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Team Caffeine’s Plight of the Weedunks

On its own, Lego Indianna Jones is a good game. Where it becomes a better game is when you plug in a second controller and let someone else share in the brick smashing fun. Team Caffeine have taken this concept of “the more the merrier” on board and have created a game that solely revolves around co-op. Put simply, there is no single-player mode in Plight of the Weedunks so prepare to get friendly with someone.

Set in a world inhabited by genetic experiments called Weedunks, a cross between living creatures and household objects (“Imagine a bunny crossed with a toaster,” I was told), one player controls Grando, a gaseous hot water bottle, whilst the other takes the reigns of Kohl, an alarm clock with some serious allergy problems.

Past this point it gets a little wierd… these genetic rejects are on the brink of being crushed and recycled when they escape the mangler and end up running amuck through the Weedunk factory, which is incidentally teeming with tiny unmodified versions of themselves. No matter how disturbing all of this sounds, the Psychonauts-esque graphics takes the edge off and actually makes it rather warming and humorous.

At it’s core, Team Caffeine’s game is a platformer. The twist being that the blockages you encounter throughout the level can only be solved through team work as only the other player can trigger your special abilities. Based around their defects, Grando has the ability to inflate and reach high spots whilst Kohl possess an explosive sneeze. The two can combine, too, as Grando does a convincing imitation of a zeppelin carrying, and seemingly propelled by, Kohl.

Communication is key as both coordination and placement are needed to get the pair of you through each barrier on the level. Throughout our fifteen-minute playthrough, Ali and I were constantly egging each other on or shouting out instructions so we could both progress. Every situation was full of banter and laughs as each character had their moment in charge.

Some simple puzzles had Grando floating up to platforms to flick a switch or Kohl was blowing up blockages. The most memorable portions, though, were when it was a series of back and forth, multi-stage puzzles that meant each character was needed multiple times and where the cooperation level was such that if you weren’t getting on you then weren’t getting any further in the game.

For me the strength of Plight of the Weedunks is in the simplicity of the core design; with two people and only a very small set of moves, there is the ability to know everything that you ever do in the game very quickly. This is very attractive in a multiplayer game because both players can get up to speed very quickly and then the game can be built up around that.

As with most games on show, the bite size sections that were produced promote them all as downloadable and episodic. Weedunk’s is no different and having talked to the team they did mention that ideally they could even swap characters between episodes, keeping it fresh and introducing new experiences as they go.

At the moment future episodes maybe jumping the gun just a little - after the work they’ve all done recently I’m sure they’d be happy for a little break – but as it currently stands they have an absorbing and entertaining game and a great platform to work from.

Back in town

I am not a happy bunny. At this very moment in time I should be settling down with a croisant, enjoying Shakespeare for Breakfast in the middle of Edinbrugh. What I am actually doing is sifting through emails in Twycross slowly growing very grumpy indeed.

For this reason my write up of Dare has been delayed slightly. I will endeavour to put up more reports as and when I can.

Game Over Studio’s Smile

The unnervingly named Smile has depth. Given a ten week development cycle, it would be oh-so simple to knock out a concept of a survival horror game that worked on cheap scares and a cliched storyline, but not so for Game Over Studio’s creation.

Although heavily trimmed due to the restrictive deadline, this third-person survival-adventure is steeped in Maori mythology, revolving around reflections and their symbolism. Throughout the game, a demi-god is playing silly buggers, corrupting reflections, distorting your image to make minions and creating portals in time and space.

An early example of this mirror based gameplay showed puddles reflecting abstract images of your next destination and finally the kidnap of a girl, a sort of visual treasure hunt ending in the unveiling your ultimate objective. From there on, stealing glimpses into the water source will give you a hint of the girl’s then whereabouts or trigger an encounter with a demon.

Teleportation is also possible through some shiny surfaces, although at the moment the use seems quite arbitrary as the tech isn’t up to giving you a feel to where you’ll end up; you just have to jump in and hope. This isn’t Portal, more Prey, where each reflection has a set destination. Still, if you remember the teleporter happy Halo multiplayer maps you’ll know that’s it can be used to create a maze or level just as taxing as anything Glados can set you, and you never know what’s going to be waiting for you on the other side.

Later on light is used, affecting how reflections are perceived. Given a single sheet of glass, the light properties on either side can either make it translucent or mirror-like, thus affecting the demi-god’s influence on it.

Maori imagery even extends to the very subtle hint system. Maori rock paintings are tucked away in corners, pointing explorers in the right direction. On one occasion the previously docile kiwi (the bird, not the fruit) decided to help me, jumping into a puddle and giving me the inkling that I should do the same.

