Giant Bomb Review

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Swarm Review

3
  • PS3N
  • XBGS

Swarm does no one thing particularly well, but it does enough things well enough to keep you coming back, even against your better judgment.

Imagine Pikmin, Lemmings, and Bulletstorm having some kind of creepy, scientifically denounced three-way baby, and you'd have something that resembles the makeup of Swarm. This strategy-puzzle-platforming thing tasks the player with murdering scads of brainlessly innocent blue creatures, all in the name of an ever-climbing score multiplier. The wanton destruction of cute things for the sake of points is certainly an admirable pursuit, but developer Hothead Games never quite manages to make a lasting impression. For all its precious murder, Swarm is a peculiarly bland game, more noteworthy for its inconsistent challenge level than its sense of humor. And yet, an odd, addictive quality remains...

 This dude? Totally going to die.
The titular swarm you take control of is made up of tiny blue things, spewed forth in bunches of 50 by an Alien queen-like mother, who requires her brood to set forth across a harsh wasteland, collecting DNA strands to help her evolve into…something. The swarm is controlled as a single unit, which you can bunch up or spread out as needed, but which is always controlled via a single control stick. It's a blob of individual parts that can be shaped in a few different ways, depending on what obstacles are put forth in front of you.

Each DNA strand you collect goes toward building up your multiplier. Every stage comes stamped with a specific score that must be hit before you can progress (with the promise of high scores displayed on leaderboards for those who can master the multiplier), and achieving those scores requires careful, thoughtful navigation, and often sacrifice. Killing the members of your swarm isn't just an unfortunate circumstance, it's a necessity. Using the game's charge move to bust up boxes and enemies full of delicious DNA requires a payment of at least one swarm creature. Likewise, sometimes collecting difficult-to-reach troves of DNA means sending a few swarm guys to certain doom. Sometimes, you can even opt to keep your streak alive simply by making it a point to kill off some of your swarm.  
 
Killing them actually earns you points toward your streak, but that's OK, because you can always get more. Respawn points are littered throughout each stage, and while they won't just regenerate new swarm members forever, the frequency with which you can regain swarmites quickly trains you to understand that their death is a noble sacrifice, not to be mourned, but to be celebrated. Sadly, that celebration is short-lived. Once you start progressing deeper into the game, what little joy one might extract from the mildly amusing deaths of the swarmites will be quickly replaced with enervating frustration.

 You can't make an omelet without breaking a few blue guys.
Swarm is a game of blind progression. Traps and pitfalls are rarely telegraphed with much warning, leaving you to simply react. That would be fine, were the controls more actively responsive. One mechanic, where you have to stack the swarm members atop one another in a leaning tower of squishy blue, is all but useless. Gaining perspective on where you need to be to hit the tall thing you need to hit with your stacked swarm is difficult, given the game's static side-view camera angle, and even getting the swarm to stack is inconsistent, given the required button-mashing commands and the sluggish, awkward reactions of the swarm. 
 
Even running away is a chore. You have to constantly dart forward using the dash mechanic, which requires you to hold down a trigger button, release and press another trigger button over and over to keep dashing forward. Alternately, you can use the speed jump (which replaces the second trigger with the jump button) but the result is the same. The swarmites, hard as they try, cannot always keep up with the flurries of commands you sometimes have to toss at them, resulting in accidental deaths. Yes, they are expendable, but oftentimes you don't want them to die, as you'll need larger numbers to activate switches that release higher volumes of DNA.

The end result is a game that is requires less brainpower and more hope and prayer for success. This is a game in which finding the end of the level is often less a blessing than a curse, as all too often you'll happen upon mother's awaiting tendril and realize you're thousands of points away from the clearing goal. This means that many stages will require multiple plays. Similarly, you'll repeat many of the same level sections again and again as you fly blindly into obnoxiously obfuscated traps. Occasional bouts with bosses do little to improve matters, and by the time you reach the game's final levels, you'll be crestfallen to realize that all that irritation you've endured was over the course of a relatively small handful of levels. You can get a solid several hours of play out of Swarm, but most of that will come from level repetition.

