Friday 21 September 2018

Switch Review - Velocity 2X

In many ways ‘Velocity 2X’ is FuturLab’s love letter to the games they played growing up. It’s a beautiful fusion of ‘Metroid’ and ‘Flashback’ style platforming mixed with vertical space shooter sections that echo the likes of ‘Sub-Terrania’, ‘Aleste’ and ‘Radiant Silvergun’. But while ‘Velocity 2X’ might be a game made up of two distinct play styles it has been crafted with such care and precision that they blend together effortlessly. The result is one of the most addictive and enjoyable games you can play on the Switch. 

Developed by FuturLab

Published by Curve Digital 

Released in 2018

‘Velocity 2X’ is a game that seemed destined for the Switch, even though its journey to the console started out in 2012 when Nintendo were interested in Dual Screen rather than Hybrid consoles. 

Velocity - PSP Mini
The series started out on the PSP, and ‘Velocity’ was the highest rated game in the console’s Minis range. These snack sized games were Sony’s reaction to the emergence of mobile phones as viable portable videogame machines. To play on the go, gamers no longer needed a dedicated console and while they lacked scale and grandiosity, most mobile phone games offered cheap, immediately accessible game play. Sony’s response was to flood the PlayStation Store with budget titles, encouraging developers to make simple games that wouldn’t be bigger than 100mb and wouldn’t sell for more than £4. As Sony put it; “Minis are primarily designed to be fun in short blasts for a great price”. In an attempt to get bulk onto the PS Store quickly, Eric Lempel (Sony's then director of PlayStation Network Operations and Strategic Planning) promised developers that PSP Minis submissions would be put through “less stringent approval processes [...] we’re looking to lower the barriers to entry”. While this meant 290 Minis would ultimately become available most were sub-standard. It was something Lempel predicted. "You're going to get some Minis that will be fantastic and some that will be less so. That's just the nature of the bus
iness." ‘Velocity’ was the exception; ‘Velocity’ was the shining beacon in a sea of minis-mediocrity. “PS Minis needed a Killer App, so we set about creating one” says James Marsden, owner and director of FuturLab. “We put everything we had into the development of ‘Velocity’ as we wanted to grab the attention of Sony.”

Described by Edge Magazine as the “Standard Bearer” for the Minis service, ‘Velocity’ was so good it began to get compared to full price PSP games not just the budget Minis range. “‘Velocity’ is an exceptional (and in many ways) ground breaking game” said Gamestyle. “To call it the best Mini out there is doing it a disservice. In truth, ‘Velocity’ is a must have game on whatever system you can get it on”.  

Velocity Ultra - PS Vita
However, ‘Velocity’ was hampered by the Minis limitation that Sony had demanded. While the core mechanics and the game itself were superb, FuturLab wanted to do more aesthetically and audibly. “We knew we wanted to give the game a visual overhaul” says Marsden. “The vector art style was something I wanted to shoot for in the original, but it didn’t work out.” An updated version was released on the PlayStation Vita now christened ‘Velocity Ultra’. “There was nothing we wanted to change about the game design after reading the positive reviews” recalls Marsden. “But being able to refine the UI and music was something I was very pleased to be able to do, the game looks clean and crisp now”. According to FuturLab “You can think of ‘Velocity Ultra’ as the director’s cut; everything we would have done the first time around if we’d had the budget. We’re also unifying the art style throughout the game by ditching pixel art in favour of an edgy cartoon style. ‘Velocity Ultra’ is a way for us to establish the ‘Velocity’ franchise with a wider audience, and we’ve got plenty more ‘Velocity’ in the works.”

Edge Magazine continued to be impressed with ‘Velocity Ultra’. “It’s a game that leads by example, never keeping still while making sure you do likewise, and is every bit as essential now as it was 12 months ago.” But while modernising the Amiga style visuals was required, the reason for the ‘Velocity’ series’ popularity is simply down to the fact the core game play is superb, the controls are tight and it’s compelling. “Once you’ve found a mechanic that’s fun, the key is to build depth around that central mechanic without complicating things unnecessarily” notes Mardsen. “I think many game designers spend too much time pinching aspects of other games and trying to stick them together instead of focusing deeply on making the most of what is right in front of them.” The strength of a ‘Velocity’ game is its incremental additions to gameplay. 

