I can think of no better way to celebrate the end of our current Steam Sale than by playing a game I didn’t even know I had. Anyone want to place bets on the most likely way that Wild Factor‘s Freaking Meatbags made its way into my possession? I’m figuring either Steam sale, next-to-nothing bundle, or a Steam sale on a next-to-nothing bundle.
I’ve had this game sitting on my desktop for the better part of 2016. I have no idea what it’s like. Is this week the week I finally find out?
Title of this column seems to suggest that, yes. Yes it it.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium.)
(Game source: ???. I mean I probably bought it myself, so let’s go with that.)
Ooh, look at this fancy opening screen. It’s all hand-drawn. Fancy planet, fancy lava moon, fancy tiny humans swimming in a fancy lake that might be an ocean. Fancy enormous laser rifle in the distance.
Fancy as it looks, though, there’s honestly not a whole lot to this screen. Options are confined to a single black box: sound level, music level, and a handful of low-level graphics nonsense. And there’s nothing really major beyond that. Version number, standard credits screen, confusingly hard-to-spot ‘reset save’ and ‘exit’ buttons in the lower left and right corners. Why aren’t these just in the main menu?
Nothing on the main menu to fill endless babbling paragraphs about. I guess that means we’re starting the game proper right now!
Okay, so… what do we have? I’m looking at… what I think is intended to be space. A solar system. There are about a dozen dotted lines circling a sun, confusingly named ‘planet final boss’. Grey locks of varying sizes slowly orbit the sun-planet. Planets? Only the outermost one is visibly different from the rest: the dotted line is clear, the lock is missing, and if I squint, I can just about make out the words ‘0%’ on it.
But I can’t do anything with any of this yet, because first I have to read this here email.
OH, hey, it’s an email from my boss, HAL 9000. I dig his tie.
The long and the short of the email is this: this robot is my boss. He’s here to assign me a task. Since I’m ‘late’ — should have worked out that email button faster, damn my sluggishness — all the good jobs have already been taken. I’ve been assigned to the ‘Komikos’ system, where all the planets are ‘about to crash into the sun’. Everything I know about orbital mechanics is raising its eyebrows at that, but fine, whatever. My job is to go over each planet and pick up all the valuable rocks there. Before the planets melt. Like a mining operation that’s also a smash-and-grab. Oh, and I’m to look after the weird squishy creatures that live on the planets too. Not for any particular profit reason, they’re just cute.
What follows is a brief tutorial about the ‘planet map’. A level select screen by any other name, unsurprisingly. I can navigate through these planets with the arrow keys or A/D, which is strange, because I’d much rather be clicking on things. For every planet, I can see a summary of things I don’t understand yet. Something about day and night times, ‘perfect robots’, and red silhouettes in a wave.
But listen, picking up some goddamn rocks can’t be too hard. I’ve played Minecraft, I know the score. Let’s touch down on this planet and see what I can harvest.
A strange mechanical obeliskoid lands on the planet surface, right next to convenient patches of square grey rocks and curved green rocks. And some humans. There’s a handful of humans just kind of wandering around here. There’s nothing nearby that looks like any kind of civilization: no farms, no roads… there are two menacing-looking structures that may or may not be housing. But otherwise, it’s just a bunch of humans. Hanging around. One of them wears a hard hat, for some reason.
The structure lands. A giant rectangular floating robot pops into appearance. Is that… me?
Chip the robot basically press-gangs the humans into service picking up rocks for him, because… wild robots are attacking?
Well, this is a plot twist. Why are ‘wild robots’ attacking? What does that even mean? And how the hell does Chip know this? While I don’t? I’m pretty sure wild robots weren’t at all mentioned in the mission briefing.
But okay, fine.
Before I can do anything, a ‘small’ four-legged orb robot — small compared to Chip and the base, but probably actually the size of a car — runs up to Kenneth and squishes him into red globs. Then explodes.
Okay, but for real, it’s actual gameplay time now. I can command and control the humans in traditional RTS fashion: left click to select, right click on the coloured rock deposits to tell them to go harvest.
Surprisingly, each of ‘my’ humans has a pretty expansive stat sheet. They have experience bars for ‘exploring’, ‘willingness to work’, ‘walking speed’, ‘mining’ — that one’s yellow, for some reason — and ‘tower damage’ — in red. And they even all have a unique short backstory.
