Review: Xotic

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As there are a lot of first-person shooters out there, it can be to a developer’s benefit to have their game be different.  A hook of some sort that tells the game buying public, “This isn’t like other things.  You can appreciate this on a whole other level.  Buy this one, not that one.”  The problem with hooks is sometimes you don’t land a tasty fish, instead you don’t watch where you’re casting and accidentally rip off your cousin’s eyelid.  Now the guy’s got a patch and Thanksgiving is super awkward.  All because you wanted to get the biggest haul with your flashy tackle.  The hook in this case is a return to score based gameplay for shootin’ games.  Read on to see if Xotic breaks out the lemon wedges or spends its Saturday in the emergency room, right next to Bizarre Creations’ The Club.

The story, told in a dreamy intro sequence, narrated by the uncredited Decepticon Soundwave, is that eons ago a being called The Orb existed and evolved beyond its physical body.  Despite what many science fiction writers would have you believe about the end of evolution, being pure thought and energy is not such a great time for The Orb, and it is seeking to reincarnate into physical beings.  But for the perceived malevolent intent of this mind controlling move, there wouldn’t be any conflict, or any game.  You play a being that was specifically designed to destroy these possessed entities in hopes of once and for all defeating The Orb.  This entire backdrop is as good a reason as any for you to play a weird looking guy with a weird gun who goes to weird locations for the purpose of weirdly and systematically destroying a set number of weird life forms.  Another approach might have been for the loading screen text to have said, “You: Guy with Gun, Them: Bad Guys, Action: Start.”  It was nice of the developer to at least try to introduce a narrative for this single player experience, but they didn’t need to, and it doesn’t come up much in play.  This game is about high scores.  All you need to know is that you shoot the things to get the points.

Using a variety of shot types that mimic every classic kind of gun (i.e. shotgun, pistol, sniper rifle, etc.) players will make their way through a variety of levels hunting down the minions of The Orb.  The other-worldly motif is enhanced by using a gun that looks like it has a fly head for a muzzle.  To complete the standard level, players must kill all the enemies.  Turrets, roaming alien soldiers and nests that continuously spit out explosive insects until destroyed all must fall to your strange bio-gun lest you be forced to replay the level.  Most of the designs are appealing. Oddly proportioned humanoids wander as do exoskeletal creatures with four legs and bright pulsing abdomens.  The only drawback are turrets which look like floating pine cones and are very difficult to spot in darker backgrounds.  Since an onscreen compass gives the general location of the nearest enemy, this is probably unintentional camouflage.  Hunting these things down if one is missed slows the action down significantly. 

Killing all the creatures will get players to the end, but to get the highest score, everything has to be killed in style.  In addition to enemies, the levels are peppered with floating pickups whose sole role appears to be the granting of points.  Running and jumping over these with the right timing can lead to big scores if the next set is collected quickly.  There are also glowing nodes on the walls that can be shot for points.  Put together with 2 X multiplier xeno-pineapples and alien pears that make it so that Orb Fighter Guy does not run out of ammunition, creates an environment that can be run several ways to try to get the most points, while still being able to destroy all opposition.  The fun, if this is your thing, comes from running the levels over and over again, trying to find the optimum path for points.  There are a few Bonus Round levels that have no enemies and the sole focus is maximizing one’s high score.  The difficulty levels increase the overall points from a level, as well as the strength of the opposition, but otherwise do not mix things up very much.

There are not many levels in Xotic, but the ones that are there are interesting to look at.  Mini-palm tree plants dot the landscape and glowing, shimmering balls of clear liquid hover far above the ground, just waiting to be sacrificed for points.  Luminescent red nodes grow on the ground and explode when shot.  These make a satisfying noise upon bursting, and when they are either clustered together or arranged in a line, as they often are, it is a joy to watch them all go off in a huge chain reaction.  From the once pestilent nodes, healthy plants will grow.  It is a neat effect and they allow for the gameplay to be more than just running the right path and shooting the guys — players will also have to shoot the right nodes at the right time along said path.  Truly, points are everywhere.

If the word picture I have painted is not doing anything for you, and the screenshots don’t help, this game could be described as being like the first Unreal game where you have to collect coins, like in Super Mario.  An imprecise description, but that is the general feel and tone. 

The interface for this game leaves something to be desired.  The mouse movement never felt right to me.  On the default sensitivity, 50%, it takes about four or five hand motions to turn around.  To any player used to Counter Strike and Quake, or most shooters on the PC where generally at a maximum you want to only have to move the mouse about an inch on the pad to face the opposite direction, this did not feel normal.  No real difference between most of the sensitivity settings is perceivable.  Putting it on 100% makes the room spin like a top if you touch the controls.  I don’t know where exactly this transition happens from painfully slow to out of control, but it seems to kick in suddenly somewhere in the mid 90s.  Even with the mouse fine-tuned, the shooting never felt right.  The aiming felt clunky, like the game and I were struggling to communicate with each other what I wanted to happen, one of us speaking Portuguese, the other Spanish.  Some limited common ground, but different languages.  Changing the screen’s resolution up and down seemed to help and the aiming issue was only a problem on certain resolution settings.  Your mileage may vary. 

The graphics options are limited to turning on and off two special effects and changing the resolution.  The two graphical effects in question do cause the game to look prettier and have a noticeable impact on system performance, but it’s difficult to understand how a first-person shooter for the personal computer gets shipped in 2011 without tons of options to allow users to find the graphical settings that work best for them.  Certainly the game does not fine tune itself automatically.  The game still looks nice even with everything turned off and at the lowest resolution, but that has more to do with the strange alien landscape than a noteworthy graphics engine.

Unlike the two dramatically opposing schools with a hook-centric curriculum I wrote about earlier, this game neither brings home the white, flaky goodness nor does it disfigure a family member, it really just goes back home without any fish.  While the environments are appealing and the design more creative than the basic warehouse arena with men in gasmasks, the basic shooting is not entertaining enough to make me want to replay all the levels again and again, hoping to crawl to the top of the leaderboard.  Which in a game focused almost entirely on points, is a big problem. 

When I think of score driven games, I think pinball.  Fast and frantic action with lights and noises all over the place, chaos you can barely control but over time learn to manipulate the storm cloud to get the lighting you want.  In Xotic there are pleasant explosions, but often times the action slows down because the enemies simply take too much damage, some take five “shotgun” blasts to the face before going down, or are spaced too far apart.  And, if you get hurt, it takes a good twenty seconds or more for health to recharge.  Waiting for health should not scream arcade action to anyone.  Maybe if the game was more like Serious Sam with hordes of weak enemies rushing in and it had points pickups and chain exploding pus nodes to blast, then it would be easier to recommend.  But as it is it, while there is some fun to be had here, there is not enough of the fast-paced, wild gameply that one would expect from a game that is trying to bring the idea of a high score back into first-person shooters. 

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Pros:
+ Creative, alien visuals
+ Fantastic Moody music
+ Distorted robotic announcer drives the presentation home

Cons:
– Not a lot of levels
– Basic shooting isn’t very fun
– Slow pace

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC; also coming soon to XBLA
Publisher: WXP Games
Developer: WXP Games
Release Date: PC – 9/16/2011; XBLA – 11/9/2011
Genre: Score-based FPS
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.