Developer: Digital Eel
Publisher: Shrapnel Games
ESRB Rating: NA
Release Date: 10/24/11
Data Jammers: FastForward teases apart the difference between casual and easy, which is a lost nicety in modern gaming. It’s also concise, tightly designed, and pretty, but it’s best distinguished as a casual game with fangs. All this is comes as a surprise from a game whose closest evolutionary relative is the racing genre, but there’s just no accounting for indie creativity.
Data Jammers: FastForward puts you in the role of a hacker cracking the hidden infrastructure of the internet. There’s a secret organization that needs revealing, and you have a brazen plan to sprint through the G-man’s intrusion countermeasures. That’s pretty much all you’ll hear from the narrative, because Data Jammers is one of those games that makes up an excuse to get you started, and then sits back and lets you play.
DJ:F is like the celebrity marriage of Geometry Wars to Pole Position: short and incredibly turbulent. The game breaks into fifteen levels, each a procedurally-generated racetrack that ripples and branches through space. It’s not a race in the competitive sense, but rather a dead sprint through a gauntlet of trailing and advancing hazards. Your hacker proceeds automatically through each track, and you control his exact position to dodge or destroy obstacles along the way.
Throughout the game the tracks are busy with travelling data packets, mostly harmless trafic that competes with you for space. As the game proceeds, it adds malware bots to pursue, harrass, unbalance, and destroy you. Your limited supply of bombs will thin the crowd, but when they run out, you’ll be down to evading enemies or duping them into lethal collisions with packets or each other. It’s a fairly simple idea, but when four pursuit bots happen to chase you into a catapult, you’ll have to decide whether to risk your last bomb on the fliers who’ve been harrassing you, or the crowd that’s waiting when you land. And suddenly the simple idea starts getting very intersting.
There’s a lot to track, but Data Jammers is actually loaded with little tricks that keep the challenge from feeling cheap. For instance, all the visual chaos happens onscreen as the track lurches and waves at unsafe speeds, but your bright orange avatar is always visible against the mess. The track is broken into lanes that dynamically color code for oncoming goodies and threats, and the sudden color fill really pops against the wireframe aesthetic and gives you a fighting chance to react. It also helps that, even though movement is continuous, your avatar snaps to the lanes, as do most hazards. That combines with briskly responsive controls to make the controls feel tight. Other tweaks like extra lives and regenerating health make it so failure only really sticks if it comes fast and often. It all combines to make the maelstrom manageable.
More important than scaffolding though, is simplicity. DJ:F is a five-button game: four directions and a panic button. The tutorial is about 30 seconds long, and after that the game only changes by adding new hazards. Difficulty rises with density and speed in the level design, so really the challenge is about making simple decisions faster and in increasingly complex settings. Fortunately, there’s a completely reasonable learning curve to reading the bedlam. So it’s an easy learning difficult mastery sort of game.
If that sounds spiritually related to arcades, it is. The paper thin story and acessible challenge will give you retro-fuzzies, even though Data Jammers has obviously profited from the intervening 20 years of game design. There’s no quarter-munching incentive for cheapness, and the game never indulges the bad habit. Play is farily short at 1-2 hours, but all the levels are procedurally generated to give you something new each time you play. Each track is a bite-sized chunk of that sum, which keeps both punishment and load times minimal. A lot of thought went into righting the wrongs from the arcade era, and it pays off in smooth play.
If there is a flaw to this design style, it’s not overambitious. The game’s “wow” moment comes at the very beginning when you get a taste of just how much information you have to manage. However, that feeling becomes rapidly comfortable as you get the hang of play. Data Jammers is less an epiphany and more a precision machine: well-crafted from sound principles. So this is a game to get if you’re looking for a solid action title, not the future of gaming.
Hack The Planet
Data Jammers: FastForward is best suited to casual gamers who are tired of all the mollycoddling. It’s simple but tough, short but sweet, and refined if not revolutionary. These same virtues might make the game appeal less if you’re burnt out on arcade-y action, but it’s still easy to appreciate a tight game that doesn’t belabor its point.
What It’s Worth:
•To The Hardcore: $10 (play)
•To The Genre Fan: $10 (buy)
•To The Casual: $10 (buy)
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