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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Join the Vehicular Strike Force!

Atomic City Adventures - 
The Case of the Black Dragon
Game Category: Action - Shooter, Third Person, Science Fiction
Developer / Distributor: Windstorm Studios
Release Date: 15 Aug 2011
Rating: ESRB - Not Applicable

Atomic City Adventures – The Case of the Black Dragon
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Have you ever wondered what the future would be like? Well, Atomic City Adventures - The Case of the Black Dragon (abbreviated to ACA) from Windstorm Studios is a particular vision of the future that looks really impressive to me.

The game features a world filled with flying vehicles, kind of like those flying vehicles featured in the movie The Fifth Element starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jojovich. The two main differences from the movie is that ACA features flying bikes as well and... surprise - a voluptuous lady protagonist by the name of Agent Pam Rodgers.

Agent Pam is quite an interesting character - you get to hear her opinions throughout the entire campaign while exploring seven huge levels, completing tasks and going on treasure hunts in the cities of the future. A rookie at first, Pam will find herself in an interesting predicament as the Case of the Black Dragon progresses. By the end of the game, you would have unveiled a neat and ingenious story that brings back memories of pulp fiction magazines published during the first half of the 20th century.

Tonight's review is slightly different from my normal reviews because it features an interview with the developer of ACA himself - Dusty Monk of Windstorm Studios.

The retro sci-fi fusion is truly unique
An Interview
DPCGR: Daily PC Game Reviews
Dusty: Dusty Monk, Windstorm Studios

DPCGR: Thanks for taking time out Dusty for this interview, let's start off with an introduction about you and Windstorm Studios.
Dusty: Thanks for taking the time to play and review Atomic City Adventures! Windstorm Studios is a small independent development shop I founded two years ago. Thus far it is entirely a one man shop, but I’m hoping to grow the studio in the future. I founded Windstorm Studios with the idea of creating games that were a bit different than what was dominating the PC scene at the time. I wanted to create games with bright, colorful palettes, where you play the good guy, set in worlds that had broad appeal. As for myself, I formerly worked at Ensemble Studios, where I worked on Age of Mythology, Age of Empires II & III, and Halo Wars. Before that I worked on Ready to Rumble and Hydro Thunder at Midway Home Entertainment.

DPCGR: What's Atomic City Adventures about?
Dusty: Atomic City Adventures is a 3rd person action game, set in a cool retro-futuristic world. The player takes on the role of Pam Rodgers, a member of the Vehicular Strike Force – a law enforcement agency tasked with cleaning up Vehicular Crimes in the city. The player will fight on foot, on hoverbikes, and flying jetbikes, and will face a variety of enemies from villainous robots to cyborg mobsters as they uncover a plot that threatens the very city itself.

The campaign begins in Upper City
DPCGR: So what was your role in the development of Atomic City Adventures?
Dusty: I was the developer for Atomic City Adventures. All of the modeling and animation, as well as the sound and music, I contracted out to professional artists. And of course I hired an excellent voice crew to do the VO for the game. But everything else – from programming, to design, to level creation, to writing and mission design – I did. As well as coordinating the production of all the other assets.  

DPCGR: Wow, how long did you take to complete the project?
Dusty: Atomic City Adventures started as a prototype for an MMO – an online game set in the world of Atomic City. And I still hope that I’ll eventually be able to realize that original vision. So I spent about 6 months building the prototype and shopping it to publishers. When I wasn’t able to get any bites on the publishing, I began converting the MMO prototype into a single player game. The entire game itself took just over 2 years to develop. Things tend to move a bit slower than you would like when everything has to go through you.

Seven fun missions to complete
DPCGR: What's Windstorm Studios up to right now?
Dusty: I’ve recently finished upgrading the engine to Torque’s latest revision [Ed - a great gaming engine from Garage Games], which I hope will fix some of the performance and stability issues we’ve encountered.  Additionally, I’m working on a demo for the game, and implementing some game play improvements. I hope to have the first patch up in late November. 

DPCGR: Ok, I can't wait to take Agent Pam Rodgers out for a spin and write a review of your game... any thing else you would like to add about Atomic City Adventures?
Dusty: Well obviously, I hope you enjoy the game. : ) I’m still deciding what exactly is going to be the next chapter. If I’m going to release another single player chapter, or perhaps multiplayer and cooperative modes. I certainly would like to do coop, but it will really just depend on what sort of feedback I get from players.

Read the instructions at left to get out of sticky situations
DPCGR: Ok, thanks for your time.
Dusty: Thanks!

Currently, ACA is a single player only game that features a background rich campaign that will take you a few hours to complete - especially if you strive to complete every single quest and collect all items in the various treasure hunts of the game.

At the start of every mission, you will usually hear a lengthy and interesting mission brief between Agent Pam Rodgers and several other key characters from the Vehicular Strike Force. From there, you get to choose your inventory in three areas before you begin your mission - your vehicle type, the weapon your vehicle uses, and the personal weapon you wish to equip yourself with. At the start of the campaign, you are equipped with a hovercraft and basic weapons for your vehicle and yourself.

Equip yourself before a mission begins
There's a handy tutorial that introduces you to the basic concepts of controlling Agent Pam Rodgers and her vehicles. At your top right are your main mission objectives as well as a list of agent activities (treasure hunt style mini-games) that you must complete. You will find a mini-map at the bottom right of your display; mission waypoints are marked on it with either an orange square (primary objectives) or a yellow square (secondary optional objectives).

