Microsoft always dedicates lots of convention floor space when showcasing its ID@Xbox efforts. Gamescom was no different.
After the Gamescom 2015 briefing, we were able to get a vital amount of hands-on time with various upcoming ID@Xbox heavy hitters. In this article, we're going to talk about just three of them: Gigantic, Superhot, and Cuphead.
Superhot exploded onto the scene in 2014 with a successful outing on Stream Greenlight and Kickstarter. The 10-strong indie team later announced that Superhot would be hitting Xbox One, thanks to the ID@Xbox program.
Superhot is essentially a first-person shooter, with one important caveat. Time only progresses when you move your character, adding a unique puzzle element. At first glance, you might think it's easy to place shots when time is frozen. After all, time manipulation is often used as a power-up in other shooters. It's certainly not the case in Superhot - the mechanic makes the game deceptively challenging.
Graphically, Superhot is abrasive with sterility. Enemy models are starkly red, composed of gigantic polygons. They satisfyingly shatter like glass when killed, complete with crisp sound treatment. Environments are painted with a hard-contrasting white, placing a firm focus on your targets. Items and weapons are painted black, appearing like shiny obsidian statuettes. The color pallet feels intentional, it draws your attention to the game's most important elements. This design is similar to Mirror's Edge, which emphasizes platforming elements in bright colors against saturated backgrounds. Drawing your attention to enemies and weapons is quite important in Superhot - even though you can freeze time, there's little room for distraction.
As mentioned earlier, time is frozen in Superhot - it only starts ticking when you move your character with the left thumb-stick. Each level spawns a set number of enemies from a set number of locations, and it can be a game of trial and error figuring out how best to place your shots. Bullets travel incredibly fast, and despite the time freezing it's quite easy to get hit, especially from behind. You'll be learning where and when enemies spawn, what weapons they have, and what environmental items you can use to your advantage. One level takes place in a bar-type environment. You can lift glasses and throw them at enemies to stun them, allowing you to submit them to a beat-down. There is no ammo in Superhot. When a clip runs empty, a gun is useful only for tossing at enemies.
There's plenty of room for strategy. Using the time mechanic to your advantage, you can shoot bullets out of the air, and even lead enemies into shooting each other. Leading enemies into shooting each other becomes ever more satisfying when shotguns and assault weapons come into play.
Superhot does have a narrative. It's told cryptically through the game's minimal interface and large macro text that appears between levels. BIOS-like menus appear during the game's snappy loading screens. There're plenty of implications that you're connecting to and controlling another human being, which you forcefully control via a minimal virtual reality computer interface.
Superhot is equal parts challenging, unique and mysterious, and it's hitting Xbox and PC in Q4 2015.
Gigantic is a game I didn't expect to enjoy, but after going hands-on I find myself eagerly hoping that I get selected for the upcoming beta test. Gigantic is a 5v5 third-person arena game, combining class-based elements of League of Legends, Team Fortress 2 and World of Warcraft PVP.
I selected Uncle Sven for my session, purely because his potions reminded me of all the alcohol I'd been drinking. Uncle Sven wields chemical flasks that have various effects. Similarly to League of Legends, your character levels up during a battle, allowing you to customize and specialize. For Sven, I chose to upgrade his poison grenades and healing flasks, boosting my damage and utility.
Gigantic places a lot of value in throwing different play styles into a single arena. The website states "Whether you come from shooters, MOBAs, MMOs, or action games, you'll find something familiar—and something new", and I'd say that's fairly accurate. Some of the game's classes handle just like your typical third person shooter while others might reminisce more of World of Warcraft's action RPG combat. I'd usually expect such a mismatch of gameplay styles to result in chaotically messy experience, but I can't say it was the case in Gigantic - although there is plenty of chaos.
The first part of a game is about map control, taking points and summoning creatures that provide your team with various buffs and abilities. These include reducing the enemy team's damage or allowing you to see their positions on the mini-map. Your enemies can destroy these creatures and take the control points for their team. For every point controlled, your team's guardian builds power.
At opposing ends of the map resides each team's guardian. These are gigantic creatures that can deal tremendous amounts of damage. At the end of the match, both guardians will clash in an epic battle where the victors get decided. You can (at great risk) attack the enemy team's guardian and steal power for your own, creating intense attack/defend gameplay.
During my time with Gigantic, I found myself trying to play it like a World of Warcraft battleground, breaking my enemy's line of sight and healing on cooldown. The vibrant colors and varied designs reminded me of Team Fortress 2, and the blending of gameplay styles handled like Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. I found Gigantic played a lot more smoothly than PVZ: GW. Perhaps it was Gigantic's on-site dedicated servers, but all I could think about was how often PVZ: GW seemed hindered by Frostbite engine's brand of lag.
Gigantic will launch as a free to play title for Xbox One and Windows 10, complete with cross-play. PC gamers with a high-DPI mouse will have a clear advantage if they pick up a shooting oriented hero. Fear not, though. Xbox One players can opt-out of sharing battles with mouse and keyboard players should they so choose, and the same is true for PC gamers. However, the nature of Gigantic shouldn't make it completely unfair if you're playing across platforms. For example, Uncle Sven's grenades have a wide area of effect making precision aiming less necessary than it would be in a pure FPS.