That tentacle is either a sign of glorious victory, or soul-crushing defeat.
Swarm also just isn't quite celebratory enough when it comes to its desire for death. If you're going to make a game about squishy-cute genocide, it makes logical sense that you'd want to make it as funny as possible. Hothead occasionally flirts with amusingly gratuitous violence, offering closeups of the last members of your herd being impaled, burned, electrocuted or suffocated right before you have to restart a level section. But more often, the death takes a backseat to the action on screen. It makes sense that the developer wouldn't want to break up the action with constant highlights of death, but even the moments where it does choose to spotlight the splatters of blue blood and swarm carcasses aren't especially funny or entertaining. There are the game's "death medals" which signify your progress in meeting certain death goals ("progressive death medals" and "mega death medals" are also included), and the game's title screen does let you kill a single swarm creature over and over in a variety of different ways. But beyond that, the game's brand of adorable sadism just isn't fetishistic enough to stand out.

And yet, for all its shortcomings, Swarm is a game that somehow inspires you to keep playing. Maybe it's just because its primary idea--treating your swarm like a herd of lambs to the slaughter all for the sake of keeping that multiplier high--is such a solid one. Even as the level designs seek to frustrate you beyond measure, the game remains strangely addictive. If this were simply a bad game, you'd give up and move onto something else. But something at the core of Swarm keeps you coming back, despite all reason to the contrary. Through gritted teeth and skyrocketing blood pressure, you keep playing those same levels again and again for reasons that cannot be, well, reasoned with. I don't know if I can call Swarm fun, but I don't think I can call it not fun, either. It's something inexplicably in between. Alex Navarro on Google+
50 Comments
Posted by MassiveDuck

interested in this game

Posted by Doog

Aw man... 3/5

Posted by DanHammett

DAMMIT

Posted by Yummylee

Oh right, this game. Completely forgot about this :o

Posted by cyraxible

Alex, you're becoming my favorite reviewer. And remember guys a 3/5 isn't bad.  

Posted by PaulKemp

nice

Posted by Legend

Hm, this looked promising. I was hoping for a five stars game. :(

Posted by IamTerics

  

Edited by Winsord

This game look pretty neat from the video a while back;  3 stars is an alright score.

Posted by HadesTimes

Wow, this doesn't seem like something I'd enjoy.

Posted by louiedog

I played through the first couple of levels and was a little disappointed. Maybe that was the leftover sourness from playing Ghostbusters right before. I really loved Swarm in the quick look, but playing it wasn't as enjoyable as I thought it would be. I'll go back in and try some more tonight.

Posted by Eribuster

@IamTerics 
"More death equals more points!" That trailer is vicious. I found myself chuckling at it.

Posted by craigbo180

Yeah always thought this looked interesting but would turn out mediocre, I will get this somewhere down the line but only when its on sale.

Posted by cooljammer00

Now is it REALLY for the PS3 and Xbox version?

Posted by MrCellophane
@Winsord said:
" This game look pretty neat from the video a while back;  4 stars is a pretty good score. "
Yeah, except it only got 3.
 
Still... The Saboteur also got 3 stars, and I had a blast playing that game, so 3 stars is certainly not "bad" per se.  But the mention of sluggish controls makes me wary - I fucking hate sluggish controls more than anything. It made me stop playing the Overlord series.
Posted by benjaebe

3/5 isn't bad, but with all the great stuff coming out lately I can't really justify the 1200/$15 price tag. I'd be more than happy to pick it up when it's on sale in the future though.

Edited by Oginam

@Alex   Did you manage to get the 70x multiplier or 42 million score achievements? If so, do you remember on which level(s)? I'm curious if there's more than one where those are possible (for me it was level 4 and the leaderboards bear that out in regards to the score at least).
 

@cyraxible

said:

" And remember guys a 3/5 isn't bad.   " 

Posted by TurboMan

I really hate the wording of the headline of the review... although it's grammatically correct.

Posted by JetForceGemini

It just seems like Hothead games ain't so hot at making games. 

Posted by RampageAssassin

Was interested in this but now that's plummeted. 

Posted by kickinthehead
@Oginam: I managed to get the 70X multiplier on level 4, but the 42,000,000 is a rather daunting task O_O
Posted by Tordah

If only it was Progressive death metals I'd be totally on board.

Edited by JTB123

It's not very often that I disagree with a review on here, I found the controls very responsive and the Swarm were very easy to control. Thinking up strategies to best make use of the spawn locations and abilities to gain the highest score possible is very rewarding. The stacking isn't great, but far from useless, it just takes a little practice to get it the timing and pacing for it to work how you want. Swarm is a game that requires practice, you're not going to breeze though the levels on your first, second, or even third try. I think it's great when an £10 game can offer that kind of replayability, but that's just me, that's the kind of game I like.
 
