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Swarm First Look

These cute and expendable swarmites are your ticket to ruling the leaderboards.

It might be understandable to compare Swarm to Lemmings upon first look. The only trailer we’ve seen so far gave us a look at all the creative ways that these dopey but adorable critters can die. The comparison to Lemmings ends there, however, because Swarm is an action platforming arcade game from Hothead Games where you need to get at least one of these goofy blue blobs to the end of the level while collecting as many points as possible. It’s frantic and hectic at times, but it’s definitely entertaining.

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This giant blue pod with tentacles has somehow landed on a dangerous planet that seems to be littered with explosives and constantly falling debris. You control a swarm of 50 swarmites that must brave the awaiting hazards and collect as much DNA as you can to take back to your pod for it to grow. The game is broken up into 12 levels where you start off with 50 of these bulbous creatures and need to get to the tentacle waiting for you at the end of the stage. In between, there are numerous DNA globules and special hard-to-reach double helixes to collect. By continuously collecting DNA, your multiplying will continue to increase. A circular timer will let you know when it’s about to run out, so if you’re looking for that high score, you have to keep moving. Sacrificing a few of your swarmites will also keep that multiplier going, so it all depends on how you want to go about it. There are frequent pods that you’ll come across, which will replenish your rapidly decreasing supply of swarmites, and certain areas will yield bonus points if you can manage to keep your team together.

You move as one giant fluid mass, and the little guys will generally stick together as you go around obstacles and group together again when they can. The stragglers will scurry to catch up, so they’re not completely stupid. You can use the left and right triggers to have your swarm spread out or cluster together, depending on the situation. Sometimes DNA is all over the screen, so it’s easier to spread your guys out and have them gather. But for tight platforming sections, you want them to huddle close to prevent them from going over the edge. These poor swarmites will die–and die often–because you tend to lose a few when you go through dangerous areas filled with explosives, poisonous gas, falling metal, and other deadly obstacles. While it’s no big deal, as long as you get to the next pod, the game does keep track of how many swarmites you’ve killed and how–whether they were impaled, electrocuted, asphyxiated, and the like. In the PlayStation 3 version, there is a counter on the screen to keep a running tally as you play.

It’s fun to see how this amorphous group gets around and works together. You can dash by holding and releasing the right trigger, as well as stack your swarmites to snag items that are located at a higher level. All of their skills can be combined, so you can stack up your guys and use them to bash towers. There will come a time when you need them to interact with the environment for more than just running and bashing, so some light puzzle-solving skills are needed to hit switches, for example. The B button will appear when there are objects to interact with, whether it is throwing bombs (and each other) or stuffing yourself into pipes and blowing up later. Sometimes sacrifices need to be made. You can order the swarmites to pick up bombs that are lying around and throw them at your target. And they’ll do it…for the most part. If you look closely, you’ll see that the really dim ones will pick up a fellow buddy and toss it. There’s a cursor that lets you point to where and what you want your blue troops to target, and they won’t miss their mark. However, they will also throw it at anything else on the screen that looks similar to your target. For example, if you want them to throw a bomb at a crate to the right, they will throw it at anything else onscreen that looks like the crate you highlighted.

Keep them together if you can.

Keep them together if you can.

It’s also interesting to zoom in with the camera every now and then on your disposable lemminglike creatures to see how they’re doing, especially when they’re trying to balance on top of each other when you get them to stack. You can see them wave their piddly little arms to try to keep their balance; if you move them too quickly, they’ll all topple over. Their spacey expressions are endearing, but there are just so many of them that we weren’t too concerned when half of them just didn’t end up making the jump. Although we did feel a twinge of guilt when we saw them impaled or even when they turned green from noxious gas and burst into a mess of blue goo–but life goes on.

The game is set to have about six to eight hours of gameplay across 12 levels, and you’ll be able to keep a close eye on a friend’s high score as you play to encourage friendly competition. There is currently no release date yet set for Swarm, but we were told that it should be coming out shortly on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. We’ll be sure to update you with more information as soon as it becomes available. But in the meantime, check out some gameplay clips and the hilarious developer diaries if you haven’t seen them yet.

By Sophia Tong

E3 2011: Warhammer 40K: Kill Team Hands-On Preview

We check out a demo version of THQ’s recently announced downloadable sci-fi shooter on the E3 show floor.

