Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Indie-Cember: Receiver

  • Developer: Wolfire Games 
  • Release: PC, 18 June 2012 
  • Genre: 3D Action (First-person shooter) 
  • Players: 1 
  • Rarity/Cost: DLC, US$5

So many shooter games these days tout realism in some form or another, be it in visuals, physics, or what else have you. But in the end, they're still bound by rules which, whilst necessary for making the experience accessible to gamers of the public who may never have used a gun in their lives, may lead themselves to criticism when observed often enough. Your avatar can withstand multiple gunshot wounds and, by virtue of a fixed (or regenerating) numerical health quantity, come out none the worse for wear. You can reload your gun's magazine and no matter how many bullets were in the old one, the remainder won't be subtracted from your total. And of course, in real life, guns are complex machines, with more parts and functions than can reasonably be mapped to a conventional controller. I'm not saying these traditions should go away entirely, but when something does come along to sweep them away, it makes you think. And in the case of Receiver, I did enjoy the way it made me think.

Receiver has a crew of only four people, just one of whom did the actual programming. But unlike similar cases (including Cave Story, Fez, and Dust: An Elysian Tail, at least one of which will also be covered on Indie-Cember...) where the game stood in development for up to five years, the first version of Receiver took just one week to create. That's right. Apparently there was something called the 7-Day FPS Challenge, and the team in question took the opportunity to explore gun mechanics like no video game had done before. Sure, the story and graphics are presented at the bare minimum level, but I'm not picky in that regard; if a game can still manage to provide a suitably endless source of fun and intrigue, I'm in! So in the case of Receiver, am I?

The goal of Receiver is to collect and listen to a series of 11 cassette tapes, which with any luck will explain what's been going on in this world. (Don't hold your breath.) The problem is, all the tapes are presented in a random order. As are the locations where they may be found. As are the enemy drones guarding them. As are the order of the rooms themselves. So yeah, in lieu of a structured, pre-prepared plot, Receiver does the randomly-generated levels thing, and it's a good thing, too. If you take just one shot, or one fall from a sufficient height (read: one storey), it's Game Over, and you lose all your progress. But like I said, the levels and object placements are reshuffled with each new game, so it's not like you're playing in the same setting over and over. And if you somehow manage to find all 11 tapes, your next playthrough won't take you down the exact same path. The problem with this approach, however, is that if when you do fail, you can't use the experience of your failure to conquer the same challenge again. But you might notice similar object placements in different iterations of the same room, so at least there's some opportunity for learning the best approaches. But on the other other hand, that also leads to loads of empty rooms, meaning the majority of your experience could very well be walking down the same path for each room with the pickup key held in the vain hope that you'll pick up something, even if it's just one spare bullet.
The realism is such that you have to check your remaining ammo by ejecting the magazine.
As of the latest software version, you start each game with one of three randomly-selected weapons and a random number of bullets. The Colt M1911, the only gun available in the original version, is a semi-automatic pistol that takes eight bullets at a time, including the chamber, and ironically for being the first gun included in the game, it's the most complex to use. Take reloading, for example. You can't just press one key to start the entire process. You have to eject the magazine, insert rounds one by one, re-insert the magazine, and if the chamber was empty when you started, unlock the slide, then pull the slide before you're ready to fire. (The default key sequence for all this is: E, Z (repeat), Z again, T, and R.) Later updates added two new guns for you to potentially spawn with: a Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolver, which is far easier to use, and a Glock 17 pistol, which works like the Colt but has a much larger magazine and a surprisingly impractical full-auto mode.

You'll need these guns to defend yourself against two types of enemies: automated turret drones and automated flying drones. Both kinds have individuals parts that can be shot to either handicap them or disable them completely. For example, shoot their camera and they won't be able to find you, and of course they can't shoot what they can't see. The turret drones, which track targets in a 360-degree sweep, are predictable and even easy to take down once you know where to hit them. But the flying drones? Don't get me started. They wobble while flying about, making them hard to hit precisely, their airbourne position gives them a wider area in which to find you, and when they do find you, consider your goose cooked. It may be possible to escape a flying drone by hiding behind a corner, but don't rely on it. I'd rather just avoid them altogether.
If a flying drone spots you, you're pretty much dead in advance.
It's no small task to make a working video game in only seven days, much less with only four people, but it shows. The graphics are basic, eschewing image textures in favour of single-colour surfaces, and rather washed-out colours at that, and in-game objects have a severely low polygon count, almost to PSone-era levels. I wouldn't mind so much -- really, I wouldn't -- except they didn't exactly pass the savings on to the customer. Even on a ho-hum graphics card (we're talking 256MB of video memory), with the graphics set to the lowest quality and screen resolution, the frame rate still managed to chug every once in a while. At least the sound design's not so shabby. There's only one looped electronica track throughout the entire game, but it waxes and wanes in intensity as you move closer to enemies or casettes. And in a game whose heads-up display is reduced to the bare minimum, you'd do well to rely on it. The same cannot be said about the totally bored voice-over performance, but to come back to the recurring theme of this review, what do you expect for a $5 game made in seven days?

In playing Receiver, I was most reminded of Rogue, a classic role-playing computer game dating back to 1980. As a matter of fact, despite my relatively young age I still have fond memories of playing a Java port of the original Rogue. I guess its appeal for me lay in its nigh-endless replayability. In this age of modern conveniences I've read critics say a lot of nasty things about other Roguelikes (i.e. the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series, according to Game Informer magazine), no doubt due to the heavy consequences for failure. I'm not saying there aren't things I'd like to see in a Receiver 2 (which Wolfire sadly does not seem to be making at the moment), most notably a save system. But I kept playing Receiver over and over nonetheless, perhaps because it suffers the exact opposite balance of DLC Quest: it's not the story that makes the game this time around, but the experience of playing it that makes it worthwhile. Just as long as you steer clear of those [verb]ing flying drones.

+ Detailed gun mechanics.
+ Randomised levels and means no two games are alike.

- Randomised object placement means you could go a long time in between finding items.
- The graphics are low-detailed but somehow ran slow on my machine.
- Those [verb]ing insta-kill flying drones!

Control: 4 cassettes out of 5
Design: 3 cassettes out of 5
Graphics: 1 cassettes out of 5
Audio: 4 cassettes out of 5
Value: 3 cassettes out of 5
The Call: 70% (C+)

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