Jan 112013

Ace of Spades is pure fun to play, but I’m not sure smashing two games together qualifies as innovation.

By Keaton Goldsmith.

Every summer, movie-goers anticipate an onrush of big budget, blockbuster titles. For gamers, the holiday season brings about a similar deluge of offerings. If a gamester wisely scheduled his or her life during the past month (and wasn’t afraid to dig deep into their wallets), leaving the house wouldn’t be an option. When Christmas comes around, major game development studios push out their franchise titles for the big sell. It also heralds the approach of what’s become a great tradition in the realm of digital consumerism: “The Steam Sale.” Twice yearly, Valve offers a substantial collection of its games with reduced price tags via their online store. I nearly missed it this year.

The sale came (as it always does) at a most fortuitous time: by this point, the big titles (i.e. Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, etc.) already seemed stale. I found myself caught between studio release cycles, but Valve, dutifully fulfilling its role as champion of the independent developer, proffers bargain basement prices on emerging indie hopefuls.

That’s how I found Ace of Spades, a new experiment in online multiplayer gaming from Jagex Games Studio. My interest was piqued by a few factors—the five dollar price tag, the intriguing concept, and the developer. Jagex? Where have I heard that name before? Ah yes, the British-based game developer responsible for Runescape (affirmed by Guinness in 2012 to be “the world’s most popular free MMORPG.”) My friends and I lost innumerable hours to that game and even though Runescape was eventually eclipsed in our minds by World of Warcraft and the Halo series, the name still brings up strong feelings of nostalgia.

Ace of Spades bills itself as the “creative shooter,” which immediately brings up a comparison to two of its predecessors: Mojang’s Minecraft and Valve’s Team Fortress 2. It undeniably parallels the style and concept of both games. In fact, Jagex has come up with something of a hybrid: at first blush, their game combines the aesthetics, mechanics, and expansiveness of Minecraft with the frantic, class-based multiplayer of TF2. It’s a classic set-up of one team (green) versus another (blue) in an endless contest over flags and points. Surprisingly, here is an instance where blending two great game concepts has actually resulted in exciting gameplay. Jagex has found a happy intersection (or mash-up?) in Ace of Spades, but I wonder if it’s truly a “creative FPS.”

Ace of Spades sports a stripped-down, essentialist aesthetic: there are four playable classes, and every map is a cube-world with terrain composed of uniformly-sized blocks. The classes—“commando,” “sharpshooter,” “rocketeer,” and “miner”—seem to comprise the basic roster of a class-based FPS, but I found myself feeling limited nonetheless. Each role carries blocks, a different weapon, and prefabricated block segments for the purposes of quick construction. Still, four still seems too small a number. I ask, where is the man with the flamethrower? Where’s the medic? Granted, such characters might seem unnecessary when confronted with Ace of Spades‘s sprawling, Lego-like maps, but variety is the spice of virtual life.

Since Ace of Spades is a fairly new project, one can expect to experience empty lobbies, glitches, and cheating (players utilizing game exploits until someone actually starts policing the servers). Character movement is a bit rickety and staccato, and the physics can be a bit baffling at times. Sometimes my character would fall from great heights without sustaining injury, but at other times a shorter fall would leave me with 50% health. Jagex accomplished a lot in the past by stinting on detail (early Runescape wasn’t particularly awe-inspiring when it came to graphics and interface). This time around, they’ve forsaken the elements that keep players from pulling their hair out.

Aside from the bugs and growing pains, the gameplay is terrific. I eventually fell out of love with Minecraft because I realized that all of the resource gathering and construction was for naught if no one was around to see it (or, at least, destroy it.) It became a melancholy experience, like making sand castles alone on an isolated beach. Ace of Spades answers that desire for interaction with “Team Deathmatch.” Now the diligence I once applied to my block sculptures and buildings has been chucked out for the frantic need to construct a good foxhole or bunker. Jagex emphasizes the creative construction aspect of Ace of Spades (“Construction. Combat. Creativity.”), but it’s worth mentioning that I’ve yet to really see an enterprising architect in any of the hundred rounds I’ve played. It’s delightful fun to spontaneously tear up the ground, throw up a wall, or build a tower, yet the fast pace of each match leaves little room for doing something different.

Minecraft offers a safe sandbox environment, but in Ace of Spades there is an entire team threatening your masterwork with guns, explosives, and shovels. It feels less than prudent to start building that castle while everyone else is trying to capture the flag. Yet, the ability to break apart the terrain and reshape it provides refreshing, and seemingly infinite, opportunities. In most FPS games I’ve played, the maps often evoke the feeling that one is a rat in a contrived maze, shooting other rats for points. You quickly fall into a pattern and start relegating your movements around the map to hotspots of activity. With Ace of Spades, you’re finally allowed to smash down that dividing wall and grab your opponent (an especially poignant and cathartic experience in “Zombie” mode.) Usually, players are preoccupied with scrambling for cover or finding that choice sniper position, but that category is void when you can obliterate mountains and carry walls in your utility belt.

Still, it was remiss of Jagex to show so little of their creativity; one or two other features would have made this game more distinctive. Ace of Spades is pure fun to play, but I’m not sure smashing two games together qualifies as innovation. Perhaps they expected players to bring their imaginations to each map because, as the set-up stands, it’s just team deathmatch in a Tetris world.


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