Announced just last week, Warhammer 40K: Kill Team is a shooter set in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K sci-fi universe. In it, you’ll assume the role of a space marine (from one of a number of selectable chapters) tasked with taking down an ork spaceship from the inside, and while you’ll certainly be massively outnumbered, the good news is that you don’t have to go up against the ork horde alone.

Kill Team won’t support online play, but you and a friend will be able to play together locally. There are four different classes of space marine to choose from, each with access to some unique abilities and weapons. These names won’t mean much to you unless you’re a fan Warhammer 40K, but you can play as a librarian, a sternguard, a vanguard, or a tech marine. Each class can choose from four different weapons, including power swords, lightning claws, heavy bolters, rocket launchers, and pistols.

Played mostly from an isometric perspective, Kill Team is a dual-stick shooter at its heart; you move around with the left stick and shoot with the right. There’s a lot more to the game than that, though; you can perform melee attacks with the A button (or X, on the PS3), throw grenades with the right shoulder button, and launch special attacks with the left shoulder button. Special attacks vary considerably depending on which class you’re playing as and which weapon you’re using. As the sternguard veteran armed with a heavy bolter, for example, we were able to significantly increase our rate of fire for a short time, while as the vanguard veteran wielding lightning claws (with a pistol in the other hand), our special saw us rushing into crowds of enemies and knocking them to the ground before performing an area-of-effect attack.

We’re told that around 80 to 90 percent of Kill Team’s gameplay will pit you against orks, and greenskins accounted for 100 percent of the enemies that we faced in the demo. They came in plenty of different shapes and sizes, but ultimately none of them demanded a different approach, so the combat felt a little repetitive. There were a couple of set pieces that required us to hit switches or defend positions from multiple waves of enemies, but while space marines should certainly feel incredibly powerful in the WH40K universe, in Kill Team it’s possible that they might be a little too powerful. (It’s also possible that the demo was tuned to make it easier for E3 attendees.)

Numerous power-ups were scattered liberally throughout the level that we played through. Most made our weapons more powerful or shielded us from damage for a period of time, but health pickups were also in plentiful enough supply that we never felt like we were in any real danger. Hopefully this won’t always be the case. A lack of challenge and some minor camera issues aside (it didn’t always do a great job of keeping both players in the shot), we really enjoyed our time with Warhammer 40K: Kill Team. The lack of online cooperative play is disappointing, but we’re still very much looking forward to bringing you more coverage on the game just as soon as we can get our hands on it again.

By Justin Calvert, Executive Editor

Quarrel Preview

This hybrid of strategy and word games uses a familiar mechanic to very interesting effect.

There are plenty of games out there with an interesting approach to global politics, but we have to admit that we might like Quarrel’s the best. It is, basically, a game that envisions what international border disputes would look like if the winning side was the one that could spell the best. OK, so maybe we’re going a bit overboard by describing these conflicts as international disputes. Quarrel is far too bright and cheery for such real-world drama, with its cutesy music and smiling Xbox Avatars. But still: We like Quarrel’s approach to conflict resolution.

Quarrel is essentially a cross between terrain-expanding board games like Risk and games where you put together words from a pile of shuffled letters a la Scrabble or Boggle. Teams starts with a grinning, bobble-headed army and choose which neighboring faction they want to take on when it’s their turn. When the fight starts, you and your opponent are both given the same collection of eight jumbled letters, and the team that gets the highest-scoring word wins.

But here’s the rub: You can only use as many letters as you have soldiers in your adorably cheery army. As you lose encounters, you’ll lose soldiers. So if you’ve been taking a beating on one of your squares, you might only be able to bring four characters into an encounter, whereas your opponent might still have all eight of his or hers. Likewise, winning encounters will help you build back up your team, so a certain level of strategy goes into knowing when to go on the offensive with a particular square you’re occupying and when to remain locked in defensive mode.

Quarrel supports both offline single-player and online multiplayer, with up to four people going at it on the same game board. Multiplayer encounters make use of a timer to prevent the insufferable pain of waiting 10 minutes while your opponent tries every single combination of jumbled letters, but going at it against the AI in single-player lets you take all the time you want. Because let’s face it, your Xbox has nowhere to go. (Though if you and the AI play the same word, the one who played it first wins.)

While we saw the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game, there’s also an iOS version of Quarrel if the idea of using language to take over the world is something you’d rather do on the train ride to work.