In all games the main play mechanic centres on your ability to teleport through walls, but this simple premise is built on incrementally. “We drip-feed the mechanics through the game over time because and we want you to become comfortable with the mechanic before we introduce something new” says Kirstie Rigden the game’s design director. “We’re nvot overwhelming you right at the beginning with all the different mechanics and also it would be really boring if we gave you everything at the very beginning of the game. On Level 36 you're still learning something new”. The strength is the fine balance: the moment boredom is about to set in you’re given a new distraction and then allowed the time to master and enjoy this. “You can carry a simple fun mechanic a long way if you really study the limits of that mechanic and build an experience around it” clarifies Marsden. “The best games begin simply and carry a player into complex sophistication. They are the best because the player learns all the way through, and never gets bored”. 

By alternating between two distinct modes of play, ‘Velocity 2X’ could be accused of betraying Marsden’s philosophy. But in reality the only thing that really changes between the vertical shooting and the horizontal platforming is level orientation. “The most important thing to get the two genres [to work] together is getting the controls consistent” admits Marsden. “If you're asking a player to control a ship with agility and then ask them to suddenly take control of a player on foot with different controls that could be a real problem.”

The vertical shooting sections of ‘Velocity 2X’ are practically identical to that of its predecessor ‘Velocity Ultra’. “Aside from tuning the controls based on player feedback, adding speed boost pads [...] and the all-important boss battles, it’s the same racy, shooty, teleporty fun” boats Marsden. The basic goal of each level will be familiar to anyone who has played a vertical shooter. You must travel from the bottom of a stage to the top, shooting or avoiding foes and obstructions. Some levels will demand you rescue prisoners trapped in pods, others must be navigated within a tight time limit. “Much of the campaign is spent cutting paths through collapsing space stations and chipping away at looping enemy chains in a manner suggestive of Amiga-era shooters” claimed Edge Magazine. 

Unlike those dated scrolling shooters though, there’s exploration to be done in ‘Velocity 2X’. Coloured targets must be hit to open different paths through a stage. While the screen perpetually scrolls, in later levels you will have to manually place a telepod. These function a bit like player defined continue points. Should you reach a dead end in a stage, you’ll have to return to an earlier placed telepod hoping that your actions have opened a new route through the stage. While the final stages do get complicated, maps provide guidance and there’s an emphasis on finishing levels quickly; hence the title of the series. The quicker you finish a stage, the more enemies you kill and the more prisoners you rescue, the greater the experience points you earn. This XP is then used to gain access to new levels so replaying a stage once you’ve memorised the optimal completion method is always a good idea.

Of course the levels fans of the first game were most eager to get access to in ‘Velocity 2X’ were the new platforming stages. Like the vertical shooting sections, the platforming stages were inspired by games that FuturLab enjoyed in their youth. “My first loves were ‘Flashback’ and ‘Turrican 2’ so getting a chance to pay homage to those games just seemed like the right way to go. “ What’s interesting is the ways that FuturLab adapted the successful ship movement mechanics into something that works within the limits of a plaformer. “In the top-down section you've got boosts where and we adjust the speed of the scroll and so we've taken that across [to the platforming stages]” says Marsden. “You’ve got sprint so you run around at a pretty good pace”. Protagonist Kai is nimble heroine. Her leaps are inhuman of course, but they allow you to ably navigate up shafts, down slopes and over instant death obstacles. Continue points are liberally scattered throughout the stages, and like the shooting sections there are number targets that must be activated in order to open coloured gates. With a blonde badass protagonist in sci-fi suit, it’s easy to draw parallels with ‘Super Metroid’. However the platform levels of ‘Velocity 2X’ are small and self contained, able to be finished in minutes rather than hours. There is exploration, but very little back tracking as most stages loop and are designed to be completed at speed. Initially the platform stages are isolated experiences, but they quickly become integrated into the spaceship sections. Often you’ll see an entrance in a shooting stage and entering it will lead you to a short platforming section. In this you’ll shoot a target, before leaving the way you came in and returning to over head ship combat. There are enemies in the platforming sections, including some boss fights and so there’s ways to defend yourself. “Your basic primary weapon when you're in a ship [becomes] a rifle on foot” says Marsden. “We’ve got 360 degree shooting which is completely independent of the character's movement.” 

