Another warm summer’s day, another two games completed. (Hey, don’t judge.)
I think the mini-review format I experimented with in yesterday’s thoughts on Abzû and Manual Samuel worked quite well, allowing me to jot down some thoughts on my experiences with them without having to spend too long writing a proper review critically observing any and all aspects of the games. With a few more fairly short games on my backlog, I figured I’d repeat the format. Today I’ll be looking at a first-person shooter with a distinct twist, and a first-person puzzle game desperately wishing it was Portal.
Yeah, yeah, I know it’s styled as SUPERHOT. Look at me caring.
There’s a running joke, made clear to everyone who completes the game, that we are required by our AI overlords to say “SUPERHOT IS THE MOST INNOVATIVE SHOOTER I’VE PLAYED IN YEARS!” And while it’s bit reductionist, it’s not necessarily false.
The game’s central mechanics are these:
- Time only moves when you move1
- Hit by a bullet = dead (both you and enemies)
- Punch or throw your empty (or not, in a pinch) weapons and other objects at enemies to stun them, allowing you to grab the weapons they drop
The rest of what you’d consider standard fare in shooters is stripped away. Most notably, there are no textures – enemies glow red, everything else is white. The game is also level-based, placing you in different environments and situations of varying degree of difficulty, each designed to be completed in minutes.
I’d say this adequately describes the central gameplay. However, there’s no getting away from a somewhat in-your-face framing device: The menu screen is a glitchy DOS-like operating system, complete with a directory structure with ASCII-based games, tech demos of ye olden age, and even a chat client with around 20 minutes of mildly amusing dialogue, for those so inclined. Superhot is a game within the game, a cracked exe file sent to you in some chat or another, and while it seems innocuous at first, things quickly escalate and go off the deep end.
Whether or not you like the framing device is purely subjective. I found it just interesting enough to keep my annoyance at bay, but if I could have had ten hours of unique, well-designed levels of shooting Red Guys and dodging bullets in slow motion, I’d say yes please. As it is, the story mode lasts just a couple of hours.
The short length is somewhat alleviated by numerous challenge modes. The core concepts being as simple as they are, it’s not difficult to come up with subtle changes to the rules. There is a mode that forces you to kill enemies only using a katana, a mode that stops time completely when you stand still but makes bullets fly faster and your weapons only have one shot, a mode that forces you to use only punches, two speedrun modes (for realtime and in-game time), and many more. There are also a variety of timed and untimed “endless” modes. I did not sink that much time into these challenge modes, because, you know, the rest of my game backlog beckons.
After each level, having weaved in and out of bullets and strategically shattered your enemies using a variety of techniques, you get to see a real-time replay of your efforts. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this as thrilling as it sounds: Due to the character animations and the relative slowness of the bullets even in real-time, it mostly looks like someone playing Quake 2, and the first-person viewpoint can be disorienting. If you expect the replays to make you feel like Neo defeating a ton of Agent Smiths, you’ll come away disappointed.
All in all, however, playing Superhot certainly was an interesting experience, and if you find the central idea alluring, I recommend you check it out.
The Turing Test
If I were to describe The Turing Test in a single phrase, it would be “Portal, just not as good”.
You’re playing as a woman named Ava Turing (they really went there, didn’t they), an astronaut in orbit around Europa, one of Jupiter’s biggest moons. Apparently things aren’t going too well groundside, so the resident AI, named TOM, wakes you from hibernation and sends you off to investigate. Due to an achingly forced explanation which makes completely no sense, the base must be entered through a series of test chambers as a form of “Turing test” to ensure that only humans can enter.2 These test chambers mainly have you manipulating energy boxes and orbs in various forms and colours using – you guessed it – your Energy Orb Gun.3
Sounds like Portal yet? Thought so.
There is a lot of potential, but The Turing Test fails subtly in several ways. One is the lack of personality. Where Portal’s GLaDOS brimmed with personality to the point of defining the game as much as the portals themselves, TOM is bland and uninteresting and mainly serves as a way of dispatching bite-sized chunks of narrative at the outset of each test chamber.
The puzzles are another area that doesn’t quite live up to Portal’s standards. Most are fairly easy, never really providing that rush of satisfaction when you discover the solution. Many of the challenging levels are challenging for the wrong reasons; for example, the game may not have properly taught you an important mechanic in the previous level, or it may conflate difficulty with disarray. Even the few good puzzles pale in comparison to the highlights of Portal in ways that, while difficult for me to pinpoint, was easily noticeable. In Portal, you stop, observe and think when entering a new room, while in The Turing Test, I often found myself just picking up an orb or a box and moving it over here or there before getting to know the puzzle because that obviously had to be be the first step. And while some puzzles follows Portal’s pattern of giving you one element less than you think you can possibly solve it with, I was more often than not bemused after almost accidentally solving one without having obtained a solid understanding of the entirety of the puzzle.
Finally, the narrative is just not coherent at all, let alone credible. You can smell where things are going from the opening seconds, and the developers seem so proud of their oh so clever story that they can’t stop pointing insistently (“foreshadowing” is far too weak a word) at central plot developments and twists much too soon. Almost everything is explicitly told instead of shown or hinted, as if they wanted to make sure that the phrase “show, don’t tell” won’t be going out of a job soon. Half of TOM’s dialogue – nay, lectures – are completely out of place, explaining to a 23rd century astronaut the generalities of her team’s long-running mission as well as subjects expected to be known by any literate person today. And don’t bring the gameplay into the mix: After a big (optional, though hard to miss) reveal fairly early on, gameplay continues with business as usual even though that would seem highly counterproductive from a narrative point of view, with Ada completely oblivious to TOM’s blatant contradictions of what you just read.
The game is, simply, not as clever as it thinks it is.
Does this mean that The Turing Test is without merit? No, certainly not. The visuals and animations are great, as is most of the voice acting – a couple of the audio logs lying around are genuinely moving and disturbing. Before Portal this could have been a hit, and even now it has some semi-interesting comments on the likes of consciousness, artificial intelligence, immortality, and the nature of morality. Unfortunately, it’s just too little, too late,
If you think I’m being unfair by holding it up to Portal’s standards, I disagree: When you so deliberately go up against the legends, prepare to be thoroughly squashed. The Turing Test is not devoid of playworthiness, but the main experience I’m left with is five hours of desiring to fire up Portal instead.
Well, it moves very slowly when you stand still in order to place a modicum of pressure on you, and seemingly also slightly faster when you look around, which I guess counts as moving, so that’s logical at least, but apparently marketing decided to shorten the description for obvious reasons.↩
It makes absolutely no sense because TOM has full access to the base anyway, with cameras in every room – in fact, later levels have you actually cooperate with him using the cameras.↩
Its real name was some three-letter acronym which, let’s face it, is completely irrelevant and uninteresting.↩