Swarming with mediocrity. (Ha! That's kinda mean I guess)
Swarm is a very very strange game. It’s an awkward mishmash of Tony Hawk combo based scoring, Pikmin-ish style character controls, and the adorable murder of your own minions. The latest title from developer Hothead Games has a lot of really fun ideas that you rarely ever see together. And sometimes these ideas go together perfectly, but at other times they fail… hard.
You are some kind of alien species that needs DNA; or to be more specific, your “Momma” needs DNA (I’m sure there’s a really good yo momma joke in there somewhere, but I just don’t feel like trying very hard.) At the start of each level your alien queen “Momma” spits out fifty swarmites, the characters you control, and off you go to collect DNA strands. Controlling your swarm is the strangest and most unique thing about the game. You don’t control any one swarmite, you control the entire group, each little guy runs, jumps, and dies at your command! You can also manipulate your swarm with different button presses, spread your guys out to collect scattered strands of DNA or huddle them together to dash through obstacles and bash into enemies.
While the controls of your swarm are one of the games biggest selling points, it’s also where many of the problems start to show up. Your swarm is not a particularly precise group, which makes loosely running around the levels very fun and whimsical, but way too often there are obstacles which require a level of precision that just isn’t possible. That coupled with the fact that the camera will often position itself in odd ways where you can’t really tell where your little blue dudes are in relation to the plethora of death-traps that await you.
Just like the swarm controls, the scoring is both one of the most interesting and most annoying aspects of the game. You get points for collecting different strands of DNA, destroying boxes and enemies, and killing your own swarmites. As you keep getting points you increase your combo multiplier, when you’re not getting points you’re combo meter slowly ticks down. When it runs out you get all the points times the multiplier. Killing your own guys to keep the combo meter from running down may seem like the annoying part, but it’s not. It’s actually really fun when you see that combo meter running down and there’s no DNA in sight, so you just throw one of your guys off a ledge to keep it going. The madness is with how they parcel out the levels.
How does level progression work in just about every game ever made? You play a level, beat it, then move on to the next stage right? Not in swarm. Each level has a point requirement that has to be reached in order to open up the next level. Unfortunately the first time going through each level you most likely won’t be able to get the required amount. So for almost every level in the game as soon as I beat it, I had to play the level one more time, remembering where all the good spots for points and what traps to avoid, just so I could move on. These is potential for more annoyance in that in order to unlock boss battles you have to collect enough special DNA strands that are hidden in each level. It never was a problem for me as I already had to go through each level a few times just to get to the point requirement and I usually got most of the special DNA strands along the way. But if you weren’t as observant or diligent, then you would have to go back to each level and search for a few hidden strands in each place.
The final unusual nail in the coffin was the instability of the game. I literally could never play more than two levels before this game would crash and lockup my 360, causing me to have to restart the entire console. I’m not exaggerating; often times I wouldn’t even be able to get into a level before the game locked up. I looked around online and saw that this was happening to a lot of people, but it also wasn’t happening to a lot of people. Go figure. I have been incredibly frustrated playing this game, partly because of actual gameplay, but mostly about the abundance of technical issues. However seeing that this issue doesn’t seem to affect everybody, I’m going to be a nice guy and not let the game crashing influence the score I’m giving it, but take this paragraph as a warning.
Besides the two main issues of level progression and occasional shoddy controls, the game is actually quite fun. Trying to keep that combo meter from running out while ruthlessly sacrificing your swarmites for the greater good is pretty compelling. There are also special “death metals” to earn by killing your chubby bug-eyed minions in a variety of ways. I always encourage people to try the demo of a game before they buy it, but that goes double for Swarm as the control style alone might put a lot of people off. The core gameplay is fun but Swarm is a jack of all trades and master of none, mixing in enough cool and interesting ideas, but never really hitting any of them out of the park.