Death By Cube (Xbox 360) review
"You might call it a post-apocalyptic battlefield simulator, or a Geometry Wars clone or perhaps you'd even call it art. Certainly, the minimalist approach makes a case for that last descriptor. There's something beautiful about the simple way that the beautiful red oil splays across the screen, blood-like in its consistency. There's a subdued grace, too, as your robot glides over the desolate grid that makes up his world's landscape. There's even a certain emotional element driving his quest to set things right in a world he finds so different from the one that he once knew."
You are a robot. One day in the distant future, you awaken from a lengthy robotic slumber to discover that nothing remains as it once was. Your precious black and white world is now overrun by menacing cubes that would just as soon ram you to death as shake your hand. In this hostile environment, a bullet is as good as a hug and a savage death is the order of the day.
Death By Cube, the game that presents this grim world, could be called a lot of things. You might call it a post-apocalyptic battlefield simulator, or a Geometry Wars clone or perhaps you'd even call it art. Certainly, the minimalist approach makes a case for that last descriptor. There's something beautiful about the simple way that the beautiful red oil splays across the screen, blood-like in its consistency. There's a subdued grace, too, as your robot glides over the desolate grid that makes up his world's landscape. There's even a certain emotional element driving his quest to set things right in a world he finds so different from the one that he once knew. Unfortunately, none of those strengths and labels mean anything in the face of the one label that most aptly describes the overall affair: lackluster.
Forget for a second the hero's plight and consider Geometry Wars. In that game, players piloted a ship as it glided around a black expanse and blasted colorful shapes into oblivion. What began as a simple crusade against a few pathetic foes gradually evolved into a test of endurance as the player was forced to nimbly swoop between devious swarms of triangles, squares and circles. The satisfaction that came from surviving each new enemy wave is something that few games have ever rivaled.
Death By Cube's developers wisely realized that since no one has really managed to rival Geometry Wars by merely cloning it, there's probably not much point in even trying. Instead, this new game heads in a new direction. Where before there was a black expanse, now there are the afore-mentioned grids. Where there were a bunch of small geometrical objects there now are cubes of various shapes, walls, bases and turrets. There also are new developments, such as an upgrade system that lets you unlock new robot configurations and stages and an online mode for those who want to compete with others around the world who have purchased the game. The problem is that nearly every attempt to bring something new to the table just winds up making an unappealing mess on the floor.
Consider the grids. Though they're more detailed, they don't represent an improvement either aesthetically or in terms of functionality. The areas that you need to clear now are often just huge rectangles, but you seldom can view the whole area at once. Instead, you move around and the perspective shifts to accommodate you (sometimes by quite a bit). This allows enemies to appear within the available space without you being able to see them until suddenly they're giving you issues that easily could have been remedied if only their arrival weren't missed due to the constricting perspective.
Enemy designs and AI don't really fare any better. Though you're now facing foes who are rendered with polygons instead of pixels, they haven't suddenly developed any real personality. Their general tactic is to rush you. They flicker into sight and boost toward you, or sometimes they stay where they are and fire streams of bullets that follow you as you move around the battlefield. Or they spin in circles firing laser arms that will fry you if you don't get out of the way. There are a few other behaviors, as well, but for the most part your enemies don't do anything particularly impressive. They are a threat only because half the time they'll appear right where you're positioned--even if you're constantly moving--or because you didn't see them flicker into sight off-screen and they hit you with a stray bullet. Though you now have an array of new moves that include disruptive dashes and the ability to absorb and then deflect bullets, none of that means anything when you're mobbed by goons you never saw coming.
The upgrades that you can gather do help you to deal with some of these hazards more efficiently, at least, but you're just trading one weakness for another and you have to pay for the privilege with in-game currency that is generally earned by repeating early stages a bunch of times (sort of like level grinding in an RPG). For instance, you'll start with a robot configuration that's all-around decent but likely to fall almost immediately to any foes more difficult than those that attack you in the first area. Varying level objectives tend to require a different robot. If you're defending bases, there's a robot that can fire peripheral homing shots as you move around blasting foes ahead of you. If you need some heavier firepower, that's available too but even a slight brush with an enemy is dangerous and you'll find that you're only packing superior heat because you steer like an elephant on rollerskates.
Online play could perhaps have saved the package in spite of the issues outlined above, but there's a problem with Xbox Live titles: people can download them and play demo editions. Anyone who gives Death By Cubes a shot is likely to tire of it fairly quickly, perhaps even before the sample content has run its course, and that will eliminate any desire to download a full version. The result is that the only people playing online will be those who took the plunge without previewing anything. Given the purchase price, there probably won't be all that many of those folks and your odds of actually meeting any of them online are slim to non-existent. If you do happen to encounter a friendly little match, you can have a bit of fun, but will that ever happen? Perhaps not.
Death By Cube isn't a bad game, but it's a lackluster one and that essentially amounts to the same thing when it comes to the launch of an unfamiliar new IP. Those who are looking for an experience like the one that Geometry Wars offers will likely be better served by spending less money and simply download that title instead. Robots that spew red oil while battling for their lives in a post-apocalyptic wasteland make for interesting subject matter, but interacting with that art somehow manages to remove the allure. What's left isn't really worth playing.
Staff review by Jason Venter (January 24, 2010)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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