I would definitely recommend Swarm, if you enjoy Lemmings, this game is great for the same reasons.  
 
 
@kickinthehead:  I think it was level 3 I got 42+ million achievement. It takes a while to get the rhythmn down as you can combo the entire level, I finished with 63 mill for that stage so there's a fairly large margin for error. Hope that helps.

Edited by beard_of_zeus
@kickinthehead said:

" @Oginam: I managed to get the 70X multiplier on level 4, but the 42,000,000 is a rather daunting task O_O "

Same here. It seems like level 4 is the only level that is possible to pull it off in though, you probably have to get a good enough time bonus multiplier to get the necessary score.
 
As for the game itself, I picked it up yesterday and managed to beat it within about 4 hours, but I've been going back to collect all the DNA and try to set some good scores. I really wish there were more levels, but instead I'm finding myself getting really good at the ones that are included. Alex is right on with how addictive the game is, the core scoring mechanics are very solid and encourage you to replay the levels. Regardless of the 3-star review, I feel like I can still recommend people check it out, I personally enjoyed it a lot, even though I have to agree with some of the claims made. 
 
It can be a very reactive game, but it didn't think it was as frustrating as was claimed, both control-wise or in terms of level design. Nothing wrong with having to make some quick jumps while you are being chased or dodging some spikes :) You have some many Swarmites and can replenish them often enough that I didn't find myself minding when some of them got killed out of nowhere.
 
Still, a good review, regardless of the fact that I disagree about the overall quality/fun level of the game. I think I may have enjoyed it more just because I really didn't mind having to replay levels or sections of levels, and I found it satisfying to make a really good run through a level and rack up all those delicious points, so I guess your personal mileage may vary.
Posted by ComradeCrash

Too bad.

Posted by NickNorman

Alex used the term "over and over" twice in this review. Just saying! 
 
I'll probably download the demo, but I could buy a bunch of Rock Band tracks instead... Decisions.

Edited by Winsord
@MrCellophane: It had a 4 when I posted that, I swear. XD (More so just me being blind is more likely)
Posted by RagingLion

I was really interested in the core concept behind this game and really liked the promise of the first experimental game footage by I don't like the structure they eventually chose for this game.  Personally they lost me as soon as they started pushing score and a multiplier .. ugh.  I would much rather have a story and adventure.

Posted by alternate

After Shane came all the way to the office and pimped it you went and made him cry ;-(

Posted by President_Barackbar
@MrCellophane said:
" @Winsord said:
" This game look pretty neat from the video a while back;  4 stars is a pretty good score. "
Yeah, except it only got 3.  Still... The Saboteur also got 3 stars, and I had a blast playing that game, so 3 stars is certainly not "bad" per se.  But the mention of sluggish controls makes me wary - I fucking hate sluggish controls more than anything. It made me stop playing the Overlord series. "
3 stars is a "worth a look if you're into the concept and can forgive some flaws"
Online
Posted by FrEeZe
@JetForceGemini said:
" It just seems like Hothead games ain't so hot at making games.  "
No one's going to be swarming to buy this game
Posted by DG991

I thought alex reviewed movies.... 
 
God this guy is everywhere. 

Posted by Xeiphyer
@DG991 said:
" I thought alex reviewed movies....  God this guy is everywhere.  "
You must be new. Alex used to work at Gamespot with the rest of them, so he knows how to review games, and sometimes does it for certain games on GB.
Posted by Xpgamer7

Undead knights

Posted by radioactivez0r

Not a huge fan of games whose major replay draw is leaderboards, so I'll probably wait for a sale.  It does look neat, though.

Posted by Oginam
@beard_of_zeus: @kickinthehead: 
 
I went back and tried getting higher scores/multipliers on most of the levels but no dice. I find it really odd that there are 2 achievements that relate to one level like that.  
 
Not hard to get with some practice though - managed a 1.8 time multiplier with a 100x score multiplier (single combo on the whole level) which ended up somewhere around 60 million. And that isn't even in the top ten for scores.
Posted by FesteringNeon

It's a shame this game doesn't live up to my expectations, based on the review. It looked pretty promising in the QLEX.

