Friday, August 27, 2010

Plain Sight, or Ninja Robots in Space

This game is bananas. PC gamers are no strangers to multiplayer fare.  One might in fact say they invented it.  But as platforms like Xbox Live and the Playstation Network cast their behemoth shadows over the dwindling (comparatively) PC market, it’s easy to forget that there’s a plethora of options for the gamer seeking online competition.

Of course, you could go with the big three – World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2, or Starcraft II – but then you’d be missing out on a number of lower profile titles tailor-made for the PC audience.

Smaller multiplayer games succeed perhaps once a year on the home consoles.  Last year’s Battlefield 1943 has now been replaced by the Defense of the Ancients-inspired Monday Night Combat.  PC games, however, tend to build small but stable audiences willing to maintain dedicated servers years after a game’s initial release.  People are still playing Quake, you guysQuake.

Smartly, Valve’s catered to this mentality with its digital distribution service, Steam.  Not only does Valve do right by older games by putting them on sale, they sometimes hand out multiplayer games for free.  And their support for stuff like Killing Floor is incredible.  They know that most PC games will succeed only on a niche level, but they genuinely seem to want each game to find that niche.

Beatnik Games’ Plain Sight caught my eye with its adorable killer robots and unique platforming-based combat.  I struck gold the last time I ventured into Steam’s multiplayer offerings and found the addictive Altitude.  Will lightning strike twice?

Let me just get this out of the way: if you are prone to any sort of motion sickness, you may want to refrain from playing Plain Sight.  It can be incredibly disorienting.  You control a robot with a ninja sword who has to fight other robots on what are essentially space platforms.  Gravity works similarly to the Super Mario Galaxy games.  Jumping off the edge of a platform will send you flying around it until you either redirect yourself or the gravity gently suggests you return to earth.  Until you get your space legs, you will likely spend minutes soaring through the air, trying to decide which is more important: emptying your stomach or wrapping your mind around the controls. I imagine Plain Sight’s apt title comes from everyone’s ability to hide right before your very eyes.  This is a melee-only deathmatch game, and contact with your opponent can only be made by locking on and charging up your robot’s dash attack.  Initiating a lock-on isn’t the tricky part; maneuvering yourself into a position to attack can take seconds that feel like years.  While you’re aiming for him, your opponent is most likely aiming for you.  Each encounter feels like a samurai showdown…in space…with robots.Yeah.  That's one of the levels.Plain Sight wouldn’t be much fun if it was simply “Jump through the air and awkwardly swing at things.”  Rather than go with the simple “Most Kills Wins” form of deathmatch, Beatnik included a point-banking system.  (Anyone remember The Weakest LinkIt’s kind of like that.)  Kills earn you points.  Those points aren’t actually added to your score unless you blow yourself up (hopefully taking some enemies along with you in spectacular fashion).  If one of your victims is carrying around unbanked points, you will receive them upon their defeat.  It’s an excellent risk-reward wrinkle that, well, rewards players for smart play rather than brute force.

Unfortunately, brute force can dominate a play session.  As with most niche games, there are a handful of people it seems were put on this Earth solely to play Plain Sight.  They move faster than you, evade your locks more quickly, and always block just as you get a swing off.  And because Plain Sight’s art team is clever, players with more unbanked points grow in size, leaping through the air like Godzilla monsters.  Avoid them.  Actual fun may be found dueling with players of similar skill, whom you’ll find serendipitously.  They’re the ones flailing around just like you.

There’s a delicious predatory aspect to Plain Sight’s lock-on mechanic.  Because the three-dimensional space can be so confusing, a targeting line attempts to orient you on your target.  Crosshairs slowly line up as you approach strike distance.  His recent path trails behind him like a light-cycle track, clueing you in to his whereabouts.  While bounding over low hills and walls as you zero in, it’s impossible not to feel like a ninja…who’s also a robot.

In efforts to level the playing field, Beatnik also packed the game with a series of upgrades, earnable within each match.  Dying will net you one point, so even death can be beneficial.  Banked points also contribute to your total, which can be spent on movement, combat, or protective abilities.  Unlocking the triple jump makes terrain traversal a cake walk.  The alert ability provides a Spider Sense-like exclamation point whenever an enemy’s closing in.  If you’re playing adequately, new abilities should come regularly, and the ability to pick and choose them keeps each match fresh.

To be blunt, I’m still not sure I’ve fully described just what Plain Sight is.  Nor do I think I truly could.  Melee-only deathmatch games are a rare breed, and for good reason.  But Plain Sight’s agile, goofy, gravity-ignoring action lifts it above being a mere slugfest.  Oh, and did I mention there are ninja robots?

You can purchase Plain Sight from Steam for $9.99.  A discounted four-pack is available for gifting purposes.  Look into this.  Friends would add a lot to the experience.