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Review: Undertow (XBLA)

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Chair Entertainment’s Undertow is an amazing little game. It’s not my favorite XBLA game ever, but it truly is something special. In a short download, a few megs, you’re getting a product that could totally have sold as a full-disk game in last generation – and been well-reviewed at that. This game isn’t for everyone, but right now it’s getting way too little attention, and in a just world that really ought to change.

As you quite probably already know (we’re late to this party), Undertow is a 2D, twin-stick shooter with 3D graphics. The basic plot is something like that awful Waterworld movie, except that after the great flood humanity went into the oceans to survive – apparently there wasn’t a square foot of dry land left. However they didn’t find the depths uninhabited (or at least that would have made for a much more boring videogame). Plot spoilers do follow, but the game is simple enough that this won’t really ruin it for you – but skip to the “Spoilers End” tag if you want to experience the game totally fresh. Undertow’s campaign mode has 3 segments with 5 chapters each; each chapter is essentially a single long-running battle with a specific objective. Spoilers Begin: The player is introduced to the story when an underwater pirate called Captain Rake attempts to take over an Iron Marines installation; captured, Rake is then recruited by the station’s sinister Admiral for a series of risky missions. These eventually pit the player (as Rake) against the people of Captain Nemo – they are apparently human, but have long lived in the ocean’s depths. Nemo’s response is attempted genocide against (former) surface-based humanity. While these two factions battle it out, a remote underwater research station, crewed by Nemo’s people, is unlucky enough to awaken the long-dormant Atlantean race, who then attempt to regain their centuries-past absolute control of the deeps. I’ll spare you the story’s ending, but suffice it to say it’s not bad. If this sounds rather detailed for an XBLA game, it is – that’s Undertow’s magic. Spoilers End.

In actual play, Undertow is roughly similar to twin-stick shooters like Geometry Wars or Super Stardust HD, but there’s rather more to it. Most campaign missions are Conquest battles, which as the name implies are about capturing and holding control points – these also allow your team to respawn (having none means you can’t respawn until you capture one). If your team holds a majority of the control points in a level (there are 5), the opposing team will lose respawn tickets (lives) steadily even if their members aren’t being shot down. If a single team holds all of an arena’s control points, the enemy team has to recapture one before they can respawn any lost fighters; needless to say if all the shut-out team’s active fighters die, they lose the match immediately. (For the record, this is the model for most of the campaign missions, though some are pure Deathmatches.) Each of the three underwater factions has a selection of 4 fighter types. Marines, the smallest and fastest, are general-purpose interceptors with medium-range rapid fire harpoon guns; their shots can destroy the torpedo-type attacks of larger craft, assuming you can hit one in flight. Dragoons, which look rather like BioShock’s Big Daddy enemies, are slower and have shorter-ranged harpoon attacks, but improved armor and shot power. They function well as point-defense for the heaviest ship type. Corsairs are small, fast submarines with medium power, long-range torpedo attacks and low armor. They’re excellent solo attack ships if played skillfully. Finally, Destroyers are huge and sluggish, with a very slow-firing main cannon that can destroy almost anything in a dead-on hit, and cause quite a lot of splash damage with the shot’s explosion. Their rate of fire makes them extremely vulnerable as solo units, which is where Dragoons come in as mentioned above. Each fighter is controlled by moving the left stick, while launching its primary attack with the right stick. Depth-charges, which come in limited supply, can be deployed with a left trigger-press; you start with 3, can hold a max of 5, and gather more from power-ups on the field. The right trigger gives your fighter a short boost. Each different ship type has a varying cooldown time on the boost, ranging from basically instant for Marines to quite a long wait for Dragoons and Destroyers. Holding down X gives a sustained boost, which prevents firing (unlike the short right-trigger turbo).

