Control layout and design can be so crucial to games and in the last few days I've been reminded of this.
I've been playing Shred Nebula, a new Xbox Live Arcade title, and unfortunately it just doesn't stack up against the slew of great games we've recently seen added to the gaming library. It's a 2D shooter where you control a hyperspace-jumping one-manned fighter ship.
Your mission is to travel around the galaxy seeking the remains of a lost expedition in the far reaches of deep space, and then try to find out the reasons for its destruction. The whole story is told in text blocks, and while certainly enough to keep you vaguely interested throughout the single-player portion of the game, Shred Nebula won't be remembered for its story.
In fact, it probably won't be remembered at all. I found the controls just too complicated and badly designed to be useful. There are a lot of options for piloting your ship, and there is the potential for some amazing dogfights, but they simply cannot be mastered with these controls.
You hold down the left trigger to move forward, and instead of a button to brake you have to press the left bumper to go into reverse. This may sound simple enough, but try getting all this right while holding down "X" to shoot, and facing up to ten other ships coming in from all different directions in a dogfight. Not to mention also trying to time when best to activate your shields. The shields are a cool feature: you hold the right bumper down to activate them, and when your shields are up you can still move but cannot shoot, with the shields only lasting a short time.
Also, if you double tap the right bumper your shields will reflect enemy fire back at them, but you have to get the timing right. In theory this sounds very cool. In practice you will have far too many things coming at you at one time to be able to really time things right between getting your shields up and fighting back. Not to mention trying to switch from flying forwards to backwards while doing all this. Most likely you will end up just flying around both away and towards enemy ships while constantly shooting your different weapons
There were a lot of times where Shred Nebula reminded me of Geometry Wars, just with much worse controls and far less visually appealing. Don't get me wrong, the graphics are nice for the kind of game it is; they just aren't anything memorable. The various ships you fight against (and can use in multiplayer) all look well rendered with an acceptable amount of detail. There are different environments that you fight in, open space, gas mining colonies, through space stations etc. They all look nice, and the explosions in particular look quite cool, however overall it just doesn't stand out. It's all disappointingly average.
The most amazing design decision to me is the use of the right trigger. This is used to activate your hyper-drive; which translates into holding down the right trigger for a few seconds while a portal opens up and your ship flies through it. You do this in order to end each level and travel to the next. Why the developers felt the right trigger was the best button for this feature is beyond me. The right trigger (along with the left) is arguably one of the most used buttons on the controller for most games. It's easy to get to, big, and most players are used to pressing it often during most games. Common sense would say let the right trigger be forward and the left trigger reverse, but sadly this is not the case.
These bad controls really hurt the gameplay, which basically has you flying your ship around the various maps shooting at other ships, asteroids, ship wreckage and turrets. As you fly around there are different pods you can find and pick up in order to boost your health, your weapons, your shield, that sort of thing.
Multiplayer adds a few options such as split screen co-op and online deathmatch with up to eight players (or so we are told). In truth, co-op doesn't really add anything. This is odd, because most 2D shooters are a lot more fun with a friend, but this just felt the same. There was almost a sense of detachment from the other player, like they were playing a different game and you weren't really playing together, or able to work as a team to overcome situations. No team strategy was really required. As for eight player (ha!) deathmatch, firstly I never found a game with more than four of us at a time and from what other people I was playing with told me, that was fine because every time they've had 5 or more players the game was either too laggy to be playable or crashed. Take this as the mad ravings of online players if you want, but I heard the same story from quite a few people.
As for the fun of it all, it's not too bad. The dogfights can be pretty intense and if you master the controls (good luck with that) you have quite a few strategic options. These options also multiply when you take into account the different ships you can choose from for each fight.
In the end, it's tough to recommend Shred Nebula. Nothing about it stood out and it was about half way through that I realized I just wasn't having fun any more. When there were one or two enemy ships the dogfights felt pretty cool. Later on, however, when there were a lot of enemies on the screen at once it just felt too chaotic and not much fun at all. Multiplayer can be fun when playing with people of similar skill, but with not many other players online that is really a moot point.
What bugged me the most was the control layout; it took a game that could have been so much better and made it too unnecessarily complicated to play, and that really killed the fun. And I am not a fan of fun killers.