Gigantic will go up against the likes of Halo 5 and Star Wars: Battlefront for gamer's multiplayer affections this holiday season. Gigantic might seem like an underdog in that context, but after going hands-on, I know I'll get sucked in when it launches later this year.
Ah, Cuphead, it's hard to mention ID@Xbox without citing this game. Cuphead led the Xbox One's indie charge back at E3 2014, dazzling with gorgeous hand-crafted visuals. At the Xbox showcase, I got to play the game for about half an hour, racking up more deaths than I did in everything else I played at Gamescom combined.
Cuphead is a side-scrolling shooter, taking cues from the likes of Gunstar Heroes and Contra. A lot of indie games use 2D visuals as a way to cut development costs and save time - it's hard to accuse Cuphead of this. Each enemy, character, background and UI element is hand-drawn and animated by Studio MDHR. The team uses an art style inspired by 1930s cartoons, using the same hand inking and audio production techniques from the era.
While standing in line for Cuphead I got an idea of how difficult it was going to be. The poor chap ahead of me must've died about 30 times before giving up on this particular carrot boss (shown in the video above). Remembering that Cuphead has 2-player couch co-op, I enlisted an innocent bystander to play with me, hoping to use her as cannon fodder (sorry). Sadly, my plan didn't work out too well, as the game's punishing old-school difficulty made short work of my vodka-dulled reflexes.
In the demo, there're two shooting styles. One is a single bullet stream that travels over long distances, and the other is a short range scatter-shot type deal. There's an air-dash move, you can hold a button to stand still and shoot instead of running, and there's also a special meter that allows you to perform more powerful projectile attacks. The controls are simplistic, but the bosses force you to use every tool in your kit to prevail. Sadly, I didn't realise that Cuphead (and co-op partner Mugman) were capable of performing special attacks, but hey, you live and learn - and that's what Cuphead thrives on.
The game, as of now, is entirely boss-based. A Xbox rep told me that now Cuphead has received Microsoft's backing, Studio MDHR could be expanding the game to include "more features". Whether the rep had inside knowledge or was merely speculating, I'm not sure. Hopefully, it'll lead to full run n' gun levels. While I think Cuphead is gorgeous, rewarding and fun, breaking up the difficult bosses with a level of explosive cannon fodder could prevent it becoming monotonous.
Every boss in Cuphead splits into phases, and there's very little indication of what mechanics to expect until it has killed you. Towards the end of my demo, I fought against a pair of frogs with boxing gloves. I expected them to fight with hand-to-hand combat, but I found myself very much mistaken. First, one started spraying me with fireballs, before attacking me with glowing planets by clapping his hands. During this, the other frog was spinning his entire body, blowing us around their prohibition-era restaurant arena. What came next? Well, the larger frog swallowed the smaller frog, before turning into a slot machine?
I think Cuphead is the perfect balance of challenge and reward. Every boss feels very do-able, even when you're getting smashed into ceramic dust the first dozen-or-so times. Just when you successfully learn a sequence, the phase will change, and you'll get eaten by a random shark because you didn't know to jump. It puts you straight back into the action armed with your new knowledge, and each challenge feels satisfying to overcome.
Cuphead is a day one purchase for me as a massive Gunstar Heroes fan. If you enjoy challenging couch co-op action, it should be a day one purchase for you too.
ID@Xbox has a bright future
There were a ton of ID@Xbox games I didn't get to try, including We Happy Few, The Flame in the Flood and Worms WMD. By all accounts, it appears the deluge of quality Xbox One indie titles is set to continue.
While loitering outside the Xbox press booths, I saw ID@Xbox chief Chris Charla. Three chaps armed with an iPhone were with him, showing footage from a game they'd presumably been working on. Even during the Gamescom mayhem, it appeared Charla was signing up new teams to the ID@Xbox program.
The indie scene continues to be an important part of this game generation's narrative. Gone are the days of an obscure indie store buried in several menus - independently developed titles now sit alongside triple-A funded heavy hitters. For every flaw and missing scrap of polish, Xbox's indie teams take risks and innovate in ways the big dogs are seemingly reluctant to.
ID@Xbox is coming to Windows 10; it's also coming to HoloLens and Windows 10 Mobile. For new paradigms like HoloLens, passionate indie devs are essential for showing reluctant profit-driven companies what the tech is capable of. Every independent game developer within the Microsoft ecosystem will be able to ship their titles across a unified app store, targeting a vast array of Windows-powered screens.
Indeed, the tools and support from ID@Xbox could give rise to the next Minecraft, right beneath the Microsoft banner. Xbox gamers stand only to benefit, as our purchases and saves will carry across our Microsoft devices agnostically. Gigantic will be the first third-party Xbox title to break down the walls between console and PC. Hopefully, many more will follow.