"What are those little blue things?!" shrieked the tiny elderly woman guarding the front desk at the Larkspur Hotel in downtown San Francisco.
I found myself sitting at the hotel bar last week with Joel DeYoung, the Director of Game Technology for Hothead Games. He explained to me how the idea for Swarm, Hothead’s newest brainchild, evolved from nothing more than PhD research into a full blown commercialized game. That might explain why it’s been in production for nearly five years.
"They’re Swarmites. You control them to go places."
I love explaining video games to people over sixty. It’s like trying to communicate in another language. The best you can hope for is some vague understanding of hand gestures. Age differences aside, Swarm never once failed to capture my attention - or the concierge’s, needless to say.
Swarm (XBLA / PSN)
Developer: Hothead Games
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
To be released: Early 2011
The story goes like this: A swarm of 50 creatures, or “Swarmites” as they’re called, awaken on a desolate, war-torn planet with no signs of life for miles. Suddenly, a umbilical-like appendage bursts out of the ground and sucks you inside. It’s your mother. She has a task for you, and that's to collect enough DNA to ensure that at least one of your race survives. This involves traversing treacherous and often deadly domains while explosions and utter chaos unravel in the background. Unfortunately, not all of the swarm will make it. Casualties are a necessary evil, but all you need is one Swarmite at the end of each level for the journey to continue.
The physics and strategy in Swarm are what I imagine a hybrid of World of Goo and Liquidity would be like, but in the form of a side-scrolling platformer. Instead of controlling individual Swarmites, the player controls the center of the swarm and manipulates it in various ways. You can ‘huddle,’ causing the Swarmites to draw closer together, or ‘spread,’ causing them to disperse evenly. You can also form a totem pole by huddling the Swarmites together and then jumping repeatedly. The totem can then be slowly maneuvered, which is handy when you need to travel on a path that’s narrower than the smallest possible diameter of your swarm.
Scattered throughout each level are explosives and other deadly traps which must be avoided. There are also glowing boxes which the Swarmites must ‘bash’ in order to collect DNA and gain points. Sometimes these boxes are on the ground and sometimes they’re suspended high up in the air, in which case they must be bashed while the swarm is in totem formation. Other times, the swarm must be manipulated in a specific way in order to complete time-sensitive tasks. Subtle puzzles that provoke the player to discover more efficient ways of gathering points while minimizing Swarmite casualties are sprinkled throughout the game and provide a pleasant addition to an already thrilling gameplay experience.
Each level has several health packs which, when hit, restore the swarm to 50. They also create a safe point to which the player can return in case the whole swarm dies. Unfortunately, it’s near impossible to finish the game without killing any Swarmites. Once I came to terms with that, I began to realize how much of the gameplay involves making split-second decisions about how many Swarmites you can reasonably sacrifice in order to complete a task. Occasionally, it may be necessary to kill over half of your swarm to continue. In light of this, players can receive bronze, silver, or gold Death Medals (which also count toward Achievements) based on the number of accumulated deaths in a given level.
The game’s developers realized early on this would be a key component of the game, so they put a great deal of effort into creating extravagant and messy deaths. Don’t be shocked to see your Swarmites decapitated, sawed in half, bear-trapped, or exploded 100 feet into the air, because those are only four of the dozens of ways your poor, tiny creatures can perish. Fortunately, for me, the gruesomeness is overshadowed by the adorableness of the characters.
The DNA collected by your swarm go toward your combo multiplier, which becomes crucial in achieving a high score and, subsequently, pleasing dear Mother. However, if you complete a level with several hundred deaths and a poor score, then chances are she’s going to be upset. After only five minutes with the controller, even I found myself shamed by her disapproval in a way I hadn’t experienced since high school.
The creators of Swarm hoped to promote more competitive gameplay by having a global leaderboard with a good deal of variation amongst the top scores. Fortunately, because there are so many opportunities to scores points in the game, including time bonuses for completing levels quickly, this is entirely possible.
It's obvious that the developers put a lot of care into the feel and look of the game. I was especially impressed by the physics and the realistic movement of the swarm. Add to that fifty adorable alien creatures, hundreds of hilariously tragic deaths, and one truly unique style of gameplay, and you’ve got a delightful game that I’d recommend to just about everyone.
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