Microsoft's Xbox LIVE Arcade House Party kicked off a couple of weeks ago and promises to deliver the same great line-up of quality arcade titles we’ve come to expect during the Summer of Arcade. Launching this virtual party of downloadable games is the loveable and slightly twisted, Warp. Part stealth-action-adventure and part puzzle-platform, prepare to embark on what just might be the most original game I’ve played since Portal 2.
In Warp you play as Zero, this loveable alien that looks like a blob of Jell-O with arms and legs. Captured by the military, Zero finds himself the subject of alien probes and experiments deep within a secret underwater laboratory. You are introduced to the basic gameplay principles in the opening half-dozen screens. These including walking, eating grubs (the collectibles in Warp), and, after being reunited with your warp disc, warping. You will also be psychically connecting to another alien presence trapped within the facility who requests your assistance in freeing him. He will crop up from time to time to offer hints and advice and maybe even a mission objective.
As the title might suggest, warping plays a pretty vital role in not only the core game but also in a nice assortment of arcade-style challenges that pop up along the way. Once you have the ability to warp a destination dot will appear a few feet ahead of Zero indicating where you can instantly warp to when you press the A button. Not only does this allow you to get to the other sides of doors and thin walls, you can also teleport into objects like canisters, power core modules, and even gun turrets, and once inside those objects you can wiggle the left stick to explode that object from within. But even better, you will soon learn that you can warp into people and with a bit of waggling do much more damage than the Alien chest-burster could ever dream.
Despite this fairly destructive ability, Zero is still highly vulnerable, so Warp relies a lot on stealth. You’ll need to avoid a lot of the enemies, at least until you can single them out for “possession”. Once inside you can then choose to explode them or warp back out leaving them momentary dazed and nauseous. Once the soldiers in the base realize you can warp into bodies (which is almost immediately) they will start to watch for signs of possession and shoot any infected person killing them and you if you are still inside. For an even greater challenge (and an Achievement) try playing the game without splattering anyone.
Warp also has a surprisingly rich customization component. Those grubs you collect also act as currency for the various upgrade stations scattered about the levels. Here you can upgrade your inherent abilities, allowing you to walk or teleport silently or even increase the range or decrease the cool-down of your warp ability. You can also add new skills like creating a decoy of yourself, launching objects around the room, or upgrade your map view. There are numerous ways to upgrade Zero, so you can tailor the game to your own playing style.
The overall design for Warp is quite nice for an arcade game. The maze-like levels usually have a map somewhere that will show you unexplored areas, but you’ll have to figure out how to reach them, often using air vents or transport tubes that connect larger sections of the base. There is a bit of backtracking as you will often see grubs that you are unable to reach until you have enhanced your abilities. When it comes times to do some serious "treasure hunting" you can unlock the ability to see grubs and film canisters (another collectible) on your map.
I particularly enjoyed the freedom of choice the developers give the gamer by allowing them to choose how to get through the various rooms and encounters. Each significant encounter is setup almost like a puzzle, and you can try to figure out the best way to get through or simply try to jump from soldier to soldier and explode them as fast as you can – often more difficult than stealth. Generous checkpoints encourage trial and error without the frustration of replaying lengthy sections of the game.
Warp has some decent production values given its XBLA stature. The overall design and colors of the maps along with the top-down isometric view hearkened back to some of my favorite old-school games from the 90’s. There is some really great lighting and special effects, the design and animation for Zero as he almost staggers around is quite endearing, and you’ll never get tired of seeing a solider turn into a red splotch on the floor or wall.
There is minimal music, just the right touch of environmental effects, and limited voice acting, mostly amusing idle chatter from guards and the occasional PA announcement. Zero makes these cute E.T.-style alien noises as he hobbles along. I also liked how the volume played into the stealth aspect. At first, your walking and warping sounds are loud and the guards will hear them, but as you upgrade these abilities their sound realistically diminishes in your speakers.
Most gamers can finish Warp in 5-8 hours; not bad for an XBLA title, and for those looking for a competitive edge, there are numerous challenges scattered about the game that you can play and replay as much as you like, trying to earn the best completion times and scores that are ranked on leaderboards. These can be as simple as getting across a fragmented playing field in the shortest time or trying to successfully kill every soldier in a challenge board. Ideally, you’ll want to do these after you have upgraded your abilities by playing the single-player game. Leaderboards also track a wealth of player stats including how far you’ve traveled, how many times you’ve warped, and how many people you’ve popped out of.
It’s ironic that Warp is so cute you’d easily mistake it for a kids’ game, but with some pretty gruesome visuals and the F-bomb being dropped more than once, it earns that Mature rating despite its adorable mascot. Still, Warp is a challenging and enjoyable game with a steady progression of difficulty and plenty of variety to keep things fresh with each new level. The upgrade system work nicely to tailor Zero to your play style, and I had a great time playing Warp from start to finish.