Saturday, April 17, 2010

plain sight

As a fan of indie games (and online competition), I recently was tempted to purchase Plain Sight, a unique take on the multiplayer "shooter" genre.  In Plain Sight, you are a suicidal robot ninja with a penchant for jumping and being slung by gravitational forces.  Sounds interesting, no?  Unfortunately, I can't strongly recommend Plain Sight - I've tried it for a solid week now and have become increasingly frustrated.  There's definitely skill involved, but the combat becomes repetitive quickly and I also found myself suffering from motion sickness and vertigo.

As you can see, the art style is quite lovely and Plain Sight does possess an irreverent and welcome sense of humor.  There are a number of maps and gameplay modes to try, although I've found that most multiplayer games online are straight "deathmatch" (everyone for themselves).  The maps vary in quality and playability.  Perhaps it's just personal preference, but I found some of the bigger, "flimsier" maps like "Unreeled Tournament" (see screenshot below) very frustrating.  Your opponents can be quite distant and traversing the "tape" without getting killed is an exercise in annoyance.

Briefly, the gameplay consists of the following.  You run around using the standard mouse & keyboard configuration, but jumping (via spacebar) is a near-constant necessity.  You gain a great deal more ground and are a harder target to hit.  Since all these maps take place in "space" with particular physics modeled, you can (and should) use solid objects to slingshot yourself around for better positioning.  It's certainly a clever (and somewhat novel) gameplay addition, but one that can induce vertigo and nausea quickly.  Nothing is really "up" or "down" and you'll have to constantly switch perspectives to successfully attack your opponents.  Your goal is to destroy the other robots on the map by locking onto them with your targeting reticule.  It takes a while to establish a lock, so you often have to chase a particular robot around for a while before you get the opportunity to nail them.  If you time things right, you'll dash towards them and smash them into bits, garnering whatever energy they have.

Interestingly, this does not, by itself, gain you any points.  To score, you actually need to self-destruct (see screenshot above) - and you gain more points for having a greater amount of energy stored up at that point.  You also gain multipliers for catching other robots in your explosion.  Furthermore, the more energy that you accumulate from destroying other robots, the larger and slower you are - i.e. you become an easier target for others to destroy.  This mechanic creates a very interesting "risk vs. reward" decision:  should you save up that energy you've been gaining for a "big score"?  But you could lose it all in a flash if someone manages to destroy you before you self-destruct.  This is truly a clever and interesting aspect to Plain Sight and the designers deserve kudos for it.

Another positive aspect to Plain Sight is the skill tree.  As you destroy more robots, you gain points to spend on various upgrades.  For example, you can buy a "warning" system that alerts you when other robots have a lock on you.  You can pair this with a "shield," activated by right-clicking, that can block a charging enemy if timed just right.  The double-jump, I've found, is great for chasing/avoiding enemies.  Unfortunately, there is a slight "runaway leader" aspect to this - the more successful players will be opening up better and better skills, making them harder and harder to kill - so if you get stuck at the bottom of the scoreboard, be prepared to die a lot.

Plain Sight has a number of interest mechanics, as you can see, but ultimately these don't quite gel into a fully pleasurable experience.  The action is perhaps too fast and chaotic, reducing the value of tactical decisions and proper use of the environment.  It can be very satisfying to accumulate a lot of energy and get a big score before someone kills you, but all too often a multiplayer game ends up being dominated by a single player who is capable of taking anyone out who is starting to gain a little energy.  And most damning (at least for me), I find myself actually getting physically sick playing this.  The strategy of the game demands that you are constantly jumping and spinning and reorienting yourself, which combined with the speed and the need for you to focus on what the other robots are doing at all times, plays havoc with your brain's balance system.  If you don't believe me, here's an extended gameplay video - and trust me, it's worse when you're controlling the robot yourself:

At only $10, Plain Sight isn't going to piss you off - and I certainly love supporting independent developers who come up with creative ideas - but there are better multiplayer experiences out there and after a few days with Plain Sight, I found myself loading up Team Fortress 2 and Left for Dead 2 to alleviate the nausea.

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