Reviewed: December 7, 2007
Released: November 21, 2007
Chair Entertainment was founded in 2005 and is committed to closing the gap between an artistic idea and its commercial reality. Several of the founding members of Chair were involved with the release of Advent Rising for the original Xbox just a few years ago. Now, they return this year with Undertow, a new original title for Xbox Live Arcade.
Undertow is a fast paced action shooter done in the style of the classic game, Geometry Wars. If you have ever played Geometry Wars then Undertow will feel quite familiar.
The Earth has flooded after an aquatic alien race has melted the world’s ice caps. Humanity is pretty much wiped out, but a few of the surviving humans have banded together to take the Earth back from the brink of chaos. The legendary Captain Nemo has been living under the ocean for nearly 100 years and is angered by the disturbances caused by the aliens' meddling. To make matters worse, the lost civilization of Atlantis has begun to unthaw after their empire was swallowed by the sea. The Atlantians are now bent on reclaiming the planet they once ruled. So you play as each of these races in a three-way power struggle to control the water logged earth.
To be honest, I first got my shot at the original Geometry Wars back when it was released as an Xbox Live Arcade title. I never really spent my childhood in front of an arcade machine like some people I know. I grew up playing games on consoles back when I was younger. But now those titles I missed out on are back with style. I have been fortunate to play Geometry Wars and quite frankly I loved it. When I got my hands on Undertow all I could say for the first five minutes of play was “I can’t believe this is an Xbox Live Arcade game.” Well that and “Oh Crap”.
The interface is one of the simplest I have seen for an XBLA title. The controls are very similar to Geometry Wars but with a few tweaks. You maneuver your character around using the Left Analog stick and shooting with the Right Analog stick. The Left and Right triggers serve a greater purpose that on Geometry Wars, as the Left trigger is used to let off Depth Charges on your unsuspecting enemies. The right trigger is actually your most valuable asset in Undertow. The Right Trigger serves as your boost button.
If you think you can just rush right in a fire at will and not die horrendously then you’re wrong. The key to being successful is to boost. If you hold down the Right trigger for an extended period of time you will enter Turbo Mode. Turbo can also be used by pressing X, but the Right trigger is just easier. You can’t fire your weapon while in this mode but you can drop some charges. There is no greater feeling then wiping out a group of enemies from above with the depth charges.
Not only are the controls pretty easy to pick up on but Undertow’s Heads- Up-Display (or HUD) is one of the most simple but effective ones that I have seen in a while. Across the top of the screen are five circles each representing the five Control Points. Above them is your crew count, but I call it your Death Meter. You start out each match with a set number of troops, and the count drops as you or your opponent pick each other off.
In the bottom left corner of the screen is your user interface of sorts. The long bar vertical bar is your health bar and the round dots beside it are your depth charges. You can have up to 5 charges on your person at a time. The icon in the square below your health bar is your currently selected unit type. The number to its right is the level of that particular unit. All units in each of the three races can be upgraded in level a total of three times. So the basis is kill or be killed.
One of the coolest things about Undertow has to be in its Units types. There are 4 unit types per race: The Destroyer, Corsair, Dragoon and the Marine. They may vary in appearance but they all do the same thing attack wise. The unit types vary from the fast but weak Marines to the slower powerhouse Destroyer. This level of variety makes for an even playing field. Each type has their strengths and weaknesses but if you play right then the tides will be turned quite quickly. So you can thin the enemy ranks with the Destroyer and switch to the Marine or Dragoon at any of your Control Points and mop up the rest of them. I really liked the fact that you were not tied down to one particular unit type the entire match.
The main objective of each map is to gain control of each of the five control Points and shut out your opponents’ means of respawning. If you can do this then the match will end quickly. If you can’t manage that then you need to make sure that you control at least two Control Points and strategically take out their troops before they wipe out all of yours. This is not as easy as it seems. Trust me. Some of the matches have a specific objective that you must do to continue so it’s not always about killing them all.
As mentioned above, each unit type can be upgraded twice permanently. To do this you must kill enemies to gain points. The points then can be used to upgrade the unit type of your choice. The really good thing is that the upgrades are immediate. These allow you to be faster and more powerful, that and fill up your health bar. So if you’re seriously getting owned and you have the points… Use Them. It may just save your butt.
