Demo Driver 8: Hammerfight (#308)
My cats have a pretty standard routine at this point that passes for the two of them fighting, and it’s kind of hilarious. They’ll both be perched on their hind legs glaring at one another, but neither one of them wants to actually hurt the other, just sort of whap the other around. The result is that for a couple moments they look as if they’re just going to glare or pounce, then one of them smacks the other without claws, and then the whole thing devolves into kitty paw-slaps and yowls. A confused mess of angry fur and smacking.
Hammerfight reminds me a lot of that. Not in the sense of adorable cats, but in the idea that it’s a confusing mess of a slap-fight. It’s got a fascinating and engaging premise, totally, but it’s an idea that never does a good job developing beyond that, and interesting aesthetics and concepts don’t make for a good game.
The basics of Hammerfight are kind of obvious from screenshots. You play a helicopter house with a dangling weapon. Your goal is to use a physics engine to smack other helicopter houses whilst avoiding their dangling weapon. Do enough damage to the other folks and you win. Your controls are almost entirely limited to the mouse, thereby giving rise to the whole “physics” part of the gameplay.
In other words, you don’t press a button to attack. Swing around and position your weapon properly and you can have you enemy fly right into it for massive damage. Bounce your opponent off the walls for added damage. The weapons work differently depending on which one you have, too. A ball and chain behaves differently from a hammer, which behaves differently from a long blade, and so forth. All straightforward enough, yes?
That’s in theory, at least. In practice, it comes down to a series of confused mouse twitches.
Part of the problem is that swinging the mouse around madly in hopes of achieving your goals is not a good control method. I’m not talking about using it to aim, I’m talking about swinging it around in circles so that your weapon gets up enough speed to actually do damage. By itself, it could lead to an interesting control scheme, but at the start it mostly just feels weird and unresponsive. It’s also awkward as hell to couple your every movement with attack and defense at the same time. Interesting control scheme, fine, but interesting is not the same as good.
This is not helped in the slightest by the fact that the game’s UI is utterly terrible, and figuring out what is going on during a given fight is an exercise in frustration. Enemies will frequently swing out of the viewable arena while still shooting at you, coming back like a wrecking ball to smash you against the rocks while you have no such options. Visually distinguishing between your unit and that of your enemies can be an exercise in frustration, too.
Hell, half of the challenge offered is the simple fact that the computer doesn’t have the same control scheme which you have to wrestle with. When your chief selling point in difficulty is that you’re having a hard time controlling the actual game, it may be time to send it back to design, because it’s not done yet.
What happens, in practice, is that instead of providing you with an intricate airborne dance of death, the game quickly devolves into two helicopters ramming about one another with a combat style I can only describe as “crazy cartwheels.” AI housecopters seem to be aggressive in the extreme right from the start, which means that instead of having a smooth curve where you adapt to a control scheme that doesn’t come across as intuitive, you start learning how to flail madly and do your best to set up a zone of safety around yourself by swinging in circles and not moving much. It doesn’t help that your opponents have upgrades from the start which you do not yet have access to, because we wouldn’t want to allow the player to actually play around or feel like they have half a moment to figure out how to control this stupid game, would we?
The sad part is that I want to like this game, because its look is absolutely amazing. It’s a steampunk game with vague Arabic and Indian influences, and in an industry that can’t seem to break out of two or three stock settings it’s like a breath of hot, fresh air. Not to mention the fact that I’m a sucker for games that allow me to customize my own flying machine, because… well, do I need to go into detail on that one?
But there’s too much you’re being asked to do right from the start, a control scheme that would seem more at home in a Flash game than in a commercial product which expects you to pay money, and a UI that actively works against your desperate need for information. There are even fundamental mistakes, stuff that seems like it would be a no-brainer. Enemies can start attacking you the second the narrative ends, but there’s no warning when a cutscene will end, meaning you’ll often find yourself sitting there while your opponents hurtle toward you at Mach 1.
You don’t want to know how long it took me to find my own health bar. Which is tucked in a corner and makes it very hard to tell how well you’re doing. Not that the rest of the game makes that easier; you’re kind of swinging and hoping that a hit connects with the force you want.
I realize I’ve had a few weeks of negative demos, and I don’t want to cap off July with a third game that’s just plain bleh. But, well, I can’t fix a game I didn’t make, can I? Hammerfight seems to have obtained most of its notice via its inclusion in one of the Humble Indie Bundles, and I think that’s kind of a fair last hurrah. It’s a great concept and a great look married to a game that just isn’t worth the time to learn how to play.
Also, I’d like to note I didn’t make the obvious joke about this game from start to finish. Go me. (You can guess it if you think about something long and floppy.)