Friday, February 24, 2012

Warp Review: A Downloadable Puzzler That's Equal Parts Bloody And Brilliant

Your story begins with you looking through the eyes of a creature as it's being carted through a laboratory by ominous looking scientists and military-types. An antiseptic white dominates the color palette to a point where you can almost smell the disinfectant. Once the camera zooms out, you discover that your avatar is a semi-transparent alien whose cute features are more Monsters, Inc. than menacing. Why are there so many armed guards for something so cute? Well, that question is quickly answered after you warp inside the body of a scientist and proceed to blow it into a heap of bloody chunks. 

Warp is a downloadable title that continues the tradition of last year's Catherine as puzzlers wrapped in the guise of an M-rated story. Your goal is to guide your extraterrestrial out of the laboratory by any means necessary. While your powers start off with the simple ability to warp through walls, you'll quickly gain the prowess to do more complex maneuvers like hurling objects via telekinesis and creating ethereal copies of yourself. This wide array of tactical options opens up the challenges, and allow you to navigate the environment as you see fit. Say you have to cross a room filled with barrels, passive scientists, and armed guards. You're presented with the choice of either warping through the room from scientist to scientist, hurling a barrel to cause a distraction, or just go all Scanners on the room and murder everyone in sight. Warp is truly a game built for stealthy pacifists, homicidal maniacs, and everyone in-between.

The developers give you the perfect amount of time to learn and master an ability before introducing a new one. They seem to take a page from the screenwriter's bible by showing us how to use new mechanics, and not telling us. For example, when booby-trapped tiles are introduced, the game doesn't pause and direct us to menu screen indicating what this different colored flooring is capable of. Instead, the player remains in total control as they witness a rat crawling over the tile and being blown to bits. Too many games nowadays rely on lengthy tutorials that grind the flow of the experience to a halt, so it's refreshing to see Warp's approach to teaching the player how its world works. By the end, after the player has mastered these tools, the solutions to puzzles then open up and allow one to navigate the environment and solve the puzzles in whichever way they are most comfortable. 

While there's a lot of charm in the animated gestures of your alien creature, the world tends to look fairly drab. Other editors who watch the game in passing mention that the government facility where Warp takes place resembles a mix of Final Fantasy VII's Shinra Building and Metal Gear Solid's Shadow Moses. I'm partial to the latter comparison, as the isometric camera and individual challenges oftentimes play out like one of MGS's VR Missions. Thankfully the uninspired locales of Warp get overshadowed by the fantastic online components. Although Warp is single-player in theory, it incorporates a stat-tracking system that creates a communal element to the experience. It keeps track of a plethora of statistics -- from distance warped to soldiers being blown up. Each time you hit a milestone in one of these categories, you're notified of your accomplishment and told where you rank in these categories in comparison to players on your friends list. This creates a sort of indirect competition that calls back to games like Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, and something that other online games should really take note of.

There's one feature omitted from Warp that completely baffles me: I'm in no way hearing-impaired, but the lack of subtitles in 2012 is frankly unacceptable. I'm sure I speak for a lot of gamers when I say that it's impossible for me to always play games in a soundproof bubble, so I often find myself turning on subtitles and reading the dialogue as opposed to listening to it. While this may be a minor inconvenience to some, it ended up really eating away at me as the game went on. Slightly more problematic is the fact that Warp has a frustrating spike in difficulty during the final act. There are a few puzzles and a boss encounter that quickly surpass challenging and become obliquely frustrating moments that you'll undoubtedly have to retry a few dozen times before even realizing just what the hell the game wants you to do. It's an odd side effect of the multiple solutions approach that I praised earlier -- where trying everything you know does almost nothing and ends up frustrating you instead.

The slight stumble near the finish line doesn't change the fact that Warp is a fantastic puzzler that any fan of the genre should experience. Though the main campaign can be completed in only a handful of hours, the wealth of secrets hidden throughout the complex make a second playthrough something that people are going to definitely want to participate in. There're also a handful of challenge rooms complete with leader boards that will surely be competitive arenas for fans of the Warp. Couple this with an open-ended approach to circumventing obstacles, and you're left with fantastic action-puzzler that begs to be played again and again.

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