium to carry the game along it does the job adequately but it’s rather loosely strung together and the game cuts off abruptly with the trademarked “oh there could be a sequel!” cliff hanger ending that I always groan about. Then again if you’re expecting Mass Effect level of interaction and immersion from a $30 shooter than I’d be questioning your sanity.
Hard Reset is a bit of an oddity, showing many signs of the polish I’ve come to expect from much bigger budget games but also dragging with it some of the troubles of being an independently developed game. At just on 5 hours of straight up game play (with no multi-player) it was a somewhat enjoyable diversion whilst I was waiting for Christmas glut of AAA titles to start dribbling in. If you’re into the cyberpunk genre and love your action over the top then Hard Reset will be right up your alley.
Hard Reset is available right on PC for $29.99 on Steam. Game was played on Hard with a grand total of around 5 hours play time.
I remember my first mobile phone well, it was a Nokia 8210 that I got myself locked into a 2 year contract for mostly because I wanted to play snake on it. After having the phone a month (and subsequently having it stolen) I grew tired of the game and resigned myself to just using at it was intended, as a phone. This continued with all my following phones for the next few years as I favoured function and form over features, even forgoing the opportunity to play old classics like Doom on my Atom Exec. However after picking myself up an iPhone early last year I started looking into the world of mobile gaming and I was surprised to see such a healthy games community, grabbing a few free titles for my shiny new gadget.
Primarily though I noticed that the vast majority of games available on the App Store were from small development houses, usually ones I’d never heard of before. Whilst there were a few familiar titles there (like Plants vs Zombies) for the most part any game that I got for my iPhone wasn’t from any of the big publishers. Indeed the most popular game for the iPhone, Angry Birds, comes from a company that counts a mere 17 people as its employees and I’m sure at least a few of them only came on since their flagship title’s release. Still the power of the platform is indisputable with over 50 million potential users and a barrier to entry of just one Apple computer and a $99 per year fee. Still it had me wondering though, with all this potential for the mobile platform (including Android, which has sold just as many handsets as Apple has) why aren’t more of the big names targeting these platforms with more than token efforts?
The answer, as always, is in the money.
Whilst the potential revenue from 50 million people is something to make even the most hardened CEO weak at the knees the fact remains that not all of them are gamers. Heck just going by the most successful games on this platform the vast majority of Android and iPhone owners aren’t gamers with more than 80% of them not bothering to buy the best game available. Additionally games released on the mobile platform are traditionally considered time wasters, something you’re doing when you don’t have anything better to do. Rarely do you find a game with any sense of depth to it, let alone does such a game strike it big on the platform’s application store. Couple that with the fact that no mobile game has gotten away with charging the same amount as their predecessors on other platforms has and you can start to see why the big publishers don’t spend too much time with the mobile platform, it’s just not fiscally viable.
For the small and independent developers however the mobile scene presents an opportunity unlike any they’ve seen before. Whilst there is much greater potential on other platforms (The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 both have user numbers rivalling that of the iPhone and Android platforms) the barriers to entry for them are quite high in comparison. Microsoft, to their credit, has reduced the barrier to the same level as the iPhone ($99/year and you bring your own console) but thus far it has failed to attract as much attention as the mobile platform has. Other platforms are plagued by high investment costs for development such as any Sony or Nintendo product, requiring expensive development consoles and licenses to be purchased before any code can be written for them. Thus the mobile platform fits well for the smaller developers as it gives them the opportunity to release something, have it noticed and then use that to leverage into other, more profitable platforms.
I guess this post came about from the anger I feel when people start talking about the iPhone or Android becoming a dominant player in the games market. The fact is that whilst they’re a boon for smaller developers they have nothing when compared to any of the other platforms. Sure the revenue numbers from the App Store might be impressive but when you compare the biggest numbers from there (Angry Birds, circa $10 million) to the biggest on one of the others (Call of Duty: Black Ops $1 billion total) you can see why the big guys stick to the more traditional platforms. There’s definitely something to the world of mobile gaming but it will always be a footnote when compared to its bigger brothers, even when compared to the somewhat beleaguered handheld, the PSP.