Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mactabilis Review

Mactabilis, developed and published by Blazing Bit Games.
The Good: Truly extensive weapon customization and editing, background/foreground mechanic leads to some clever level design, online multiplayer
The Not So Good: Lacks mid-mission checkpoints, sluggish default ship movement, limited interface, new weapons are very expensive which restricts experimentation and fun, lacks online matchmaking
What say you? A capable arcade shooter highlighted by its flexible weapon editor: 5/8

One of the oldest types of computer games is the arcade shooter. New independent titles always want to add something new to the classic formula of shooting everything in sight, from a polished game experience to innovative weapons and level design. Next up is Mactabilis, which attempts to shoot its way out of France and onto your monitor, featuring an impressive custom weapon editor and non-stop action. Is Mactabilis a must-shoot entry in the genre?

Mactabilis employs a 2-D, hand-drawn aesthetic that works well enough. The game falls behind modern arcade shooters that use fancy 3-D effects or appealing retro graphics, but there is a good variety in visuals between each level. In addition, the levels are extensive enough where the relatively simplistic nature of the graphics takes a back seat to the chaos of battle. The weapon effects are well done, with satisfyingly varied beams and bullets that fly across the screen. The enemies also exhibit a pleasing variety, and some distinctive designs are found. The sound design is typical, with the sound of bullets and destruction filling your ears. However, Mactabilis has one of the most annoying grating damage sounds I’ve encountered, and I quickly learned to avoid running into things simply so I would not have to hear it again. Mactabilis also graduated from the generic techno school of arcade game background music, which adds nothing but white noise to the proceedings. Overall, Mactabilis has a basic presentation that is elevated a bit by some enemy and level diversity.

Mactabilis is an arcade shooter where you shoot things, arcade style. There are two game modes most will encounter (plus a special mode for the hardcore player): the “regular” mode with temporary ship upgrades, and an “arcade” mode where you pick up weapons on the fly instead of purchasing them between levels. Each mode features the same ten levels and three difficulty levels: easy, normal, and hardcore (where one-shot-kills rule the day). The ten levels switch between top-down and side-view perspectives, and each map has some specific restrictions or rules like removing movement to the background or various obstacles to avoid. Once you finish the ten-level set, you can restart the series with harder enemies, retaining the weapons you have purchased along the way. I found Mactabilis to quite difficult on the “normal” setting, so the lack of mid-missions saves is quite distressing: you lose all of your progress and any cash you have earned, which makes purchasing the weapons you need to beat the levels that much more difficult. You don’t have to go it alone, however, as Mactabilis features online multiplayer for two players, including both cooperative and competitive modes, but only if you know the other player’s IP address, as the game doesn’t offer any in-game matchmaking to find opponents.

Controls are typical for the genre: movement in all four directions, a fire button, and one to switch between four weapons. Movement is really sluggish unless you gather temporary speed upgrades, which makes it really difficult to avoid the various obstacles the game throws at you and take out all of the enemies to maximize your points. Your ship has shields and hull health to absorb damage, energy used to fire, and stimulants to slow down time. The weapons in Mactabilis are exceptional, as you can choose from a roster of over forty or create your own using a straightforward menu system. You can customize firing direction, speed, aiming, spacing, movement, and appearance. For example, you could create a weapon that fires three decelerating bullets forward, two backwards, one up, and one down with a slight delay at an incrementing angle that explode in a wave pattern. Pretty sweet, right? You can even combine weapons so that they fire simultaneously. You can also test out any combination before buying it, which may be your only chance to see what it can do, since the prices for weapons are prohibitively expensive. It took me two full levels (that’s a fifth of the game) to get one measly additional bullet added to my arsenal, which is far too limited in my opinion. Still, the weapon editor is pretty impressive and a whole lot of fun to mess with.

Mactabilis really takes place in two parallel planes, as you can switch between the foreground and background to avoid enemies and other objects. While this is initially really confusing, you do get used to it after a couple of levels. The game highlights objects in your plane in red, while those in the background are blurred. Still, the interface does a really poor job telling you whether you are in the front or the back, and in the heat of battle, this may mean the difference between victory and untimely death. In addition to the various obstacles you must avoid, Mactabilis features a fine assortment of enemies with different behaviors; each level does feel like a slightly different experience. Destroying those enemies quickly will unlock combos that will grant energy regeneration and the occasional powerup. As I alluded to earlier, Mactabilis is very difficult: the combination of a lot of enemies and a lot of objects, coupled with significant damage for hitting large objects, means I spent all of my play time on “easy” (I couldn’t even beat the introductory level on “normal”). Maybe if the game was more generous with handing out cash and I could afford better weapons, then the difficulty would be more appropriate, but in general most people will want to stick to “easy”, I would think.

Mactabilis has two unique things going for it: the weapon editor and front/back movement. I really, really like the weapon editor, where you can tweak to your heart’s content, adjusting almost any value ever conceived for an arcade shooter weapon. You can come up with some really crazy, unique combinations, so it’s too bad that Mactabilis really limits your imagination by providing only a modest amount of funds for destroying enemies. Beyond the fun weapon customization, the foreground/background level design works well once you get beyond the initial learning curve (and overcome the interface), and the levels are designed with multi-level navigation in mind, presenting various obstacles and complex enemies to deal with. Beyond this, though, Mactabilis is pretty generic. Your ship moves very slowly, which makes clearing each level and avoiding incoming barriers almost impossible. The two main game modes are only marginally different, and while the ten levels do offer unique challenges, they are over quickly. I found the “normal” difficulty to be too, well, difficult, and spent all of my time on “easy”. You can join a friend in online battle, but only if you know their IP address in advance. I think fans of arcade shooters will appreciate the fantastic weapon editor and level design, but the full package has just enough limitations to deter less dedicated gamers.