Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Madballs in...Babo:Invasion Review

Madballs in...Babo:Invasion, developed and published by Playbrains.
The Good: Invasion mode allows for turn-based map creation online, fun cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes
The Not So Good: Unlimited ammunition and no reloading makes shooting completely trivial, have to unlock everything for use in campaign and multiplayer, superficial weapon-armor counter system, imprecise movement, interface indicates enemy weapon resistance poorly, uninspired level design, can't save progress mid-mission, invasion editor not extended to other modes, poor sound design
What say you? Generic, mindless action and many other problems overshadow a couple of nice features: 4/8

Remember Madballs? No? Here, go watch this. I can wait.

Still nothing? You are hopeless, then. Anyways, the best way to capitalize off an obscure fad from the 80's is through a computer game, and that's exactly what we have with Madballs in...Babo:Invasion. In this strangely-titled and punctuation-heavy action game, you control a Madball as it rolls around levels, shooting enemy Madballs along the way in an orgy of death. Sounds plausible enough to me! Does Madballs in...Babo:Invasion differentiate itself from the pack with some unique gameplay features?

The graphics of Madballs in...Babo:Invasion are low budget through and through. While the Madballs themselves are well designed and look just like their real-life counterparts thanks to some detailed textures, the environments in which they roll suffer from poor, washed-out details and repetitive design. They do not invoke any sense of plausibility, only consisting of very obvious platforms and pathways towards the end of the level. I’m not expecting a game that features Madballs equipped with guns to be realistic, per se, but some less obvious paths would be nice. Some of the weapon effects are nice, and the death sequences are violent enough for my tastes. The sound design is one of the low points of the game,: subtle and generic music with only a handful of voice over work. Each character (friendly and enemy) has only one phrase they will repeat over and over again, and the in-game dialogue (if you can call it that) also consists of one line of voice, no matter how long the text might be. You are certainly not going to play Madballs in...Babo:Invasion for the production values.

The best part about Madballs in...Babo:Invasion is the extensive features, starting with the relatively lengthy campaign. With each individual mission clocking in at around 30 minutes, the ten-level campaign will last about five hours, acceptable content for a $10 game. You can’t actually lose the game, as you will always respawn at the previous checkpoint and enemies stay dead, making it just a matter of time before you successfully destroy them all. The main problem with the campaign is the lack of a save feature: the levels are long enough where not being able to save anywhere is a real problem. If you quit in the middle of a level, be prepared to start all over, even if you have passed multiple checkpoints along the way. The campaign also suffers from very linear level designs designed to keep you going along one path, save for the occasional side track for bonus points. The game is action-oriented, but there are plenty of throw-a-switch puzzles and precarious cliffs to navigate through, both of which are annoying. You can go back and replay any level you have finished; maps contain things that are initially unlocked (even the first level), so there is a reason to go back to previously conquered locales. The tutorial level is drawn-out and quite superficial, as the game’s mechanics and controls are easy enough to learn reading the game’s menus. I am quite disappointed in the fact that you have to unlock almost everything in the game, from the weapons to the characters. You are even restricted in multiplayer: if you have not completed enough of the single player campaign, be prepared to be at a distinct tactical disadvantage once you venture online. The copious amount of achievements Madballs in...Babo:Invasion has does not offset the limitations of the campaign and the use of locked content.

Multiplayer offerings of Madballs in...Babo:Invasion are fairly robust. You can play any of the ten single player missions cooperatively online. There are also a wide selection of competitive modes, like deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and base attack. The most unique aspect of Madballs in...Babo:Invasion is the invasion mode. Here, teams actually design the level right before the game begins by placing tiles. After the map is made, teams place their base and a couple of upgradable power nodes that can be used for healing and defense. It’s a really interesting mini-game that has some strategic depth, setting up defenses and funneling the enemy down death traps. It’s too bad that the invasion mode is essentially wasted in an otherwise sub-par game. The editing features are not used in any other part of the game, for some reason: you cannot create your own levels for single player or capture the flag events, even though the capability is obviously there. You can choose between five character classes that alter their stats: assault, heavy, support, flyer, and runner. You cannot fully customize the classes, though. Finally, bots are not available for multiplayer matches, so you must find actual humans to compete against.

