['Battle Klaxon' is a monthly column where traveling game journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave, but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This month: robot ballet in PC indie multiplayer game Plain Sight.]
I've only lived with another obsessive gamer once in my life, which was a funny if slightly regrettable experience. We owned a Tefal Toast n Egg machine
, for one thing, and while our surround-sound system looked impressive, our tiny living room rendered the audio like having your head in a bath while four men shouted at you instead of just one.
Then there was the sofa situation. The bogus machinations of life meant we not only had three sofas in a flat the size of an average American toilet, but also that they weren't ours to throw away. When we first moved in we spent what felt like 48 hours playing a kind of sliding block puzzle before finally giving up and wedging one of them in the hallway like a switch in a circuit diagram. Whenever one of us wanted to get into our respective bedroom we had to shift the couch to barricade the other's door.
And so began the passive-aggressive behaviour that caused us to spend the entire winter looking for something we could play competitively. Problem was, we both wanted something that would let us look cool while we fought. That was all. But if whatever game we tried didn't look dumb to begin with then it certainly lost its cool the moment we watched YouTube videos of high level play. The closest we ever got to Our Game was the obscenely smooth and cinematic battles of Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm,
but that just didn't grip us mechanically.
You'd think that video games would be better at presenting you with fights that look beautiful or at least affecting, since on bad days it feels like idealised combat is all games ever think about. But what do we get? The furious bunnyhopping of online FPSes. Combos in fighting games lashing out at nothing but air long after the opponent's been knocked down. Men unflinchingly taking bullets like so much bad news. And, y'know, this stuff.
But we also get the occasional spurt of hope. Recently I've been playing the drop-dead gorgeous Plain Sight
by indie devs Beatnik Games, a multiplayer game that answers the question of "How cool can robot combat look?" with "This cool. You might want to stand back a bit. No, further than that."
If you divide an action game's choreography into 'Player movement' and 'Player conflict', well, Plain Sight
has a unique trick for keeping each of those as pretty and smooth as can be.
'Player movement' is a trip. Your robot in Plain Sight
is an ordinary fella who can run, jump and dash with ease, but not necessarily with grace. Where grace comes in is that gravity in Plain Sight
is not the stern law you might expect. This is more like Gravity Gone Wild. Instead of tugging you down towards a set plane, gravity pulls you towards the nearest available surface.
Spend a minute just getting your head around that. If you jump off a flat platform in Plain Sight
, you'll be pulled in an arc and up standing on the reverse side. Jump a little harder, you might overshoot the reverse side and end up landing back where you jumped from. Jump hard enough and keep dashing horizontally through the air, you'll end up orbiting that platform. Or if you're standing on the inside of a tube, you can wander all the way around it like a slow-motion Sonic the Hedgehog.
Helping you to keep your bearings is the fact that everyone's robot leaves behind a glowing neon trail, and whichever surface is acting as your 'ground' glows like strip lighting. Can you picture this in your head? If so, you're smiling, right? You'd have to be a monster not to. It's a stunning sight- a handful of springy little robots jumping around like grasshoppers and blasting through ambushes, all while tangling their fading trails up in hopeless knots.
The way 'Player conflict' gets smoothed out is tied into this freedom of movement. You're all so acrobatic that the game simply has you trying to lock onto one another in the manner of a flight sim, and while you're not capable of the traditional evasive jinking you can always duck behind terrain or go hurtling off out of range. When you've got your lock, you release the mouse to send your robot blasting off in a superhuman dash. If you hit, your target's instantly reduced to so much sprockets and dust. No clumsy clipping and no inappropriate animations, and if your opponent dashes towards you at the same time the two of you clash swords and bounce back like billion year-old rivals.
There's more to Plain Sight
, of course- different game modes, power-ups and upgrades all add variety, but that's the basics. Through a couple of incredible ideas Beatnik Games have created the most paralyzingly sleek action game I've ever played.
Capture the Flag specifically is like nothing else, especially the opening 10 seconds as you watch distant tiles brighten, then darken as the opposing team swarms towards you. Then it kicks off, a twisted future-melee built from nothing but razor-sharp attack patterns and lucky escapes.
There's a CTF level in this game which is just two cassette tapes floating in space, their tape unreeled outwards in two twisting, winding footpaths. There's another CTF level which is two opposing castles, and the flags are kept on tiny moons you can only reach by first climbing the castle and then leaping hard enough from the highest parapet that you make it more than 50% of the way and end up falling upwards towards it. It's great- on top of all the emotions you'd normally feel grabbing the flag in a CTF map, vertigo rears its sticky little head.
Locking And Popping
So, yes. Plain Sight
is a brilliant, frosty little head-trip and you should buy it for that reason. Or, if you'd prefer, buy it for this reason:
Scoring the points that let you upgrade your robot and win Deathmatch games isn't done by simply killing your opponents. Mercy, no. Killing other robots simply gets you their energy. Amass energy and you grow in size and power, and your trail gradually changes colour so everyone knows where you are.
Your energy only gets converted into points when you vent it by tapping the key that causes you to explode in an anime-style sphere of light. See how this works? Every kill you get you become more powerful, making sequential kills easier and easier, but if you get killed before you bank your energy your killer gets it all. But if he gets killed before he explodes, that energy gets passed to someone else. Maybe even back to you, if you're quick.
Drawing out this risk/reward is the fact that if you kill a few robots in quick succession you get a multiplier on the score banked by your eventual suicidie, and you get a second multiplier for any robots you destroy with the explosion. Playing Plain Sight
'safely' just isn't going to cut it. A decent score comes from cutting down a whole fistful of robots before leaping into the heart of a fight so you can take two robots with you when you blow.
Which can be translated into saying that a decent score in Plain Sight
comes from putting yourself in situations where you're going to get skewered, giving all that energy to some quick opportunist and swearing very loudly. Seriously. My girlfriend knows Plain Sight
as "The game which makes [me] swear." When I'm playing this game I make noises like a sailor with his foot in a woodchipper.
But don't let that misguide you. I adore this suicide mechanic. It's so, so much smarter than the killcounts of traditional deathmatch. For a start, it means everyone's got everything to play for right up to the final 30 seconds of the match. One really, really lucky run with all the right multipliers will skyrocket anybody into the lead.
Mainly though, I love how it slots an extra axis onto the Plain Sight
's action. You're not trying to just survive and get kills, you're also thinking about when and where to explode and you're literally wary of how big a target you are. If you unthinkingly slash apart a player with a whopping 15 energy, suddenly you're the prey, a predator and a timebomb all in one. You could play it safe and detonate now... or you could wait, and watch the other players come bounding towards you in the hope of catching them in your blast. Finger hovering over the suicide button, you watch, and wait... Now! You hit the button, your robot doubles over, and while two of your opponents veer away from you the third comes dashing in on an unfinished lock, praying he'll dust you before you pop.
Ah, yes. This is the deadly dance party of Plain Sight
. You probably need it in your life. You'll want to play it with your own music in the background, but be aware that literally any album will do.
[Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Action Button. He's currently wandering aimlessly around Vietnam and smoking a lot, but you can find him as quinns108 on Twitter or at quintinsmithster at gmail dot com.]