Tuesday, May 23, 2017

SmuggleCraft (PS4, Steam) Review

Today is a special day here at SuperPhillip Central. This site is based in St. Louis, Missouri. Occasionally I like to take the time and use SuperPhillip Central to get the word out about local game devs in my city. This is such an occasion with two reviews for some PlayStation 4 and Steam games recently released from two local game devs. 

A problem that some of you might ponder is that knowing the devs or just being in the same city as them, if that will affect my judgment on their games? Will I be more lenient in order to be kind to my local STL game dev or be more critical to appear "unbiased"? Well, I'm going to review these games just like any others from any system from any place in the world, just like I have for the past 8.75 years here at SuperPhillip Central. 

Our first review is for a procedurally generated (I'll define this in the review body if you aren't familiar with the term) hovercraft racer that was funded through the magic of Kickstarter. It met its funding goal and it releases today. It's SmuggleCraft by Happy Badger Studio.

Smugglin' Contraband and Racing at High Speeds: Just Like I Do in Real Life

So few racing games explore using hovercraft. For heaven's sake, Nintendo has all but forgotten the existence of F-Zero as a franchise, but at least PlayStation is bringing back Wipeout, albeit in a collection next month. Thus, we turn to indies for our hovercraft fix. If you're looking for a tight racer with excellent controls, St. Louis-based developer, Happy Badger Studio's game SmuggleCraft is one that nails that important gameplay aspect down pat. It also features a relatively appealing quest-based story mode as well. It's just that other aspects of SmuggleCraft don't go over as well as these.

SmuggleCraft's solo experience consists of a quest system where randomly available quests appear, and you can choose to take them or not. Each quest giver has a token task for you to do, whether it's in the category of getting from the start to the finish, racing one to many vehicles, or towing a vehicle from point to another. The latter is thankfully more fun and less of nuisance than breaking down on the New Jersey Turnpike and needing Avis to come pick you up.

What SmuggleCraft fails to do, however, is explain a lot of concepts to the player. The main one relating to the story is that if you crash and burn, the game takes a roguelike approach, booting you back to the main menu and making you start fresh in the story. Thankfully, things like tutorial missions and the hovercraft pieces you've bought and collected stick with you, but all story progress, money, and parts to build new hovercraft pieces are wiped clean like a slate... the type of slate that mocks you and makes you wonder, "What was the point of all this progress? Why have you forsaken me, Happy Badger Studio?!"

In Dirahl, no one can hear you scream. Well, except for the Wolverangs, of course.
But seriously, folks, the "smuggle" in SmuggleCraft comes from carrying questionable to highly illegal goods for the quest givers. At the end of certain quests, you can betray the quest giver to reap better rewards. However, this puts you in their bad graces. For instance, if you betray someone by stealing medicine for yourself, not only will you get a better reward, but you'll get marked the brand of "thief", and we're not talking the fun "Link, your name is now 'Thief'' for taking a shovel from the shop in The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening" type of thief either. We're talking "cops are going to be on your butt now, mister. Bad boys, bad boys. Whatchu gonna do? Whatchu gonna do when they come for you?" type of thief. Cops will come after you aggressively when you're labeled a bad guy. 

On that same token, doing multiple heroic or stand-up smuggler types of things like pilfering from the bad guys will get you to draw their ire, having them chase after you and blast you as you try to survive your regular smuggling and racing runs. You can choose a good path, a bad path, or just take a neutral progression through SmuggleCraft, helping the poor with their needs and wishes in many of their quests, and then betray some of the unluckier ones by surrendering them to the police. Whatever floats your boat-- er-- hovers your craft, man.

Quests and races with harder difficulties mean more challenging track parts get placed along your path.
The solo mode's quest variety could be better, but where that variety is lacking, there is much more to be discovered in the different tracks you smuggle and race upon. That's because they're randomly assembled by numerous track pieces in one of a seemingly endless amount of orders. No two races are ever the same. Sure, within a few races observant players will pick up on familiar track pieces, but the way that Happy Badger created an overall successful algorithm to transition cleanly between one piece to another is really something commendable. Well... for the most part. Sometimes one track piece would lead to another with an odd transition. Then other times it meant that one track piece didn't connect properly to another, creating confusion on where to go, or worse, difficulty in reaching the next piece completely.

