Microsoft launched Blinx: The Time Sweeper in late 2002 as an ostensible attempt to create a cutesy platforming mascot for the Xbox. Though it used some interesting time-control mechanics that have since popped up in other games, most notably last year's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the first Blinx had some flaws that weren't very well received by critics or the gaming public. With the upcoming Blinx 2: Masters of Time & Space, Microsoft and developer Artoon are aiming to cure the first game's ills and add a slew of new game mechanics and options to the mix as well.
Interestingly enough, though the new game is called Blinx 2, you won't specifically play as Blinx during the game. As per the story in the first game, Blinx is just one of many time sweepers working in a weird magical time factory. This time out, you'll be able to take control of just about any of Blinx's temporal janitorial associates as you play through the main single-player component of the game. You may be wondering what's happened to Blinx himself and why we say you can play as any of his friends, but we'll get to that part in a bit.
To correct Blinx's faults, Artoon has understandably started by overhauling the original's basic gameplay. In the first game, Blinx's sole means of attack was to suck up trash and then shoot it back at enemies, which was a little slow and awkward to pull off. Blinx's time controls were a little less clunky; you could pause, slow down, rewind, and fast-forward time with abilities granted by crystal combos you picked up. If you picked up the crystals in the wrong order, though, you'd lose them all without even gaining a time ability. In theory, Blinx's attack and time mechanics could have made for a solid action game, but their clumsy execution sometimes made the game more frustrating than fun.
This time out, Artoon has radically streamlined the gameplay to make for a much smoother experience. First of all, your character simply moves a lot faster, which helps speed things up considerably. Additionally, while it took precious seconds to pick up trash and launch it back at enemies in the original game, you'll be able to do so in a wink this time around, which makes the flow of the game much more fluid. A lock-on system will make it easier to hit these enemies if you're not a very good shot. You'll also have a melee punch attack in the new game, if you prefer to just get in your enemies' faces and give them a shot to the mouth instead of firing items at them. Though the time controls haven't really changed--you'll still have the basic, functional ones like pause, slow motion, and rewind--acquiring these controls has been much simplified. This time, you'll just have to pick up three of the same crystal, regardless of the order, to get a new control--no annoying bad combos and wasted crystals to frustrate the experience.
In the expansive demo level we saw, the time controls were put to interesting puzzle-solving use. One particular puzzle had a group of tiles submerged in a pool of water, and to progress, the player had to expose these tiles to the air. Though your kitty could run through the water and part it briefly over each tile, the water would come rushing back in before the entire sequence could be completed. The solution? Freezing time effectively froze the water, making it take on the consistency of gelatin so your feline time master could clear a path over the tiles and go on his merry way. The original Blinx drew some criticism for not using its innovative time controls to their full potential, so it's nice to see the developers making better use of them this time around.
Blinx 2 will also contain a new kind of time manipulation dubbed reactive time controls. These are essentially canned action sequences that initiate when your cat is faced with a hairy situation, such as the hail of oncoming bullets that we saw in one example. When a reactive time control starts, you'll be given the choice of pausing or slowing down time, and your choice will affect what you have to do to survive. Slowing down time in this instance created a sort of bullet-time scene were the player had to hit the proper directions to dodge the bullets (think Neo in The Matrix). Pausing, on the other hand, made the bullets hang in midair so they could be sucked into the vacuum and fired back at high velocity at the enemy who was shooting them.
The development team hasn't stopped with just these improvements. It's adding even more to the gameplay foundation that was laid down by the first Blinx. For instance, you'll be able to switch to a first-person view equipped with a zoom function that will allow you better aiming when launching items. We were told that the entire game will be playable from this perspective if you want. Onscreen indicators for nearby enemies, which are color-coded based on the enemies' proximity and readiness to attack, will help you keep from getting hit by attacks coming from offscreen. Finally, a small radar will further help you keep track of all the threats in the area.
So why do we say you won't be playing as Blinx, but rather as any of his friends? Blinx 2 contains a surprisingly extensive character customization utility that will let you completely control the look of your kitty. There are around 25 characteristics--everything from ear length and torso width to eye color and tail thickness--that you can tweak, with about 100 variations in all. You'll be able to set the color of your goggles and choose from a gallery of patterns for your jacket. As we saw in our demo, this can make for some truly tasteless combinations, if you fancy your cat a real fashion victim. Thankfully, if you get tired of your particular cat, you can create a new one and swap it out at any time in the game.
