The Early Access Report: Frozen Endzone, Vertiginous Golf and Melody's Escape
Welcome to the early access report, a regular round-up looking at the most interesting early access games of the moment. Here we try new alphas and revisit old ones to separate the promising gems from the bug-ravaged time wasters.
Major sports are juggernauts and tend to not change all that much. That's probably why rugby hasn't replaced the ball with an angry goose, and why darts haven't instigated see-saws, despite my many emails. We need /real/ games for that (nor real real games - there's a difference), and this time on Early Access I've played alternative takes on American Football, Golf, and Running* in Frozen Endzone, Vertiginous Golf, and Melody's Escape.
Frozen Endzone takes the turn-based fun of Frozen Synapse and makes it bigger, bolder, and adds robots who conform to your every tactical whim. Each turn is drafted right on the screen, with you pulling out a direction arrow from the base of each player, creating a sketch for them to follow. Each movement can be tested out, enabling you to run potential plays over and over, tightening up each move to perfection: you can throw, pass, block, pause, and test out fakes alongside what you imagine your opponent will do, before committing the turn and waiting for their response.
Of course, it never goes smoothly. Part of that is the robots now have stats, enabling you to fiddle with interception, speed, and power levels for individual players, so it's never a level playing field (unless you ensure it is in the options, but more on that later). Depending on how well planned the opposition's movement is, they could intercept a pass, block a run, even swipe the ball from the carrier's mitts, turning your carefully planned attack into a clumsy defence. Plans crumble and only panic remains in their place. It's always there as well: the ease of networking in Frozen Endzone, where the community will challenge anyone, means you'll be tossing your balls with plenty of strangers. Challenges pile up in the corner of the screen, each demanding a small amount of attention before committing to whatever Robotic Hail Mary you can muster. The games are relatively short as well: mostly only taking a few seconds to re-watch, but they can be spread out over hours and days as the turns sync around your schedule.
It is a great Early Access release: it's open-ended, addictive, and there's multiple modes to pre-select, allowing for you to play with random or balanced player stats, as well as custom modes with a pile of options to fiddle. You can name your own team and players and build your own arenas. And when you buy in, you'll get an additional copy to give to a friend. It's /already/ a good game.
If Bioshock Infinite's crazy golf course floated off on its own, avoiding all the unpleasantness and set-up a small business in the sky with a Government grant, you'd have Vertiginous Golf. It is the sky-based Steampunk golf game that's always been at the back of everybody's mind.
It's a gimmick that it wears well: you don't just start a game of Vertiginous Golf, but walk into a shop on a rainy day, sit down in a pew, and are mind-zapped into the stratosphere to collect your clubs. Up there the game of golf takes on a different shape: floating platforms are detailed with carpets, gramophones; clouds mist up the sky; and torturous golf puzzles hang in front of you. To look around the holes, you possess the body of a little hummingbird who you can use to plan shortcuts. Even the ball is made up of a lattice of brass.
Thee challenge is to keep the ball on the course: rotating wedges that throw it off at odd angles are my nemesis, but there are lumpy carpets that mess your aim up, ramps, etc. Each hole has a number of sub-holes that lead to short-cuts that can only be used if you're under par, otherwise they block off and you're left to take on the puzzle.
It's fun stuff: the difficulty ramps up rather quickly, but you have an aftertouch that allows you to swoop the ball around, and there's limited rewind function if you're really stuck. The levels are gorgeous puzzles that do challenge your ability to perfectly plonk a ball. That said, there's still work that needs to be done. It's easy to get lost in the rolling carpets and confusing layout of some of the holes, even with the controllable bird providing an overview. The ball exudes an incredibly annoying electrical buzz that meant I had to turn the sound effects off, and the controls could do with being tightened. There's a little bit of drift. I'd also like an FOV slider, because it's uncomfortably tight right now and there's no good reason for it to be locked down in a golf game.
Can I recommend at this time? There's only two short courses, but each hole is so involved and tricky that you'll get a lot more out of it than a normal golf game with a similar number of holes. There's more to come, with multiplayer and level editors extending the game. For £12? It's just about worth it.
I can't say the same for Melody's Escape, sadly. It's an combination of an endless runner and whatever-the-hell-you-call-a-game-that-generates-levels-out-of-your-music. You plug in a song, which in my case will forever always be Biology by Girls Aloud, and your character starts sprinting along. Beats and peaks in the song deliver the obstacles: you'll jump, duck, slide, even fly to the beat of your music.
But it's an incredibly slight experience at the moment. The levels aren't all that interesting, really: Audiosurf worked because it created undulating neon snakes with bright backgrounds to frame your race; Melody's Escape is a mostly a series of barely interesting levels that you only ever see a small chunk of. I like the character model, but the rest is sparse. It's also a strangely unbalanced game, with a huge difficulty spike between the first two difficulty modes: 'relaxing' and 'medium' are poles apart when it comes to the challenge. You can fiddle with it, but it really needs to be looked at. So there's not much here at the moment that I think justifies your money. Not yet, anyway.
Is it worth playing right now?
Frozen Endzone: Yes
Vertiginous Golf: Yes
Melody's Escape: No
*Admittedly a stretch.