Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Creeper World Review

Creeper World, developed and published by Knuckle Cracker.
The Good: Distinctive enemy, varied map designs with a unique use of elevation, online score list, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Limited building options promote repetition, poor tutorial, can be frustratingly difficult
What say you? A different approach in the tower defense strategy genre delivers some memorable gameplay: 6/8

As the U.S. launches a rocket to crash into the moon to search for water, it makes you wonder: what will happen if the human race comes into contact with an alien race? My guess is that it will somehow involve Jodie Foster. According to the developer behind Creeper World, the alien force will be an ever-expanding liquid bent on consumption of all life. Sounds neat! And messy! In Creeper World, you must advance the last floating human city from planet to planet through a series of warp gates, fending off the evil ooze along the way. How will this twist on the tower defense deliver the strategy?

Creeper World is presented entirely on a two dimensional map, and it's not exactly on the cutting-edge of graphics. All of the units are simple static shapes and there are very few effects in the game: just a handful of weapons and some minor explosions. The fluid-like enemy is a blue shading that slowly darkens as it fills in the crevices of the map: not exactly an imposing force. The very simple graphics, however, do not really hinder the gameplay, and as long as you approach the game as a independent title, then you won't be outstandingly disappointed. The sound design is better thanks to the spooky music that I quite enjoyed, though the sound effects are, like the graphics, minimal at best. Even independent titles can look a lot better than what Creeper World brings to the table (example).

In Creeper World, you are fighting off a magic blue liquid, which isn’t as much magical as it is deadly and will kill you dead. The last human city is warping between cities, hoping each time that the next leap will be the leap home. This takes place over a twenty-level story mode where you encounter increasingly more difficult odds. In addition, you are given five sets of five conquest levels (which makes for approximately twenty five more) and ten special ops missions. This is a good amount of content, and the length of some of the missions will keep you busy for a while. In addition, a map editor is currently in beta (it’s probably out by the time you read this) that will extend the life of Creeper World even further. Sadly, learning Creeper World can be a bit of a chore, as the game lacks a manual and the in-game tutorials do a very poor job explaining how some of the mechanics work, especially those dealing with energy (like how it is specifically produced, used, and what the “cost” for each building is). It’s obvious most people are “getting it,” as the online scoreboard are populated with quick times (score seems to be indirectly proportional to the amount of time spent to clear a level) from across the globe. This motivation technique certainly makes up for the lack of any in-game multiplayer features, which, frankly, are out of place in a traditionally single-player genre. Finally, Creeper World works on both Windows and Macintosh systems, so score one for unity!

Each game of Creeper World follows the same general path to survival and victory. First, you must build collectors to (surprise!) collect energy that is requires to produce new buildings and weapons. It is important to manage energy use: if you have a negative balance of production and consumption, your residents begin to starve and will essentially succumb to sweet, sweet death. Secondly, you will need to construct weapons to fight back the incoming blue liquid of doom. There are five weapons to choose from that are effective against different enemy types, from simple lasers to missiles. You also have access to relays for reaching tough areas, storage for excess energy, speeding up transmissions along your defensive network, and reactors for collecting energy in exotic locations. In the story mode, you must also collect technology to unlock new structures; it’s nice that the developers have incorporated the gameplay mechanic into acquiring new weapons, instead of using some simple research model. Disappointing is the limited suite of structures at your disposal: only ten components means that a lot of your designs will share a similar strategy, increasing the sense of repetition as you progress through the game.

Creeper World is similar to the original Perimeter (not the crap sequels) where all buildings have to be connected in order to function. This is the fundamental crux of the game: your designs must radiate out from your home city, and success in the game is predicated on the efficiency of your designs. Energy and ammunition for structures is transmitted from the home city outwards, so if your newest turrets and collectors are far from your base, it’ll take a while to become constructed. This is where the free-form levels really work for the benefit of Creeper World: you are never shepherded down a single path towards victory, as is common in so many tower defense games with fixed turret placements. The map design makes or breaks a game like this, and, for the most part, they make. The levels use elevation to great effect: since the liquid enemy will flow like, well, a liquid, you can predict their path based on the terrain and plan accordingly. I like how Creeper World uses the enemy behavior in concert with the map designs: you can subtly nudge the direction of flow with your defensive weapons, providing a safer passage for your tower layouts. Despite your limited weapon options, you can deactivate or disarm weapons to conserve energy for when you need to beat back the blue liquid of doom; it’s a small amount of annoying micromanagement, but nothing that’s too terribly tedious. Creeper World certainly becomes more interesting when all weapons are available, but since individual weapons do not upgrade, you are stuck with only five turrets to play with. Creeper World is all about making efficient designs, reducing the amount of time required to move resources to the front where you are building new stuff. You have to move blasters as you are building and time things correctly in order to push the creeper back enough to make more room, which is quite difficult to do correctly. It’s easier to build blasters back near the base, fill them with ammo, and then move them up front to dispose of the enemy properly.

Creeper World starts with a classic tower defense game and takes the boring, linear gameplay out, replacing it with freedom to design any number of strategic layouts to repel the incoming blue liquid of doom. This is the clear strength of the game: the level designs allow for non-linear solutions, taking advantage of the enemy’s unique characteristics by featuring varied terrain that requires different approaches. Creeper World features about fifty different layouts, and the impending level editor means regular folk like you and me can soon make their own nefarious creations. While there isn’t competitive play on the same level, Creeper World does feature an extensive online leaderboard so that you can see just how incompetent you really are. Unfortunately, Creeper World falls short in a couple of areas. First, despite the grand amount of freedom the game allows, you do not have a great assortment of tools in which to build with: only five weapons and only five nodes means that most of your layouts will have the same overall flavor. The only real variety is in the maps, which are admittedly diverse, but a larger number of tools would serve to further expand the strategy of Creeper World. Also, the game can be quite difficult to the point of annoyance: figuring out how to make a solution is not hard, but efficiently moving your turrets to part a new path can require some advanced dexterity. Still, Creeper World does deliver some strategy goodness thanks to the level design and overall unique approach to the tower defense game.