Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: Ace of Spades

Ace of Spades is an indie first person shooter that combines the team/class shooter mechanic of Team Fortress with the voxel-based world of buildable/destroyable blocks of Minecraft.

Also like Team Fortress, the character designs and overall artistry of the game assets are heavily stylized to a specific period in the past (although here the aim is circa World War 1, not the 1960s), and like Minecraft, the "blocky world" motif is extended to all models in the game such that you will not encounter anything that isn't made up of 90 degree angles, albeit texture resolution is much higher than minecraft though the textures themselves are more simplified in nature, and the game's handling, level design and UI (as well as sounds and music) seem to be trying to evoke an old school atari/amiga feel.    Like Minecraft (there's a lot of that prepositional phrase in this review, isn't there?), in screenshots this makes the game look old and ugly, whereas in game itself you feel what they're aiming for and it's not a detriment to the experience.

The game supports multiple modes, though all of them are multiplayer and take place on official servers divided into 4 geographic regions (West US, East US, Europe and Australia).  Players can play in any region and on any server they choose.  The modes are all variations of the first person shooter theme, many of which you've seen before, such as Capture the Flag, Team Deathmatch, and so on. However there are also other modes that are more uncommon (though not all unheard of) - "Zombie," in which players try to survive while a zombie player kills and infects them, turning them into zombies to then chase the remaining living players.  Demolition shifts the focus from killing players to destroying blocks, or rebuilding your base - first team whose base gets destroyed loses.  And there are many more, such as VIP, Diamond mine, and so on.

In most modes, you have a choice of 4 character archetypes to choose from.  The Commando specializes in heavy weapons but lacks in construction and mobility (unless you count rocket jumping), the Marksman who can snipe enemy players to death with one shot but is nearly helpless in close quarters, the Rocketeer is the most mobile of the classes, using jet and rocket packs to zoom through the sky at faster than sprinting speed, but being more lightly armed than all the other classes, and the Miner who is by far the most adept at building and destroying blocks but whose weaponry is only effective at extremely short range.   The utility of each class varies from map to map.  Obviously in demolition game mode, the miner shines, and I find that in team deathmatch there's rarely a reason to use anything other than marksman or rocketeer.

There's also a mode called "Classic CTF" with no class selection - all players take the role of common soldiers equipped with a rifle, a shovel, and some grenades.  They also lack predefined building options that the specialized classes have (they can build entire pillboxes with one click), instead being forced to use a 1x1 voxel tool. This mode is much more sedate, with much lower player mobility and a higher emphasis on WW1 style trench warfare.

The gameplay style may be derivative, but it has definite potential.  There's something for everybody in this game, and it's possible to find a role and mode that suit you very quickly and to have fun with it.  The game is technically sound - I found no bugs, though players with high latency connections are irritating for both that player and anyone trying to shoot him, as hit detection seems to take place client side (which I foresee could be trouble with cheaters down the road).  There's also some halfway-nods to physics in that, instead of hovering in the air, blocks (or groups of blocks) with no connection to the ground fall and are destroyed, making it possible to chop down/dig out towers, trees, and other structures by completely destroying their foundation.  When everything comes together, Ace of Spades is a lot of fun.

The problem is there is so much that can and does go wrong.

First and foremost is the playerbase.  We've spent the last 10 or so years in online gaming discovering that if you give players a method by which they can exploit the game unfairly, or in a manner that allows them to irritate other players, they will do so relentlessly.  I've never met so many unrepentant dicks in an online game as I have in my few days of playing Ace of Spades - not even on PVP servers of MMOs going back to 1998.  Spawn camping is a rampant problem in all game modes except zombie (and only not there because there is no respawning in zombie games), and is often the easiest and best path to a high score - simply standing behind where player pop up, getting headshot after headshot as they spawn.  Also, in the games I've played, at least half the time, my team's base structures were destroyed more by assholes on my own team than by any activity by the enemy team - your own teammates will frequently undermine and destroy their own team's structures and efforts out of boredom, confusion, frustration, or outright dickishness. 
There are also flaws in the game's design - in CTF games (especially classic ctf), every fight invariably becomes a contest of tunneling - it's much easier to simply dig a tiny tunnel from your base to theirs and try to steal the intel briefcase right out from under their noses, and it becomes frustrating because there's no real defense from that - blocks you build dig away just as easily as regular dirt.  Furthermore, a problem specific to classic CTF is that the intelligence never returns to base after being dropped, so you have to defend it where it falls for the rest of the game, unless it is grabbed and captured again.  This is exacerbated by the lowest level of any map being a "knee deep water" tile which cannot be dug out and the intel cannot be raised off of by building under it - so once the intel is brought down to the "water table" so to speak, it cannot be moved back up to the surface by any method other than the enemy taking it and moving it there (which they never do) or capturing it (which seems an inevitability by that point).  The game's communication is unintuitive and easily missed (tiny words in the bottom left corner with no box around it), which can foster frustration between cooperating team members, and often leads to competing ideas of what to build turning back into your team undermining your own buildings again because they're in the way of what THEY want to build.  In 2013, I'm surprised there's not a proximity-based VOIP solution as there is in other games such as Planetside 2, Saint's Row 3, and pretty much every console multiplayer game currently out.  And finally, the rectangular map design lends itself to players skirting the absolute edges of the map to shimmy their way around behind the other team's spawn - there really should have been some obstacles of "unbreakable" blocks (no such thing in the game as it stands) to prevent this sort of cheap maneuver. 

There's also some missed potential in the form of private servers - there aren't any.  All the servers you play on are official, company-run servers.  This means there's no admin to monitor against dickish behavior or police the chat.  Furthermore, each server sticks to one mode, but they all rotate maps after every round.  Unlike TF2, where you can almost always be assured of finding a 24/7 YourFavoriteMap server, no such option is available in Ace of Spades.  You want to play on a certain map, you have to wait for it to come around in the rotation again, or change to another server already running it - and hope the match isn't 90% over when you get there.

All in all, Ace of Spades is an intriguing concept put to market without requisite polish.  When you play with good people, it's good fun - but there's lots of bad people and no way to avoid playing with them.  It gets bonus points for being a low cost title from an indie developer, but some of its shortcomings could have been addressed in game design but were not.  I've played a lot worse games with a lot higher price tags, but the frequency of in-game frustration can't be taken lightly and prevents this game from realizing its amazing potential.

Verdict: C+.  If you can get it on sale for 5 bucks, it's worth playing, but it won't rise to the levels of infatuation experienced by either of its spiritual progenitors (TF2 and Minecraft). 

1 comment:

DimentoGraven said...

Another great review, thanks!