It's been quite a while since I encountered a game that evokes as many contradictory feelings as did New Life Interactive's recently-released shooter based on cellular automata. Cell HD: emergence puts players in the role of a microscopic bit of nanotechnology that's been injected into a young girl wracked by a mysterious illness. Both the tools at the player's disposal and the game's variety of different "enemies" are rolled out in deliberate fashion until everything's in play; however, despite this progressive "learn-as-you-go" approach to how things unfolds, Cell HD: emergence's intentional vagueness walks a very thin line between welcome gameplay conundrums and outright frustration.
Each level in Cell HD: emergence takes place inside the body of a young girl named Eva. The game's narrative, penned by New Life Interactive's founder (and Deus Ex lead writer) Sheldon Pacotti, is told though comic-book style cut-scenes. They're brief, convey a good sense of tension and mystery, and provide welcome respites from the actiony bits, but are perhaps a bit too understated, in the grand scheme. Intrigue is all well and good, but the game's narrative payoff isn't quite as strong as it could have been.
The controls in Cell HD: emergence are robust, but it took me a while before they felt natural to use. Players aim and fire different types of ordinance using the mouse and can choose different angles to approach the action (using WASD keys). Holding the spacebar and moving the mouse allows the player to move along the 3D plane for the selected camera view. In the early-goings, due in no small part to how extremely aggressive AI could quickly devolve each stage into an untenable situation, deducing what I should be doing and actually manipulating the controls to make my ideas manifest were separate, but significant hurdles. After a few hours of playing (and dying a lot), I was no longer thinking about how to do stuff, and was able to focus entirely on figuring out what I was supposed to be doing.
I blasted purple, replicating growths into oblivion. I constructed "buckyfiber" pathways that would funnel additional antibodies into membranes I was defending. I used a Missile Command-like weapon to expunge bits of virus, and shot special nodes that erupted in a fireworks display of growth-destroying particles. Cell HD: emergence's visuals might seem confusing at first glance, but they actually turn out to be a very elegant, color-coded way to communicate an enormous amount of information to the player. It doesn't hurt matters that there are plenty of flashes and explosions to go around.
Instructional support and in-game tutorials are light at best, and are often served to the player in the midst of chaos, making them tricky to absorb. There were even a small number of the game's stages that I completed only after numerous attempts, and not necessarily because I figured out what to do. These levels proved to be the exception, though, and most of the levels were quite rewarding to complete. Shortly after release, Pacotti released a new tutorial trailer (below) for the game that shows off some basics, which I highly recommend viewing if you decide to grab yourself a copy.
BOOM video 11970
Let's make one thing clear, despite my criticism. The fact that I've selected Cell HD: emergence as my indie pick of the week means that, in my mind, the game's positives ultimately outweigh its negatives, and I think the things it does well are pretty amazing. I absolutely loved the abstract and colorful voxel-based graphics and audio presentation. Both the sound queues and color palette are key to interpreting what to shoot, defend, or observe.
Furthermore, the game's AI is quite flexible and smart. Upon failing a given scenario, the player is given the option to Iterate, which, as it turns out, isn't quite the same thing as "replaying" the level. Instead, variables like how aggressive the AI is and how often growths replicate vary with each attempt. On the one hand, it's quite clever because it requires players to adjust their tactics with each try, but on the flip-side, it can cause some confusion and frustration if one is still trying to figure out the stage's objectives, let alone how to achieve them.
At the end of the day, I happily recommend Cell HD: emergence, with a few caveats. Anyone looking for a shooter that's as unique and complex as it is fast-paced are in for a real treat. It's a game that will make you think, and as a result, finding solutions to its "seventeen punishing levels" it presents can be incredibly rewarding. There's a lot of game there for the $8.99 price tag. Provided that you're prone to hunkering down and finding solutions through trial-and-error when confronted with confusion, rather than throwing up your hands and storming off, Cell HD: emergence delivers a unique and impressive core gaming experience that--while it could have been a little friendlier--is worth your time and persistence.
You can grab Cell HD: emergence as a digital download from GameFly, Impulse, GamersGate, Desura, and GreenMan Gaming. A lower-fidelity version of the game will soon be available on the Xbox Live Indie Games for $5.