By Shaun McInnis, Editor

Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes Hands-On

The critically acclaimed hybrid role-playing game on the Nintendo DS gets an HD makeover on consoles.

Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes came out late last year on the Nintendo DS, receiving excellent reviews all around. The game was a combination of familiar role-playing elements mixed with some strategy and coated with the tried-and-true match-three style gameplay. The result was an incredibly addictive hybrid portable game, wrapped in a delightful package as part of the Heroes of Might and Magic series. At Ubisoft’s Digital Day event, we learned that developer Capybara has decided to take its game to Xbox Live Arcade as well as the PlayStation Network to take advantage of online (and offline) play.

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The game is not just a straight port from the DS version. It keeps the major elements intact, but the art has been completely redone, hand-animated from scratch to give it a fresh new look for HD consoles. Everything from the units and interface to the maps has been redone, and more attention was paid to the multiplayer mode. The DS game had a multiplayer component, but lead writer Dan Vader said that most people likely didn’t have the opportunity to play the game with others. He added that now that the game is making its way online, it gives people the perfect opportunity to play with friends online or offline.

For the competitive types, leaderboards and ranking have been added as well. The developers scoured the forums for fan feedback, so some tweaks have been made to enhance the overall experience. For example, underpowered units that no one really used have been given new abilities, and the more powerful ones have received a bit of a downgrade for gameplay balance.

The main story lets you play as one of the five young heroes, who each have their own campaign, but their stories will cross paths with the others at some point. The core of the game is the battle, which is a turned-based system where players are given three moves each. Instead of lining up jewels like in Puzzle Quest, you’re lining up units–horizontally to build a wall or vertically to attack. The screen is split in two, so your opponent is across the way. You can move only the units that are in the back of your army. Through careful planning, by matching multiple units at once, you’ll gain a turn back for each chain. You can also delete units, which takes up a turn, but they wind up in your reinforcement pool and can be called back when the time is right. Most of your units will take up one grid, but the more powerful elite and champion units will take up more, so it’s a matter of positioning them properly and using their abilities to your advantage.

The gameplay can get quite deep, but the general premise of a fight is to line up your units to build walls and attack, until you deplete the health of your opponent. Your units will level as you go, and you can mix and match the kinds of units you want to suit your own play style. Only the multiplayer portion of the game was shown at the event, so there could be other new additions that we haven’t seen yet. But from what was shown, the multiplayer mode looks to provide quite a bit of replay value once you’ve completed the campaign. Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes keeps the anime-like art style from the previous game, but instead of the classic sprites, individual characters on the battlefield are now much more detailed and polished.

For more details on the DS game, see our review here. Otherwise, look for the game when it’s released on XBLA and PSN sometime in the first quarter of 2011.

By Sophia Tong

Renegade Ops Updated Hands-On Preview

Big guns, bad dudes, and the world hanging in the balance. We find out the power of two thumbs in this military twin-stick shooter.

Everyone knows that drinking and driving are a bad combination, but where does the law stand on driving and shooting at the same time? The ragtag group of mercenaries that make up the Renegade Ops crew strike fear into the black hearts of evildoers the world over, so they’re probably not too concerned about doing things by the book.

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It’s this attitude that makes this foursome just the right people to call when quintessential movie bad guy Inferno threatens to do horrible things to the world’s denizens. We know this because, well, he says so, in the game’s cinematics and objective updates, each of which is told through attractive animated comic-book-style interludes. Inferno has a pinch of Hank Scorpio from The Simpsons about him, and when he threatens the powers that be, who in turn are crippled by fear and are unwilling to act, in step Renegade Ops members Armand, Diz, Roxy, and Gunnar with their home-grown brand of justice.

The game is a twin-stick shooter with the odd button press to fire off secondary weapons or activate each character’s unique ability. Armand’s shield makes him invulnerable to damage for a short period of time; Diz’s electromagnetic blast disables nearby enemy vehicles; Roxy (our favourite character) is able to call in a brutal rocket strike from above, scorching the earth and obliterating anything in its way; and Gunnar’s vehicle can deploy legs. While the latter sounds a bit naff, the legs allow him to sacrifice mobility for a noticeable damage boost. None of these abilities require unique ammo and instead are powered by a slowly regenerating energy bar. Roxy’s fireworks display is impressive and deadly, but it’s slow to recharge, making it most useful to keep in the wings until needed for demolishing large groups.