However, certain mechanics that work well in a vertical shooter game simply don’t translate well to a platformer. “In the top-down [shooting section] you've got teleport so you can pick up a position on the screen that's free and teleport to instantly which is great fun” suggests Marsden. “We can't really do exactly the same on a platformer because the point of the platformer is you have to move to certain areas of the screen by jumping. If we allowed the player to do that instantly it would kind of render jumping pointless.” While this sounds catastrophic to a game that’s central gimmick is the ability to teleport, the compromise creates a fantastic platformer specific mechanic that really brings something new to the genre. “We’ve limited the distance that you can teleports to.” So while you can’t magically appear anywhere on screen any more, you can pass through some walls, floors and ceilings. Once mastered, you’ll use this ability to gain access to new areas while also depending on it to avoid danger. It means that ‘Velocity 2X’ has platforming stages where the usual player limitations are, in part, removed. You quickly start to think about how you can make your way through a stage by not only leaping over obstacles, but also considering if you can pass through them. Like the shooting sections there’s a great deal of skill required to do a level at speed, but there are also more thoughtful puzzles scattered throughout the game. According to Marsden “in the top-down section you've got telepods which are a personal checkpoints and [we’re] doing something similar in the side-scrolling where you can fling a telepod and you can teleport to that, which creates some really cool interesting game play”. As the levels pass, you’re frequently tasked with more complicated ways to use the telepod throw. Often you’ll have to ricochet it against walls, sometimes you’ll have to use the telepod mid air after throwing it, and occasionally you’ll have to drop it so it can pass through a tube below you. The components of the platforming are cleverly sympathetic to the shooting stages, without being enslaved to them. What works in the top-down sections exists in the platformer stages, what doesn’t has been adapted while still feeling familiar to a player. “We are pretty confident that taking the mechanics of a shooter and adding them to platform game play has worked” claims Marsden. “When you get good at ‘Velocity’ it feels like you are dancing through the levels” adds Rigden. 

Part of this fluidity is certainly down to the precision of the controls, and failure in a level always feels like the result of a player rather than unfair design. I can recall playing the Vita version for an hour on the train, endlessly repeating the same stage until I met the tight speed run goal. Satisfied I put down the game and took off my headphones, only to be tapped on the shoulder by the elderly woman sitting next to me. “You’d do far better in that if you went slower” she said with Yoda like wisdom. She may have missed the point of what I was trying to achieve but she seemed to have had fun watching me play. Tellingly neither of us had got frustrated or bored during this hour of repetitive game play. “In order to get those perfect medals you have to have practiced a hundred times” claims Marsden. “By this point you don’t need to think, the rest of the world falls always and you can be in twitch heaven”. ‘Velocity 2X’ really is a compelling game and the numerous challenges that exist in it will keep you hooked long after the campaign is over. “Core gamers are really going to love ‘Velocity 2X’ says FuturLab. “It really does reward the effort you put in.” 

While ‘Velocity’ was celebrated for its game play critics see to unanimously think that its story and graphics were lacklustre. It’s worth noting that the retro games that inspired ‘Velocity’ were largely devoid of plot, but today it seems an audience want a story; a motivation to play a level. “The biggest challenge we came across was the narrative itself” says Jack Hamilton ‘Velocity 2X’s character artist. “Creating a story for an action game is really quite tricky” adds Marsden. “The player wants to keep moving, keep playing and if you put in walls where there’s a cut scene it can get frustrating”. For Hamilton it was a question of scale, providing enough plot for those who had demanded it but not so much that it stalls the game play for those who just want to shoot and jump. “We started off quiet ambitious so we had a very, very big story. But being the game that it is we didn’t need it to be that big” says Hamilton. “So as a result we ended up with nice bite-sized chunks of story that helps the players through it.”

