Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Game Review - Terraria (XBLA, 2013)

My friends were never quite able to convince me to get Terraria when it was released on the PC.  Despite what they may have told me, I couldn’t help but see it as a 2-dimensional, sprite-based Minecraft, and Minecraft never really excited me.  Although I see that sort of game as a great outlet for creativity, I tend to prefer exploring worlds and discovering their secrets over creating my own.

I had some spare MSP sitting in my account, so when Terraria was released as a downloadable console title, I decided to give it a shot.  Although there’s a pretty steep learning curve at the start, what I found was one of the most addicting games of the last few years.

On its surface, Terraria is pretty simple: old-school graphics reminiscent of the late NES-early SNES days, a gameplay system built on mining your way through a 2D landscape, and rather basic inventory and combat features.  After spending some time getting used to the interface and exploring the procedurally-generated world, the true depth and beauty of the game springs forth.

First off, the worlds Terraria generates are huge – even the “small” map that I started was enormous.  It takes several minutes of straight running to travel from one end of the level to the other, and the stages are nearly equally deep, with several layers of geological stratification.

And it’s so much more than just a blank canvas.  Different ecological zones (deserts, jungles, deep dungeons, corrupted terrain, and even Hell, if you dig deep enough) dot the landscape, and each brings new varieties of monsters to ruin your day.  You may also run across rare mineral deposits which, once mined, will open up big crafting trees with all kinds of weapons, armor, and general tools to use.  These features make exploration fun and exciting, and you always have the prospect of generating a new world and starting over.

Terraria also gives players a chance to impose their creativity on the world, as the basic structure of everything can be altered to fit your desires.  You can build grand floating cities to house the NPC merchants that will join you over time, or you can strip mine the entire jungle looking for gemstones and precious ores.  Providing some utility beyond mere creativity, you can use these mechanics to create arenas for facing nasty bosses or to surround yourself with stone, giving your character’s health a chance to regenerate.  It’s an open world that you can modify to suit your desires and needs; it’s definitely an experience like no other game I’ve ever played.

The game controls like a twin-stick shooter: the left stick moves your character, while the right focuses his or her aim in a particular direction.  You can switch between two types of targeting modes on the fly, allowing you to go from precise targeting of a nearby block (useful for placing objects and carefully removing earth from specific spaces) to indiscriminate “that way!” aiming (useful for digging tunnels and firing projectiles) with a click of the right stick, almost seamlessly melding the two uses for different levels of precision.

Similarly, the inventory system allows you to organize your stuff with care while sitting in your house (or hut or castle or dungeon, if those better suit your tastes), but then you can quickly flip between several active items in the heat of the moment.  At particularly urgent times, it can be a bit sluggish, as you have to scroll through active items instead of grabbing one directly, and there is no way to pause the game (the world is always active in the background while navigating any menus), but it works pretty well given those constraints.

Putting everything together, Terraria is a surprisingly challenging game.  Very few things come easily, and even when you’re finally able to smelt enough metal to craft some shiny new armor, there’s (almost) always another area or another boss that will still smack you silly.  It’s a rewarding system that makes you feel like you’re always making strides towards defeating the next big baddie, and it feels like a huge triumph when you’re finally able to dispatch the monster that had easily brushed you aside when you first encountered it.

Basically, Terraria feels like a customizable, resettable MMORPG – it gives a big world to explore and modify, and each world is unique, so there are always areas to explore.  You can freely move your characters between worlds, too, so you can raid worlds and return home to reap the benefits.

The biggest problem with the XBLA version of Terraria is not really a flaw with the game, but rather with the community.  The game offers multiplayer modes (although not local multiplayer, tsk tsk), wherein you can join other players’ worlds or have others join yours.  After spending a bit over 30 hours with “play online” checked, I have never seen another player join my world, and have I never seen someone else’s world available on the world selection screen.  In a game with so much potential for multiplayer shenanigans (boss runs through new worlds could be great fun with a small group, as an example), the distinct lack of an online community is terribly disappointing.

It’s not the most stunning game, and it takes some time to get used to the controls and interface, but Terraria is an incredible gaming experience.  In a league almost entirely its own, every gamer ought to spend some time with this title.

My Rating: 9/10 – awesome.

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