Killing enemies causes them to drop one of a handful of beneficial crate types. Green crates come in small and large versions, one restoring a small amount of health to your life bar, the other topping you back up to full health. Blue boxes upgrade your mounted guns, increasing your damage and rate of fire, while red boxes grant you a secondary weapon such as a rocket launcher, a railgun, or a flamethrower. Smaller versions of red boxes replenish ammunition spent on these abilities. In a nice little retro throwback, extra lives are scattered around levels, and a bit of exploration gives you an extra chance to fight on. Initially, your guns are overkill against rifle-carrying infantryman, but as you make your way into the scrub, dune buggies and Jeeps give way to mortars, mobile rocket launchers, and heavily armoured tanks that take a greater number of hits to knock out.

It’s not just a Sunday drive, though, and as you complete the missions that crop up, objectives reward you with experience points, which in turn level you up. These points can then be spent to unlock items in each character’s unique skill trees. Some are offensive abilities, such as reducing recharge times and increasing the potency of attacks, while others make ammo conservation easier, add regenerative health to your vehicle, or allow longer nitro boosts to help evade damage.

Vehicles are floaty, the physics are bouncy, and handling is tight and responsive, perhaps to a fault. While it’s great fun cutting up the dirt and grass and leaving muddy circles, some of the game’s ramps for moving between areas of differing elevation are quite narrow. If you’re attempting a deft driving trick, it’s not uncommon to fall over the edge at speed. Luckily, the gameplay field is easy to navigate, the car will auto-correct if you flip over (at times even adding bonus points for acrobatics), and should you wind up somewhere that you’re not meant to be, the game resets you to the nearest path without penalty. A marker hovering above your vehicle shows the direction that you’re currently pointed in, so even if you get bogged down in thick undergrowth, or plough through buildings, it should mostly be apparent which direction you’re facing in as you make your escape.

With Inferno capturing and imprisoning locals, our job became to bust them out, return them to a nearby church safe house, and arm them to the teeth so that they could defend themselves. It was here that we ran into a logistical (and perhaps moral) issue. You can only carry three civilians at once, and the game offers you two simultaneous objectives: civilians can be returned at will, but, in doing so, you’ll be avoiding the primary goal of tracking down and destroying designated enemy vehicles. You can juggle both tasks for a while, but after a period of time, the screen flashes briefly to black and white, adding a timer to the lower part of the screen and marching you towards the primary objective.

With civilians reunited with family members, and our Robin Hood weapon-thievery technique turning the tide of war, the bad guys were now on the back foot. Of course, machine guns have limited use against heavy steel, and they sent in large, armoured tanks to clear the area. The first lot of foes fired a single high-damage shell worth steering clear of, but later in the game we encountered other tank variations that proved just as dangerous.

Having cleared the ground, we took to the air, swapping out wheels for helicopter skids. Choppers soared above the battlefield, and we left the rocky environs below and headed out to sea for a boss battle with one of Inferno’s huge metal minions, a floating battle cruiser brimming with surface-to-air rocket turrets. Elevation was handled automatically, but a few times during our play we didn’t quite soar as high as we needed to, bumping into cliff faces haphazardly and needing to adjust our approach. Heli-ammo is a little more sticky than the stuff you shoot at on the ground, making it much easier to peep your target, open up to lock on, and then strafe around in the air to avoid return fire. While the camera perspective was isometric rather than top-down, combat felt reminiscent of arcade aerial dogfighters like 1942 and Xevious.

Our preview code gave us a look at the game’s first four chapters, and while we won’t go into the story specifics, let’s just say that Inferno is a persistent henchman. We took on and shut down parts of his world domination attempts and plenty of his goons, but they just kept on coming. We’re hoping some of the control kinks are ironed out before the game ships this September, but we had a blast, err…are having a blast. Keep an eye out soon for our full review as it puts bullet holes in the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and the PC.

By Dan Chiappini, Editor of GameSpot AU

Stacking First Look

Double Fine’s upcoming downloadable game reveals the secret life of Russian nesting dolls.

Stacking is the upcoming game from Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions that continues the San Francisco-based developer’s experimentation with creating smaller games for digital distribution. Like Double Fine’s first downloadable game, Costume Quest, Stacking is being helmed by another rising star in the company, Lee Petty, who last served as art director on Brutal Legend. Schafer and Petty recently dropped by our offices to show off the unique game inspired by Russian nesting dolls. Although the dolls from the late 1800s may sound like an unlikely muse that isn’t necessarily a great fit for a game, Stacking will surprise you.

