I’ve always been a big fan of robots. From an early age I was immersed in a culture of Usborne books, Tomy-bots (I’m still working on a plausible sounding reason to spend £200 on this little guy), Asimov’s Laws, Capsela, Kryten, Marvin and Nono. (Although no Transformers, oddly.) Aged six I even won a prize in a fancy dress contest for flailing around in a cardboard robot suit that had more effort spent on tinfoil dials and buttons than adequate eyeholes. (NSJ, yeah?)
As a result, any game featuring robots is likely to pique my interest, especially when they’re old-skool, LEDs-for-eyes, bleep-bloop retro-futuristic ‘bots of the sort Maggie Philbin had convinced us would be moving in next door by 1990.
Droid Assault, as the title suggests, features dozens of the blighters (48 distinct varieties in fact), who have quite stereotypically run amok in the warehouses and factories of their creator, Omni Corp. The player is tasked with bringing the situation under control by destroying or capturing all the droids on each level. The basic framework is lifted from the C64 game Paradroid, although afforded a more action-oriented slant thanks to the implementation of mouse aiming and cursor key movement controls.
Droids are captured by getting a bead on them and snaring them with a transfer beam (right mouse button) for a couple of seconds. Capturing new droids remains an important goal throughout the game as droids can only take so much damage (and repair powerups are rare) and as the game progresses new varieties appear equipped with better armour, weapons and AI.
Capturing droids is dependent on a resource called capture points, one of which is awarded for every 1,000 points scored. This introduces an incentive to risk trying to kill multiple droids in quick succession, as a score multiplier kicks in for chaining kills.
This system lets the player experiment with a whole range of strategic options: blow all their points on a single top-of-the-line droid, or grab a few cheaper patrol units to provide covering fire? Frequently it also results in desperate games of cat and mouse when down to the last droid with a sliver of health, trying to make enough clean kills to be able to afford a new metal body. Excessive greed can quickly become a player’s undoing if they get into the habit of weaving through crowds of droids in the hope that a better one is round the corner.
Towards the second half of the game, it becomes clear that a coherent strategy (as well as unwavering reflexes and a not insignificant amount of luck) is needed to make progress. Droids can accumulate a number of potentially crucial weapon and armour upgrades (overdrive, bouncy bullets and sharp bullets – which can travel through walls – being particularly powerful), but as health tends to be in short supply, it seems wise to designate less invested-in droids to scouting new areas and making captures, keeping the favoured ones in reserve for boss battles and siege-like Danger Stages.
While the difficulty level can be ruthless, at no time does it feel unfair. The player is constantly reminded that they are potentially much more effective at piloting the droids than the enemy AI, and that inattentiveness, panic or poor judgment can be more immediately lethal than massed enemy firepower.
The game’s presentation is almost note-perfect. The blocky neo-retro art style is inherently satisfying and makes it easy to distinguish between the many flavours of droids in the heat of battle. The animation and sound design also help to give the droids personality. There’s also quite a lot of humour in the game, with the descriptions for each droid riffing on Robocop, Warhammer 40k, Douglas Adams and even Willo the Wisp, and some rather silly tannoy announcements.
There are some minor issues with the graphics. The birds-eye view makes it occasionally difficult to tell if an obstacle is a solid wall or a pit (and therefore whether it will block shots and hovering droids). The particle effect for the flamethrower looks out of place, and doesn’t match the blockier style used for objects that have been set on fire, sparks and smoke.
Even more pedantic, the way that captured droids all switch to the same colour scheme (over-riding their normal colours, which indicate which tier they belong to) can sometimes make it difficult to quickly identify which ones on your team are the most valuable. (Likewise, there’s nothing to indicate which weapon each droid has without firing it, which isn’t always desirable in an enclosed space.) As I said, minor issues.
Droid Assault is not (and needn’t be) a staggeringly ambitious game. The mechanics are fleshed out enough for it not to feel like a student project or simple stylistic exercise, and it’s cheap enough (£5.82 inc. VAT) to offset the valid criticism that there isn’t any content beyond the (long, challenging and eminently replayable) single player campaign.
It fits perfectly into the downloadable PC game niche, being just a mite too small for traditional retail, and too good (and dependent on nice graphics and robust IO) to be implemented in clumsy Flash. (I was actually going to review a vaguely similar Flash game, Robokill, before I played Droid Assault, but won’t bother now as Droid Assault utterly kicks its teeth in. Sorry Robokill guys!)
As I see it, the game’s greatest weakness is its external presentation. Based on screenshots I can imagine the game being dismissed by many as just another nostalgic retro game in the vein of PomPom, Llamasoft or Digital Eclipse’s typical output. The game’s ultra-generic title (almost as bad as Orcs and Elves) probably isn’t helping matters either. (It’s also worth noting that the word ‘droid’ in the title could incur the wrath of George Lucas.)
The game doesn’t seem to have generated anywhere near as much buzz as recent highly visible indie titles such as Braid and World of Goo, or even as (far less interesting) one-joke gimmick games such as …Burn the Rope or Super Jill Off.
This is a great shame, as Droid Assault is a truly fantastic little game, and easily one of the best I’ve played this year. I hope that many people buy it and give it good word of mouth, so that PuppyGames are able to make more titles of this quality for the PC, and perhaps consoles as well. Not because larger-scale projects are necessarily more valid as creative work, but because talent like this deserves the broadest possible audience and access to resources adequate to realise their ideas.