Posted by MisterMouse

I LOVE THE RANGO REFERENCE!

Posted by Areyow

I think Alex needs to have his own avatars for each star, like the rest of the gang does.  He reviews enough games to warrant that.

Edited by bkbroiler
@Areyow said:

" I think Alex needs to have his own avatars for each star, like the rest of the gang does.  He reviews enough games to warrant that. "

Seconded! Alex be reviewing games like a mother.
Posted by latros
@pyromaster222 said:
" I LOVE THE RANGO REFERENCE! "
What Rango reference? 
 
I saw that movie recently, and re-read his whole damn review twice now and can't for the life of me find the Rango reference. This is driving me insane. 
 
DO TELL!
Posted by insane_shadowblade85
@FrEeZe said:
" @JetForceGemini said:
" It just seems like Hothead games ain't so hot at making games.  "
No one's going to be swarming to buy this game "

Make it stop, make it stop! 
*Runs away*
Posted by Underachiever007

Good review, Alex.

Posted by heatDrive88

This is unfortunate, the game looked half-decent in the Quick Look EX from awhile back. 
 
I'll give the demo a try regardless, as everyone always should.

Posted by SuperJew

I rarely disagree with reviews here as well... 
 
While this review is well done, I would have rated it a bit higher.  I tend to not have a lot of patience when it comes to more challenging games, but every time i fail a level, I am excited to try it again. I thought the controls were a tiny bit loose, and the speed boost could have a bit more pop, but otherwise they are pretty good.  The stacking is a bit random, and can take a bit too long to get right. 
 
I love the design and the humor. 
 
I am experiencing a freeze issue (XBLA).  Started when I was looking at the leaderboards for level 3. Fixed it by quickly swapping to friends as opposed to global.

Posted by Tupacalypse

ill buy this because i LOVE the concept and ideas here and the fact that the little blue guys are fucking funny as shit. hopefully in the future they will improve it via sequal or something. call that a shitty reason to buy a game, but whatever.

Posted by code_echo
I disagree with this review as well.  I think I'm most of the way through the game at this point, and while it is frustrating at times, I feel the game itself is well done.    I agree on a couple points -- I'd love to see more over-the-top close up deaths as well, given the huge focus on it in every trailer and review, but Hothead made a wise decision in not letting it get in the way of the actual gameplay.  Sure, it's fun to see the gruesome deaths of these adorably stupid creatures, but that's not the point of the game.  I for one appreciate the game not jumping around going, "LOOK AT ME!  LOOK AT WHAT I'M DOING!  THINGS ARE BEING DISMEMBERED!  ISN'T THAT HILARIOUS?  NOW LOOK AGAAAAIN!"  The camera's a bit odd at times and can make it difficult to judge depth when aiming for a high target, but I found the controls to be very responsive (if a little odd in their execution) and get easier with practice. 
 
I was sad to see pages of people already disheartened enough to just write the game off after this review.  I think it deserves at least a playthrough of the demo before being dismissed so shortly.  I'm really enjoying it, all in all, and I hope others will actually give it a chance before chalking it up as a game not worth your time.
Posted by yogetoutdaway

The one thing that bothers me about Alex's review is that he writes as if his experiences are those of the reader. "...it does things well enough to keep you coming back, even against your better judgment." That's an oddly specific experience for a vast number of individuals to share, isn't it?

Edited by Bollard

Am I really the only one who saw the glaring grammatical error in the first paragraph? 

This strategy-puzzle-platforming thing tasks the player will murdering scads of brainlessly innocent blue creatures, all in the name of an ever-climbing score multiplier.     

That should say "with," right? 
 
Also thanks a lot Alex for making me really, really wanna play Sheep now. Now that'd be a 3DS game I'd buy...
Posted by EgoCheck616
@President_Barackbar said:
" @MrCellophane said:
" @Winsord said:
" This game look pretty neat from the video a while back;  4 stars is a pretty good score. "
Yeah, except it only got 3.  Still... The Saboteur also got 3 stars, and I had a blast playing that game, so 3 stars is certainly not "bad" per se.  But the mention of sluggish controls makes me wary - I fucking hate sluggish controls more than anything. It made me stop playing the Overlord series. "
3 stars is a "worth a look if you're into the concept and can forgive some flaws" "
And that's why I love the 5 star system. Anything higher and you begin to lose focus of what the reviewer is trying to say.