Unlike most video games, MicroBot starts with a hypodermic needle.
MicroBot is a twin-stick shooter, the progeny of Geometry Wars and descendant of Space Invaders, but those games occurred in outer space, their players laser-blasting squads of enemy ships. EA's new game, a downloadable title set for release on consoles in early 2011, takes place in the inner space of a human body, starting with an injection.
The gamer controls a fourth-generation "MicroBot", a microscopic floating, configurable robot ship that will fly through a human body, zapping earlier-generation nefarious MicroBots. Flight is controlled with one stick of a game console controller. Shots are fired with the other. Hazards aren't asteroids and force fields in this Space Invaders mutation; hazards are the relatively giant blood cells and intestinal walls.
MicroBot begins with that syringe injection, which sends the little craft from needle through epidermis and into inner body combat. In the fiction of the game, the enemy robots, MicroBot generations one through three, were supposed to kill bodily infections and disease. But they had gone haywire and need to be put down.
You're playing on behalf of the MicroBot's manufacturer, MicroHexon. Playing for the big technology and pharmaceutical company? The moral implications and chance for a message here are high, though the creators laughed off a suggestion that this game could include commentary about healthcare. No comments about the state of American healthcare in this game.
I saw MicroBot a couple of weeks ago in New York. The game was set up in a corner of a nightclub showcase of upcoming EA games. Like many video games shown to the press before they are officially publicised by their publisher, this one required a reporter's signature. Odder was that the two men showing the game were in lab coats. One had an extendible metal pointer. They were playing up the scientific research angle. Neither would say which games MicroBot's development studio, Naked Sky Entertainment had worked on before. That was EA's request they told me. What was their dark secret? I looked it up after the event: Naked Sky did a not very good twin-stick shooter before MicroBot based on Star Trek called Star Trek DAC.
From the early look and feel I got of MicroBot, this new game is better than the studio's Trek adventure. It shares the goopy look of the opening stage of Spore, EA's evolution game that began with the controllable, combative swim of a single-cell organism in a sea of hostile life. As in that Spore stage, players of MicroBot can customise the parts of their craft. I flew a starter MicroBot through an area of body but was able to pause and customise the boosters, grappling hook and guns on a few nodes of my craft. A more advanced MicroBot will have more nodes, more customisation options, which allow one player to have a ship that shoots out of its sides, another that is almost all boosters and grapple.
I played co-op with one of the labcoat developers. We flew two ships through the body levels, skipping from a brightly coloured arena to a smoky blue and white one that occurred inside or near bone. Parts of the levels are procedurally generated, which means players can expect variations each time they fly through. Body fluids drift through the levels like underwater BP oil slicks, pulling your craft this way and that.
Twin-stick shooters are cliché on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Flying through a game set inside parts of the body is not. For those tired of the former but intrigued by the latter, look for this game as a PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 download release in early 2011.