Swarm Hands-On PreviewBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Jan 20, 2011
Fifty blue Swarmites spew forth from the bowels of a towering, intestinal tube and huddle together in preparation for an unimaginably brutal and violent journey through a diabolically constructed series of platforming-based horrors. The path ahead is littered with steel traps, buzz saws, exploding barrels, fire and toxic gas spewing pipes, spikey barricades, and, obviously, bottomless pits of doom. Such an environment would test the mettle of even the biggest and baddest action heroes and no doubt leave them in a whimpering pile of tears, shame, and blood. So the idea of sending one-foot tall Smurf-like characters into this gauntlet of gore and death is just…well, surprisingly amusing and has all the makings of a breakout downloadable smash hit. This is Swarm.
Fortunately, death is not only an integral part of the gameplay, it’s also unavoidable, which is meant to alleviate some of the common frustrations that tend to be a staple of platforming titles. Within the first 30 seconds of my hands-on playthrough of the first three levels of the game, I had lost around half of my swarm in a field of bear traps, their little blue heads popping off their bodies like corks, but I was giggling too much to feel bad. Hothead CEO Joel DeYoung explained that this is precisely the idea the developers wanted to get across to the player from the very beginning, and starting off the game with this kind of inevitable, yet oddly charming, mass slaying was the solution.
Thankfully, you only need one Swarmite to keep playing, and once you reach respawn points, your swarm repopulates. Although, there is something quite inspiring about seeing a single dude trying to survive long enough to reach the next respawn point that I kind of made it a point to make it happen a bit more than I was perhaps supposed to, but I did it anyway and loved every second of it. Of course, there are clear advantages to trying to keep as many of your swarm alive as possible. There are plenty of glowing points to be gathered through levels, but some will only be triggered if you have, say, 30 Swarmites. And because of the new scoring system, which is the biggest new addition that Hothead has made to the game since we last saw it at PAX East 2010, those bonus points become more important than ever as they help you create higher score multipliers.
If you’re skilled enough, you can create a 10-11-12X multiplier and carry it through an entire level, the incentive being a presence on the game’s leaderboards, which have been designed to be as front and center as possible. At the start of each level, you see player rankings and scores. Hothead wants players to feel that sense of competition and one-upmanship found in classic arcade titles, and, from what I saw, the devs have done a great job making this happen.
It also helps that the in-game action, which runs as a flawless framerate, even when the entire screen is filled with little blue characters being blown to pieces or chopped to bits, is fast and thrilling. You also have to constantly be thinking tactically since death awaits you at every step. We saw a wide variety of puzzle types, but only got a sneak peak at one of the game’s bosses (a giant mechanized spider), so I don’t know how those larger scenarios will play out. It’s also hard to tell how people will react to the intentionally “flawed” AI system that drives the Swarmites.
For instance, there are sections where you can pick up bombs and target objects to blow up. You can select certain target points, but some of the swarmites will simply toss the bomb at a general area near that designated target, which could potentially trigger a larger explosion that wipes out a large chunk of the group at an inopportune time. Better still, some of the swarmites might not even pick up a bomb at all, but instead pick up a fellow swarm member and toss them to their death. It’s this kind of unpredictability and spontaneity that makes The Swarm such an intriguing title, but I’m curious to see what more rigid gamers think about it, especially given the emphasis on leaderboard-caliber performances.
Hothead is no stranger to creating breakout hits (i.e. Deathspank), and Swarm is shaping up to be a worthy follow up to one of 2010’s best downloadable titles. Swarm is set for release on PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, and PC in March.