There were a few really good games that were released alongside the launch of the Xbox 360, and for me, one of those standouts was Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. As a PC gaming veteran, it's not like cheap downloadable games were anything new to me, but back in late 2005, they weren't nearly as mainstream as they are now. And yet here, amongst quite a few poorly-made games at the (originally) new premium price of sixty bucks, came along this little downloadable game. It was installed to Xbox 360s in mere seconds due to its tiny filesize, and it was wonderful. The 1980s arcade classic Robotron 2084 may have started the genre, but Geometry Wars brought it back from the brink.
Since then, the bright-lights dual-stick shooter has come a long way. The brilliant Geometry Wars 2 brought in new gameplay modes and lots of fun ways to play, and other games since have tried interesting ways to add flavor - including Beat Hazard, which scanned your music in the style of Audiosurf and made twin-stick game levels out of it - but raw gameplay, bumping tunes, and interesting weapons and rules will always win out over gimmicks. The latest game to tweak the twin-stick shooter formula is Waves, now available on Steam for $10, and while it's missing the kind of multiplayer features I'd have loved, its pure solo play offers plenty of depth and smooth, white-knuckle action.
In Waves, your little sphere rolls around in a circular, digital arena, where the gameplay is entirely 2D but the 3D-rendered special effects give depth to the experience. As is with twin stick shooters, you move in any direction with the left stick and shoot independently in any direction with the right; the left trigger controls your bombs and the right trigger controls slow motion, which will refill over time. You always have the same rapid-fire gun in the four out of five modes that make use of a gun, and shooting enemies increases a combo meter and leaves little pellets behind. But unlike with Geometry Wars, collecting those pellets increases your XP and contributes to level-ups rather than a persistent combo. Here, your combo is a little more complex and consists of two elements: one is a very short-term combo that you must keep going with many consecutive kills quickly, and the other is a lesser, permanent combo that builds slowly as you level up. When you level up, have to actually collect the level-up icon on the playfield when you trigger it - otherwise all that XP has gone wasted. Not only does leveling up improve that base combo multiplier, but it also allows bigger waves of tougher enemies to spawn, so any one game's difficulty progresses differently based on the player's performance.
In addition, bombs are done very differently in Waves than in Geometry Wars. Here, you get one new bomb for every 10 multipliers added to your short-term combo, and you must use it before the combo ends, or the bomb will disappear. Bombs do not build up in a stock; they're temporary things that you've got only a second to use. That might sound limiting, but it's actually really fun, because it's not terribly difficult to build up combos in the dozens and set off bombs multiple times in just a few seconds, and the kills from bombs just add more to the combo meter for even more explosions. Now, bombs are much more of an integral part of killing, but they can also be used as an emergency weapon as long as you've been doing enough killing recently to have one available.
The slow motion feature works just like you'd expect, allowing you the shooting precision and additional reaction time to get out of a sticky situation with enemies on all sides, but because you automatically get double points for any kill achieved in slow motion, it's also helpful for putting together huge scores, too. And since players can hold down a trigger and use as much or as little slow motion as they like (as long as it lasts, that is), carefully budgeting it out becomes another meta-strategy amongst the frantic moving and shooting.
All of this plays out amongst five solo-play modes that challenge your aim, your focus, and your ability to get out of the way of danger. Survival Mode gives players three lives (with the chance to gain more with high scores) and infinite time as long as they can stay alive. Crunch Time is a simple three-minute game that gives players infinite lives along with the knowledge that deaths slow down the spawning of point-giving enemies. Rush mode is similar to Crunch Time, but with the ability to blow up mini-boss-like big cubes to extend time out. Bombing Run is like Geometry Wars 2's Pacifist mode where no guns are allowed, but here players have to pick up special bombs and then drop them on another spot to blow up enemies - and shields are added to the mix to offer a bit of protection. Challenge Mode consists of twenty scenarios with limited lives (and time, per scenario). All five modes are very entertaining, but I think Rush might be my favorite, since the time on the clock becomes something variable that I can play with.
All modes include the slow motion feature, the need to level up, and the same combo-style multiplier system, and the rules of each game add a bit of nuance to each of these features to help make Waves feel like much more than a Geometry Wars-alike. Really, the only serious complaint I have with what's there is that the in-game HUD elements are entirely too close to my own ship - I'd much rather rely on the audio cues (for when the slow-motion buffer is full or bombs are ready) and have the visual elements pushed to the margins of the screen. It could also be argued that enemies explode into a few too many pieces, creating just a little bit too much chaotic clutter on-screen and making it difficult to see incoming threats through all the extraneous glitz. As far as what's missing, well, the lack of any kind of multiplayer modes makes for a bit of a disappointment, especially considering that Waves comes in at a $10 price point. I'm not saying that that's terribly expensive, but it'd have been nice to get two controllers going for cooperative versions of at least a couple out of the game's five modes.
From a technical perspective, Waves looks and sounds great, and while I did run the game at full speed with all features enabled on my desktop PC, I tried it on a couple of half-decent laptops and found that disabling horsepower-hungry features like Ambient Occlusion got me at 40fps or higher pretty easily. The game's music cycles through several tracks, even while inside of a particular gameplay mode, so don't expect to hear iconic songs as hallmarks of each particular gameplay mode like Geometry Wars. In fact, the music's good, but it never hits anything quite like the soundtrack greatness reached by the now-defunct Bizarre Creations.
Despite a few small issues and the disappointment at the lack of multiplayer of any kind, I still found Waves to be a highly entertaining twin-stick shooter with some really interesting rules to keep the formula fresh. The interplay of level-ups along with short-term combos and strings of bombs makes for some huge scoring opportunities, and the slow-motion feature helps ease the learning curve - even if new players will probably panic when in trouble, rather than pull the right trigger for slow-mo. All in all, this is a damn fun arcade action game, and it's well worth your time to try out the demo on Steam if you're interested in a crazy, new arcade shooter. It might not have the brilliant simplicity of Geometry Wars or the multiplayer mayhem of its sequel, but Waves still manages to hold its own very well.