Thursday, July 09, 2009

Altitude Review

Altitude, developed and published by Nimbly Games.
The Good: Deceivingly strategic gameplay, high-level planes and items are not overly superior, persistent ranks and unlocks keep you motivated, straightforward controls, custom map creation, easy to find online matches, cross-platform
The Not So Good: Only two game modes, fast pace reduces tactics and planning, short respawn times lessen penalty for death
What say you? A 2-D flying action game with a satisfying amount of gameplay depth: 7/8

Altitude, n.: A state of mind or a feeling. Wait, what does that have to do with airplanes? Oh, sorry, wrong word. Altitude, n.: The height of a thing above a reference level. That's more like it. Yes, to fly! The dream of man and flightless bird alike! Yeah, I've used that quote before, but I like it, so back off, Negative Nancy! While most PC games involving planes tend to fall on the simulation side of things, Altitude takes its place squarely in the arcade realm. This is an action game that just happens to involve planes, as you pilot your way around 2-D levels in search of enemy hardware. That's right, I said 2-D, what of it? That retro charm will most certainly make Altitude easier to navigate and support the fast-paced gameplay of pure destruction we all desire. How does it all come together?

Remember when I said that Altitude was a 2-D game? You know, like in the preceding paragraph. Well, the graphics are in 2-D as well, but they look good for what I would consider to be a casual game. The in-game elements have a nice hand-drawn feel to them and they are animated enough for the fast-paced action of the title. Explosions are dramatic and you can visually ascertain the health of an enemy plane, an important interface feature in a game as frenetic as this. The game does not have incorporate 3-D graphics on a 2-D plane (I think that's a pun) like games such as Monster Trucks Nitro, but that's OK with me. The game's levels offer up some visual variety, and since you can create your own, anything you can create with the game's editor is fair game. As for the sound, there is some generic main menu music and the typical assortment of sounds associated with in-game events: nothing spectacular here. Overall, Altitude does a decent enough job in the graphics department and falls within the acceptable realm for casual gaming.

A 2-D flying action game, Altitude is a multiplayer game, but you can do some training missions and skirmish matches against the AI offline. My first impressions of the computer opponents were not positive: they routinely flew around in circles and rarely put up a reasonable fight unless they are in large numbers. But then I figured out that they were set to "easy," and increasing their intelligence to "expert" resulted in a capable and challenging opponent that could even successfully navigate the team-based mode. The difficulty settings affect the maximum speed, fire power, and accuracy of the computer opponents, and higher settings make for a deadly opponent indeed. Man, and I had this long negative rant about the AI all written out, too. Experience points earned against the AI carry over to the online mode; since you could easily exploit the dumb "easy" AI to rack up experience, I would like to see the XP earned against computer opponents scale according to difficulty. In any event, the offline modes provide good training for the meat of the game: online play. It's trivially easy to join an online game through the browser and network performance is lag free on the plentiful low-ping servers. There are only two game types to choose from: free for all deathmatch and a team-based destruction mode that acts like capture the flag, where you must carry a bomb and drop it on the enemy base. There is room for many more modes inspired by first person shooters: domination, assault, team deathmatch, onslaught, conquest, and whatever else you decide to plagiarize from Unreal Tournament. Only having two modes introduces a good amount of repetition once you have played the game for a significant amount of time. You can edit your own levels, and the editor is pretty intuitive: if you know how to use Paint, you are good to go as most everything is point-and-draw (although the new Paint in Windows 7 melts my brain with confusion). Custom maps are downloaded automatically: a nice feature. Most severs are populated with highly skilled players that have been playing since the game was released; this is discouraging for novices and it would be nice to have more low-level-players-only servers (I only saw one and it was empty). Lastly, I should mention that Altitude is available for all three major PC operating systems: Macintosh, Linux, and a little niche product called Windows.

There are five planes to choose from once you play enough and unlock them all, and they are different in terms of health, speed, agility, and weaponry. These subtle changes have a dramatic effect on how you play with each of them, and it adds significant depth to the game as a whole. You start out with the quick Loopy, and soon unlock the agile Bomber, the powerful Explodet, the balanced Biplane, and the tricky Miranda. Controlling these planes uses the arrow keys for turning and speed and the “F,” “D,” and “S” keys for primary, secondary, and pick-up weapons respectively. It's pretty easy to keep your fingers on these keys and hitting the correct control becomes intuitive after a couple of rounds. Since you are controlling planes, you move faster when moving downwards, and you have to worry about stalling. In addition, you are equipped with an afterburner to get out of those sticky situations. As you progress through the game, you will unlock perks, which are patterned (stolen) after the system used in Call of Duty. You can choose three upgrades at once: one for weapons , one for heath and speed, and one for damage and energy. The weapon ones are plane-specific, such as bombs or mines, while the remaining two are the same five selections for all planes. The perks and the planes are well balanced across all experience levels and more seasoned players are not at an advantage just because they have access to “better” items. You level up quickly early on, earning points for kills, assists, and end-game achievements, but new items unlock more slowly as you progress through the game. You can also pick up helpful items on the battlefield: shields, walls, powerful missiles, and health.

The gameplay in Altitude is decidedly fast paced, which comes with advantages and disadvantages. The frantic action means it's only seconds until you are engaged in mortal combat, and the fast respawn times put you back into the game quickly. However, tactically-minded gamers such as myself will bemoan the emphasis on reflexes rather than planning and strategy. Now, I like “twitch” games like Unreal Tournament as much as the next guy, but it seems like you are just mashing buttons as quickly as possible once the engagement commences. Now, there is definitely some strategy involved deciding the order to use your plane's capabilities, so you can go into battle with a plan in place. Dying in Altitude is a trivial affair because of the aforementioned short respawn times. You do get a bonus for racking up kills between deaths, providing increased health, speed, and damage, but the effects are not significant enough to retreat back to base when significantly injured. Perhaps more game modes or maps that put an emphasis on surviving or a server option would make pilots advance more carefully. You could argue that more a cautious approach would oppose the overall pace of the game, though, so it's really just a matter of personal preference. In short (too late!), if you prefer a quickened tempo, then Altitude will not disappoint.

Altitude offers up some satisfying fast-paced combat in the skies (or in a cave, depending on the map). Despite the frenzied action, there is a nice amount of depth since each of the game's five planes has a different strategy. The perks that can be unlocked for each plane increases the amount of tactical customization. All of this planning almost goes down the drain since the game is typically a quick chaotic mess of rapid respawning, and I think this design choice ultimately limits the game to “generally amusing.” Altitude comes with one limitation that restrict its long-term appeal: only two game modes. This is countered by the core game being very enjoyable, assuming that you aren't playing on an unbalanced server populated by veteran players. Being able to easily create your own maps is a great feature, and hippies will love that Altitude is available for both Macintosh and Linux in addition to Windows. The controls are easy to learn and there are some subtle aspects to the mechanics, like stalling, afterburners, and survival granting bonuses. Whether the game will appeal to you depends on whether or not you like fast games; you can always the demo and find out for yourself (you could have saved yourself a significant amount of reading that way!). Personally? I like it and it gets a recommendation to fans of accelerated multiplayer action.