By Robert VerBruggen
February 13, 2009 - These days, it's pretty tough to release a video game on home consoles. Not only do you need to prove your worth to the console's manufacturer to get a development kit, but you'll need a seal of approval on the final product. The upside is that this helps keep out some awful games, but the downside is that it also keeps out some worthy competitors: independent game designers - talented people who don't happen to have industry connections, massive financial backing, etc. Microsoft is trying to address this problem through the Xbox Live Community. Anyone can join the Community and share their creations with other members; all you need to publish a game is approval from the Community itself.
In some ways, you see all the problems you'd expect: there are a ton of games available, and most are either unremarkable or clones of popular titles. Yet the Community's review process keeps out most outright clunkers, and there are plenty of glimpses of genius. Below are some brief ruminations on XBLC games that might be worth your while.
Air Legends | Dev: Sharky NZ | Score: 3.2
This game looks terrific. Whenever you play, you can set the time of day to three different settings, and in each, the clouds, lighting, smoke trails, and planes look fascinatingly real. It also sells for a mere $2.50.
Unfortunately, when you choose Axis or Allies and start shooting stuff, the gameplay doesn't fare quite as well. The action takes place on a 2-D plane, with the airplanes usually viewed from the side. You can aim your vehicle in any direction and fire bullets (unlimited) with the A button or rockets (limited, and earned by shooting down other planes) with the B button. You can also speed up your craft and perform an evasive maneuver.
The first issue is that three of the four modes are pretty much the same. They vary the number of allies and enemies you have, but it always boils down to aiming your craft at the nearest enemy and hitting the buttons. (The fourth available mode has no enemies, but instead allows you to skywrite, which is a cute addition but not really substantive.)
A bigger problem is that the game just feels slow-paced. Turning your plane to face the enemy takes forever and demands a lot of precision. Holding down the A button will shoot continuously, but only until the gun overheats. Somehow, flying through the air at top speed and gunning down rival planes feels boring at times.
To the game's credit, it also includes two-player co-op and competition, which livens things up significantly. If you're going to play Air Legends, that's the way to do it.
Artoon | Dev: Oscar K | Score: 3.8
This is a cute and innovative 3-D platformer in which you play a paintball. Yes, a paintball.
Basically, each stage is a series of platforms, and you have to steer the constantly bouncing ball so that it hits each exactly once. Some special platforms require more than one jump, but each time you jump on them you must jump to another platform before returning. Once you've painted at least 60 percent of the platforms in a stage, you can jump on the exit platform. Whenever you jump on a platform you've already painted, you lose your score multiplier, and whenever you miss a platform, you die and start over.
This game features some terrific presentation. The stages, despite their similar setup, are drawn in several different styles with carefully chosen color palettes, and the music is energetic without being grating.
The one problem is the controls. Most of the time the scheme works fine; you steer the ball with the left joystick and use buttons to make your ball bounce lower or higher than it normally does. But, the right joystick controls the camera, swiveling it up, down, left, and right. In a 3-D platformer in which your character is always jumping, it can get remarkably difficult to coordinate the two joysticks, especially when you have to change direction quickly and land on small platforms.
For people without well-developed spatial and motor skills, Artoon might prove a little frustrating. Otherwise, it's a worthwhile and fun title with lots of clever stages.
Biology Battle | Dev: Novaleaf Software | Score: 3.7
This is a shameless Geometry Wars clone, but it offers a few fun twists. One is that you play a nanobot sent inside someone's body to destroy an infected cell. You battle germs until you reach the nuclei, and once they're defeated, you choose between scoring more points in "Life Mode" or transferring to "Death Mode." Another is that the cell is quite small; the action is confined to a much more restricted area than in Geometry Wars.
Most of Biology Battle's innovation, however, comes in the multiplayer. There are six games total, five of which you can play in both Life and Death modes. In Turrets, for example, you set up (of course) turrets around the screen that fire upon your opponent. In Wire Cycle, your ship has a long tail, and your goal is to get the other player to run into it.
You can't play online, but Biology Battle is the first Community game to include leaderboards; Microsoft doesn't give the Community access to its regular leaderboard servers, so the developers had to set up their own. Arcade shooter fans will want to pick up Geometry Wars and its sequel first, but if those aren't enough, this game is worth a play.
You can read CheatCC's full-length review here.