Combat in Madballs in...Babo:Invasion involves moving and shooting. You will eventually have access to ten weapons that are variations upon classic action hardware: rifles, shotguns, missile launchers, sniper rifles, railguns, et cetera. Each weapon has two modes covering the four attack types in the game: impact, energy, heat, and cold. You will need to switch to a mode that the current enemy is susceptible towards in order to maximize your damage. This is similar to the system used in Project Aftermath, though the system is less elegant here because the interface does a terrible job clearing showing the enemy strengths. Really, the weapon mode switching is a gimmick as all it takes is a simple button press to switch weapons. Because Madballs in...Babo:Invasion only allows you to carry one weapon at a time, it is partially luck in choosing the right weapon before the next wave of enemies arrives. I favor skill over luck, so the weapon system in Madballs in...Babo:Invasion is less than great. The game does not allow you to switch weapons often enough, a strategic hallmark of all good shooters. There is, of course, a plentiful supply of weapons scattered around each level that you can’t use because they are not unlocked yet. You will always shoot forward, and the game automatically engages enemies above and below you. The enemies have very basic AI: while there are some varied behaviors (some are turrets, some burrow below the ground), they will always head straight towards you once spotted. The level designs do have some elements of cover available for somewhat interesting encounters, but the enemy units do not use them at all, making the combat in Madballs in...Babo:Invasion that much less enjoyable. In addition to the basic weapons, you have access to grenades and special abilities that are specific to each character (which, of course, must be unlocked). Movement in Madballs in...Babo:Invasion is not as crisp as I would have liked, and the imprecise movement is not designed for the amount of platform maneuvering the game has to offer. I routinely fell off ledges, requiring either a short detour or complete restart. I have no problem with platform gaming, but the controls must be precise enough to actually make the platform elements playable.

Madballs in...Babo:Invasion comes with one unique multiplayer game mode, but it’s lacking in every other area. The single player campaign is quite lengthy, though repetitive and very linear. Madballs in...Babo:Invasion commit the unforgivable sin of disabling saves during a level: you must complete each level in one sitting, a significant problem for people with a life that might not have a half-hour to dedicate without interruptions. Madballs in...Babo:Invasion also has almost everything initially locked: weapons, characters, and levels. This extends to the multiplayer portion of the game as well: people who have completed single player missions will be at an advantage in multiplayer games with access to a wider array of weapons and characters, a “feature” I really despise. Achievements are fine, but locking content from new users is stupid. While most of the multiplayer modes are seen in other games (deathmatch, capture the flag), the invasion mode really stands out as unique: teams design the map before the game starts, taking turns placing tiles. It’s a really neat dynamic that almost makes Madballs in...Babo:Invasion worth playing, but not quite. Madballs in...Babo:Invasion also comes with a comprehensive suite of achievements for those striving for online notoriety. Madballs in...Babo:Invasion really fails when it comes to the actual gameplay experience. The problems are two-fold: imprecise handling makes the plentiful platform sequences really exasperating, and the combat involves absolutely no strategy whatsoever. Since weapons have unlimited ammunition and do not require reloading, you can simply hold down the fire button from the beginning to the end of a level and attain a high score. The weapon that fires the fastest with the correct ammunition is the one to stick with for the entire game. Madballs in...Babo:Invasion attempts to introduce some strategy with enemy strengths and weaknesses, but it’s a simple button press to switch firing modes and dispose of the enemy quickly. Robotic enemy AI with predictable spawn locations don’t help matters; I was quite literally bored with Madballs in...Babo:Invasion five minutes in, and struggled to have the resolve to continue the game (who said reviewing games was easy?). The sound and the graphics also lack detail, making for a disappointing overall experience. I wonder how far along in the development of this game the Madballs license was acquired; the game uses the likenesses, but it doesn’t incorporate some level of unique gameplay that is ball-related to make a completely distinctive game. Overall, the positive features of Madballs in...Babo:Invasion are wasted on derivative, bland, and unbalanced gameplay.