Sunday, 22 February 2015

How the Space Race really ended

Over the weekend I finished playing a little indie platformer that caught my eye. Lifeless Planet a game whose premise revolves around discovering an abandon Soviet village and research station on a planet light years away from Earth. I like my SciFi (I'm sure you're shocked) and the chance to explore an alien world appeals to me, but honestly the gimmick with the Soviet town was what convinced me to take a dip.

I'm not sure why but I'm one of those who seem stuck in the Cold War, Der Spiegel dubbed this concept Ostlagia, or nostalgia for the Eastern block. That's close but it doesn't really fit me since I was born in the West and in the dying days of the Cold War, I can remember the break up of Yugoslavia and have vague memories of tanks with red stars on them but that's about it. Nevertheless the Soviet Union and the eastern regimes hold a fascination for me that I just can't quite shake. I'm an amateur Sovietologist. 

While seeking life on a distant planet, a skeptical astronaut discovers an abandoned Russian laboratory and suspects his mission is a hoax until a mysterious young woman saves him from a strange and deadly phenomenon...

So I started the game up and started trekking across the sands of the unnamed and unfamiliar world. Six hours later I was done, good thing I got it in a sale. I quite enjoyed most of those six hours but unfortunately the game can be added to the growing pile of projects that failed to live up to there premises. The Soviet connection is really just a gimmick, a way to make the human structures seem plausible, after reaching the town very early on for an eerie what's going on moment and a few scattered logs about life in the town and the research projects it doesn't really come into play again. Which is a shame as in addition to proper Russian voices the logs show the game makers really did their homework about the Soviet Union. Rather than the cliché  goose stepping storm troopers ranting about total victory like Nazi's in winter coats, the logs read like scientists conducting feasible experiments with unknown materials. There are also references to the possibility of this planet being capable of hosting a colony for the New Soviet Society, which was a preoccupation of internal Soviet propaganda, as was the concept of the New Soviet Man.

But the Cold War window dressing does its job well enough, it adds some variety to the scenery, and helps ground the premise. The meat of the game is the exploration of an alien world and it does deliver. I was a little disappointed however to find that this exploration is very linear, there's one correct path to the next destination with only minor diversions for mineral analysis. The logs act as breadcrumbs leading you to the important things. A little disappointing but I didn't mind it too much since the visuals are really impressive. 

 They really do sell the idea that this is a desolate alien world. The main landscape is rocks and sand broken up with a crumbling pylon or chasm. But later levels introduce far more diverse climates. You progress through the story by progressing through the landscape. You piece together the answer to the mysteries of this world by finding logs and witnessing certain events that prompt your character to make a comment and hypothesis. Though towards the end I noticed a few big expository logs being placed in unmissable locations which took the satisfaction out of figuring out the plot a little.

Though the plot is quite interesting, if you're well versed in science fiction you may well figure out a few things ahead of time. Though there should still be some surprises. The plot reminded me a little of Stargate but aside from me humming the theme tune to SG1 occasionally it remained firmly its own idea. I also really liked how you move in this game, it's set in a low gravity planet and you move like it, plodding along and able to make impossible leaps. And once you get your jetpack working you make even more impossible leaps. Though keep in mind, low gravity is not the same as no gravity, a fall from too great height can and will kill.

So there's quite a bit to recommend Lifeless Planet. Sadly there is also one or two things to sour that recommendation. I spoke about how you move like your in a low gravity environment, well that's a double edged sword, this game is terrible to control with a keyboard and mouse. It is gamepad compatible but since I don't own one that feature isn't much use. You control like a tank, turning is a chore and there is a slight issue with control sensitivity and lag. Many times tapping a direction key made a tiny turn while other times it caused the character to spin around. This is exacerbated by the abundance of jumping puzzles. I don't like jumping puzzles, I don't think they're fun and once you've figured out which way to go they only serve as a reflex test. This game has many of them, I mentioned that I played for six hours, well a good hour of that was me struggling with about three or four particularly nasty ones. You have a jetpack but that only assists distance and height, once you've jumped you cannot change direction, you can't stop if you overshoot, you have to line up exactly and hope you can gain enough momentum to reach the ledge on the other side.

Another issue that also makes the jumping puzzles a major pain is the bugs. This is not a polished game I encounter several bugs that made me restart sections of the game several times. When I first encountered pressure point traps a bug occurred where if I activated them I would be killed even if I managed to escape to the other side before they were triggered. Fortunately this didn't happen the rest of the time I encountered them otherwise the game would be unplayable. At another point towards the end I encountered what's either a very annoying bug or an incredibly bad design choice. You can't direct yourself with the jet pack you move in one direction (well two if you count height) so at one stage you encounter moving platforms. It gets worse rather then move in a pattern that you can observe and predict they sort a jerk about quit violently. Another problem is that even if you land on those platforms you often fall through them. And the final kick in the teeth? you fall forever, you have to go to the menu and reload a checkpoint.

One final bug, sometimes the menu doesn't work, you can only click on the load checkpoint option with the mouse, sometimes you can get around this with the number keys, but sometimes you can't. After finishing the game I had to go to task manager to close the application.

And while I did enjoy my visit to this strange world I very much doubt I'll be making a return journey. Once you've finished the story there really isn't anything more to do, the only side activities are collecting mineral samples, where you get a little geology lesson. But those samples are for real minerals on earth like Coal, Garnets, Basalt etc so if you're really that interested in geology you can find far more compelling information elsewhere.

Though that being said if you find the game in one of those sales or have a friend who owns it I recommend giving it a go. It's an interesting experience and the developer is still updating it so hopefully those nasty bugs will be gone by the time you're module touches down.

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