After the events of the previous game, your protagonist Kai has been captured and had cybernetic implants surgically grafted onto her body. Kai is witty sassy and fearless; a Samus for the modern age. The plot gradually develops through short visual novel style intermissions between levels but it is awash with Science fiction clichés involving alien dictators and downtrodden slave races. “Part of fleshing out a more engaging story is having a good villain, ours is a 15-foot monster that owns and operate that part of the universe that you've arrived in” gloats Marsden. ‘Velocity 2X’ is essentially a story about how Kai escapes this villain and his Vok army, to eventually return home. It is at least engaging and well written and by the end of the short 8 hour campaign you do engage with Kai and her plight. 

This journey takes Kai through a number of environments, and ‘Velocity 2X’ is visually much more varied than its predecessor. “So for example one of the environments is very jungle” notes Ridgen. “It's your typical lush green planet but [throughout the game] we were really able to play with the colours” adds Hamilton. “We really got some really interesting level [artwork] for both the top down and the platforming sections”. For Marsden an aesthetic leap for sequel was essential if ‘Velocity 2x’ was to succeed. “It was very important to me to bring a lot of visual Dazzle”. The dazzle was bought by Hussain Sheikh. “My whole job interview was based around what I could do to make the explosions look better” claims Sheikh. The original PSP Minis ‘Velocity’ had a single sprite used when a ship explodes.
For ‘Velocity 2X’ the death of an opponent is celebrated with particle bursts, bloom, environment distortion, light halos and lenses flare inspired by Sci-fi film directors. “Since the release of J.J. Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ in 2009, people noticed just how much lens flares were synonymous with sci-fi” says Sheikh. “ Carrying that baton forward, we decided to go full on J.J. Abrams crazy with lens flares on ‘Velocity 2X’.” In motion the game looks superb, and tragically many effects were originally diluted for the PSVita release. They were restored in the PS4 release however and thankfully this is the version that has arrived on the Switch. 

Publisher Curve Digital called the Switch Version of ‘Velocity 2X’ “The ultimate version”. While this may be because it includes the games DLC, but it could also be because the Switch is the perfect system to house ‘Velocity 2X’. When the console is docked you get to see all the visual splendour on a big TV and hear the fantastic soundtrack on surround sound speakers. But then you can also take the game with you and enjoy it in short burst in hand held mode. “There’s nothing else quite like FuturLab’s games” says The Gamer Hub’s Vaughn Highfield. “Their unique take on portable gaming has produced some of the finest titles you can play in the palm of your hands.” Most of ‘Velocity 2X’s levels can be completed in minutes, so it’s great for a short bus journey or a prolonged toilet visit. But equally, if you’re anything like me you’ll find entire train journeys are swallowed up by an obsession with getting one medal on a very hard stage. 

The arrival of ‘Velocity 2X’ on the Switch comes at a crucial time for the series, which is now 6 years old. “If you want to see the bells and whistles sequel to ‘Velocity2X’ that we have been working on in secret for years, you need to go out and buy ‘Velocity2X’ on Switch” declared FuturLab in a tweet. Their “truth bomb" says that because ‘Velocity 2X’ was originally given away for free on PlayStation Plus no one actually paid money for it. FuturLab says that while this was "great for downloads (well into the millions)" it’s not good for potential publishers of ‘Velocity Supernova’ who "want to see actual unit sales."

"We've tried, over and over and over to get a sequel signed," FuturLab posted. "It's the same every time. It looks and feels amazing, so everyone is interested. Until they see the actual sales of ‘2X’”. So if the Switch release of ‘Velocity 2x’ really is "your last chance to see a fully deserving sequel happen" at least it’s the best version of a sensational game. 

James Marsden once infamously claimed that ‘Velocity 2X’ will be many people’s game of the year – a bold statement considering that, at the time, the game wasn’t even released. Polygon and Gamestyle ultimately agreed with Marsden’s prediction giving the game a perfect score. I only hope that Switch players who have yet to enjoy the ‘Velocity’ games welcome it warmly, if only because I am selfishly desperate to play the final chapter in a series that I have come to adore. 


A copy of this game was provided by the publishers for review. They have not seen or had any influence on the content of this review prior to publication.

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