Platforms: PC | PS3 | XBLA (reviewed)
Developer: Trapdoor Inc.
Publisher: EA Partners
We've had our eye on Warp for some time, ever since Trapdoor showed off their debut downloadable title to devastating advantage last April. Its sumptuous art design beckoned to us like moths to a flame, wowing us with a jarring juxtaposition of cold and sterile environments with warm, rounded character design and liberal crimson splatters of arterial blood. It was thoroughly gorgeous and subconsciously unnerving in equal measure, and I'm delighted to report that the gameplay packs enough exciting variety to do the aesthetics justice.
What's more surprising, though, is that Warp has more in common with Metal Gear Solid than that Valve puzzle game. You know the one I mean.
After being abducted by human scientists and absconded to an underwater testing facility, the adorable alien Zero has to rely on his titular ability to escape his captors. A simple tap of the A button teleports you a short distance, and can be used to either pass unimpeded through walls or inside scenery elements. Once housed within an object, a quick thumstick waggle causes them to expand and explode - resulting in a shower of shards or a fountain of crimson viscera should you be inhabiting a hapless human. As the game progresses, you'll also gain the ability to project a ghostly echo of yourself - or objects you've warped inside - and then swap positions with them by means of a single button jab. It's a simple and streamlined set of mechanics that's soon taken to ridiculous, satisfying extremes thanks to a varied selection of puzzles and time-sensitive challenges. Warping objects inside each other, swapping their positions to advantage and ignoring walls altogether soon becomes second nature, and provides a versatile foundation for cerebral puzzling.
A selection of delicious alien grubs dotted around the maps and a few unbelievably difficult challenge rooms provide you with skill points to spend on a small roster of upgrades. As you gain new abilities, you're encouraged to revisit areas and explore new portions of the facility that were previously inaccessible, which is an ever-addictive draw and pads out the play time to about 5-7 hours.
These simple mechanics could have been used to create a traditional sub-Portal puzzle game, but Warp has the beating heart of a phenomenal stealth game. Levels teem with guards, turrets and alarm systems that can quickly kill Zero with even a single hit from a shotgun or bullet spray... but the adorable little extraterrestrial is both predator and prey. Using your warp to dodge around guards' vision cones, inhabit objects while their backs are turned and then brutally murdering them when you've got the chance is both empowering and incredibly tense, and fantastically satisfying thanks to the massive tactile feedback when you reduce an armoured soldier into a pile of gore. Your echo can be employed to lure guards out of position or trick them into shooting each other - and upgraded to become a powerful land mine. Warp is a sensational stealth 'em up, and if you go in with the right mindset, becomes a sandbox for some cathartic and brilliant sneaky shenanigans.
It's also worth noting that you can complete the entire campaign without killing a single human, and it's well worth doing so on your second playthrough. Not only will you net an achievement or trophy, but the experience becomes exponentially more exciting, with once-simple stealth sections requiring split-second timing and nerves of steel to bypass. Many players will miss this opportunity, and I'd urge you not to.
In fact, I'd go as far as saying that the more traditional puzzling elements actually get in the way of all this stealthy goodness. Some of the longer timed sections and boss encounters prove to be limp and unsatisfying in comparison, more so if you haven't invested in the "right" upgrades.
When Warp works, it's absolutely phenomenal. But, as good as Trapdoor's debut proves to be, there are a number of systemic problems that conspire to annoy, confuse or downright aggravate. The controls are a little sloppy and loose, and can lead to plenty of accidental deaths when combined with an outrageous late-game difficulty spike. Some upgrades are infinitely more useful than others but explained poorly; resulting in potential for massive buyers remorse since you can't reallocate your increasingly rare skill points. And, critically, the respawn times are far too long for a game based around trial and error - meaning that you'll often spend more time looking at a loading screen than actually playing the game during some of the tougher sequences.
Presentation is also rather inconsistent, and illustrates the fact that Warp is very much a 'first' title from an untested studio. While the art direction is astounding, the graphics are fuzzy and middling, displaying some primitive character models, awkward animations and, gallingly, a complete lack of lip-synch (or moving lips, more to the point) in cutscenes. Voice work is similarly hit and miss, with a few amusing lines being repeated far too often to be effective. To be honest, I actually wish that Zero couldn't understand his captors in the first place - which would have created a real sense of being an alien in any sense of the phrase.
Taken seperately, these criticisms are inconsequential to the point of being obnoxiously pedantic. But when combined, they nearly sabotage what was almost a truly great game.
For 800 Microsoft Points, though, I'll happily settle for 'good.' And so should you.
- Exquisite stealth gameplay
- Streamlined and thoughtful mechanics
- Brilliant, jarring art style
- Loose controls and overlong respawns are destined to annoy
- Inconsistent presentation and sound design
- I wish there was more stealth and less traditional puzzling
The Short Version: Warp is a sensational stealth game masquerading as a puzzler, exhibiting simple mechanics that are executed brilliantly. A host of minor niggles threaten to bring down Trapdoor's downloadable debut, but if you approach Warp with an open mind and a sadistic imagination, it becomes far more than the simple sum of its parts.