Saturday, 12 November 2011

Stealth Bastard (PC)

Sometimes writing about video games is a weird business. You pick, or are assigned, a game to review, then play it and then smack a keyboard until words come out, and sometimes they're even in the right order. That's how it's supposed to work. Then sometimes you sign up to review a game and spend the whole week playing it without putting a single word on paper because it's that gripping.

Every night of the last week I've been toughing out what I think might be the beginnings of carpal tunnel in my right hand to play Stealth Bastard: Tactical Espionage Arsehole. It's a bit good.

This PC indie game from Curve Studios takes cues from the classic 1980s switch-flipping platformer Impossible Mission, adding the shadow-hugging stealth action that has had a cast iron grip on mainstream gaming since Metal Gear Solid hit the shelves. (The developers actually describe it as a mash-up of indie-smash Super Meat Boy and Metal Gear Solid - but I see what you're saying here - JM).

I have so many good things to say about this game it's difficult to put them in order. The graphics are a good enough starting point, the first bite being with the eye and all that, and they are a lovely, grubby backdrop to Bastard's adventures. Drawing from a palette that instantly reminded me of Team 17's Alien Breed series, the backdrops set the scene for our hero's shadow-skulks perfectly. The Tactical Espionage Arsehole himself is a massively engaging character. Looking like Sam Fisher crossed with a Despicable Me! minion, if they made a t-shirt with this goggled, high foreheaded night soldier on it I would wear it until it fell to bits (I wear a Medium and prefer them in black - just throwing it out there).

Moving from praising the graphics and clumsily trying to blag merchandise, the sneaky moves of Bastard are soundtracked by a great score, backing up the gloomy graphics with imposing, tense, well polished electronica. But enough of shiny things and beeps, how does it play?

Stealth Bastard is all about hiding in the shadows; there are no weapons available to the goggled one, apart from being able to occasionally kill enemy robots using the surroundings, such as dropping them through hatches or crushing them with moving walls. Each of the levels is a (sometimes nail biting) mission to unlock the exit door and make good Bastard's escape before robot guards or laser traps ruin his day forever. There are switches to flip, doors to unlock, computer terminals to hack, and later in the game Portals to leap through. All the while watchful robots do their mechanical best to laser the spy with the big forehead to messy death. Shadows conceal our hero, with his level of visibility helpfully displayed on the bottom of the screen at all times, and the robotic foes of Bastard have their field of vision marked out in green. It's very much a game of the hunted versus the hunter and it's monstrously fun, which is why I'm typing this review on Saturday morning when I have gutters to clean, rather than any other night this week, which I managed to fill by playing the game constantly.

And, like Voxatron that I reviewed last week, there's a level editor! There's also an option to upload your creations and download those of other players. Some of them are harder than doing backwards algebra in space. Some of them also make for really heavy lag, which leads me to the downside of the game.

Stealth Bastard was coded in Game Maker, and does bring with it a degree of lag and processor hogging that comes with the GM territory. Those in possession of a CPU less than 2.0 MHz are in for pain, and with my computer clocking in at only 2.4 MHz I did experience a bit of slowdown. Not so much during the game's bundled levels, but a few inter-level breaks went all slow-mo on me and I had to ctrl-alt-del out of the game when I realised the high-scores wouldn't disappear and give way to the level select screen - and as I mentioned earlier some of the user-made levels made my computer run like it had just necked a handful of Mogadon. So yes, SB does have some of the slowness problems linked to Game Maker. On the other hand, this game was made with Game Maker! Game Maker, the system I used when I spent/wasted three months designing a really shit Nazi UFO vertical shoot em up which I just got massively sick of and deleted out of spite because it was so terrible. With this in mind Stealth Bastard is both a credit to the production team as well as a credit to the tools used to create it.

What is also special is that Curve Studios are professionals. They have job vacancies and everything, and make money out of this kind of stuff. And it's free. As a bird. And they're occasionally updating it too. For nowt. Gratis. Curve Studios, with this high class freeware gaming, you are really spoiling us.

Download the game here (from the Stealth Bastard website).

5 out of 5