Monday, August 3, 2009


No, this isn't a math lecture. Through a YouTube link pasted into MAGFest's IRC chat, I discovered a neat 3D space-themed shooter called Polynomial. The game gets its name from its level generation, they're all various different fractals.

The game is in a beta state at the moment and so understandably is lacking some things, however, I'll cover what's actually in the game before I delve into my own personal wishlist.

The fractal you're flying through and around serves a second purpose besides looking neat: staying near it will heal your ship (or whatever you're flying, there's no third person view). This is very important since the game spawns enemies that will shoot at you. You can choose different levels to get different fractals, or play around with the editor to find completely new ones. Some fractals are harder than others because they have a thinner fractal field, meaning it's harder to stay where you'll be healed.

The controls are fairly intuitive. Mostly everything can be done with the mouse. Turning, aiming, firing, and zooming in for a better look at your target are all on the mouse. Heck, even the throttle is on the mouse, via the scroll wheel. The only controls that require use of the keyboard are the roll controls.

This brings me to my first gripe: there's no strafe control. I'm fairly used to 3D first person shooters, and so I instinctively find myself trying to use A and D to strafe around my target. W and S double as throttle control, so they're fine, but A and D roll rather than strafe. Thus, if you're flying past an enemy, or a powerup, and you need to turn to get it back in view, it takes forever. Even 6 degree of freedom shooters like Descent have strafing controls.

Speaking of powerups, the game has three of them, and they do fairly standard things. One makes your shots deal more damage, the second gives you auto aim, and the last one boosts your speed. Auto-aim works by showing a circle around your crosshair, as long as you keep the enemy you're shooting at within that circle, you don't have to aim directly at them. The speed boost is nice for when the game decides it's going to spawn enemies faster than you can kill them, which happens even on the lowest difficulty that spawns them. It lets you easily get some distance so you can pick them off without having to dogfight. It does make it harder to steer, but that's to be expected.

Furthermore, you can combine the powerups. Extra damage with auto aim really tears through the enemies. My only gripe is that the powerups don't spawn close enough together and don't last long enough to make such a strategy feasible. Typically by the time I fly through the auto aim to get it, my extra damage is almost gone (or vice versa).

The enemies themselves are nothing more than a ball of graphical effects with a multicolored ring around them. They make a popping sound when you kill them. That's one of the only three sounds in the entire game, by the way. The other two play as you damage enemies and as you take damage. Making sound effects and music takes a while though, so it's understandable to want to get the core gameplay in there first. In the meantime, you can start up your audio player of choice on shuffle in the background to get music.

As far as finding enemies and powerups is concerned, it's fairly easy. The lower left corner of the screen contains a radar that shows you things, and all around the edges you'll see arrows pointing towards things that aren't on screen. Everything in addition has a number beside it indicating how far away from you it is, the bigger the number, the farther away it is. So figuring out what to shoot and which powerup to fly towards is pretty simple, just follow the numbers.

Determining whether you're close enough to the fractal to regenerate health is simple. At the top of the screen, to the left of the health bar are two indicators that may or may not be present at any point in time. There's a lightning bolt that shows up if you're out of range of the fractal, and a nuclear symbol that shows up briefly when you take damage. Also, I've found that the places in the fractal where the particles are packed more densely will recharge your health faster, so if you're in need of a lot of health and one of these spots is nearby (they're really bright, you can't miss them), fly slowly through it and watch your health rocket up.

When you die it does some interesting effects, making it look like the screen has lost vertical hold and stuff.

As of this post, the game is so beta it doesn't even have a title screen. It just pops you right into the gameplay (fortunately paused). It runs windowed by default, and while you can resize the window I have yet to figure out how to get it to open the window larger. It will also go fullscreen, but once again you'll have to set it every time because it doesn't seem to save the preference to the config file.

A minor issue is that I get an error dialog sometimes when I exit the game, saying something about "the memory could not be 'read'". Naturally, when I started the game up just now to try and get this dialog to see exactly what it said, it didn't show up. Maybe it's because I only played for a minute or so, whereas my usual sessions last longer.