The concept is very solid and despite the loud show floor the sense of suspense and mystery came across well. Smile definitely has a touch of the Resident Evil 4 about it with the horror used sparingly and to good effect, whilst also teasing the player enough into making them want to get to the bottom of the mystery,

On a practical level, aspects such as the camera, graphics and combat weren’t as tight as others on display, but given that you really felt and understood what the team had set out to convey this was a very strong showing with a veritable kiwi (still the bird) full of potential.

Dare to be Digital 2008

Welcome to Dare to be Digital 2008. After last year’s incredible experience, I was very honoured and excited to find out that the powers-that-be wanted to send me back up to Scotland to be a “walk and talk judge” at the event’.

Last year’s event showcased some truly wonderful titles, with Climbtastic, Ragnarawk and Bear Go Home all being shortlisted for a BAFTA.

This year there are 50% more teams, a setting that is more akin to E3 than last year’s white room and I have Ali in tow to give me her own unique perspective on things.

Over the next few days I’ll be taking complete advantage of my situation and posting up some of the games that have caught my eye, what captutured my imagination in various fields, so do stay tuned.

Edit: due to an “incident” my camera is out of comission so please do excuse the lack of images. Thank you.

Dare to be Digital Downloads

A little sweetener for the New Year; it seems as though Dare to be Digital has made 2007′s showcase available for download, if you register at their site.

Whilst a pair of my favourites may prove tricky to play (Voodoo Boogy’s Ragnarawk requires a PC compatible guitar and Super E.G.O.’s Airborne needs a Wii-mote), you should be able to give the superb Climbatic from Carebox and the gorgeous Bear Go Home by Phoenix Seed the attention they deserve.

The bear is back

Away from my fab four, it’s worth giving zero.one’s Heaven2Ocean a go if you have five minutes to spare. It’s a lovely little physics based puzzler in a similar vein to Mercury Meltdown and a great way to waste time when the boss isn’t looking.

Of course you should give the others there a browse, too, because to see what every team accomplished during their twelve weeks experience is quite astonishing. You may not always agree with the design decisions but all are impressive feats.

BARFTA

After praising Okami on Friday, that white mutt has gone and done one over on Viva Pinata as it beat us to both of our nominated awards at last night’s BAFTAs. VP was recognised in both Artistic Achievement and Original Score categories but Capcom’s cell-shaded adventure swept us away.

This is not a time for disappointment, however, as I do think that once again it is an honour and a privilege to be shortlisted for such an award.

The inevitable giant costumes that look nothing like the characters they represent.

As with most awards shows, though, the ceremony itself seems to be just there as a centrepiece for a very large party that happens either side of (and, in fact, during) proceedings. Several of our team went down last night for the show and several of them have come back very worse for wear. 

Away from the drunkards who inhabit Manor Park, it’s worth noting that the Dare to be Digital games were once again showcased with Voodoo Boogy picking up a “Ones to Watch” BAFTA for Ragnarawk. Many congratulations to them and indeed all those who made the final cut.

Pheonix Seed’s Bear Go Home

Whilst Climbatic was my “personal favourite”, Bear Go Home is so beautiful to see in action that you have to be a complete bastard not to want it to succeed.

Created by Chinese entrants, Bear Go Home has a very distinctive look that can only be compared to Locoroco. A charming 2D world can be seen over undulating landscapes complete with swirling floral and crisply defined characters. Through this world walks Bear, a rather rotund 3D inhabitant, in search of his home.

Not content with looking quite different from most other things available today, it also handles very differently as you control Bear by pointing and prodding him directly. If you want him to jump you squish him and then release to make him bounce back and up. You can speed him up by snapping his tail to urge him on and combining both will make him fly for a short distance. Bonus fruit can also be collected through the levels but to do so you must hold open Bear’s jaw for him and stretch it out in front.

Bear will carry on regardless once set in motion and so it is up to you to prevent harm coming to him. Basic enemies can be dispatched by clicking on them or jumping over them but there can be trickier opponents. To help you, you have access to a selection of bonus items including an umbrella and magic wand. The umbrella will shield him from harm as you flourish it about the screen and the wand can transform Bear into an invulnerable form, represented by him turning into a Panda for a short while.

The boss fights that were included saw you fight a spidery creature as you happened upon his lair and a demon creature barring your exit from said lair. In the first you were asked to place an association game, linking icons that the boss thought of to a selection of your own thoughts. The second was far more action orientated as you had to protect Bear against a horde of bats whilst at the same time attempting to dispatch the demon through hasty clicks.

The mechanics as a whole are not too dissimilar from Kirby’s Magic Paint Brush on the DS where you could merely help the pink blob along rather than control him directly. As with that game, I can see Bear Go Home being the perfect fit for Nintendo’s handheld and the tactile interface would do wonders for the game.

