Eliminate Community Day
ngmoco’s studios won’t stand out if you walk by their building on King Street in San Francisco. Next to AT&T Park (home to Major League Baseball’s Giants) and above the studio for Current TV, ngmoco’s unassuming open office is little more than a large room with 30 or so developers toiling away at scattered computers. But the hidden and cozy office, featuring exposed ventilation ducts, brick walls, and male and female Rolando characters stuck to the doors of their respective bathrooms, quietly houses one of the premier developers of games for the iPhone/iTouch. We got a chance recently to visit their studio to go hands-on with their latest product, Eliminate, the company’s first attempt at a first-person shooter and, more importantly, the platform’s first attempt a full-fledged multiplayer FPS with all the console trimmings.
First-person shooters haven’t done very well on the iPhone/iTouch yet. While there have been numerous attempts, few games have been able to provide a comfortable FPS experience on Apple’s fledgling handheld. The biggest difficulty for me personally has been control – how do you provide a comfortable FPS experience on a system lacking analog sticks, triggers or any buttons? After sitting down and playing Eliminate, I can say without hesitation that these are the best FPS controls seen on this platform yet.
Truth in advertising
In the interest of fair-play and to maintain journalistic credibility, we want you to know that ngmoco provided us with the trip to San Francisco to play the game, including covering the bill for airfare and accommodations. This has not influenced my opinion on Eliminate at all, but we felt it was important to let our readers know how this opportunity came about, lest you find out from someone else and assume that this is little more than a paid advertorial.
Before we get into that, some background info: Eliminate casts you as an employee of Arsenal Megacorp, a futuristic defense contractor. Arsenal is the best at their trade, but how they keep themselves at the top is subject to moral debate. Arsenal uses human testing to perfect their gear and, as you’ve probably guessed, you and the three other players you’ll square off against are guinea pigs.
Deathmatch across five levels is the only mode that the game will ship with, but this isn’t exactly Quake or Unreal Tournament. Unlike traditional deathmatch games, Eliminate allows players to customize and upgrade their weaponry and battlesuits through an experience-based leveling system. These aren’t simply cosmetic changes — upgrades, paid for with credits earned through ass-kickery, significantly alter the game. The ecoquatic battlesuit, for instance, improves your mobility underwater. It’s particularly helpful on Flood, a level that features a large pool of water in the middle of the main combat area that is filled with temporary power-ups. You’ll be able to use your credits to improve dozens of different stats, which should mean that every player you square off against will bring something different to the table.
While the game ships with an offline bot mode, the emphasis of Eliminate is multiplayer. Tapping the play button, we were put into matches in less than 10 seconds. Either through Wi-Fi or 3G, you’ll connect to servers hosted by ngmoco, who will keep track of your characters stats and equipment through their Plus+ Network. Plus+ is a new service from ngmoco that keeps track of your stats and friends list, and the service is currently supported by 40 or so games. When you log into Eliminate, you’ll be connected to your Plus+ account and you’ll be able to send out push messages to challenge your friends to play the game. When they get the message, they just have to click accept and you’ll be fragging each other in less than ten seconds.
Sounds great, right? There is a catch. Each player is powered by energy — energy which depletes as you play. While our group played, energy drained completely after about three rounds before we needed to refill it (note: the team is still tweaking how fast it drains and this is subject to change). You can play without energy, but if you do, your kills won’t earn you any of the credits you so desperately need to upgrade your character. Though you can wait for your energy to replenish over time, the team at ngmoco is hoping that people will by powercells through microtransactions to help offset their network costs. While I was initially hesitant when I heard this, your copy of the game will include powercells to get you started and, while they haven’t released pricing information, we were told you would be given a fair amount of powercells when you do buy them.
If players are willing to buy into the microtransactions will depend on what they think of the game. I walked away impressed. We were first shown some videos of the game and then, after Producer Chris Plummer filled us in on how the game came to be, we were handed the game to give it a shot for ourselves. The team gave us no intro on how to actually play the game in order to see how quickly we picked it up and, within just a round, nearly everyone in the room was fragging and trash-talking.
A small circle, about the size of the analog nub on the PSP, sits in the bottom-left of the screen for movement. Tapping the middle-bottom of the screen controls jumping, and your aiming is handled by thumbing around on the right-bottom of the screen. Shooting your gun is handled by tapping the right side of the screen. If you single tap, you fire one shot, but if you double-tap, you’ll auto-fire, which helps you keep shooting and aiming at a hopping, strafing target. Tapping the middle of the screen lets you zoom in for headshots on unsuspecting or distant foes, though I’ll admit that on the small maps of the game, zooming wasn’t entirely necessary.
It sounds like a lot now that I look back at the paragraph, but it works, and it works well. The only thing missing was manual reload, but the team seemed to be trying to work it into the game. Otherwise, you’ll have to empty your clip to reload. Fortunately, to keep things moving, each weapon has infinite ammo, so even if you have to waste some shots to reload, you won’t be without ammo. I’ll concede that the controls certainly weren’t as comfortable as an Xbox 360 pad or mouse-and-keyboard, but for the system that the game is running on, they worked really well, and certainly better than what’s been offered by other games.
I experienced three of the game’s five maps, but I’ll refrain from offering too much critique since we were reminded several times that were still works in progress. If you’ve played Quake or Unreal Tournament, the color palette will seem very familiar. Metal walkways, radioactive waste, and silver and brown walls are the order of the day. Most levels featured an open combat area connected by narrow corridors and elevators where players meet to do battle. While the levels certainly weren’t massive, the size was appropriate for the number of players on the map and I was never too far from a firefight.
Perhaps the most impressive thing, beyond the fluid controls, was the graphics engine. There’s nothing like this running on the iPhone/iTouch right now. The team is putting out and testing new builds of the engine daily, even making tweaks and improvements to the build while we played if we uncovered any glitches. The engine ran smoothly at a fairly solid 30 frames per second most of the time I played, though hiccups were encountered. As someone who gets motion sick when the frame rate isn’t locked down, I was particularly concerned, but the engine held up really well even in the midst of action-packed exchanges.
There’s no date or price yet for Eliminate, but the company is diligently focused on the game and has been for some time. When I asked how long the game had been in production, CEO Neil Young answered, “a long fucking time.” Fans of the game who first heard about it months ago have been wondering if and when the game will come out. To that I answer, “patience, my friends.” This is an ambitious undertaking that ngmoco is taking on and I left our hands-on convinced that they won’t be satisfied until it lives up to their expectations, which might even be beyond ours. This game is a labor of love for ngmoco, and it definitely shows.
Now, how well the game does is entirely up to us. ngmoco is building a console experience to attract gamers who normally stick with Halo, offering achievements, friends lists, DLC … everything you’d expect from an Xbox 360 game, on your iPhone/iTouch. They’re also promising that it will be “competitively priced.” But, a game like that is dependent on fan support to make it successful, and that’s where we come in. I left convinced that ngmoco was going to release, at the very least, a benchmark game that other multiplayer first-person shooters on the platform will ape in their own efforts. We players have our own task — pick up the game when it comes out and give it a real shot. You might not have taken the iPhone/iTouch seriously in the past, but Eliminate is an excellent demonstration of what this platform is capable of.