The game has no multiplayer, however, that's on the developer's to-do list. In addition, there are some features that the developer would like you to buy the full version to get, such as saving custom-made levels. The full version also predictably has more levels.

Now, onto the wishlist. I'm going to omit most audio concerns because making sound effects and music takes forever, other than one small concern.

  • An audible alarm when I'm low on health would be nice. Generally I try to watch the health bar up at the top and fly close to the fractal particle thingies when I need to replenish, but typically most of my deaths happen because I think I'm good on health and just found an auto aim and extra damage powerup right next to each other and I turn around to lay into the enemies and POW, I'm dead.
  • Health bars for enemies
  • Something to tell me how much longer an uncollected powerup is going to stay there, since I've had powerups disappear on me as I was heading to collect them multiple times now.
  • Either give them a longer duration, or make them consumable by pressing a button on the keyboard, so they don't activate immediately upon pickup. This would allow much more strategic use of powerups.
  • Or powerups could be activated by shooting them. Then the entire arena is your powerup inventory. Solves the "discretionary use" situation in a slightly more luck-dependent manner.
  • More powerups. Some random things I thought of include:
    • single-use full heal - for those dogfights away from the fractal, or even the really hectic ones inside it.
    • spread shot - being able to damage multiple enemies at once when you get to the point where there are tons of them would greatly increase longevity.
    • bouncy shots - would work like the Mutalisk's attack in Starcraft, it would bounce off the target to hit nearby ones but deal less damage every time it bounces, with a reasonable bounce limit of 2, as in, each shot would hit up to three targets. Would be truly spectacular stacked with extra damage and spread shot.
    • stealth - would probably be best balanced like cloaking in Star Trek where they can't fire while cloaked. Handy for escaping the dogfight temporarily to heal.
    • invulnerability - spice it up a bit allowing the player to move into an area and take charge, this would of course be a temporary effect.
    • gravity well - when you fire this, it goes a set distance (maybe flies until you press the fire button again) and then attracts nearby ships to that point and holds them there for a short period of time. The ships can then be taken out with regular fire. It would have to have a distance indicator on it and be of a different color from powerups and enemies so it's distinguishable at a distance. In multiplayer the well would have to be destroyable by enough fire, small enough that being sucked in is avoidable but large enough that the well is still effective.
  • A few different modes, to diversify a bit. An arcade-style "kill all the enemies in the level to advance to the next" mode would be neat. What we currently have is basically Survival mode. Story mode would require coming up with a story, but could be done.
  • When multiplayer happens, co-operative multiplayer vs. the computer controlled enemies. I'm sure the developer is mainly thinking of competitive multiplayer and will probably implement a Deathmatch-like mode right after writing the netcode, but occasionally people like to work together too. You could even have Team Deathmatch, for co-operative competition.
  • Strafe controls. 'Nuff said.
  • Different types of enemies - Diversify the challenge to make us actually need the extra powerups I'm suggesting.
  • Different types of ships - The typical choice between all-around balance, light damage/low armor/high speed, and high armor/high damage/low speed.
  • More weapons - Having a few different weapons around is almost required for multiplayer shooter games these days. Have them be collectible by powerups, maybe require ammo (or possibly an energy bar that needs to refill between shots, that might refill faster if you're within range of the fractal), but always have that good old infinite ammo cannon there for backup. My first idea was "missiles!" but the whole atmosphere of the game screams for energy or beam weaponry rather than physical weaponry.
  • High score tracking - So we have some measure of progress in getting better at the game. Obviously being able to last longer before dying is evidence, but saving those scores and formulating a list with names is a time-honored tradition. I don't care about online rankings, all I really want is local score tracking.
I don't want to "death spiral" here, but personally I'd wait until the game has a few more features before buying it. It'd be a death spiral because if nobody buys it then the developer doesn't get money, and possibly loses motivation to continue developing, which people would be waiting for before spending their money.

The verdict: Try out the demo. Watch development intently and if you like it, pounce once it has multiplayer.

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