Retro Evolved, evolved.
During our trip to Vivendi/Sierra's hotel meeting, we got some eyes-on and hands-on time with Geometry Wars Galaxies, the fully fleshed-out sequel to the Bizarre Creations Xbox Live Arcade mega-hit. And it looks really good.
If you've played the original, and I hope you have, the big question on everyone's mind was how the game would control with the Wii remote. It does take some adjustment, but once you get into it, things work all right. By default, the analog stick on the nunchuk moves your ship, and the Wii remote pointer controls where your ship is aiming. A red-colored streak leads from your ship to the point where you are pointing. Aiming in a different part of a screen will adjust your shooting angle in that direction. Shooting bullets is manually done in Galaxies, and the B Trigger takes care of that job.
This setup is very strange to get a hold of initially, mostly because your brain will want to equate the shooting direction with up-down-left-right motions of the remote. Until you can wrangle the fact that the red streak is where you are pointing, and that controls where you are shooting, it feels like you are writing something with your non-dominate hand.
It only took me three minutes to get the basics of it down, and a few minutes later I was starting to zone out a little. I wasn't completely comfortable with the setup at that point—partly because it is a little easy to lose track of the pointing cursor among the various explosions that occur and partly because it still felt like I was using an analog stick that wasn't there—but it was working. With time, I'm sure I could do it without even thinking, and the Sierra rep on duty said that people playing it during focus testing had it down solidly, especially those who have never played the game on the 360.
Those same focus testers said it would be nice to include Wii classic controller support, and so it's in there. Sadly, GameCube controller support is not included. (Blame the focus group.) Also nice is the ability to customize the controls on the Wii remote/nunchuk combo. If you want to move around with the Wii pointer and aim with the analog stick, you can do that. Lefties can hold the controller halves reversed, if desired. The optional control options weren't available to try, but it is a pleasant thought that the effort is being applied to make sure the method of control doesn't get in the way of playing the game.
So what about the gameplay itself? Galaxies takes the Retro Evolved concept and expands upon it. In this game, the original rectangular grid is just one small section of space in a galaxy of more than 60 planets. A map screen shows a colored look-alike of the Milky Way, and zooming in on different sections shows different solar systems. Each planet is its own unique game grid with special rules and situations. The levels aren't plain-jane backgrounds that serve as eye-candy when stuff blows up; they are quite active and interactive.
One planet we played on had a grid that was hexagonal in shape. In center was a giant (but harmless) black hole that was spinning the entire gravitational field (and the blue line grid it is represented by) around and around as if you were looking down into the mouth of an active blender. The wave motion was so outrageous that the blue gravity field was swirling outside the confines of the outer boundaries. This looked wild, but it wasn't just for show; the gravity shifting affects the movement of the ship. Trying to go against the flow will make you move slower, and going with the flow will make you go faster. Bullets shot against the grain will slow to a crawl. And oh by the way, the level will spawn dozens of enemies and other objects that try to mow you down in the normal Geometry Wars fashion. You've got to simultaneously navigate around the hexagon, manage the gravity flow, and kill the enemies that are also affected by the flow. And just as you're starting to figure it out? The rotation of the gravity swirl changes. Evil!
The potential for different shaped grids prompted me to ask if there would be something like a maze pattern to navigate through, or something like a donut with an empty space in the center of a ring playfield. The comment I got in response wasn't a flat-out “yes," but more of a “don't tell anyone." (So I won't!) Can you imagine needing to worry about the level attacking you just as much as the endless wave of enemies will?
I can, since I've seen some of the new baddies in Galaxies. Mutators look harmless at first, but if you get too close to one, it will multiply and aggressively pursue you. They make you devote all of your attention to keeping them off of you, which can lead into a lapse of concentration and a lost life. Another new enemy makes use of the Wii remote in a nice way: Parasites can't destroy you directly, but they can latch onto your ship and slow you down. To get them off, you need to shake the Wii remote until they break free, at which point you can zap 'em. (In the DS version, this is accomplished by blowing into the microphone.) All told, the Wii version will have twice the enemy variety of the XBLA original.
To help combat the evil shape army, your lone fighter will get a little help. The drone is an automatically-controlled assist satellite, not unlike the option ships in Gradius. You'll always have it with you, but you can set it to different behavior patterns before you enter a level. It can defend by shooting in the opposite direction as you. It can shoot forward for an offensive boost. There's also an option for it to automatically collect Genomes, which is an important thing. Getting enough of them will clear that particular grid. Every level can be played endlessly, of course, if you're the type who likes to try to get a high score.
And guess what? There will be online leaderboards for both console and handheld versions of Galaxies. Lots of them. And before you ask, the leaderboards will be going through Nintendo's servers, meaning that people who try to cheat will be caught as fast as the Pokemon cheaters are getting booted. That is just great.
For everyone who thought turning a $10 XBLA game into a full console version was a tough sell, you're going to be surprised at how great Geometry Wars Galaxies is. I sure was. It helped that I was able to download the original Retro Evolved version onto my DS and take it with me after I left. You'll be able to do that in the retail version too, you know.