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Penny Arcade Adventures and DeathSpank developer, Hothead Games showcases its latest digi-download title...
Swarm may just be the most exciting new prospect for digital-download so far this year. A bold claim, you might suggest - with the likes of Beyond Good & Evil HD (PSN and XBLA) and Torchlight (XBLA) launching next month around the same time as Swarm, surely Hothead Games' action-platformer will have a hard time cutting through all the noise... But while Torchlight has been around on PCs and Macs for a year-or-so already and Beyond Good & Evil HD is a revamp of a seven year-old Ubisoft title (albeit a very good one), Swarm sets itself apart as the most exciting original prospect in what is an exceptionally crowded March window for digital-download. These are big words for a modest game, so why has the same developer that brought us Penny Arcade Adventures and DeathSpank nailed the remit so precisely with Swarm?
There's an easy answer to that, which is because it's fun - plain and simple. It asks very little of you, the gamer, and supplies consistently entertaining gameplay in return. During our hands-on session with the preview code, we smiled from ear-to-ear for the duration. The game isn't making any indie statements of games as art, a la Limbo and Braid (as great as both of these games are) - there are no complex themes or ludicrously difficult puzzles to negotiate here. Instead, Swarm is buoyed by a gameplay concept that's just about original enough to draw your attention coupled with an exceptionally well-measured pace. If Super Meat Boy is platform gaming on amphetamines, then Swarm has had a couple of very strong coffees.
It's all down to Hothead Games' inspired use of that age-old gameplay dynamic, the score multiplier. But before we get into all of that, perhaps it's worth explaining the game a little first: Swarm puts you in control of a Swarmite mass. These Swarmites look a bit like Berk from the 80s cult kids' TV show, The Trap Door (if you're too young for that, they are simply blue and bulbous). You control 50 of these Swarmites at one time, all with the directional controls of your left analogue stick. These Swarmites can then either be brought into a tight group or spread out using a shoulder button, while combining this with the face buttons allows you to perform precise jump moves with the Swarmite mass or, alternatively, they can be made to clamber on top of each other to form a Swarmite tower and you can also perform speed boosts with them in a tight bunch to break through barriers/make large jumps etc.
On each level, your Swarmites will come across various traps and obstacles that will swiftly kill them all off if you're not careful. Hothead Games gets pretty creative with these methods of Swarmite slaughter, from fields of Swarmite traps to revolving columns of spikes, or stockpiles of explosives to cannons that your Swarmites seem pretty intent on climbing into should you veer too close to them. The aim, of course, is to traverse these obstacles while minimising Swarmite losses - should all 50 of your Swarmites die, then you're returned to the last checkpoint where your Swarmite horde gets replenished. While negotiating and in some cases triggering these death traps, you'll come across strands of DNA that the Swarmites can pick up to please 'Mother' (a scorpion-like beast who casted these Swarmites into the jaws of doom in the first place - sounds a bit like our mum). It's these strands of DNA that are tied into the game's score multiplier, which might just be one of the most inspired uses of a multiplier in recent years alongside those used in Burnout 3's Crash Events and Bizarre Creations' The Club.
Collecting the DNA builds up your total score as well as the multiplier - that much is simple enough - but the kicker comes from the fact that the multiplier is tied to the speed with which you collect the DNA. If you dawdle around trying to figure out the best way to negotiate a trap without losing any Swarmites, then your multiplier will quickly dissipate down to zero. Instead, you've got to negotiate obstacles as quickly as possible while minimising Swarmite losses and picking up as much DNA as possible along the way if you want to ratchet up that multiplier. The immediacy and pace that this brings to the gameplay ties the whole package together brilliantly. Without the scoring system, Swarm could merely be an endearing platformer that's good for the odd brief session; with the multiplier though, Swarm's gameplay experience is transformed into something that's fiercely addictive and chock-full of replay value (it goes without saying that level scores are tied into comprehensive online leaderboards).
Our one lasting impression of Swarm from our hands-on is that it rarely frustrates. Its central principles are straightforward enough to get along with but - from the excerpt of levels that we played - also malleable enough to be stretched out through plenty of layers of depth to maintain appeal. The score multiplier is a perfect example of this but also the multitude of ways in which your Swarmites can perish adds variation, as does the numerous ways in which you can control the Swarmite mass. From a set of intricately timed boost jumps of tightly grouped Swarmites to precariously balancing a tower of the adorable little critters through a narrow but potentially deadly gap, Hothead seems to have more than enough tricks up its sleeve to flesh out a thoroughly enjoyable XBLA/PSN release.
Next month's release schedule is teaming with exciting titles for XBLA and PSN but Hothead Games has placed itself right at the top of the pile with Swarm - ignore this one at your peril.
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