Ringo Starr clearly isn't on the same page as Chair Entertainment. Whereas The Beatles' drummer famously fantasized about withdrawing from the world for a quiet existence with friendly crustaceans and octopi, the developer's Undertow depicts an H2O that's anything but peaceful. But though this frantic multiplayer-oriented Xbox Live Arcade shooter offers a lot of excitement, a number of design quirks and a short, frustrating single-player story mode dampen the experience.
Undertow's gameplay is a 2D-platform take on the Battlefield franchise's focus on team tactics, albeit with hints of Geometry Wars, given that you maneuver frantically with the left stick and shoot in all directions with the right stick. However, the setting is entirely different and takes you to a flooded future Earth where humankind has moved under the sea. As usual with these sorts of apocalyptic gaming scenarios, factions are fighting for control of the ruins. Here, you've got the Iron Marines, Nemoidians (followers of Captain Nemo), and Atlantians scrapping it out for domination. Each group is represented by four classes evenly divided between light and heavy unit types. Two are speedy swimmers akin to fast-shooting scuba divers, and two are hard-hitting yet slower minisubs or underwater creatures. You can swap between classes during matches to keep the action flowing quickly. Each unit can also be upgraded three times to provide heavier defenses, faster firing rates, and the like.
Games play out like matches in online shooters. The only difference is that you're playing on a 2D plane in front of hauntingly beautiful 3D backdrops that make it seem as if you're watching a battle raging in your aquarium. Unreal Engine 3 looks phenomenal here, although the 2D playing plane and 3D scenery (ruined cities, reefs) are blended so well that you can lose track of the fairly tiny units. Sound effects and explosions sound like they're taking place underwater as well, with a booming resonance that practically envelops your ears. Game styles aren't as unique as the glub-glub setting, though. You take part in traditional team-conquest matches with up to 16 players on Xbox Live or on consoles hooked up to a local network. Each side starts with a set number of ticket points, and your goal is to drain the enemy to zero by killing troops and conquering bases. In addition to this mode of play, you can hook up with friends online and go through the solo campaign cooperatively.
Conquest is the main selling point, though. Maps are smartly designed with loads of choke points, hidden or out-of-the-way caches of power-ups that provide the usual buffs (shields, depth charges, that sort of thing), and other terrain features that make these undersea battles awfully intense. Teamwork is critical to reducing an enemy's tickets, and you need to split your squad between offense and defense. Bases can be conquered lickety-split by simply floating near them for a handful of seconds, so blitzing ahead with everybody generally just lets the enemy sneak past you and do the same thing. In this scenario, you lose the bases you've already taken behind you and wind up caught in a crossfire while trying to defend new conquests. It's best to skip trying to win matches outright by conquering all bases on the map, in favor of just seizing a slim majority of them and settling into defense. If you take this conservative approach, you've got a good chance to kill enough enemies to drain your opponent's ticket cache, although it can take time to reach this happy conclusion because you inevitably wind up in a war of attrition.
Winning is never easy. Matches are so fast-paced that it's tough to coordinate your team unless the players all know what they're doing and are giving orders via Live headsets. Speed and design quirks also make it hard to properly use the different classes. Speedy light units such as Marines and Dragoons can be surprised and killed with single shots by heavier sorts such as Corsairs and Dragoons. There is no radar screen to check up on the location of offscreen enemies, either. This forces you to move forward blindly, which leads to frequent nasty surprises. Heavy units have issues as well, in that they move slowly and can be taken out in short order by the rapid firing of a few swift swimmers. And though these ships can be devastating when defending a choke point (due to powerhouse missiles with killer splash damage), they're so big and slow to maneuver that it can be tough to situate them properly without getting blown up. The classes are well balanced, but design limitations can make the gameplay uncomfortably chaotic. In other words, you randomly get killed a whole lot.
Solo modes of play seem tacked on. The storyline in the brief, 15-mission solo campaign involves a retro-Atlantis tale in which aliens cause a global flood in the future and force humankind to live under the sea. Cutscenes are talky and hard to follow, but everything revolves around you working to reestablish civilization against evil forces like pirate gangs. The single-player campaign is short and so repetitive that it gets dull long before you finish it. Even worse, the artificial intelligence of your ally bots is so awful that it makes playing the game alone almost unbearable. In campaign missions, as well as one-off versus and co-op games with computer comrades, your supposed friends wander off, never defend bases that you control, and don't assist when attacking enemy bases.
Such poor AI makes levels spectacularly frustrating because your pals often simply abandon you. For example, in the second level of the campaign after the tutorial, you're tasked with destroying an enemy base hidden at the very bottom of the map behind a metal door. Sound simple? Well, it isn't for your erstwhile allies, who generally float around the top of the map like vacationing scuba divers while you're getting demolished over and over again by a good two dozen powerhouse baddies. There are often gimmicks for getting through these tough spots, such as a storehouse of power-ups (that you have a 50/50 shot of reaching before getting blown to bits) in the preceding example. Nevertheless, it's annoying to deal with brain-dead buddies even when there are ways to single-handedly tackle the most grueling parts of the game.
If you can get into an online match with good people, Undertow can be an engaging experience. Battles are fast, tactics and teamwork are crucial, and the unique look and sound of the game provide great eye and ear candy. Co-op can also be an absolute blast with the right buddy. But some of the design problems and the nearly worthless nature of the solo mode make the game something of a disappointment for the full 800 points that it costs (although it's a real bargain if you got it free during Microsoft's promotion at the end of January), even with its many positive qualities.