Ugh, freaking meatbags!! I hate humans with every byte of my processing power. They're so unreliable and lazy, too useless to even survive a paltry robotic apocalypse by themselves. What a waste of perfectly good carbon. I'd shred the lot of them with my defence drones if only my boss' wife didn't think they were adorable.
But with a little genetic tampering... some laser vision here, extra arms there and a brain slug for good measure... perhaps they could be useful after all. Better. Stronger. More durable and obedient. Or at least live long enough to help me keep my job.
Such is the premise of Freaking Meatbags, a surprising fusion of real-time strategy, tower defence, twinstick shooting and gene splicing that has officially graduated from Early Access this week. Having played it extensively throughout the alpha funding phase, then getting access to the launch build several days in advance via the beta branch, I'm happy to report that it's exactly the kind of game we love to see go through Early Access. A strong, relatively simple yet innovative idea that works well and delivers on its realistic plan.
The plan, in this case, being to strip-mine a solar system. Players assume the role of Chip, a workaday robot employee of a massive mechanical conglomerate, tasked with scraping all the materials off of a number of worlds for his/its demanding boss. Unfortunately hordes of feral robots do their best to make that as difficult as possible. With Chip's job, relationship and life on the line, you'll need to use both strategy, quick reflexes and the local wildlife's genetic code to pull it off.
Most missions resemble traditional tower defence fare, in that you'll need to defend a base from attack as a number of waves of foes arrive at preset intervals. As such you'll set up defensive towers and walls from a small number of distinct flavours, creating choke points, kill zones and corridors with a compact yet always-expanding selection of options and support structures. The mechanics are simple, well-explained and accessible to relative genre lightweights.
In the first twist of many, however, Chip travels down to the planet himself and acts as your avatar, hovering around the level with traditional WASD controls. You'll soon unlock the ability to pick up and use defence drones that grant you direct firepower, turning Freaking Meatbags into a twinstick shooter at times, while granting you the freedom to roam and explore the maps for resources. Some missions even favour a more open style with more freeform objectives, letting you get out and stretch your legs. Repulsors. Thrusters?
But Chip can't get the job done by himself. It's time to meet the meatbags.
Humans and other organic life-forms form a reluctant workforce, willing to help you out since you're all that stands between them and the wild robot onslaught. They're all brought to life with randomised names, pithily-written bios and an array of unique traits from mining to combat. Your meatbags quickly become the lifeblood of your operation thanks to robust RTS commands, capable of mining resources, inhabiting towers for extra damage, crewing machinery and even engaging in combat if they're capable of doing so, permanently gaining experience as you take your favourites from planet to planet.
But you can't rely on humans to get the job done. They're lazy, often slacking off until you hover over and chide them back to work. And they're so useless, often incapable of defending themselves in any way, the squishy organic sods. Luckily DNA is such a delightfully mutable thing...
Once you build a DNA mixing machine, you can start to breed better specimens by picking and choosing the best traits of a particular human with another meatbag -- whether a homo sapien or alien fauna. Four arms makes for faster mining. Aggressive genes grant you withering tower power. Laser vision does exactly what it says on the tin, while even suicidal exploding meatbags or obedient brain slug-addled drones are all within reach.
Freaking Meatbags does a great job of introducing this mechanic slowly and deliberately so you don't become overwhelmed, then challenging you to quickly identify and breed the perfect specimens under intense fire and tight time limits. All while constructing defences and rushing about like a robot possessed to keep your operation ticking over and bolster any gaps in your line. Thankfully a handy slow-motion Overclock mode is available in a pinch, though an overly enthusiastic blur effect can become uncomfortable after a while.
It's hectic, stressful, often difficult and, most importantly, it works. Though an ambitious concept, Wild Factor's tiny team -- basically two blokes, one of whom just handled the writing! -- pulled it off, using the handsome 16-bit art direction and a compact campaign length (with multiple difficulty settings per planet to enhance replay value) to keep costs down and ensure that the project left early access as a complete and solid product, not a SpaceBase-style disappointment.
Despite its success, though, Freaking Meatbags does have its problems. It strays into trial and error territory a tad too often for my liking, frequently because it takes its sweet time before revealing enemy spawn point locations before each wave. If you don't have the resources, you're starting again. Some of the tougher stages also seem to have a 'right' answer and incredibly tight wave time limits, which stops the innovative gene splicing mechanic from ever quite fulfilling its full potential as you don't have the time to really experiment with it.
Speaking of splicing, the fact that you'll take Meatbags with you between levels also has an annoying downside. Forming an attachment to your favourite bastardisations of bad science may be a welcome emotional hook, speaking as a Cannon Fodder and XCOM Iron Man Mode fan, but it effectively adds an extra failure condition. It's entirely possible to beat a level but incur grievous losses in the process, leaving you with an aggravating conundrum.
Do you resign yourself to replaying the level? Do you go to the next level in the knowledge that you might not actually be able to beat it, seeing as you probably won't have the manpower to survive or even harvest enough resources? Or do you continually return to previously-beaten stages to clone and create some replacements?
To use the Cannon Fodder analogy, this is like completing a level after losing Jools and Jops... but starting the next one with only Stoo. And a few bizarre natives. The ability to stick around in beaten levels for more than 5 seconds to splice up some reinforcements could have fixed this, as would the ability to recruit/clone new meatbags between levels or starting new stages with more basic native humans, but as things stand I've often found myself gritting my teeth after winning missions, not just losing them.
A skirmish mode might have also done the trick and massively increased replay value in the process, but by the looks of the Steam forums Wild Factor freely admit that they couldn't implement it and refused to do so. Good on them. Better to deliver on the game you can as well as you can, as opposed to cramming a load of broken and half-finished features into a shambling malformed mess!
Pay attention, Double Fine.
That's why, despite its pitfalls and the fact that it could have been bigger and better if Wild Factor had more resources and time, I still find myself in love with Freaking Meatbags. It's a great idea executed well, making three overplayed genres feel fresh and new and delivering a polished and robust experience that lasts as long as it needs to to ensure value for money at only £7.99.
Early Access has had its fair share of failures, but its successes make them all worthwhile. Here's another one.
- Solid and accessible tower defence, RTS & SHMUP mechanics
- Innovative genetic experimentation and hectic hybrid gameplay
- Handsome visuals and pithy writing
- Appropriately priced at £7.99
- Some levels seem predicated on trial and error
- Losing meatbags can force to to restart or replay earlier levels
- Uncomfortable blur effect during Overclock mode
The Short Version: Freaking Meatbags makes three hackneyed genres feel fresh and exciting again, uniting real-time strategy, tower defence and twinstick shooting with the simple joys of obscene genetic experimentation. Though it sometimes feels like the prototype for a timeless classic, the tiny team managed to deliver a solid, stylish, humorous and satisfying package at a bargain price.
Freaking brilliant, I reckon. Now stop slacking and report to the nearest DNA Mixing Station, meatbag.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platform: PC (£7.99)
Developer: Wild Factor