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Stacking was born out of a creative exercise at Double Fine, where the company splits into four small teams that quickly prototype ideas into playable demos that could become full-fledged games. In the case of Stacking, Petty found himself inspired as he watched his daughter play with a set of nesting dolls. The notion of each doll fitting into another sparked an idea for a gameplay mechanic that wound up being prototyped by the team Petty headed up. Once the concept was green-lit, Petty began researching both the history of stacking dolls and the era they emerged from for story and gameplay ideas. Given the artistic streak of Petty and his team, Stacking has morphed into a Victorian-era art-flavored hybrid of adventure game and puzzle game that revolves around a young nesting doll named Charlie, who’s out to rescue his family.

Stacking’s story will unfold via silent-film-style cinematics–which will add up to more than two hours of narrative–that flicker dramatically as text cards pop up. The story finds Charlie’s happy home broken up by an evil baron who sends the whole brood into the lively indentured service industry. Charlie, left behind because of his small size, sets out to find and rescue his family using his wits and unique ability to possess other dolls by jumping into them.

The game was demoed for us as both Petty and Schafer talked us through the mechanics and systems on display. The work-in-progress demo we were checking out on the Xbox 360 kicked off with the setup of Charlie’s family being split by the evil baron and the tiny doll setting out to save the day. As any first-time hero will tell you, heading out to save the day is a little tricky your first time out of the gate, but Charlie lucks into a meeting with Levi the hobo, a young drifter who’s hanging around the train station where the adventure begins.

Our demo showed off two areas: the train station that serves as a hub, since you’ll be traveling to different locations to collect your family members, and a cruise ship, which is one of the locations you’ll explore. Each area will feature different missions for you that will consist of puzzles to solve. Stacking’s puzzle-solving mechanic is an interesting spin on old-school adventure games. Charlie’s primary ability is to hop into any doll that’s one size larger and that has its back turned to him. Once Charlie is in the doll, he’ll have access to its unique action or ability. Figuring out which abilities to use and what order to use them in on either the environment or the other characters you encounter offers a good mental workout. For example, we saw that Charlie needed to board a train to get to where one of his family members was being held. Unfortunately, a train strike had sent three striking workers to go grouse about their situation at an exclusive lounge Charlie couldn’t access. To complete the mission, Charlie needed to get the workers out of the lounge and basically create a stacked set of all three of the workers.

While many of the traditional adventure games that Stacking owes a tip of the hat to would have only a single solution, this game features several different solutions to a given problem. There are actually three solutions to the lounge problem, ranging from traditional to unorthodox. The key to all the solutions is in finding the different ways in which Charlie can use the other dolls around him. For example, if you use one doll, you can flirt with a guard who shifts his position and allows Charlie to possess him. Another option lets Charlie possess a doll that can fart into the lounge’s ventilation system and flush everyone out, while the last option lets Charlie use a doll’s mechanical prowess to open the covering into the lounge ventilation system. When you complete a mission, you’ll see a counter showing you how many other options exist to solve it, so you can try to discover them all.

While the train lounge was a pretty simple mission to tend to, the cruise ship offered a much larger environment to interact with and a broader array of puzzles to contend with. While the core mechanics didn’t appear to offer any new functionality, the puzzles and options for solving them grew in complexity. The cruise ship challenges were more complex than the initial missions in the game and required smart navigation of the ship and use of possessed dolls. In this particular mission, Charlie’s main task was to help a mutiny along, but a number of side quests were available as well. Managing which quest you take on first and trying to figure out how to effectively use all the unique doll abilities kept things interesting in our demo and left us excited to see later levels.

One point to definitely call out about our demo was the strategic use of doll possessing. Besides offering you unique abilities to try to solve a quest, possessing other dolls lets you build up a personal collection you can review in the game’s pause menu. Collecting whole sets yields bonuses to encourage you to keep your eyes peeled. The mechanic looks interesting, and we expect it will be challenging when dealing with dolls of varying sizes above Charlie.