Initially hard to pick up, it won me over with its simple concept that is executed supremely well. As with Airborne, though, I worry for its commercial clout; if this could find a home on the DS the world would love it but if it were sent out on anything else it could be ignored, or even worse, scare casual gamers off due to its quirky style.

Carebox’s Climbatic

My personal favourite of the show was Carebox’s Climbatic, a co-op based game saw two willing mountaineers attempt to scale a vividly cell-shaded peak, all in the name of team building.The two characters at the centre of the game are your archetypal gaming souls: one big and strong, the other small and nimble. The former has the ability to scale cliff faces and throw objects, the latter can leap great distances, plus has a spool of rope at his disposal. All of these skills must come together if they ever expect to reach the top of the mountain in one piece.

Controls are limited in an effort to keep things simple and to allow you to focus on the task in hand. Everyone can jump but each has their own specialist button and basic movement controls. As you move around the camera pans out to keep you both in shot; this can reveal some dramatic shots of the mountainside should you find yourself spread far apart.

Nothing special so far, it seems, but the whole world is based around physics and everything has a weight and everything can be gripped, grappled or thrown, assuming if your character is up to the task. There are also no sections of the wall marked up to signal that the player can climb them, instead everyone can be scaled at the right angle and it’s just a case of whether it leads anywhere as to whether it’s fruitful or not. Given these simple rules the game then unfolds.

At its basic level, one player can reach the top of a section by simply completing a small platforming section whilst the other scales the rock face. Of course that’s not the only way things could unfold; the smaller player can lash himself to the larger who can then in turn do the same climb but with his buddy swinging behind him. Alternately, the smaller player could jump up and then drop down a rope for the other to climb. Hell, the larger player could even chuck his diddy mate up and then scramble after him!Nothing is unsolvable and everything has numerous ways to get around it. You could pile rocks and picnic chairs in a pile and simply walk up the resulting pile; why not lash yourself to a rock and get the larger of the two to throw you across a ravine?; how about climbing up an overhang and dropping onto a hastily arranged see-saw to catapult your chum skywards? Of course there are easier ways around but just not as much fun.

This is the kind of thing you expected to emerge from physics driven gameplay all those years ago when Half Life 2 showed you how to drop logs on head-crabs in seventeen different ways. Few games have actually produced solid game-play off of such simple mechanics since, Crackdown being a good, recent example, but the boys from Carebox seem to have something.

I think what summed up the whole thing for me was a puzzle at the end that saw me playing as the larger of the two climbers. My friend had lashed himself to me and I had decided to try and pickup a boulder several times my own height. Instead of lifting the rock, for obviously it was too big, it began to sway with my weight and I managed to divert it towards a slope. As the rock built up speed down the slope my friend trailed out behind like a streamer and when we reached a sudden upslope at the bottom we were propelled into the air with the momentum of the boulder. The smaller chap was swung round and round in the air and as we smashed down on the other side of the gorge his speed dragged me along for some distance until the gritty floor’s friction stopped us…

Set pieces. You’ve got to love them.


Super E.G.O.’s Airborne

Voodoo Boogy weren’t the only team to use specialist controllers; Super E.G.O.’s stand was drawing a fair amount of attention thanks to the flailing arms that are now familiar with Wii gamers everywhere. The team were using custom written drivers to utilize Nintendo’s “new gen” control scheme, which was providing an impressive level of interactivity in their flying game Airborne.

Ignoring the control scheme, the thing that initially struck you about Airborne was its wonderful setting. Based in the Victorian era that game took you into a world of well to do gentlemen with perfectly groomed facial hair, tall hats and an obsession with flying machines. Being pre-Wright brothers these machines have a classic look of being held together by string and being made of wood and cloth and powered by peddle or steam.

Tally bally ho!

To complete the look, the world around which you fly is that of London hidden beneath a blanket of fog. Chimneys, bridges and building tops peek out from underneath this blanket as the townsfolk have realised that to escape the fog’s claustrophobic clutches they must build yet further upwards. Set to a sepia filter you have to admire the imaginative setting Super E.G.O. has dreamt up.

The game itself can be seen to pay more than a nod of tribute to the likes of Crimson Skies and Pilot Wings. Given your flying machine you meander around London town, stopping off and collecting missions from iconic, red phone boxes as you go. At this early stage missions include target shooting and checkpoint races (of the two I tried) but you can see there is scope for more. There is even a hint of GTA thrown in as stunts can be performed should you be able to squeeze your flying boat through certain gaps.

