Friday, January 1, 2010

Altitude, Becoming a Two Dimensional Top Gun

altitude_game_screenshot_1 Sometimes I try games not expecting to play them that often.  I regularly leave indie game demos idling on my desktop – Gratuitous Space Battles and Immortal Defense to name two – after playing them just enough to say, “Oh yeah, I can see why people like that,” and move on. 

Not so with Altitude.

This lean, accessible multiplayer title’s got its hooks so deep I think my heart now requires their assistance to function.  Altitude comes Nimbly Games, a two-man team inspired by multiplayer masterpieces like Starcraft, Counter-Strike, and the more recent iterations of Call of Duty.  The gameplay is incredibly simple: fly one of five planes, best your opponents in competition, repeat repeat repeat.  Flying your plane is generally a good time, and it can be downright excellent when you deftly outmaneuver your enemy by purposefully stalling out and reducing his wings to Swiss cheese on the way down.  Controls are all keyboard-based, too, though I’m sure you could connect a gamepad if you wanted to complicate things.  Everything’s designed to keep the barrier to entry extremely low.

So why did I fork over cash after shooting through the demo?  The levels.  And I don’t mean stages.  I mean, experience-based, ripped from Call of Duty 4 leveling.  You know, the hot new thing in multiplayer gaming.  Win a dogfight?  Experience points.  Assist someone else in winning a dogfight?  Experience points.  Nab the big bomb and kamikaze the other team’s base to cause the maximum damage possible?  You got it – experience points.  The promise of leveling up has caused me to extend many play sessions past their healthy stopping point.

The carrot at the end of this stick is a bevy of weapons and perks with which to upgrade your planes.  Choose between heavy armor and a repair drone.  Make your bombs turn enemies in circles or send them careening into walls.  While you may end up settling on a favorite configuration, the many kill challenges for each plane encourage you to expand your horizons. 

The caveat, as always, is that you probably won’t enjoy Altitude if you don’t care for anonymous Internet fragging.  That said, I’ve found there to be a friendly, thriving Altitude community, custom servers and all.  With no voice chat and flight controlled by keyboard, there’s less time to communicate than you think – usually just the five or so seconds in between spawns – which means less smack talk.  And the sheer chaos of 10 v. 10 dogfights makes paying attention to the loudmouths near impossible.

I may finally break free of Altitude’s grip upon reaching the level cap, only because I will have run out of spoon-fed goals.  But maybe not.  By then I’m sure there’ll be more maps, and hopefully more people to send spiraling to the earth below.  For those of you taking going MIA on Modern Warfare until the latest glitches are resolved, try Altitude.  I’ll see you in the skies.