First-person platforming is hard to get right. As anyone who has reached Xen in the original Half-Life can tell you, judging things like jump distances and depth can be extremely difficult when you can’t even see your own feet. And yet, perhaps because of the fact that most sensible games won’t go anywhere near first-person platforming these days it’s often difficult not to get excited when you see one in action.
There’s a certain rush to be had in 3D platformers that their two-dimensional brethren lack, and a smug satisfaction to be found in getting a perfect line far more akin to that of an extreme sports game than a traditional platforming experience. It’s for that reason that Titanfall is a popular niche in an otherwise Call Of Duty-loving world, and it’s why we’re waiting with bated breath to hear more details about the new Mirror’s Edge sequel.
A Story About My Uncle is a somewhat Gaimanesque premise – as a young boy your adventurer uncle, Fred, goes missing. Searching for him in his house you accidentally get trapped in his elaborate garbage disposal unit and are suddenly jettisoned out to a mysterious and unfamiliar landscape comprising of of floating rocks and chunks of earth just hanging there in the sky. It’s both eerily beautiful and hazardous.
Accompanied by a local girl and equipped with an adventure suit which your uncle seems to have curiously built for you without ever mentioning it, you try to track him down through a series of varied locations occupied by a number of different cultures and their weird occupants. The levels are vibrant and colourful, full of arcane technologies and glowing runic inscriptions, and scattered with the debris of civilisations both current and in ruins, and whilst the preview I played only showed a couple of areas in great detail, there’s a great difference in design and style between each area of the game’s eccentric world.
Gameplay-wise, A Story About My Uncle takes from the lessons learned in Mirror’s Edge – that in order to make a first-person platformer work, the player must be given more than a simple jump option, and a very specific and refined set of tools designed to be utilised in specific instances is essential. In the case of A Story About My Uncle these (aside from sprinting and high-jumping, activated using the space bar and the right mouse button respectively) take the form of a grappling hook power, a sort of gravity gun that allows the player to point at something and be pulled towards it. As you only have three of these grappling beams and a rocket boost during each jump, the game becomes about the conservation and direction of momentum and getting the most out of each jump, swing, or boost in each of the situations the game puts you in.
Unlike in Mirror’s Edge, however, there’s a certain brazen verticality to the proceedings, with the player encouraged to take daredevil plunges or to haphazardly throw themselves across gaps between landmasses in order to progress. In many ways it’s comparable in its approach to speed and mid-air movement to AaaaaaAAaaaaAAAaaaAAAAaaAAAAA!!!: A Reckless Disregard for Gravity in this aspect, often mimicking that game’s feeling of momentum and flight.
The game’s grasp of the physics involved is simplistic, but it manages to be realistic enough to provide a convincing feel to the actions of running and whizzing around whilst (for the most part) remaining basic enough as to make the handle the player has over their character intuitive and fun. It’s all very impressive when it works, and skilled players will certainly find great levels of enjoyment from getting their movement through the levels as swift and unbroken as possible. For the rest of us however the game provides plenty of checkpoints for when we repeatedly screw up that third grapple and unceremoniously fly off into the endless void for the eighth time running.
There are certainly concerns to be had, however. Whilst only given a brief preview of two stages from the game, both seemed particularly linear and signposted in nature with only the occasional opportunity to make a detour in order to find hidden items that shed more light on the mysterious uncle and his disappearance.
For the most-part, movement through the game seemed to be down one specific pre-defined route of floating platforms and rocky debris, and on the occasions where I tried to go off-route or take shortcuts I found myself in lower-poly areas with less than stellar collision detection. This is a shame as whilst Mirror’s Edge was very much a locked down and carefully designed experience, there were usually multiple ways of getting past obstacles or through threats. A Story About My Uncle’s approach often felt far too corridored in comparison and it made it more difficult to imagine the world it presents as an actual, functional series of locations rather than simply a strategically placed series of obstacles and challenges laid out to test simple problem solving and reflexes.
Still, worries of linearity and a lack of immersion aside, there’s plenty to look forward to in A Story About My Uncle. Whilst perhaps not as free or developed as it could be, the gameplay at the very least was designed with fun in mind, and with hints of a further-reaching story and an array of sub-plots to drive the player through the game it should at the very least be an interesting and perhaps entirely unique experience.
A Story About My Uncle will be released on the 28th May, and will be available through Steam.