Thursday, January 28, 2010

Twin Sector

Twin Sector is doubly disappointing. It begins by stealing some of the best ideas from other physics-based puzzle games, which would be bad enough, but then it adds an extra layer of aggravation by not actually doing anything interesting with those ideas. The end result is an exercise in wasted potential, where the few small bright spots that you do stumble across are quickly obscured by sloppy mechanics, a dull story and a succession of boring environments. The sad part is that there really are the makings of an enjoyable game here, but it fails on nearly every level.

You begin the game with a very stiff and awkward cutscene that sets the tone for the game's tedious story. It seems that all of humanity has been placed into cryogenic suspension to wait out some sort of crisis. The player takes on the role of Ashley Simms, a star athlete and hero of a recent cave rescue, who is awoken from her cryogenic sleep by OSCAR, a HAL-like computer program, who warns that a generator failure will soon cut of life support to all the cryo units. Ashley has ten hours to get down to repair the generator before all of humanity dies. Of course, a series of twists and new challenges will appear along the way to drive the story in a new direction.

The story itself is pretty thin and the exposition doesn't really give you much to go on. The unexpected developments in the story aren't really that unexpected. A sentient computer program wants me to run an errand? And seems completely unable to turn off the automatic security defenses along the way? Having never seen anything like this before in my life, that sounds totally reliable to me. By the time you reach the first big twist halfway through the story, you'll hardly care.

A big part of that is due to the ridiculous circumstances you'll find yourself in, but it's also due to the terrifically awful voice acting. While I get that OSCAR is supposed to be a sort of lifeless computer program, that doesn't mean the voice acting has to be totally flat. Compared against the writing and acting of other memorable AI programs like HAL, SHODAN or GLaDOS, OSCAR has absolutely zero personality. Given that he's the only character you'll be interacting with for almost the entire game, it's hard to care at all about the story. What's more aggravating is that Ashley's voiceover seems only slightly more human.

You'll be tempted to turn the sounds off altogether and rely on the subtitles alone. Even then, you're not safe from the writing, which features such classic lines as using fire to "lit up a bottle," "Did this thing just moved?" and, my personal favorite, "From where is all this trash coming from?" At this point, there's no compelling reason to stay invested in the story.

Even if you manage to get past the thin story and monotonous voice acting, you'll find just as little personality or appeal in the generic and repetitive environments. The layouts are very linear with lots of big, pointless rooms and plenty of hallways that go nowhere in particular. It's as if the levels are designed without any regard for the purpose of the actual space, so you'll find yourself confronted with an arbitrary assortment of fans, locked doors and crates. I mean, what's the point of a glass walled room filled with motion-tracking turrets? Or the endless moving laser fences? Or chutes that automatically spit out water canisters or explosive barrels? There's no reason for any of this stuff beyond the demands of the gameplay. There's no sense of purpose or consistency in it.

So if the story and setting are uninspired, the gameplay must be awesome, right? Well, if not outright awesome, the gameplay is at least a mixed bag. Ashley makes use of two telekinetic gloves in Twin Sector; the left one attracts objects and the right one pushes them away. Simply hold down the appropriate mouse button and you can charge up the ability to deliver a super-powered push or pull. An overcharge system appears later in the game that gives you even more power.

You'll use the gloves in one of two ways. First, you can use them to attract or repel objects. Use the left glove to pick up a barrel, then charge up the right one to fire it at a distant switch. Or charge up the left glove to pull a water canister through a fire to extinguish the flames. Use the right glove to push away the electrified tracer drones that hunt you down in some of the levels. Or use the left glove to pick up a crate and shield yourself from a turret.

One of the problems here though, is that the crates you'll be using are so big that you won't be able to see anything when you're holding them. This makes them ideal shields against the turrets and lasers in the game, but makes them tough to aim as projectiles. Trying to aim a massive crate at a small grate or button or tracer is more about luck than skill. Though you can rotate the objects in your control, it's nearly impossible to orient them properly when working in the close confines of the levels. It's also a problem in the few instances where you're required to stack objects on top of each other.

The physics are also a bit crooked in places. Bottles can jump and spin and ricochet around from the gentlest of pushes and crates can bump into one another in ways that make stacking them particularly frustrating. The upside to that is, of course, that you can simply pick up a crate and walk into the turrets to knock them over.

You can also use the gloves to get around the environment. Simply charge the left glove and aim it at the wall to pull yourself up into otherwise inaccessible locations. Or use the right glove to cushion yourself from a fall that would otherwise have killed you. Believe me, until you get the hang of this one, you will be dying from lots of very short drops.

All in all, the puzzles presented by the game are fairly satisfying, but OSCAR usually gives you enough information that the puzzles are more about execution than thinking. There are some bright spots where you'll have to be a bit more logical about things, and even a few spots where I was happy to discover an improvised solution to what appeared to be a very scripted problem, but these moments were brief reprieves in a succession of puzzle cliches.


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