UfoPilot : Astro-Creeps Elite
Asteroids. It's a game with very little plot. You're a spaceship pilot, trapped in an asteroid field, and all around you are enormous rocks. Your only hope of survival is to blast them into dust - but it isn't quite that simple. Shoot the big rocks, and they split into two medium rocks. Shoot medium rocks and they split into smaller ones. Mindless blasting will only fill the void with small, fast asteroids that will kill you just as easily as their slower, bigger parents, so some strategy is needed. Your aim - survival!
It's such a simple yet effective game that it is no surprise to find it endlessly revisited. Some of these efforts are better than others, but every effort seems to try to evolve the concept further. UfoPilot: Astro-Creeps Elite does just that, and while few of the ideas here are entirely new, they are delivered in a very impressive manner. As ever, you face a series of waves in which asteroids are bearing down on you. At first you're up against just one rock, but the number and difficulty increases steadily as you beat each level. But while breaking up big rocks yields medium rocks, the medium rocks are home to tiny alien creatures - the Astro-Creeps! Asteroids are mindless. The Astro-Creeps are coming for your ship!
If I were to sum up Astro-Creeps (to shorten the game title somewhat!) in one word, it would probably be "manic". It's not just asteroids and their hostile alien lifeforms you're dealing with here. Some of those asteroids are unstable - a shot to those will cause large explosions, and it takes very little effort to suddenly fill the screen with energy blasts. In all that chaos, with asteroids shattering all about you and Creeps moving in on all sides, it becomes quite a challenge! Fortunately there are a number of pickups to be found - these range from the humble decoy, leading those Creeps away from you like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, to bounce shots, lasers and shields. The anti-grav is a useful pickup but, for the most fun, try picking up an anti-grav and a shield at the same time. This triggers a black hole that will demolish everything on the screen!
There are so many little touches to this game. Things like two control methods - you aim and shoot with the mouse, but you can thrust regardless of your facing direction with the WASD keys - or fly more quickly in your facing direction with the right mouse button. I love the way firing your weapons has recoil - you can't sit still in one place and blast away, because every shot moves you slightly backwards. An odd but visually impressive trait is the way that your ship explodes whenever you get yourself killed, taking the whole screen with it - every death thus means you reach the next level anyway until you finally perish, but there's an increasing bonus for staying alive over successive levels.
Graphically, Astro-Creeps is very polished. The gameplay is mostly smooth, but the sheer number of particle effects and explosions that can go off at once frequently caused my aging desktop machine to lag. Fortunately you can switch a number of graphical effects on or off in the options menu, as well as more mundane things such as adjusting screen resolution. Your ship warps in and out between levels, which are accompanied by a range of space backgrounds that were initially a little distracting. Some of them have animated components! This is a gorgeous game and only really loses out at all in this area because it can get a little too busy.
Sound is another area of quality. There's a range of sound effects for gunfire and explosions, as well as voice clips for several pickups. The roar of a hungry black hole is impressive! Music features eight background tracks that seem to cycle randomly during play, but you can choose any particular one in the options. Sound effects and music volume can be individually set. These tracks seem to be high quality and suit the mood well, but I can't really comment much on them as I've generally been too busy trying not to be blown up to appreciate them!
There is a tutorial mode for new players, though I think you can still pick up the majority of the game rather quickly without it. Still, it's a good tutorial (if a little long) and the information about the different pickups is very useful. The difficulty curve is about right - the early levels are not too much trouble, but things hot up very quickly. You carry smart bombs and weapon powerups into the next level, but not other powerups, and one nice touch is that you automatically collect any of these remaining on screen when you complete the level.
Mostly suited for short bursts, this is a fun game and very easy to get into. There's a high score table for the committed player (I got into the top ten!) and there are plenty of game options if you want to customise your experience - want to turn off exploding asteroids, make power-ups shootable, stuff like that? You've got that option. I'm not sure what long-term play there is here, but I think I'll be leaving this one on my desktop for a while. It's too fun not to.
My negative experiences have been few. The graphical lag is perhaps the biggest, and can be at least partially relieved by switching off the more advanced effects. Beyond that, I have a mild dislike of being forced to go online to play a game - Astro-Creeps is operated through BeamDog, which is just such a service. The game is downloaded, but I need to sign in to play it... still, I'm glad this is linked to a sign-in account rather than being computer-specific. My main concern is that, should BeamDog go out of business, will Astro-Creeps still work?
But enough doomsay! I wasn't expecting to have this much fun from an Asteroids clone and I've been blown away - almost literally - by the sheer force of the audiovisuals. If I may be forgiven a small pun - it's a blast!
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