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Hothead Games gets sadistic with a loveable bunch of sky-blue critters called Swarmites...
The humble score multiplier: it can convert a good game into a great one but, on the other hand, it can also cripple a potential masterpiece. Past masters of this somewhat forgotten gameplay art include Bizarre Creations (Blur, PGR, Geometry Wars, The Club), which sadly closed for business earlier this year. In its heyday however, the studio's use of multipliers not only gave its games an unwavering rhythm and frantic pace but also added reams of replay value, oodles of depth, and fiercely addictive gameplay that felt as if it had been balanced on a knife edge. Almost as if the game industry conforms to Hindu dictates of reincarnation then, another studio has taken the score multiplier baton and given this classic gameplay mechanic a new lease of life.
Hothead Games is that studio, and Swarm is the game; a delightfully weird and vividly imagined action platformer where you take control of 50 adorable little critters called Swarmites. On the surface there are staple platforming elements: bosses to beat, enemies to dodge, and traps to avoid - but it's in how you control the Swarmite mass that this game boasts its originality. The wee-little beasties all jump in unison with a tap or hold of the A button, can be grouped into a bunch by holding down the right trigger, and spread out to form a loose shoal by holding down the left trigger. Depth is then layered onto this control suite with a boost mechanic (initiated by pumping the right trigger), a charge command to attack barriers and crates (boost and then flick the left trigger), as well as the ability to stack Swarmites into a tower.
It's a simple enough layout, comprising the use of only three buttons for the most part, but a combination of clever level design and the need for well-timed, rhythmic button combos ensures that there's a tricky knack to the controls that keeps the experience challenging. Some of the trickier platforming sections, for example, require you to bunch the Swarmites, initiate a boost, and then make a well timed jump to clear the gap. In other sections, collectibles are out of reach unless you manage to form a high tower and then propel Swarmites at the top of the stack onto a high ledge with a perfectly executed charge command. This makes for an impressive level of depth to a control layout that's incredibly easy to get accustomed to from the outset; a hallmark of expertly refined game design.
So, what about this score multiplier we speak so highly of? Like life in general, it all comes down to the DNA. You see, the goal of this Swarmite mass is to harvest DNA from each level in order to please 'Momma' (don't ask. It's mildly disturbing, in a good way). Anyway, this DNA is spread abundantly across each level, sometimes as breadcrumbs that you can follow fairly easily, sometimes in hard to reach places, and often locked up in crates that you have to charge to burst open. Collecting the DNA builds up both your score and the score multiplier - the more DNA you're able to pick up within a certain period of time, the higher this multiplier goes, although a countdown timer for each level of the multiplier means that you're constantly on the hunt for that next DNA strand. If you don't manage to reach it before the timer runs down then the chain is broken, your multiplied score is added to the sub-total for that level, and you have to start from x1 and 0 points again.
However, if all of your Swarmites die before you reach a checkpoint or bank your score by breaking the chain, then you get nothing. Various respawn points around a level allow you to replenish the Swarmite supply back up to 50 but, once again, solid level design ensures that you're often left with a couple of errant Swarmites, longing for the next respawn point to emerge and praying that the x20 multiplier you just skilfully built up wasn't all for nothing. There's a potent risk/reward dynamic to it, emphasised even more by a mechanic that allows you to sacrifice Swarmites to keep the chain going. Should you run out of DNA to harvest, then your Swarmites can be culled to keep the countdown timer totted up until a fresh batch of DNA emerges. While we're sure that the system will have its exploits - as most do - the fact is that this score multiplier is one of the best we've played with in years for all its addictive design, fine balancing, and fast pacing.
Each of Swarm's 10 levels requires you to reach a certain score on the preceding level to unlock it, and the thresholds aren't easy either - particularly towards the end. In this regard, it's the score that drives you through the game rather than any semblance of a lives or health system and the experience is all the better for it. Likewise, unlocking each of Swarm's two bosses requires you to reach a threshold of the collectable DNA double-helixes in the game, which again demands that you nail the intricacies of the control system and don't just rush through the path of least resistance. Truly, there's a lot of fun to be had with Swarm and it's certain to be among the best original concepts for XBLA/PSN this year when we look back in December.
However, the biggest stumbling block for the game is its content. Through the campaign you'll find a humorous and light-hearted romp that never takes itself too seriously, and for this it should be commended. The fact is, though, that it can be played through in one sitting. We completed the story in around four hours and, while there is replay value through ranked leaderboards for each level and abundant DNA collectibles to track down and successfully retrieve, you are left with the feeling that Swarm could have been a bit longer for the 1200 Microsoft Points (£9.99 on PSN) asking price. It lacks the longevity of a Super Meat Boy and isn't quite on a par with Braid or Limbo in terms of overall vision and design so, despite its winning gameplay formula and the charm of its characters, Swarm just isn't quite on a par with the XBLA/PSN big-hitters even if it's certainly among the best of the rest.
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