“Yeah, I’ll show ‘em who’s buying a ‘midlife crisis car.’ I’ll show ‘em all!”
I first queued up BattleRiders at the start of what proved to be a tortuously long Labor Day weekend bus ride from my hometown in New Hampshire back to Boston. This setting–overcrowded bus, overly sanitized air, a saccharine safety video and a highway choked with fender benders and multi-car pile-ups–proved to be the perfect contrast to BattleRiders arcade-y blast em’ up racing.
If the point of a good, pure racing game is to marvel at the speed and grace of the automotive age, then the point of games like BattleRiders is to remind us that the vehicles which we rely on for commerce and entertainment can just as easily serve as either tanks or missiles. Of course, the missiles here aren’t “improvised” so much as “explicitly deadly and heat-seaking,” but the point stands.
“Meg, look at this place. This place looks like a mansion! It’s like a mansion, look at all this stuff!”
Let’s go ahead and stick “The Nightmare Cooperative” on the list of Surprisingly Literal-Minded Titles, just under Quantum of Solace and above Face/Off. It’s either a roguelike-y puzzle or a puzzle-y roguelike, one where you’re given a randomly selected pair of adventurers and tasked with plundering all four levels of a dungeon to drum up funds for a cash-strapped town. New pals sit sleeping in this subterranean deathtrap, waiting to join your fellowship should you wander over and wake them up.
The trick–and this gets worse with each new pledge for your gang–is that all your characters move and act in unison. That’s the “cooperative” bit. The “nightmare” part comes in, oh, around the thirtieth or fortieth time your priest gets dunked in an acid pit so the rest of your adventurers can snag some treasure.
“Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is… oh, fairly likely in this case.”
Let’s not mince words here in the cold vacuum of hex-based space. Assault Vector is a straightforward stab at a specific kind of turn-based strategy game, that stripped down sort so tightly focused on a handful of mechanics that it straddles the line between strategy and puzzle.
Hoplite (as if we haven’t devoted enough time to that brilliant monster already) is an obvious comparison, and an illustrative one. Assault Vector has a nearly identical combat system prioritizing position first (and only), comparable levels which offer escape as an alternative to killing everything, and a similar allotment of simple, scarce, yet devastating abilities. As it happens, Assault Vector leverages these elements in a fashion just different enough to divorce the spacey game from its notable cousin on (or rather “under,” like, in Hades) Earth.
“Red light! Green light!” [USE explosive chewing gum ON ...]
Have you ever felt like the whole world was out to get you? Like maybe there really is a realm of plots beyond your comprehension, and of plotters tugging at and weaving the invisible threads which guide your seemingly mundane life. And have you ever imagined that these sinister forces wear, like, black trench coats, or even those armless Morpheus shades from The Matrix? Chilling stuff.
Secret Files: Tunguska totally sympathizes with that last, most superficial flight of fancy. Despite the quick introduction of kidnappings, murders, and government cover-ups, the characters of this serviceable iOS port of the 2006 point-and-click are a perpetually monotone and charmless lot—so much so that it’s hard to imagine any of these dull knives either setting up or solving the often clever traps and puzzles which populate the game.
“Yeah, take that Monique! And you too Future Device Which I Assume Can Hear and Understand Me!”
The Blackwell games are jazzy slices of paranormal New York biography, punctuated with the beats of a ’50s P.I. procedural. Wadjet Eye Games’ functionally traditional point-and-click series is unabashedly heart-on-sleeve with its tale of a reluctant medium coming into her own as the latest bearer of the Blackwell family legacy. Which is ghosts, by the way.
Rosangela, like her aunt and grandmother before her, is meant to find wayward spirits unaware of–or unwilling to accept–their own demise. She then works to shuttle them off to the afterlife, either by forcing them to confront the unreality of their own ghost-ness, or by basically tricking them into walking towards the light.
Rosa does this with the help of a blue-suited, wise-crackin’ Depression-era spirit guide named Joey Mallone, for goodness’ sake. Really. These are serious tales. Really.
Blah blah space battle, et cetera et cetera orbital weapons platforms. Come on, let’s talk spice rates!
Star Traders 4X rounds all the requisite space-strategy bases for a game of its nomenclature; you find new systems, colonize them, strip them of natural resources and, in turn, funnel those resources into a burgeoning military-industrial complex. But, when it comes to mining the human drama which rests on the success or failure of this empire-building, the Trese Brothers’ latest isn’t as sure-footed.
Star Traders is a game where the fate of an entire system can rest on cooperation between three–often petty–groups of intergalactic merchants stranded in a remote stretch of the universe. These factions can either be an economic triumvirate fueling your conquest of the galaxy, or a perpetually warring band of toddlers who can’t be bothered to call off their trade embargoes, assassins’ contracts, and solar wars when a xenos fleet is steamrolling their holdings. To these traders, such grudges are just part of their (shockingly short-sighted) business, and to you–the overlord meant to keep all things balanced–they’re just another semi-obscured mechanic or cryptic maths modification among many, many others.
You’re Marcus, a meek, middling historian struggling to survive in ancient Rome. His patron, Artus, is an ambitious general with designs on the Imperial throne. A poison-savvy widow, devil-may-care poet, chaste priestess, wicked Emperor, and—most importantly—a fortune-telling spirit round out the cast of this particular production. All are yours to befriend or spurn. All can use Marcus, or be used by him depending on what sort of tale the player wishes to tell. Many will fail to endure to the conclusion of this production, and damn if it doesn’t always seem like everyone’s trying to get in Marcus’ pants. Or under his tunic, rather.
The ultimate MacGyvering: Mac in the game has a copy of the game.
MacGyver makes for a solid role-model. I say this as someone who a) has never watched an episode of the series, or even a clip of the undoubtedly explosion-filled introduction, b) probably never will, and yet, c) can still describe the setup for several different installments of a one-joke serial SNL sketch that exclusively lampoons the Richard Dean Anderson vehicle (a vehicle which had aired its last episode roughly fifteen years earlier).
But I get it. Science background, thrifty, aversion to guns, calm under pressure, etc. More like that, please, and maybe a little less prime time murder-porn. MacGyver: Deadly Descent is a fittingly bloodless outing which tasks Mac with rescuing a team of researchers trapped by their own security system in an increasingly air-starved laboratory. Which is to say they’re trapped by an odd collection of somewhat familiar puzzle games. Guess you should have played more Pipe Mania, nerds! HA! Heh. Oh hell they’re turning blue…