Galactic Arms Race has its gimmick… but it needs more to keep me coming back

FROM JASON’S LASER BEAMS — Look, this is a pretty old story and you know it by heart. It’s all about the grind. You kill things and you get credit for it, until you get enough credit that you can achieve a higher level.

That’s the way of World of Warcraft, of Dungeons and Dragons, of Final Fantasy. It’s how repetitive games progress. Everything else is embroidery.

That embroidery is what sets one grind apart from the rest… just not by much.

In the case of Galactic Arms Race, the freeware space shooter, the gimmick is the AI that constantly mutates new weapons based on an algorithm called cgNEAT.

To reduce it to Atari-speak, GAR is basically a fusion of Asteroids and Solaris with PvP and RPG mechanics thrown into the mix. You fly (solo or multiplayer) through a network of star systems taking on aliens, pirates, and space blobs while gaining experience and pumping up various armor and weapons stats. It’s got all the laser-filled shmup-ability of Japanese shooters with the same “just one more level” carrot offered by WoW.

GAR‘s the kind of DLC you would have killed to find back in 1995 — quick, resource-friendly, set against beautifully rendered space dust, and with constantly evolving (to a point) content. But when boiled down to its fundamentals, GAR is more a toy than a game.

What I mean is that no matter how many different ways the game finds to fire weapons (which so far are all variations on a very narrow theme), the shoot-and-level game idea has pretty much reached a dead end. For three decades, shoot-em-ups have been repackaging of the old tenets of Galaga.

What could move GAR further away from the realm of Galaxian et al would be a hybridization of mechanics. It would benefit tremendously, for instance, by incorporating trade or cargo-hauling, wreckage salvaging, mining, or some other similar components. The relative monotony could also be lifted by introducing personalities or (who knows) political interaction with the various enemy factions, or possibly a combination that could allow a control-the-map strategic element similar to RISK.

For now, that doesn’t seem to be part of the plan, and that’s okay if you want a few hours of mindless blow-shit-up-and-get-more-powerful fun. But that old chestnut gives dimishing returns on replay… especially when you’ve hit level 62 and start to get sleepy.

Don’t get me wrong. I like GAR, or I wouldn’t have put about six hours into it over the past few days. That’s why it’s worth talking about. It really is a terrific effort, especially for a university group project. I just need a little more meat, that’s all.

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