PAX is always one of my favorite shows because of the focus that indie studios receive. Sure, the major publishers dominate the convention with massive booths, as well as prominent signs and mascots floating high above the show floor. But if you can avert your eyes from their big-budget sensory assault for just a few moments and explore the less obnoxious areas of the expo hall, you’re bound to find a few gems.
One such title -- a game I checked out in the waning moments of the last day of PAX East, on the recommendations of a number of attendees -- is Warp, the first console game from Montreal-based independent developer Trapdoor. It’s being published as part of the EA Partners program, and according to studio founder Ken Schachter, has been in development for about a year and a half.
In the five-minute demo of Warp that Trapdoor built exclusively for PAX East, you wake up in a bright white underwater laboratory. You appear to be confined in a glass enclosure; from the humming equipment in the lab, you get the idea (confirmed later in the demo) that experiments are to be performed on you. But you’re a cute little alien, and you don’t want that. How do you escape an unpleasant end?
Warp (Xbox Live Arcade [previewed], PlayStation Network, PC)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
To be released: Summer 2011
The lab technicians have imprisoned you in a glass case, so they’re clearly not aware of your unique talents, one of which is the ability to “warp” through space, through objects, and into objects. Warping is limited by distance -- you can only jump a few feet ahead of you, so some walls and objects are too thick to pass through -- as well as electrical force fields. Armed with that knowledge, you realize that no mere glass box can hold you, and that locked doors don’t pose a problem, either. Even chest-high pipes are no obstacle for an alien like you.
But soon you come upon a door blocked by a force field. A power cable leads away from the fortified door, and you can follow it by using the right stick to pan the top-down camera to an adjacent room. Inside is a barrel that appears to be the power source, and here is where another of your abilities, “frag,” comes into play. You can warp into the barrel, and once inside, you can shake the left stick to blow it up from within, deactivating the force field.
A bit later, you come up to a larger room with two scientists pacing around inside, and an armed guard on the other side of the door. Oh, by the way, the list of objects into which you can warp includes humans. When you’ve warped into a person, you have a few options. You can warp out of him, which will leave him temporarily stunned -- this is the passive, stealthy route. But if you feel like retaliating against your captors, you can do to him what you did to the barrel: explode outward, leaving body parts strewn around the lab and a prominent crimson bloodstain on the floor. You come out covered in blood, which sloughs off when you teleport into your next potential victim. Once the lab techs see what you’ve done to their guard, they shrink away in fear; you can frag them, too, or leave them be.
Other guards are more difficult to avoid, and some even carry force-field shields. You’ll succumb to only one bullet, so you need to find a way to either surprise them from behind or go around them altogether. Barrels are your friends in many cases -- you can use them strategically to lure guards toward you. Like knocking on a wall in Metal Gear Solid, you can hop into a barrel and shake it (without exploding) to arouse a guard’s curiosity. He might even ask a comrade to come by and investigate the situation, and that’s when you strike, taking both of them out with one blast. The demo ends when you walk into a multi-tiered room with guards on every level -- it looks like it will be a daunting challenge in the full game.
Warp puts a wonderful sense of whimsy into its ostensibly oppressive premise and gory gameplay. It’s a quality that more than a few indie games share: a charming, attractive aesthetic that brings some levity to violence that might otherwise seem gritty and have the potential to be off-putting. I laughed more than a few times while playing the demo; elements such as the guards’ animations when you’re inside them (and the corresponding “what the...?” body language of observers) were immediately amusing. You’re going to want to keep an eye on Warp.