Preview: ID@Xbox at EB Expo

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Microsoft went all out at EB Expo 2014, showing off just about every upcoming title for the Xbox One, big or small. While Call of Duty, Sunset Overdrive, Forza Horizon 2 and the Master Chief Collection drew the majority of interest, there was a significant section of their booth reserved for independent and ID@Xbox titles (Microsoft’s independent self publishing program). While ID@Xbox might have its critics, what was on display did a lot to prove that the concept is worthwhile and it hopefully becomes a focal point in the future of Xbox. Here is a closer look at some of the titles they were showing.

Ori and the Blind Forest

One of the big surprises from E3 this year, Ori and the Blind Forest is a beautifully stylish exploration platform game in the metroidvania style. While the standout feature is the presentation (it continues the high standards set by the UbiArt engine) Ori is more than a pretty face, offering up solid mechanics underneath its charming surface.

As a platformer at heart movement is of great importance, and Ori largely nails it. Ori’s jump feels a little like Super Meat Boy but without as much range in distance, while attacking is not a direct hit but a series of homing bulbs shot from Ori’s overhead companion. It gives you more attacking range than you would expect, but that extra reach will be appreciated as the enemies I encountered attacked with both projectiles and area of effect damage that could be difficult to avoid if you are overzealous.

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Ori rewards caution and a measured approach over charging through without a care, most of my deaths were avoidable but for being over aggressive in approaching a situation. New abilities were doled out at a steady rate, even in this short demo, but it is hard to tell if this will continue throughout the game or was just a tutorial element. Puzzles and set pieces proved interesting to solve, and while I was being subtley led through the levels it felt like there were several paths I could be taking and straying from the path was rewarded with pickups that could be spent in the upgrade tree.

Whilst beautiful, the gameplay in Ori is familiar but done with polish. The story and setting look very promising and I have faith that the gameplay will match the lofty expectations these elements set. Ori and the Blind Forest is scheduled for release in Q4 2014. Note that this demo was not running on Xbox One hardware, but a PC box.

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

I feel like I’ve been hearing about Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime forever, whispers of its tantalising co-op experience that was only available at select events since its debut as a Toronto Global Game Jam project in 2012. I managed to wrangle a couple of different co-op partners at EB Expo to experience the game as it was intended, although single player is available with a loyal space dog taking your orders rather than a friend on your couch. I don’t see this being a very good single player game, but at least a space dog will take your orders promptly, something human players are frustratingly poor at sometimes.

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Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime sees you controlling a death star like spaceship, armed to the teeth but pitifully undermanned. You and your partner take control of the various stations on your ship and juggling duties between you forms the core of the game. Yelling will ensue, as you frantically dodge incoming fire at the helm only to have your partner sit on the wrong side of the ship manning a turret with nothing in sight to shoot. While you can upgrade your ship I never got that far in the demo, but it proved difficult enough juggling the four turrets (one for each direction), helm, shield control (which can move a shield that covers about a quarter of your ship), a superweapon and a map. Your ship can take a real beating before it begins to crack and start flashing before ultimate exploding in a wave of friendship ruining blame.

I loved this game. The early stages are balanced perfectly, providing enough challenge to force you to learn teamwork while being fairly forgiving. It ramps up to offer challenges that are easily dealt with by a co-ordinated team then explodes into offering waves of enemies I think you would struggle to defend with four players, let alone two. The pace is masterful, you need to anticipate when trouble is coming then jump frantically from moving the shields to protect your rear to getting on a turret and shooting down enemies, jumping up to the superweapon to unleash a barrage of fire then to the helm to get some space when it all becomes too much. In the meantime you are yelling at your partner, they are yelling at you and you are both in this crazy dance that somehow results in you not bumping in to each other every five seconds and continuing to survive.

As far as co-op games go, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is one of the best I have played. I hope we aren’t kept waiting for a full release much longer.

Threes

Threes for Xbox One is a strange fit, a stellar mobile puzzle game converted to console controls to be played in a lounge room (or snapped to the side of television apps). I am horribly biased when it comes to Threes, still recovering from a long running addiction that saw me playing the game at every spare moment for six months, an illness only dealt with by a heavy dose of Desert Golfing in the last month (which feels more like a replacement than a cure). The console version controls well, it will never be as intuitive as swiping a mobile device, but the pad is responsive enough.

Threes ingenious design carries through here, the game is unchanged. You will still curse four blue tiles coming at you in a row, still cross your fingers and hope against hope that an incoming piece lands in a favourable position. As a puzzle game it is close to perfection; well designed, stripped of all unnecessary elements and streamlined into a near endlessly replayable game.

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It’s the little things that get you with playing Threes on an Xbox One. I noticed a difference just moving from an iPhone to an iPad, expand the screen to 40 inches and it takes a while to get used to the flow, to ‘seeing’ the entire board. Not having the swipe and hold mechanic to ‘preview’ a move was jarring, it hasn’t been removed from the game but using it no longer felt natural. It is hardly a game breaker but it was something I noticed.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to test how Threes plays as a snapped app, which is how most would be using it on the side of sports or television shows. While nice in theory I find that Threes takes all of my concentration when I am deep in a game, if you are like me you won’t be paying much attention to what happens on the other screen (I’ve had many a lunch go cold on me as I thought I could juggle eating and Threes). Theoretically it is a perfect pick up, put down game, there is no reliance on reflexes or timing, you can take forever on a single move if you wish. Actually playing it as a complement to another activity, that is the hard part.

Yet those are issues unrelated to the Xbox One port of the game, which looks to be coming along well. Hopefully leaderboards and friends scores are integrated well into the experience, and it isn’t priced out of the marketplace.