The humans get to work, gathering grey and green rocks for me, as the tutorial teaches me how to either speed up time, or slow it to a crawl. My mission is to collect a certain amount of each resource, but with the amount I already have in store, I can’t see this taking longer than a few minutes. Still, it’d be nice if I could speed it up even more…
Using some of my resources — ‘metal’ and ‘botanicite’, I guess — I build a DNA Mixing Machine. Then, two humans go in. And I can use them to…
As far as I understand it, I can use this machine to mix the DNA of two humans together. Of a potentially big list of ‘DNA genes’, I can select two to go into the new human — with exploring, working, and walking non-optional. It’s not much of a choice right now, because there are literally only two options to select: mining, and tower damage. But I wouldn’t be surprised if more genes show up in that list later on.
Shortly after, my first vat-grown human is born.
Just in time for him to man the cannon towers.
Suddenly and without much warning, swarms of ‘creepy robots’ attack! And by ‘attack’, I mean ‘follow a clearly lit-up path from wherever they’re coming to towards my main base’. Luckily, that path just so happens to take them past a duo of conveniently-placed gun towers. That were built for human operation. Despite the humans here showing absolutely nothing like the level of technical expertise needed to… okay, sorry, I’m overthinking. Point is: the humans go into the towers and then the towers shoot the robots to death. At +40% damage, whatever the hell that signifies. The little robots leave behind oversized CPU chips on death, and I have no idea what that signifies either.
‘Wave 1 cleared’, the game tells me. And then ‘mission complete’. So that was wave 1 of 1, I guess. Before I can do much in the way of thinking anything over, my base announces its intention to auto-take-off, removing all that pesky ‘consolidating new lessons’ and ‘decision agency’ from the equation.
I win the first world! My reward is points.
My other reward is humans.
And just like that, I’m done with planet one. Onto planet two, I guess!
Planet two seems built to reiterate and reinforce some of the lessons of planet one. Here’s a base, it says. Here are some machine gun towers, and a half-finished wall. Robots are coming, and it’s your job to make sure they all die without smashing your base. Or you. The original objective, of collecting minerals from planets about to fall into a sun, seems forgotten.
Oh, and this planet also has big, four-armed ‘humanoid’ aliens walking around.
Ah, see, now that DNA mixing thing is starting to make sense. These big red aliens have different bonus genes from ‘normal’ humans. They fire towers faster instead of stronger, and they have a bonus to mining — even though they don’t actually have the mining skill, and therefore, cannot mine. Not your best move there, evolution. But once again, science steps in where nature did not. I can mix the genes of these aliens with those of bland humans, creating more optimized mixtures. Combining human mining skill with alien mining-boosting four arms creates the ultimate miner. And combining human damage boosting with alien fire rate boosting creates… a pretty good cannoneer, I guess. Listen, I can’t pretend to be as excited about this as I am about four-armed mining prodigies.
I create weird alien-human hybrids to my heart’s content. I could play a whole game built around this DNA mixing. And I have, in fact: this whole mechanic strongly reminds me of Gene Wars, the 1996 Bullfrog RTS about getting different animals to have sex with each other. And also fighting aliens or whatever. I never really paid attention to that part.
And hey, look, history repeats itself. I actually win planet two by building more machine gun towers, staffing them with humans and aliens, and blowing up more attacking wild robots. I guess I built all this? Repaired that wall, too, that they fail to get through.
Okay, I’m not giving the tower defense part of this game — because that’s obviously what it’s building towards — an entirely fair shake. The operationalization here is simple and boring, but this is obviously supposed to teach me the basics: this is how you build towers and walls, this is how you equip different types of meatbags to them. This is the kind of ground you can and cannot build on — see how the wall doesn’t extend onto the brown goop? Game could’ve been more explicit about this, but I recognize a low-key tutorial when I see one. I wouldn’t be surprised to see planet three build on these ideas. Maybe introduce some more towers, or tower bonus DNA genes. Or the concept of using walls for mazing, if that’s a thing this game has. Or floor tiles. Or new resources.
Which is why I’m very surprised when I reach planet three, and find out it’s actually a single-player top-down shooter.
I really thought I had this game’s number. And now I don’t know what to believe anymore.
Maybe… maybe I just need to play a little more? So far I’ve seen three planet-levels, with three wildly divergent focuses. Resource collection, tower defense, top-down shooting. As it stands, I can’t really tell what direction this game is trying to go in. But maybe that’ll become clearer in the later levels. There’s only about fifteen of them, it can’t take that long for any clarity to show up.
Check back in with you once I’ve cleared more of these planets — hopefully, at that point, I can tell you what kind of game Freaking Meatbags wants to be.