The game’s presentation makes some unique choices that give the game a fresh sense of style. The art direction is a sly, adventurous mix of old-timey black-and-white presentation with more colorful Victorian flourishes. The objects in the world also have a distinct look to them because the team has drawn inspiration from tilt-shift photography. Charlie and the residents of his world fit the scale of their surroundings without beating you over the head with it. While this may sound a little odd on paper, once you see the game in motion, it all makes sense. The color palette offers a muted, almost sepia tinge to the environments we’ve seen so far that gives the game a unique look that fits everything nicely. The audio takes a minimalist approach, using sound effects but no voice. However, this doesn’t mean Stacking is lacking in the sound department. The game draws on a nice mix of classical pieces of music from Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky, as well as original material from Peter McConnell, which all suit the unique world.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, Stacking is looking like a smart, fun, fresh spin on the traditional adventure game experience. The gameplay appears to offer a flexible toolkit for problem solving that puts most of the pressure on your brain rather than twitch reflexes. The art and story are creative and whimsical, which play to Double Fine’s strengths, so we’re eager to see more of the game. Stacking is slated to be released early next year for the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. Look for more soon.

By Ricardo Torres

E3 2011: Rotastic Hands-On Preview

We go a-swinging with Vikings and Death in this puzzle game.

Do you remember that one bit in the old Genesis classic Ristar where at the end of each level you had to grab onto a pole and swing around to launch yourself to the sky? Well, developer Dancing Dots probably loved that segment to the point that it made an entire game out of that little concept and called it Rotastic. GameSpot managed to play a few stages of the single-player mode on the Xbox 360 just to get the hang of its swinging mechanic.

In this puzzle game, characters can only travel across the stage by hooking their rope to the closest hook point by pressing the A button. As they latch onto it, they gain momentum and can even change their rotation direction by pressing either bumper buttons. To fly off from the hook, you will need to release the A button. While launched, your character can ricochet off walls that can also speed up your trajectory.

The objective of each stage is to collect a set number of jewels that appear onscreen before time runs out. This won’t be easy, of course, because deathtraps like spiked walls and enemies can suck you in. Some levels late in the game require you to flip a required number of switches before proceeding. Swinging around and gauging the momentum to launch yourself may take some time to get used to, but after a few deaths, you’ll find that it’s all a matter of timing. It also helps that when you’re launched into the air, you’ll be protected with a barrier against hazards. The catch is that it only saves you once, and it will disappear and recharge for a half-second if you immediately latch onto a hook.

While just collecting jewels is enough to pass a stage, completionists will have to work a little harder to get a score worth bragging about and a gold ranking. Pulling off hook tricks like a figure eight, wall-bounce shot or loop-to-loop (depending on the layout of the hooks) will net players a score multiplier. If the stages we played were tough enough to complete with a bronze rating, those same stages would be a nightmare to play through just for a perfect score.

With a cartoonish art style and its setting an inconsistent medieval fantasy world filled with death robots, the game is definitely not taking itself seriously. Even the characters you pick are absurd: You have a Viking, a flamboyant elf, an anthropomorphic wild boar, and an undead skeleton that thinks it’s the latest reincarnation of Death.

Rotastic’s combination of colorful whimsy and solid arcadelike design, not to mention the 70 levels and competitive multiplayer, offers some good bite-sized fun as long as players understand the game’s physics. The game will be out this September on Xbox Live Arcade. A PlayStation Network version will be out in January, with a PC version coming soon.

By Jonathan Toyad, Associate Editor

Star Raiders Q&A – First Details

Senior producer Jonathan Moses and Incinerator Studios president Joel Goodman discuss this upcoming remake of the classic Atari 2600 game.

The original Star Raiders first saw the light of day on the original Atari consoles of the late 1970s. The game was revolutionary for its time: a first-person cockpit-view space shooter that let you travel from sector to sector of hyperspace while battling the evil Zylons. More than 30 years later, the publisher now known as Atari is bringing back the classic game to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. We get the details from Atari senior producer Jonathan Moses and developer Incinerator Studios president Joel Goodman.

Star Raiders will be a remake of the classic Atari game from the early 1970s.

Star Raiders will be a remake of the classic Atari game from the early 1970s.

GameSpot: Why did you decide to bring Star Raiders back? Why did the time seem right?

Jonathan Moses: Star Raiders was such an amazing game for its time. Epic dogfights in space, a galactic map that gave players an open world to explore–all on the Atari 2600. There have definitely been other games that have built on this formula, but Star Raiders was the first. I’m a huge fan of the genre, and the opportunity to go back to that original with the new elements that Incinerator Studios is bringing to the table–there was no way to pass that up.

