Monday, May 26, 2008

AtomHex Review

AtomHex, developed and published by MarkInc.
The Good: Unique gameplay, chaotic pace and action packed, neat theme, stackable bonuses, achievements, flexible price
The Not So Good: Odd control scheme, very challenging, only one game mode
What say you? It’s definitely different and potentially addictive, but this action game has a steep learning curve thanks to its overly complicated controls and high difficulty: 5/8

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So when Mark Incitti created an almost exact replica of Geometry Wars, he was kindly asked to remove it immediately or face legal action. nice! What is a good programmer to do? Well, slightly repackage the game and change it enough not to get sued! Here is AtomHex, an enhanced third cousin (once removed) of Geometry Wars featuring lots of shooting at lots of enemies. Will the frantic action translate well on the PC?

AtomHex doesn’t feature ultra-realistic 3-D graphics, but it does excel in presenting a nice theme. The minimalist design helps to create a Tron-like environment of bright, neon graphics set against a stark background and the result is a distinctive look; they remind me a lot of Immortal Defense. AtomHex is pleasing on the eyes and the generally chaotic nature of the gameplay is helped by the relatively simplistic graphics, as the player is never confused by what is being shown on-screen (at least any more than they are supposed to be). The basic nature of the graphics also means that AtomHex will run on a variety of computer systems. The sound in AtomHex is similar: basic but nice. The effects for each enemy are characteristic enough to know what deadly foe is being spawned, and the music fits the theme well. Overall, I was pleased with what AtomHex brings to the table in terms of presentation.

Probably the first thing you’ll notice about AtomHex is that it lets you name your own price (William Shatner would be so proud): you can pay between $5 and $20 for the game. While this method would not work well with games by larger publishers, giving users an option to show their level of enjoyment and allow for different amounts of budgetary allotment is nice. As for the features, AtomHex only has one game mode (shoot stuff) and lacks multiplayer, but it does have sixty achievements to earn (that don’t unlock anything) and online scoreboards once you get good enough at the game. As for the controls, well, I hate the controls. OK, “hate” is a strong word…I “loathe” the controls and “wish” they would “rot in Hell.” AtomHex is designed for a dual analogue gamepad, where one pad moves and the other shoots, but I dislike this method very much (can you tell?). I want an arcade shooter to have controls similar to that of Asteroids: move and shoot forward. That’s all. I don’t need two axes, one for moving and one for shooting: that’s too much thinking that gets in the way of frantic gameplay. You can use the mouse, but aiming is too inaccurate since only allows you to shoot at increments of every 30 degrees or so instead of any angle, and using the keyboard is just asking for trouble. Who came up with this unintuitive control scheme not designed for the PC? Oh, right. I don’t mind having this method as an option, but a more straightforward and intuitive control scheme (left and right arrows to turn, forward and backward to move, spacebar to shoot forward) is a feature I would like to have.

So what exactly are you shooting at? Well, there are these atoms and hexes (as you might have guessed from the game name). When one atom bonds with one hex, it starts spitting out slow-moving pods that can kill you. The more hexes, the worse the enemies: bugs that eat hexes, triangles that follow your ship, squares that shoot in four parallel directions, and things that split into five little things. If you survive to the point where six hexes are bound to an atom, you get to enter subatomic mode, which is actually easier than the base game: it involves rotating wheels of color that must be destroyed. The thing that complicates AtomHex is color: you can only destroy things that are the same color you are. The only way to change colors is to destroy the shield of a solitary hex and then collect it. This means while you are shooting red hexes, yellow ones may be gathering up strength. It’s a neat dynamic that involves a bit more thinking that simply holding down the fire button.

Every time you collect a hex, you will get some sort of powerup. These are usually score multipliers that can be stacked (a 2x and a 5x make a 10x), so you’ll want to collect hexes in quick succession in order to maximize your score. You may also gain interesting weapons like freeze bombs, triple shots, or spreading shots. The bonuses will also come towards you, so you don’t have to go all over the map in order to collect them all. AtomHex is a pretty addictive game that takes a lot of practice. In addition to the learning curve imposed by the unintuitive controls, the game’s fast pace makes death a common occurrence. Easy difficulty slows things down a bit and limits the number of colors, but it’s still pretty intense. If you are used to a game that uses this control scheme, then AtomHex’s unique chaotic gameplay will be more instinctive and ultimately more enjoyable.

AtomHex is one of those games that is addictive, but has a couple of limitations that make you want to stop playing for a short while. I just can’t get over the controls: I hate them. I’m curious if other people will have the same level of disgust that I do or if I’m just in the minority as most everyone is used to a dual analogue arcade shooter scheme. The more I played AtomHex, the less annoying the controls got, but I still don’t like them. It’s too bad, because the rest of the game is quite fun. The color matching system adds some strategic depth, and while AtomHex only comes with one game mode, trying to earn all of the achievements and earning a high score will keep people coming back. The innovative behaviors of the enemies and the progressively more difficult foes also keep the action varied and fresh. If you can get past the controls, then AtomHex delivers some intense and exciting arcade shooter action that’s unique and enjoyable.