Publisher: Chair Entertainment
Developer: Chair Entertainment
Release Date: November 21, 2007
For this generation of consoles, one game engine has proven to be the most prevalent: the Unreal engine. Designed by Epic Games, the Unreal engine has been used by almost every developer out there to create just about every type of game. From shooting games to RPGs to wrestling titles, this game engine somehow gets involved. One common factor that the games share, however, is that almost all of them are disc-based titles because most developers believed that the engine could only be used properly if it had plenty of hard drive space to work with. In 2006, that belief was shattered when RoboBlitz became the first downloadable title to use the Unreal engine as its primary game engine. Further proving that the engine is viable enough for both disc-based and downloadable titles, Chair Entertainment released Undertow, an Xbox Live Arcade title that also uses this technology. The game proves to contain some fun, but only if the right conditions are met.
The story line for Undertow is fairly good. Set in an alternate Victorian era, the Earth has been flooded, forcing mankind to the ocean depths in order to survive. As the tutorial level begins, you are part of the Royal British Navy and have been sent on a routine maintenance mission when pirates attack your base. After defeating them, you capture one of them and make him part of your squad against his will. As the adventure unfolds, you spark a war against Captain Nemo himself, who has somehow prolonged his life through machinery.
Through the single-player mode, your job is to bring peace to the waters once again. The campaign consists of 15 levels where the objective is the same: control different territories in the map and reduce your enemy's points. These points deplete whenever you die or when you begin to lose territories; the number of times you can respawn also depends on the points you have left. When you return to the game, you can do so as one of four unit types that vary in armor and ammo strength. As you take over control points and kill enemy units, you earn points that can be used to upgrade your units to gain more strength and firepower.
The single-player mode is actually fairly engaging. The enemy AI is fairly relentless, providing for a tough experience through each level. It can be argued that the ally AI accidentally increases that difficulty by not helping as much as it should, but they end up putting in a good fight at the end. While most of the levels deal with territory control, some of them have boss fights, giving the experience the diversity it needs to prevent it from becoming boring. There's also split-screen co-op, which lets you tackle missions with a friend, a good addition that helps breathe longevity into this game mode.
The multiplayer is pretty much the same as the single-player modes, with the same rules in place. All nine maps are designed well with support for 16 players split into two eight-man teams. When playing online, the game plays smoothly with no hint of lag at all, even when all 16 players are speaking. Bots are also available to fill in any empty slots, helping you make a big game even if you don't have the manpower to do so. Aside from the Control Points mode, there are also your standard deathmatch and online co-op for the single-player mode, both of which work out well here.
Controls for Undertow are easy to pick up for those who are familiar with games such as Mutant Storm Reloaded and Geometry Wars. The left thumbstick moves your character while the right thumbstick fires shots in any direction. The right trigger initiates a speed boost while the Y button calls up the upgrade menu whenever you get enough points to do so. Overall, the scheme is responsive enough and gives people little to complain about in this area.
The graphics look good for an Xbox Live Arcade game. Admittedly, the environments are a bit sparse since every level has a few buildings, plenty of rocks and a deep ocean, but the texture work on them is rather good. The textures are much more basic and less detailed on the character models and the vehicles they occupy. The lighting, however, does a great job at masking low-detailed textures. Bloom lighting from explosions and the power-up aura make Undertow beautiful to look at. All of this is achieved if you're playing the game on a high-definition TV. If you have a standard-definition set, this title becomes hard on the eyes due to the small size of the players. There is no middle ground here since getting things up close not only exposes the average texture work but hides the rest of the environment, while moving further away makes everything too tiny to see. Again, if you have a standard TV set, this game becomes too hard to play due to the graphics alone.
The sound has a few issues but is good overall. The voices come out compressed and in mono sound. It can initially be argued that the underwater setting makes this an intentional choice, but there are sound clips where the compressed nature is unmistakable. Aside from this, the effects are clear and give off some richness when needed. Get into an intense firefight with plenty of explosions, for example, and you'll feel the bass rush through your system. The music is only played through cut scenes and menus, but it helps put you in the mood for epic battles, which is all that you can really ask from the game.
Undertow is a good fit for the Xbox Live Arcade. The action is fast and uncomplicated, it has plenty of options for the single-player and multiplayer experiences, and the tight controls do a good job of making the player want to partake in the action. It isn't a perfect game and, as mentioned before, standard-definition TV players will find nothing but misery with this title. As long as you have a high-definition TV set and an itch for some action in quick fixes, Undertow is a game that you should try.
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