Throwback Review: Geometry Wars Series – Dead Lights

Alright, let’s go back to the past real quick.


Cut back to 2005, and the Xbox 360 launches with a fat handful of titles. Most of them were sport titles, but there were games within the launch library that looked set to stun. The revolutionary graphics of Perfect Dark Zero, the snowboarding glory of Amped 3, the skateboarding glory of Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland and the racing near-perfection that was Project Gotham Racing 3.


Now, this game was the dogs. The developer, now-defunct Bizarre Studios, had managed to create the perfect blend of simulation racing with arcade elements. On the arcade side, you had the Kudos System, which rewarded style, finesse and grace with not only the equivalent of a high score, but a currency allowing you to indulge in the simulation side of things. Hypercars, tracks toys, experimental concepts, so on and so forth, and all of them are available to view in your in-game garage.


A screenshot of Retro Evolved 1, showing the ship being chased by tens of Blue Diamonds while in an X-Formation.


Now, while seeing your cars in an untouched and cherished position was awesome, the garage did hide a little bonus for the more explorative players. Spawn in and look around your home and you’ll notice a little arcade cabinet sitting by its lonesome self. Walk up to it and you’ll find out that you can actually play the thing; A fully-fledged game within a game. Welcome to Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved.


Originally, Geometry Wars was a way for Bizarre Studios to test out the original Xbox controller while working on previous Project Gotham Racing titles, with the creator being Stephen Cakebread. The gist was that Geometry Wars was just for players to relax in-between all of the breakneck racing they were doing in-game, but after seeing the positive reaction the mini-game got from players, Cakebread sought to fully flesh out the title.


The road to this games release wasn’t perfect, however. Cakebread & Co.’s first thoughts were that Geometry Wars was set to be a level-based affair, with your vector-like ship cruising through different maps and facing uniquely-distributed waves of vector-like enemies– The design structure that eventually became Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions. Unfortunately, they were beaten to the punch by Mutant Storm Reloaded, which was being released in the same timespan as Bizarre Studios’ title, and also employed the same gameplay design and structure. Not feeling deterred, they merely chose to create something a bit more straightforward.


A screenshot of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, showing the ship being surrounded by several polygonal snakes.


The gist is as follows: Your twin-stick ship is stuck inside a rectangle floating in outer space, and every other shape in the galaxy wants you dead. To begin with, you have 3 lives, 3  area-wiping bombs, and a devastating chaingun equipped, whereas all of your enemies can only dream of shooting back. Should you persevere with lethal precision though, then not only do you get more lives and bombs to use for later, but you also get the chance to use upgraded weaponry that can further annihilate your foes.


There was a catch to this. Sure, your ship might be brilliant against the endless hordes of hunter blue diamonds, dodging green cubes, and splitting pink cubes, but the game adapts to how you play. Maybe it throws a few black holes your way, to make sure that your optimal path is no longer an option. Pac Men can spawn in and lock onto your position if you’re comfortably perched into a corner where you sprayin’ and payin’ is working out well for you. Despite a small handful of enemy types, Bizarre managed to provide a counter for every situation or advantage you might be in or have.


Realistically, the only objective is a high score. That’s it, it’s merely a numbers game testing your survival, patience, and your accuracy. Granted, this was a formula that would be expanded upon in Retro Evolved 2, but it was this cathartic break that the first Geometry Wars originally was that made it so perfect.


A screenshot of Retro Evolved 1, showing 3 black holes attempting to suck each other into their respective holes.


The first Retro Evolved is objectively a perfect game. It’s a concise experience that serves great as a bite-sized experience ready to be enjoyed by any and all. Sessions rarely ever last past 30 minutes, and in that time, you still get your moneys worth in a bright neon package brimming with life, pleasure and challenge. Is it a one-note kind of deal? Yeah, but it’s one helluva note.


There’s not much more I can say than that. The cathartic gameplay of Geometry Wars can’t necessarily be explained, this beautiful 60FPS adrenaline-pumping EDM machine that provides more stimulating action than most other games at the time. What started out as a novel concept for Bizarre to toy with during development for PGR quickly turned into something magnificent. A flawless nugget of brilliance.


The future of Geometry Wars? Hmm, that’s a tricky prediction. Retro Evolved 2 was more of the same, with a much more vibrant and colorful aesthetic (which didn’t even seem possible, to be honest), but it was the additions to the game that made it suffer from a seeming lack of vision. One of the new enemies, an amoeba-like entity that can only be destroyed once you shoot through its undulating armor to the core, only served to piss you off in the later rounds.