As with many Wii specific games, the controls can be where a game lives and dies; Airborne, not wanting to miss out on a good pun opportunity, positively soars, in my opinion. There is nothing revolutionary here, with the Wii-mote used for the orientation of the plane, but they fell natural and not as though they have been shoehorned in for the sake of a gimmick.

The nunchuk is used for movement and with every shake of your right-hand your character onscreen peddles your craft onwards. Customisation options allows you to create ships of varying weights but the heavier you go, the more you need to shake to get your plane to respond and climb.

Everything seemed very intuitive and flying through the Victorian skies was both quite beautiful and, with the potential of the level design already shown, an adventure. My only niggle is how well the product would perform on the market as it would either take a lot of people to take their Wii controllers to the PC or the Wii owners embracing flight games, neither of which is unfortunately, really going to happen.

Dare to be Digital/Voodoo Boogy’s Ragnarawk

In exchange for being allowed to attend the Edinburgh Interactive Festival, work asked me this one favour: to be their representative at Dare to be Digital. Hardly the worst deal in the world as Dare is a competition run between Scottish, English and Irish universities to bring on the next generation of video game developers… where I get to play lots of games.

The scheme originated in Scotland as an IT initiative to help setup fledging businesses but has since evolved to solely focus on the games sector. Participating teams are asked to pitch an idea to a panel with a lucky twelve moving on to the finals where they are given ten weeks to produce a finished product to show off at the Fringe.

Each team is made up of at most six people and can be any combination of artists and programmers. Some members are under-grads looking for experience, others are post-grads signing on for one last hurrah before joining the job market.

Rare have been involved for several years, now, along with other developers, including EA and Real Time Worlds. Those sent along from the studios act as mentors, offering advice to the teams and trying to brace them for the microcosm of games development that their two-and-a-half months will represent; for what we go through during two years, they have crammed into less time than a series of Big Brother.

Our Dynamic Earth

I had no idea what to expect from the dozen demos housed at Our Dynamic Earth early on Sunday morning, however, knowing exactly how much work gets done at our place during the same period I can’t say I was exactly overly positive. Despite being assured that considering the time frame things had come along nicely I was still slightly skeptical about the quality that would greet me.

Over the next few days I’ll run you through a few of the entries that really caught my eye, starting with…

Voodoo Boogy’s Ragnarawk

Each team were given four PCs to show off their wares and upon entering the hall set aside for Dare, rather than people battling with WASD keys, I was confronted with a quartet of rockers, enthusiastically strumming and brandishing their Guitar Hero guitars with exuberance.

Ragnarawk is an RPG set in a musically obsessed universe where you battle your foes using the oldest and most traditional of weapons, the guitar. The demo level was a small, stylised town set at the dead of night with undead roaming its streets and each time you wandered too near too one of the lost souls you engage them in battle using your guitar. They, being musically talented too, would dispatch a riff in your direction and you would have counter it following the traditional Guitar Hero notation on screen to return it and in turn deal them damage. Think of it like the old dueling banjos of the Wild West but slightly more supernatural.

With each returned riff your enemy’s energy levels would be sapped and eventually he would be defeated giving you a hearty dose of XP and allowing you to move on to your next confrontation.

Ragnarawk... yes, this is the best I could do until they send me some screenshots.

Special moves and parries are available to you, too, with chords and raising the guitar vertically (ala Star Power) activating them respectively. The powers can be a sudden bolt of destructive energy sent to your opponent to put them off or a healing spell, depending on which way you have decided to shape your character. The parrying, mind you, does the opposite and protects you from the spells flying your way. If you do get hit, the effects can be interesting as the notes start dancing across the fret board making it surprisingly hard to hit the required note.

One thing was for sure, my expectations were completely rewritten with this very first game I played as I can’t deny I broke out into a beaming smile as I dueled my first zombie. Countering riffs had the same feeling you get when playing multiplayer in Guitar Hero, that sensation you get when you know you’ve just bettered your mate’s stadium rock solo, and this time you get to fight the undead at the same time!

After talking to the team behind Ragnarawk, it seems that the idea for the game has been around even since the pre-Guitar Hero days. However, it was quite a different game back then as dance mats were going to be used instead of guitars.

Variety shouldn’t be a problem in this game, either. As explained to me, rather than having the traditional ice/fire/water levels, they would be based around styles of music with your character travelling through realms of electronica, classical and rock (or rawk), to name but a few, before reaching the end boss. Each world would have a completely different soundtrack adapted to that style and considering how polished and professional even the existing audio is, that is an exciting prospect.

With boss battles, power-ups, leveling system and parries all making interesting additions to the standard guitar based game play and I can genuinely see this being a solid commercial idea. After all, if Puzzle Quest can take the Bejeweled crowd into the realm of RPGs, imagine how Oblivion crossed with Rock Band is going to do.