All of these enhancements and new features alone would make Blinx 2: Masters of Time & Space a much-improved sequel to the original, but in fact there's a whole new game in here as well. Perhaps you were wondering when the "masters of space" were going to come into the picture. What are we talking about? Read on.
Pigs on the Wing
Halfway through our demonstration of Blinx 2, we assumed we'd seen everything in the game, since the kitty portion has been so extensively improved--but then we were shown that you'll play as a cat for only about half of the game. The other half, you'll be playing as the dastardly pigs that are working to make the time-sweeping cats' lives difficult. While the cats can control time, the pigs are the ones that have mastery over space. You'll be switching back and forth between the two throughout the game, and this ought to give the game a lot more variety and keep things interesting from beginning to end.
Whereas the cats use a pretty straight-ahead run-and-gun tactic to get through their levels, stealth will be the name of the game for the pigs. In the massive, drearily moody level we saw, cat guards were patrolling every walkway, and the player-controlled pig had to use his wits--and a number of interesting space controls--to make it through without getting caught. You'll be able to pull off the old Solid Snake-style "back against the wall" maneuver for easy sneaking, but the space controls will be the real key to success in these situations.
In our demo, the player-controlled pig was equipped with eight space controls, and we were told more of these would be available later on in the game. Among these were the decoy, which creates an astral projection of yourself to lure away guards; the warp tunnel, which lets you create an opening in the ground some feet away from you and then jump through an opening right at your feet to emerge on the other end; the black hole, which you can throw near an enemy and have it literally suck the cat up; and the subspace dive, which lets you merge with the ground to move around unseen, complete with a periscope-style view of what's going on above your head. These space controls are handy enough for a stealthy pig's purposes in their own right, but they also have a secondary function: In some cases, the use of a space control created a sort of residual space distortion, represented by a visual warping effect, and you'll be able to hide your pig in these bubbles to remain hidden from guards for a limited time.
The pigs won't just be limited to stealth, since everybody has to get scrappy with the guards sometimes. In these instances, you'll have everything from a slingshot and a baseball bat to a bazooka and even a bathtub to fight with. And hey, mentioning these weapons gives us a good opportunity to segue to the next interesting topic in Blinx 2: multiplayer. The game will feature a full complement of offline multiplayer options, both competitive and cooperative. You'll be able to play through the entire game in two-player co-op mode, with the puzzles retuned for two players--for instance, the water puzzle we mentioned earlier had two sets of tiles in cooperative mode. Co-op will also feature a specialist mode in which one player handles the combat, such as punching and launching items, while the other player picks up crystals and uses the time controls.
A four-player split-screen battle mode will also be included in the game, which lets you play as both cats and pigs, and all of the time and space controls will be available for use here. We didn't get to see how this mode plays, since some of the design is still being finalized, but it sounds like this will be a pretty raucous mode with so many attack options being included. You'll even be able to bring all of your customized characters into this mode, both cat and pig (yes, the character customizing system works for them too).
Artoon is doing a lot to update the look of Blinx for this sequel, starting primarily with the levels. While the first game sent you through some pretty cramped and sometimes bland environments, the stages we saw in our demonstration were both larger overall (by two to three times, we were told) and more expansive in their immediate surroundings than those in the first Blinx. Furthermore, the levels were a good bit more stylized this time around--the cat level we saw had a bright, sunny, grassy look to it (one that ought to appear in every platformer), while the pig level occurred in some kind of compound at night with lots of dim, dingy lighting and a sinister sort of mood prevalent throughout. All of the modeling, including the customized cats and pigs and all of the set pieces in the backgrounds, had a cartoonlike exaggerated look that fit in with the backgrounds nicely. The frame rate was also completely smooth, which certainly bodes well at this early stage of development.
Overall, we were pretty amazed at the number of improvements being made to Blinx 2. Artoon cranked the first game out in just a year, but this time the team has a lot more time to fine-tune and polish things--we were told that a good three or four months will be spent solely on polishing game elements and balancing the difficulty (for which two settings will be included). It's clear Microsoft is getting behind Blinx 2: Masters of Time & Space in a big way, and we'll find out later this year if their efforts have paid off. Stay tuned for more on the game in the near future.