A screenshot of Retro Evolved 2, with several flowers surrounding the ship, along with a counter for the achievement "Rebound" being shown at the bottom.


Some of the game modes could’ve been removed as well. Deadline was a fantastic and frantic timed sprint to a high-score, where one would sacrifice their once-careful precision for a more reckless rush for the new multipliers that enemies dropped after death. More Evolved with the new types of enemies were a brilliant expansion on what was already a varied challenge. Pacifism was also a great test on your dodging skills, providing more of a skill increase immediately, as opposed to simply playing Evolved endlessly.


It’s the rest of the modes where the quality goes a bit south. King’s gimmicky fun is marred by an arena too small to support the gameplay proceedings, including the circles you have to hide in to shoot. Waves is simply a boring affair. Out of all the additions made to Geometry Wars in the past, Waves is easily the only one that is just miserable to sit through, as the original formula is stripped of all its creativity and left to fester in this predictable murmur of boredom.


Sequence is only hurt by its average nature. An idea of what was to come with the 3rd title, the 20 levels of Sequence showcase a neat idea, executed in a flat nature. The deal is that you’re pushed through these levels where the spawning of enemies are set. They could be anything, from black holes, to an endless barrage of Rockets, or maybe a mix-up of two other entities. For example, maybe the passive purple flowers are mixed with the relentless hunting of the green cubes.


A screenshot of Retro Evolved 2, showing several shapes exploding around the ship, culminating in a lush field of color.


Again, a neat little idea in its own right, but the design of some sequences go way overboard with the amount of enemies Bizarre placed inside. The mode can be difficult enough when the planned spawns aren’t immediately against you, but when the game decides to just plop tens of Rockets down, or an endless barrage of blue Diamonds to spawn faster than you clean clear a hole? That’s just downright annoying.


The third installment is where things tend to get a little blurry when it comes to how Geometry Wars felt and played like. In any light, Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions is a more-than-worthy sequel after Bizarre Studios was closed down by Activision, and from the ashes came Lucid Games, a company almost entirely composed from ex-Bizarre Studios members. However, even with that former manpower behind them, Dimensions is possibly the weakest of all 3 main-line titles. The Wii version, Galaxies, doesn’t count.


With Dimensions, Lucid saw the chance to grasp the formula that Cakebread originally believed would fit into the style of Geometry Wars. However, without Cakebread’s involvement, it seems that the way Lucid went about crafting this vision was half-baked and formless, leading to a “quantity over quality” deal that left the main campaign of Dimensions in a hit-or-miss type of deal.


A screenshot of Geometry Wars 3, showing the ship using its Turret "Super" in order to wipe the peanut-shaped battlefield of any and all enemies.


Over 50 levels, and many more after you pass the main campaign, the atmosphere that was originally exhibited within Geometry Wars with confidence, flair and passion, was now only mildly visible underneath a mound of weird mini-games within what was once a mini-game. Levels like “Nufo Flow”, “The Scream”, “Super Sequence”, and the boss levels– These are completely unmemorable, one-dimensional and deadpan roadblocks stopping you from feeling true euphoria.


The original game modes from Retro Evolved 2 were still there to play, along with all of the new enemies that didn’t add or detract anything from the experience. It’s just that all of this unnecessary baggage was added on, culminating in an experience that wavered from tight-as-a-corset gameplay to wonky difficulty spikes masquerading as the unique flavor of what Bizarre wanted before Mutant Storm came in and pissed on their parade.


A screenshot of Geometry Wars 3, showing one of the bosses being surrounded by several blue diamonds.


Still, most of this is inane babbling, and at Dimension’s core, you can still convince yourself that you’re back in 2005, blasting away at neon-tinted shapes before going back into your Saleen S7 and cruising down the streets of London. That feeling is still there, but it’s no longer the main feeling you get while playing Dimensions.


By all means, get these games, especially the first one which you can nab for less than 5 dollars on Steam, which is such a stupidly amazing deal it’s not even worth mulling over. Retro Evolved 2, despite my nagging, is widely considered to be the peak of the series, but has never made its way to PC, instead staying on Xbox 360 and Xbox One via the Backwards Compatibility program.


In the end, this talk about Geometry Wars was merely me reminiscing about my adolescent years. A game series that left me in many different states or emotions simply by being a one-trick pony that’s still fresh and exciting today, 16 years after its original inception. A gradual downfall partially responsible because Activision saw no faith in the studio. An outlook on their resources that they continue to hold.

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