You’re going to be seeing more of this from Atari in the near future. Along with some exciting new IP that we’re working with, we’re not ignoring our history. We’re bringing back some of the classics in a way that makes them relevant now. We recently released a reimagination of the classic Haunted House and are gearing up to launch Atari’s Greatest Hits Volume 1, which features 50 of our gaming classics. It’s an exciting time at Atari.

GS: Once the decision was made to bring it back, how did you settle on the approach–that is, a full-on update of the game versus a more retro version?

JM: I think there could be really fun games in both directions–and you’re going to see Atari revisiting the classics both ways. However, for Star Raiders we’re going with a full update–really taking the core of the original game and reshaping it around a modern approach. There is a story and gameplay that will be familiar to people who play shooters today, and a universe that we can continue to build and explore. At the same time, players who remember the original Star Raiders will feel instantly at home.

GS: How did you settle on a developer?

JM: The core team has a great deal of experience working with vehicle gameplay and have worked with us at previous companies, so hiring them for this project was the best way to make sure the pictures they have on file never get to the authorities. All kidding aside, besides our own comfort level with them as developers, we received several concepts from other teams too. The game that Incinerator proposed was easy for everyone to sign up for. They spun a great story about what the legacy represented, how to build on it, and why they were perfect for the project. They continue to deliver on that initial promise, and I couldn’t be happier about how the game is turning out.

GS: What interested you in updating Star Raiders? What do you remember most fondly about the original Atari game?

Joel Goodman: It isn’t often that a developer gets to work with a genre-defining intellectual property, and Star Raiders is just that. Great games such as X-Wing and Wing Commander were influenced by this Atari classic. The original game had great tension when you warped into a sector not knowing what you would be facing, and at times you were immediately thrown into combat. Having to manage the flow of the game from the Galactic Map was a very unique and exciting experience.

GS: Have you given any thought to including the original game somewhere as an unlockable bonus?

JG: We are currently looking at quite a few options in order to provide the richest experience for the consumer. Providing the original game is a possibility.

GS: What are the key elements you feel the update must retain from the original game? What’s more flexible?

JG: For gameplay, we are building on that great feeling that the original had of dogfighting in space, while adding another dimension through ship transformations, where the combat vehicle changes its flight characteristics on the fly. Other original components that we felt were important are the galactic map and the energy pool. Managing the energy pool was a core part to combat and gives players another layer of strategy.

GS: What’s the underlying direction of the update? Are you taking any inspiration from more-modern sources?

JG: Since the original came out, there have been quite a few exceptional flight combat games, as well as remakes of classic sci-fi movies and TV shows, and they have all played into how we are bringing Star Raiders into this generation. We also wanted to give this version a bit more character by building a story arc for the player.

GS: How did you settle on the game’s art style?

JG: We wanted to have a style that balanced classic sensibilities with modern expectations, and we believe that we achieved that. You see elements of modern sci-fi realism merged with a strong focus on rich color.

GS: Could you give us some more detail on the game’s online modes? Are you planning any DLC?

JG: Players will be able to engage in various online modes, from team deathmatches to last-man-standing battles. They can also duel one-on-one, or play cooperatively against common enemies in a hostile environment. Plans for DLC are being discussed now, as the new Star Raiders universe is extendable in many forms.

GS: Thanks, Jonathan and Joel.

By Staff

Dragon Age II: The Exiled Prince Exclusive Hands-On Preview

We go hands-on with the exiled prince himself, Sebastian Vael, in Dragon Age II’s upcoming DLC pack.

Dragon Age II is almost upon us, along with the game’s first downloadable content pack: The Exiled Prince. It’s no secret that some fans were less than thrilled with the implementation of the previous Dragon Age’s DLC. This time developer BioWare has tried to craft a content pack catered to their desires by extending the game’s storyline and not deviating from the main party. On the eve of Dragon Age II’s release, we got the chance to try out this upcoming content pack and put the noble Sebastian Vael through his paces.

It's called Dragon Age for a reason.

It’s called Dragon Age for a reason.

“All of the quests in The Exiled Prince revolve around a coup that you learn took place in the city of Starkhaven, elsewhere in the Free Marches,” explained Ferret Baudoin, lead designer for The Exiled Prince. “During the coup, all of Starkhaven’s ruling family was killed in a bloody massacre, except one: Sebastian Vael. Sebastian was third in line for the throne of Starkhaven, always overshadowed by his elder brothers. So he led a life of excess–wine, women, and song. In the process, he became a headache for his father, who decided that Sebastian would do better with a life of religious contemplation in Kirkwall.”

