Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Plain Sight Review

Plain Sight, developed and published by Beatnik Games.
The Good: Simple controls, unique suicidal gameplay, multiple game modes, same-match upgrades, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Extremely fast pace, disorienting use of gravity and 3-D levels, inconsistent lock-on system, upgrades make the best players even better
What say you? This whirlwind online action game offers novel mechanics but at a breakneck pace with baffling maps: 5/8

There simply haven’t been enough games highlighting the exploits of robots. Sure, you get the occasional title like Mr. Robot, but the selection still pales in comparison to, say, World War II, or exploding pastries. Specifically, ninja robots have been left out in the cold, dragging their swords behind them in a march towards obscurity. That is until now! Plain Sight involves combat between ninja robots. In space. Why hasn’t this important genre been explored before now? I cannot fathom an explanation. Oh, did I mention that the robots must commit suicide in order to score points? Of course! How does this completely realistic simulation stack up against other online PC games?

Plain Sight features distinctive graphics. Set in space (I guess), the game has nice robot models with trails to indicate relative power at a glance. The levels don't have any textures, but they are designed well with nice detail. The game is very bright over all, from the backgrounds to the explosions and glowing paths of the competitors. I feel that the minimalist design works well. The sound design is above average: some varied robot voices and a distinctive power-up effect combine with a 40's soundtrack to evoke a neat setting. Overall, I feel that players are getting well worth their $10 in the presentation of Plain Sight.

Although the game does contain bots, Plain Sight is first and foremost a multiplayer game where sword-wielding ninja robots attempt to slice and/or dice on the way to victory. The game features a couple of gameplay modes beyond the traditional deathmatch and team deathmatch (although the former is by far the most popular online). “Lighten Up” gives the crown to the person who commits the largest suicide near a highlighted object, in a twist on domination-type matches. “Ninja! Ninja! Botzilla!” is a one-versus-all format with an overpowered antagonist. Each of the twelve game maps feature unique layouts (ships, exploded things, a cassette tape) reminiscent of the exotic maps in Demigod. Plain Sight features in-game matchmaking through a server browser and dedicated servers, although the server browser can’t filter empty or full games from the list.

Plain Sight plays a bit differently because of the use of odd objects floating in space; it reminds me of Shattered Horizon in terms of the initial learning curve and adjustment period required to become competitive. You can move in the usual four directions using the WASD keys, in addition to jumping and slamming into the ground. The exotic level designs and the subsequent gravity effects they impose makes navigating around Plain Sight a pain. Combat is accomplished by holding down the left mouse button to charge your attack and let the fur (or metal, in this case) fly. Blocking can be accomplished by holding down the right mouse button, assuming you have purchased the upgrade. Plain Sight features same-game-only upgrades that improve run speed, jump ability, detonate speed, and attack power, among others. These have the effect of making the best players at an even more distinct advantage. In order to score points, you must commit suicide and “bank” your kills (like in The Weakest Link), hopefully catching others in the explosion. If you kill and opponent, you get all of their energy, increasing the tension as you build up points.

The game automatically locks on to enemies for you, which has the double-edged effect of making the combat easier but very frustrating: the game appears to select the enemy closest to the center of your camera view, but it switches without your consent and will routinely pick people well outside of your attack range. Plain Sight would be well-served by providing space flight simulation controls in choosing the closest enemy, no necessarily the one most centered in your view, especially since the camera is unpredictable and the levels constantly threat you with disorientation. Attaining full charge also takes a long time, which contradicts the hurried speed of the game. I’ve found that success in Plain Sight is just as much luck than skill (if not more) because of the deficiencies in how combat is handled. While you can jump or dash behind objects to avoid a lock, the pace is so fast that you’ll rarely plan to do so, instead just lucking into it. The simple mechanics lack depth, and I really think there should have been a more elegant way of doing combat in this setting: the combination of speed, level design, and automatic lock-on is very unappealing. High scores can be a matter of just happening to kill a person with a lot of energy right before they explode: one game I placed second simply because I happened to kill a high-energy opponent and immediately detonated. That provided enough points to remain near the top of the leaderboard for the entire match. There’s too much luck in Plain Sight for me.

I respect Plain Sight’s use of unique mechanics, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Requiring you to commit suicide before scoring, and allowing others to steal your points beforehand with a kill, is a great mechanic that immediately makes Plain Sight distinctive. However, the pace of the game is way too fast for my tastes. The automatic lock-on system arbitrarily picks a somewhat close-by enemy to target, but since everyone moves so fast, it rarely results in being the closest or most direct enemy for long. In essence, the game picks your target for you, and this kind of restriction can be deadly. The game also chooses some distant enemies for you; if you can't kill them, why bother locking on to them? The speed of the game and lock-on system are at odds, especially because of the amount of time it takes to reach full charge. I guess the game wants you to be close and face towards an opponent while lacking a full charge, because maintaining a lock for an extended period of time is impossible due to the speed of the game and level layouts. The camera doesn’t help matters, adding to the confusion the 3-D maps and gravitational effects already present. Upgrades are available based on performance; while they thankfully do no carry over between matches, they do produce a favored situation for players that frankly don’t need more advantages. There are several game modes to choose from: deathmatch, team deathmatch, a take on domination, and a one-versus-all scenario. Additionally, Plain Sight includes twelve maps on which to play, so there is good content value. The presentation is well done and the game is only $10, but the appeal of Plain Sight depends on your tolerance for chaotic, confusing high-speed gameplay, and mine is low.