Disclaimer: This article originally appeared over the weekend on our PAX East 2011 coverage hub. Travel there to read more previews, interviews and features from the expo.
The funny thing about Hothead Games’ Swarm is that it started out as a glorified demo for artificial intelligence research. It was created by one of the highest in command at the company, which was later entered into an indie game development contest that netted Hothead fourth place and $300K. It was at that point that Hothead realized they might be on to something with this concept.
At PAX East I was able to get my hands on the first three levels of Swarm, lead through the death traps and fiery rock bombardments by Joel DeYoung, Game Director at Hothead. At its core, Swarm is about completing levels with the most points possible. You rack up points by having the swarm of swarmites (it’s all very confusing) collect little orbs and die. Yes, you read that right. You get points for getting your characters killed. While talking to Joel, I said that’s like unlearning everything you’re taught to hold dear as a child. “Hey son, you’re dog’s dead… But don’t worry, you got some sweet points for it!” That’s the mentality that you have to accept and roll with in Swarm. Your swarmites will die brutal and agonizing deaths (hilarious ones, I might add), but it’s all in the name of glorious points.
Fun fact: it’s physically impossible to make it through a level — nay, checkpoint — without a single swarmite death. The quality assurance department of Hothead has tried. Spoiler: they failed… hard.
But this comes back around to the fact that you don’t want your swarmites to go unscathed. Their death means your points. Look at it this way: the swarmites live by a very strong code of the greater good. They understand you need more points than your friends in order to stand at the top of nerd hill and proclaim you are the greatest of all-time. They’re willing (and able) to die for the cause.
And die they will. Every level of Swarm is filled with ridiculous booby traps. Your swarmites will get set ablaze, impaled, cut in half, fall to their death, used as kamikaze bombs by their brothers and many more. The death animations are hysterical and well worth the loss of a few plump blue nimrods. As long as you make it to a checkpoint with one swarmite intact, you’re fine. You’ll essentially replenish your inventory and continue towards the next checkpoint with a full swarm ready to die at your command.
This type of gameplay could be a mess if it wasn’t for the finely-tuned controls of Swarm. Joel DeYoung was quick to point out that it took the team forever to get the controls just right. If they screwed up in that department, Swarm would have been a complete bust. Luckily, Hothead nailed it.
Swarm only uses three buttons (RT, LT and X). You can then combine these three buttons into a number of combinations to perform various abilities. You can fan out and compact your swarm (useful for collecting orbs and evading death traps), perform dashes, bashes, and swarmite stacks to collect items out of reach. After only three minutes or so I had the controls down pat. Swarm is just a very fluid and well-built game that’s super easy to pick up and enjoy (as well as laugh at).
The three levels I got to check out were not enough. I wanted to keep playing, but there was a line starting to form behind me with gamers pulling the nerd intimidation technique of teeth-gritted staring. I thanked Joel for taking the time to lead me through the demo and told him Swarm has my vote for best in show. He was pretty happy about that.
Swarm will be releasing on the PSN on March 22, and Xbox Live Arcade on March 23 here in the US.