“He was an unlikely addition to the Chantry there. But under the benevolent and patient (very patient) guidance of Revered Mother Elthina, he found real faith in the Maker. As a man, Sebastian could never become ordained–only women can be clergy in the Chantry–but as a lay brother, he could still devote his efforts to the Maker. Over the years, he became one of the Chantry’s most devout believers. But this surprising life was shattered abruptly when he heard of the tragedy that befell his family. So he broke his vows in order to reclaim his crown.”

The mission we played through was actually the second in Sebastian’s story arc, titled Repentance. Previously, we had helped Sebastian dispense justice to those who had ended his family’s life. Now we had finally learned who had hired those rogues to do the deed. Without spoiling any of the juicy details, we’ll just say that we ended up fighting a lot of monsters in our pursuit for vengeance.

Sebastian may excell at ranged combat, but he can hold his own in melee as well.

Sebastian may excell at ranged combat, but he can hold his own in melee as well.

As a rogue and an archer, Sebastian is a well-rounded character who excels at fighting enemies from afar while still holding his own in melee. He is also the only character, outside of the main hero, who can wield a longbow in combat–which comes with its own royal archer skill tree to complement it. For us, it was all about the hit-and-run tactics combined with liberal use of the pinning-shot ability. This skill let us snare foes in place while we retreated back to a safe range.

Sebastian’s role in battle is dealing high damage to single targets. Many of his abilities are single-shot attacks that can be combined with other abilities from his allies to devastating effect. For instance, a mage can douse an enemy with his cone of cold, which will make the enemy brittle. Sebastian can hit the frozen target with a shattering arrow, dealing a whopping 600 percent additional damage. Of course, nobody told us this until after we finished the quest, so it didn’t do us a whole lot of good.

“DLC is still a relatively new phenomenon,” Baudoin admitted. “With Dragon Age: Origins, we’d often have discussions about what we thought the fans wanted, but we’d hit an impasse–one person’s gut would say one thing, and another person’s gut would say another. We released a lot of different flavors of DLC and learned a great deal. One thing I’ve learned is that the fans want something close to the original experience. There’s a reason they loved your game enough to buy DLC in the first place, so the DLCs that work best are the ones that tell yet more of the tale or add elements that enhance the experience, not replace it.”

Hail of Arrows is another great ability that hits multiple targets from a distance.

Hail of Arrows is another great ability that hits multiple targets from a distance.

Our brief time with noble Sebastian revealed him to be a character torn between his religious teachings and duty to the throne. It also didn’t hurt that he had an awesome Scottish accent to boot. In combat, he is a high-damage assassin adept at dropping single targets in record time. If you find your party in need of another rogue with some ranged expertise, you can download The Exiled Prince for Dragon Age II on March 8 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, and Mac.

By Maxwell McGee, Editor

Gamescom 2011: Air Band Hands-On Preview

A peek at Kinect Fun Labs’ Air Band: an air guitar, air keyboard, and air drumkit app based on gesture recognition.

Air Band is next in line for release on Kinect Fun Labs. Like other Fun Labs apps, it’s a playful tech demo rather than a game–and, like other Fun Lab apps, it’s based on a single neat idea that, we’d hope, maybe paves the way for its inclusion in a full-blown Xbox 360 game. In it, you pick a musical genre (rock, country, and so on) and then jam in front of the Kinect camera, alone or with a second player, miming your performance on an air guitar, air keyboard, or air drums.

As you play, Air Band conjures a neon guitar, keyboard, or drumkit in or beneath your hands as they appear in your onscreen reflection. The air guitar is the most impressive, tilting according to how you move your hands and pointing into or away from the screen according to how you angle yourself at the camera. The drumkit comes complete with neon drumsticks, placed in your hands by Kinect detection.

To switch between instruments during a session, you drop your hands to your sides and then move to a new position. Air Band is reasonably quick to pick up on your air drumming or strumming or keyboarding, discerning between the three mimes without problem. The game (Fun Labs app, we should say) can also capture videos or images of your jam session for publishing over Kinect’s sharing site or social networks.

Air Band is out for 240 Microsoft points from Monday August 22.

By Jane Douglas, Section Editor

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