Tuesday, March 11, 2014

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New on Steam: Stripmine The Skies in Single-Player Steampunk Sandbox Windforge

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Janine "Iris Ophelia" Hawkins' ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

As popular as sandbox gaming is right now, one of the most common criticisms levelled against these open-ended experiences is that they often rely too heavily on the player to find their own purpose in the game's world. This can be overwhelming both for players that aren't used to this kind of play as well as players who prefer more a more narrative-driven experiences. Consequently, a lot of great games get dismissed because of What-Do-I-Do-Now syndrome. 

Snowed In Studios' Windforge, a single-player sandbox game with a focus on airship building and high-stakes sky battles, seems well aware of this issue. After successful Kickstarter and Greenlight campaigns, it's among the titles jockeying for attention in today's list of new releases and, while it's far from perfect, this lush-looking indie is still worth paying attention to. Here's why: 

On the surface, it might seem like the most surprising thing about Windforge are its mine-able sky whales. Those are certainly unique... Even horrific. But even so they're a gruesomely good fit for a world powered by steam engines and whale oil. However, for me the most surprising thing was how many itches this game scratched that I didn't even know I had. Itches that were looking for something close to an experience I'd already had, but with a few key variations.

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At times Windforge is like Chucklefish's planet-hopping sandbox game Starbound as you search for floating islands to mine and loot, but where Starbound currently only allows you to customize the outside of your ship Windforge gives you control over everything. It's possible and indeed very easy to render your ship completely useless if you don't maintain a balance of propellers and well-placed engines to keep it afloat, and that's a novel enough challenge to present to players.

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That same balance applies to other airships too, including the ones that might be attacking yours. This is where Windforge starts to remind me of a more manual and physical version of FTL. Taking out your enemy's weapons first is always a good plan. Eliminating the propellers responsible for horizontal movement will keep them from escaping, but if you take out the vertical props instead (or even burst the balloon that may be holding them up) you'll watch all that loot and salvageable material drop out of the sky like a stone... And that really won't do you, your wallet, or your own ship any good. 

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You can also learn a lot about yourself in an airship battle, based largely on what you do when you run out of ammo. Me? I get downright brutal.

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I've used my ship to ram smaller enemies up against nearby floating islands, pinning them between my ship's propellers and the rocky cliffs like a steam-powered food processor. At one point I began building thick stone prows on each end of my ship so that I would be able to ram with some precision, striking specific systems on enemy airships (or occasionally just impaling a weakened wooden hull) without doing quite so much damage to my own.

Brutal... But fun. The physicality of the airship combat takes getting used to, but it might be one of the most appealing parts of the game -- specifically after playing Starbound, where player ships are so rigid, so immutable, and so removed from everything else you do.

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Though I generally preferred to roam around on my own, fighting and mining and building and exploring and crafting everything from turrets to toilets, the game makes sure that you always have something specific to do if you want to do it. Admittedly these tasks are rarely complex and usually boil down to fetch-questing, so the story-side of the game might not hold up on its own. For me, it felt like a decent balance of freedom and purpose when against the flexible sandbox backdrop, but it simply may not be enough to hold everyone's interest.

There were also plenty of moments where I couldn't help but wish I was playing with friends instead of playing alone, even if it came at the expense of that structure. Those FTL-like moments of targeting an enemy's weapons or flight systems and mitigating my own ship's damage can get overwhelming in the more hostile areas of the map, but they would have been thrilling if I was working together with a crew of friends -- a pilot, a gunner, and an engineer to work on all those panicked mid-battle repairs, shouting at each other over Skype as we endeavour to take a monstrous flying whale out of the sky.

However, there's no shortage of games that can provide that kind of experience for me, while Windforge attempts to offer something that many of those same games ignore altogether. This trade-off might work for you or it might not; it all depends on how you like to play in your sandboxes.

With that said, I did have two real problems with this game...

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I played Windforge using a pre-release version provided by Snowed In Studios, and in that version I noticed some pretty significant issues with stability. Crashes seemed to occur mostly while moving inventory around between my bag, stash, and quickslots, but they were frequent enough to really interrupt the flow of all that airship adventuring. Because of this, as well as my knack for both falling off of my ship into oblivion and getting important NPCs killed, I got in the habit of quicksaving almost constantly. Other bugs have been reported, including invisible (but still mine-able) whale corpses and glitched, unusable saves.

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Additionally, the current state of character customization in the game offers a choice of gender and hair color, but not race. I contacted Snowed In and was told that player character race is a feature they're very interested to add in a future update, but that it wouldn't be available at launch. It's a shame, and I'd argue that skin color may be a more important customization option than hair color, but hopefully a fix for this is already in the works.

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The painterly artwork, the destructible world, the physicality of combat, the more guided narrative experience -- all these polished surfaces do occasionally come up against Windforge's rougher edges. While it's not for everyone, and it's unfortunately not going to be a seamless experience, it's still worth playing to experience the things it does right.

Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times, and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.


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Cool graphics :)

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