Undertow was definitely designed to be a Multiplayer title, but it has a pretty solid single player mode. This is definitely apparent by the beautiful cutscenes that unfold the story as you progress. Undertow features a 15-level campaign and it is the most beautiful 15 levels I have ever seen in a XBLA title to date. The people at Chair really nailed this one with its over-the-top level designs. There are so many ways to strategically decimate your opponents from frontal attacks flanking from behind via the hidden passages. The passages are an excellent way to take a Control Point from right under your enemy’s nose.
Undertow not only has a fantastic campaign but its Multiplayer Mode is enough to keep you entertained for quite some time. The one thing I really enjoy about any game that is on the Xbox is the ability to play Co-Op, because be honest sometimes it’s more fun with two people. Undertow has a two-player Co-Op Campaign mode where you cannot only play with a friend in the same room but also across Xbox Live and System Link as well. Undertow also has a Multiplayer Versus Mode via System Link and Xbox Live. You have the option of doing ranked or unranked matches and you can do battle with up to 16 people in either Conquest or Deathmatch mode. And fear not if you can’t find enough players to fill two complete teams. The game fills any empty slots with AI players. You can adjust the difficulty if you find yourself getting owned or if they are not enough of a challenge.
Undertow features some of the most gorgeous graphics I have ever seen in an Xbox Live Arcade title. Undertow is a 2D game but all the graphics are done in 3D using the Unreal Engine. Undertow makes full use of lighting effects in everything from the colored light of your character's suit to the control point light to the beautiful depth charge explosions. Not only is the lighting amazing but also the water effects as you swim through the water. You can see air bubbles, moving sea grass, drill bits, and even large floating rock formations and even the bullet trails as they sink into your enemies.
Like I mentioned above I really had a hard time believing that this was an Arcade title. Undertow looked really good when I had it hooked up to a computer monitor or standard TV but it looks amazing running in 1080i on a HDTV. The Single Player Campaign is driven by very nicely done cutscenes. I was impressed with their quality and even the quantity of them. There are not so many as to bog down the gameplay but just the right amount to allow you to get a feel for the madness that is happening under the ocean.
The sounds of Undertow are quite good. Undertow doesn’t have any voice actors that I recognize, but there is a pretty good cast as far as quality. All of the cutscenes are have dialogue, yet another thing trying to persuade my mind that there is no way this is an Arcade game.
Everything from the sound of you using your turbo to the sounds for bullets hitting a metal surface are beautifully done. You can even hear your own troops confirming Control Point takeovers every once in a while. If you think the sound is good on a standard TV alone, then you haven’t heard it in Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound. Undertow also allows you to use custom soundtracks while you play. That way you can decimate your enemies while listening to your favorite tunes.
One important feature that I like and is vital to online play is the ability to use your Xbox headset to communicate with your team. Undertow is all about strategy and you’ll need it.
Undertow is not only one of the most gorgeous Xbox Live Arcade titles but also one of the most enjoyable that I have ever played. You can literally play this game for hours and not get bored. As I noted before, Undertow was definitely meant to be a multiplayer title. No matter if you play on Xbox Live or in your living room with a friend using split-screen, this game has more than enough content to keep you entertained.
I particularly enjoyed playing the story mode though with a second player and the modes Conquest and Deathmatch were blast in versus mode. Undertow will run you 800 Microsoft Points(or about $10 dollars) and worth every point considering all the features available.
From the moment I picked up my controller to play Undertow for the first time ‘til the time I had to put it down due to cramping in my hands, I really had a hard time believing that a XBLA title could look this good and be just as fun to play. The people at Chair Entertainment created a game that is simple that just about anyone can pick it up and have the controls down in a matter of minutes.
I spent a lot of my time snaking my way in around the beautifully designed levels and delivering the kill from behind. I liked the fact that even though the enemy was well fortified in a particular point there was always a way to dethrone them via the tunnels or other means.
If you liked Geometry Wars then you will probably like Undertow and I highly recommend coughing up the 800 points to play it. At least check out the trial version to get a small taste. I seriously haven’t had this much with an arcade game in a long time. So grab a friend or two and I’ll see you under the ocean.