One thing Happy Badger Studio nailed about SmuggleCraft is the feel of driving any given hovercraft. The controls are responsive, fluid, tight, and feel great. Drifting and boosting around turns and corners, propelling one's hovercraft through a cavernous canyon via speed boosts, and jetting across the smooth waves of the ocean all are enjoyable to do. Perhaps my only problem with SmuggleCraft's controls come from manual boosting. How it's intended to work is that when you let off the gas for a couple of seconds and once again step on it, your hovercraft makes a quick boost forward. This works great when you want to drift and then come out of said drift with a boost, but if you get off track (sometimes literally) and discombobulated with your navigation on the procedurally generated tracks, you might need to turn around or course correct. This can be difficult when you're letting go of and then reengaging the gas, forcing small corrections to turn into massive boosts because the craft forces you to do so. Many times I fell off the track completely because I was making small course corrections only to boost off the track entirely.

Drift and boost to perform a drift boost! It's like how to do a drift boost is right in the name!
This would be frustrating in the solo mode because as I said, SmuggleCraft uses a roguelike system to it. However, fortunately, the developers allowed players to pause a quest at any time (even in midair). This allowance gives players the chance to back out of a quest before crashing (and subsequently burning), thus removing the heavy end of their solo mode progress. This grants players the ability to fully enjoy Happy Badger Studio's fun writing and generally engaged story without worry of constantly having to restart it from the very beginning over and over again.

As you complete quests, you gain money and parts to build new hovercraft pieces. These come in various forms with the "best" pieces taking the most funds to craft. Hence, the "craft" portion of the SmuggleCraft name. Wait. Maybe that's more to do with the "hovercraft", but I doubt the developer knows more about where they came up with the name of the game than I, a mere blogger with little knowledge whatsoever. Back to being more serious, the craft pieces come in cockpits, bodies, and the like, offering myriad possibilities to create a custom craft that suits your play style as well as your own personal style in hovercrafts. Move over Capri pants, rear spoilers are so in this upcoming summer.

Outside of solo mode for players, there is multiplayer in both local and online varieties. Both are pretty bare bones in options-- there isn't even an option to switch between vertical and horizontal split-screen, for instance, in local multiplayer. That said, what is here is serviceable enough. Local multiplayer is good for up to four players. Random hovercraft are assigned, and if players don't care for their current selection, they can randomize a new craft. It's mostly for aesthetic purposes anyway. Time of day can be chosen, how long a given race will be (as short as 1.5 minutes to as long as 5 minutes in estimated length), how difficult the race will be (more challenging track pieces are selected, easier to crash, etc.), if pursuers will get involved in the race, and how many victories a given player needs to win the overall round are all available things to select. Online mode has lobbies, but as of this review they were pretty empty. It's both my and the developer's hope that today's release of SmuggleCraft sees action in the lobbies. It probably also has to do with times of day the online is played, setting up times and lobbies with friends, and the like. Regardless, with limited options available and variety, it might be hard to find staying power with SmuggleCraft's multiplayer in the long run.

You can share my couch, and you can share part of my TV screen, but you cannot share my win.
Presentation-wise, SmuggleCraft sports a slick and smooth, simplistic polygonal style to it. Things are made of clear cut polygons, and the game looks gorgeous especially when it rains. Drops patter across the screen, they make the walls, mountains, canyons, and caverns of races glimmer and shine, showcasing their slick qualities, and it's just relaxing to race in. Perhaps it's the art style is a bit too plain and lacking points of interest in races to fully engage players to the degree that Happy Badger Studio would like, but at least it's helped by a seriously chill electronic soundtrack that pulses and pumps as you drive around Dirahl.

Overall, SmuggleCraft is a mixed bag. Its solo mode may give off some appearance of repetition, but it generally is enjoyable as long as you realize how the game's roguelike system works (something the devs fail to explain in-game). Meanwhile, multiplayer doesn't seem to have quite the amount of staying power as I would have hoped with a lack of options and little to really gain from racing for the long haul. Still, with extremely awesome feel of each hovercraft, a capable procedurally generated track system, well-written dialogue, and a lovely if not simple art style, SmuggleCraft may not be masterful, but it's sure as hell nowhere near awful. It's somewhere in existence hovering in between.

[SPC Says: C]

Review copy provided by Happy Badger Studio.

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