Players earn points for shooting down enemies and capturing control points (if the game type involves them). Once enough points have been obtained, each craft type can be upgraded to a maximum of level 3, improving its basic armor, speed and power stats with each step. Ther’s a neat little light-effect showing the level your ship has reached when it respawns or as it upgrades. The upgrade can be performed by tapping Y and happens wherever you are on the field – you don’t have to be at a control point to perform it. Since this refills your life, using upgrades at the right moment is often crucial. You can also change ships while upgrading, again regardless of location. About control points – when at one controlled by your team, you can change unit-types at any time by pressing a direction on the D-pad and tapping A to confirm. Since needs will change depending on how your team is faring at the time, mid-battle ship changes are a necessity – making it good to upgrade more than one type of unit each fight. Marines are great for point defense, while Corsairs and Destroyer/Dragoon combos do well at capturing points, and so forth. All ships also regenerate life if not damaged for a brief time, making the action that much more frantic if you’re fighting to stay alive.

I should mention the speed. This is a fast game – intimidatingly so at first. Undertow’s camera also defaults to minimum zoom, which can make the action very chaotic and hard to follow until you have a bit of a feel for it. The wide camera angle seems to be in compensation for having no radar whatsoever. You can zoom the view in several increments, and I personally recommend bringing it in at least one; this makes following the brief, intense exchange a little easier. At its default Normal difficulty, Undertow’s campaign will present a reasonable challenge for most gamers; some may even opt for the available Easy mode. Needless to say in online battle the game’s speed and intensity can be almost nerve-wracking at times. Expect to die, a lot – it’s part of the game. That said, a little time and experience will see players using sustained boost and other tricks to stay alive longer. There are also a range of powerups in every battle zone, granting the predictable bonuses; limited shields, temporary speed or shot-power boosts, depth-charge reloads or health recovery. The nine levels themselves are also fairly large and generally well-designed; each control point is clearly recognizable by its lit areas, which correspond to the team controlling it at that moment (or dark if no-one does). Choke-points, hidden powerups and one-way areas are all to be found here, granting the shooting action more depth than you’d think at first (the pun is inevitable, but the term is deserved). Some of the scenery can obstruct your viewpoint, but usually you’ll be moving around fast enough that it’s not a deal-breaker.

Visually Undertow is by and large quite impressive. During campaign cutscenes, the XBLA limitations on texture memory show up in the highly simplistic character models used, but in actual battle the graphics are generally very creditable. Bubble effects abound, and well-done explosions signal the destruction of any larger fighter type or a depth-charge’s detonation. Battle sounds are competent for the task, though there’s not a note of music to be heard (let’s hear it for custom soundtracks – I can actually appreciate the developers for focusing more energy on the graphics and gameplay and letting players make their own choices here). Voice over in the campaign cutscenes varies between surprisingly good and unfortunately bad, but there’s little enough of it that it never wears out its welcome. One last very cool note about the campaign is that it can be played co-operatively with a friend via either system link or over Live.

Game features and Achievements deserve note, simply because like the rest of the production they are refreshingly well-done. As stated, the campaign is co-op compatible, and the VS modes can also be played locally as well as over Live- this is a very welcome addition and one other developers should take note of. Mixed in among the 200 points of Achievements are a couple of Gamer Pictures; while that might seem trivial, the fact that a developer took the trouble to include them with an Arcade game is very nice. You’ll generally note that the production values for Undertow are impressive across the board.

It’s my thinking that a game like this should be graded on three essential attributes. First, does it set out to do something worthwhile; second, does it do that thing well; and third, is the overall experience fun. Undertow manages a resounding Yes to all three questions. However, the fast and furious action will be off-putting to some players, so do try the demo first. Sadly, right now it’s nearly impossible to find much Arcade competition on Undertow; the few players who adopted the game at launch appear to have moved on to hunt Gamerscore elsewhere. This leaves a quality game lying fallow, and a remarkably talented development studio not getting all the recognition they deserve. Undertow is definitely worth $10, if it’s the kind of game you can enjoy. I highly recommend you give it a chance, and stick with it past the first couple of deaths. This is a game that can really grow on you, and the talented team that made it happen deserves praise.

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