02 October 2014

Velocity 2X Review (PSVita)

Velocity 2X
"Aw, Hell, yeah!"
What works
1. Everything is an improvement. 
The first Velocity game had a straightforward, NES-era sensibility to it, reminiscent of games like Metal Storm or Contra. The art direction and level design was simple, some might even say bland or samey, and enemy variety was a tad underwhelming, but it was cohesive and solid, everything fitting together perfectly. On top of that, it had very tight controls and unparalleled gameplay. It was almost perfect, hardly feeling like a Playstation mini
Velocity 2X might seem like it does very little to build on its predecessor, with many changes so subtle, they can be easily missed, and it's doubtful many will appreciate them. The artwork is still overall minimalistic with its textures and color palettes, but many levels have such fine details and subtle touches (like waterfalls that surprise you with a sense of height) that it's easy to get lost in the sheer beauty of certain spots.

2. Gunning and running. 
When I first saw the screenshots of the "on foot" segments, I was a little bit worried. It seemed like the step the folks at FuturLab took off the ship was a timid, cautious one that played it safe and checked with its neighbor. Frankly, it looked like an endless runner. Don't get me wrong, that would have made sense, and I love many of those games like Jetpack Joyride and Canabalt, but it would have felt like a token gesture toward expanding on the original concept. Luckily, I was so very wrong and I couldn't be happier about it. It is, in fact, a fully-realized sidescrolling platforming shooter with puzzles and exploration. There's even some combat and physics thrown in for good measure. It reminded me of Major Havoc with a touch of Metroid, all with the slick polish of WayForward's Bloodrayne: Betrayal. Kai Tana has extremely fluid and graceful animations, whether it's leaping across a disintegration field or firing her palm blaster (which makes me think of Vanessa Z. Schneider from P.N.03, a stylistically similar title I also happen to love) or even waiting for an elevator.

3. That certain... I don't know what. 
Actually, I do, but it's a little hard to describe. The short, crude version of it is: it makes you feel like a badass. Word is that the development team had to insist on a female lead even as far back as the first game, when we never left the ship. I, for one, am glad they stuck to their guns and delivered an awesome character who manages to be dead sexy, and does so on her own terms. When you're standing in a chamber of crystal deposits firing that hand cannon in a circle, shards of glass and debris falling all around you, it's hard not to let a smiling, "Aw, Hell yeah!" escape your lips. Before long, you're taking down Vokh patrols like it's second nature. You'll be flinging bombs at switches and turrets like you can see the future. You'll have distributing telepods down like a science. All, this, and you'll know it's you doing it, not some contextual action script set to Quick Time Events or button-mashing. That's a hard feeling to achieve, and this game nails it.

What doesn't work 
1. The side scrolling stages have room for improvement. 
It was often difficult to use the teledash while jumping or falling, and it would be nice if I could simply tap the screen rather than aiming exclusively with the controls. It would also be nice if your telepod inventory was separate from those you have for the Quarpjet (there's a notable size difference). I actually managed to just about break the game because I didn't realize I'd used up all my telepods back on the ship and got myself stuck. Of course, I could probably have backtracked to the ship, but since I didn't realize the inventory was shared, I thought it was a glitch. On that note, while the idea of the telepods to get through narrow hazards is great, it felt like I was having my hand held for far too long. At various points in the levels, there are these pads you're meant to stand on and aim your telepod at. I could understand these in the level wherein you're introduced to the mechanic, but having them throughout the game feels like there's no strategy to it.

2. Speaking of telepods... 
While micromanagement of telepods is vastly improved, namely the fact that you can retrieve spent pods through the map screen, the "shortcut" of hopping over to the last pod dropped by double-tapping the triangle button is a surefire way to get innards smeared across a bulkhead. At least two out of three tries caused me to drop two more pods where I stood. That double tap has to be just perfect, and I could never do it on command. The sidescrolling stages didn't have this problem, which makes me wonder if this could possibly be a runtime issue. 

3. Speed Pads Are Worthless. 
Velocity is a thinking man's shooter. In a game that already invigorates its genre by favoring pre-planning and exploration over twitch reflexes, having parts that railroad the player onto a fast track feels tacky. What's the point to the thrill of the added speed if you've got to be that much more alert with your teleporting? It's not even as though they're placed in strategic locations that would give you the best of both worlds if you were quick thinking enough to hit each one in rapid succession. To be fair, toward the end, one mission had them placed so close to upcoming walls that I had to resort to the old control method of teleporting, which was admittedly a nice touch. Still, I'd rather speed pads have been part of the DLC or bonus missions.

4. Mission 42 became the bane of my existence and nearly led to a ragequit. 
As great as touch controls are for teleporting across the map, it's not half as precise as it could be. I was convinced I'd found a bug because no amount of tapping could get me into a space after deactivating its force field. I restarted the level twice before I found out, practically on accident that the actual "'portable" area in the space is so small that even aiming the cursor with the analog stick felt like threading a needle on the roof of a speeding train.

But my absolute biggest gripe...
5. The calculator is not scientific. 

I mean, come on, guys. You know the Vita can handle it. Hell, the PSP could have done it (though the lack of a touchscreen would make things a bit tricky). I'm not looking for graphing capabilities or currency conversion or reverse Polish notation, I just want to know the spirit of the great warrior shaman SoCaToah is watching over me wherever I take my Vita.

What I'd like to see next. 
By favoring exploration, Velocity solves the problem of the Vita being widescreen. In typical SHMUPS, the gameplay favors verticality, with many arcade cabinets having their monitors mounted sideways. Velocity, meanwhile, started on the PSP, and therefore added a more pronounced X-axis to the movement repertoire. That said, I would love to see a version of Velocity that favors a vertical screen, namely a smartphone. Between Playstation Mobile and Playstation Now, I'd really love to see what Futurlab can do with more visual real estate.

Cooperative play may not be any sort of a game changer, but it may be a fun idea to explore. As a fan of The Last Starfighter (which, given some of your alien companion Ralan's lines, I think the developers are, too), it would be a great exercise in teamwork to relegate flying to one pilot with weapons and teleporting to a co-pilot.
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