The weapons you employ in the game have a primary and alternate means of fire. You will usually need to set a target with your T key before you can engage alternate fire mode for more advanced weapons. There are two bars at the bottom left of the screen that denotes the power remaining for that mode of fire; fortunately, these bars recharge quite fast. On the other hand, you could get Agent Pam to perform a roundhouse kick attack after selecting a humanoid target.

The enemies are really "friendly"
Enemies come in two flavours:
  • Humanoids - these could be mobsters and gangsters (the damsels ain't pansies - I kid you not), rogue synthetics (cyborg like beings), battlesuit security forces, and more.
  • Vehicles - Synthetic Wasps (bikes), Wheelman, Urban Assault Vehicles, and Heavy Vehicles (flying cars). The vehicles are a much tougher customer, so stay on board your vehicle to take them out with its firepower.
One uniqueness of the game is that some of your vehicular enemies will try to escape from you if they feel you are too powerful to take out. If you want a gold medal for your final score, make sure you don't let any of them slip out of your grasp. This makes for an interesting chase through the streets of the city.

Too late... the villains have escaped!
Other than fulfilling primary objectives by heading to waypoints and finding secondary optional objectives to complete, you also have three kinds of treasure hunt style mini-games to complete. 
  • First, there are AI network antennae that you must deactivate. These are circular glowing blue rings that you need to find and fly your vehicle through it. Kind of like a slalom circuit that takes you through every corner of the city.
  • Next, there are crates of illegal contraband dispersed throughout the mission; they are usually heavily guarded. Listen to audio clues - a throbbing machine like sound - to uncover their location.
  • Finally, the all important weapon caches. These contain vehicular and personal weapons that you can unlock for your next mission - they will give you more choices in your selection of inventory. Try not to miss any of them. 
Let's see what's inside this crate
The cities are the main attraction of ACA. They truly look fantastic - there are towering skyscrapers with that weird sci-fi twist built into them, towering cliffs that plunge a scary distance, cool skyway traffic where cars will just fly by, pedestrian walkways high in the sky, and signboards that actually remind me of those advertisements from magazines of yesteryear. A very vivid and imaginative experience indeed!

The 3D models look very nicely detailed and textures often look sharp (except for a few that decorate the less noticeable walls of certain buildings). The enemies are an interesting bunch, featuring female antagonists, cyborgs, battlesuit armour security forces, plus bikes and vehicles piloted by the crafty AI.

The very first music you listen to in the game is a nice cool jazzy piece that is really funky, uplifting and retro at the same time. The in-game music is also appropriate for the occasion. The ambient sounds of the city are pretty realistic as are weapon firing sounds. Finally, I thought that voice acting was generally very good and the script being read is reminiscent of a really great B movie - a refreshing blast from the past!

A lovely dragon adorns that building
The main attraction in Atomic City Adventures is the outstanding implementation of a futuristic sci-fi world complete with cool buildings and plastered with retro advertisements from the 50's.
  • Seven huge levels featuring four ultra-cool living cities to explore.
  • There's an intriguing story of a missing person case that evolves into a much bigger plot - it's not called The Case of the Black Dragon for nothing.
  • The key objectives of the game are to complete quests and optional treasure hunts - all of which can be replayed even after a mission has been completed.
  • Do your best to find all weapon caches, this way you'll get a nice selection of vehicular and personal weapons to choose from. 
  • If you enjoy treasure hunts and collecting stuff, this is the game for you - see if you can deactivate all AI nodes, find all weapon caches, find all crates of illegal contraband, and defeat all enemies.
  • Enemy AI is occasionally decent and put up a good fight. Some enemies even retreat and try to escape from you. If you want that perfect score, make sure you don't let them get away.
  • Voice acting which is pretty decent, reminds me of sleazy old B-movies, but in a good way. 
  • Music is very good and has that jazzy feel. The saxophone solos are really excellent.
The future has never been more lovelier than this
Three main concerns and other minor nitpicks sets this game back a bit. However, if you like to support the indie experience, then this is a game you should not shy away from.
  • #1: Long load times: It takes at least 30 seconds before I can start playing.
  • #2: Vehicle getting stuck: This applies to your vehicle only - It gets stuck when you collide into static objects. To recover it, you must temporarily abandon it, and recall it back to you when you reach an open space. It's a problem and Dusty acknowledges this.
  • #3: I encountered game crashes on some rare occasions. Fortunately, these occurred during start-up or early in the mission loading sequence.
  • There are some game slow-downs when a lot of animating entities appear on the screen together.
  • The voice acting may be decent, but there's however one line that I absolutely abhorred; the one where McKenna is shouting about Agent Pam's untimely demise - it's rather grating on the nerves.
  • Instead of seven unique cities to discover, you'll only get four in Atomic City Adventures. Three of the missions reuse maps - although objectives can now be found at different locations.
  • I felt the melee attack was rather useless - it's much better to shoot with a weapon. Anyway, the feature is there if you want to take out an enemy with a roundhouse kick. 
  • Not really a significant problem - there is no swimming animation when Agent Pam takes that rare dunking in the water.
Hmm... I don't think I was supposed to barge in here!
PS - As was mentioned earlier in the interview, I understand that Windstorm Studios is working on a patch to rectify some of the problems I highlighted, so stay tuned!
    It's impressive that it has been mostly a one-man effort coordinating and managing the development of Atomic City Adventures. Here's hoping for a follow-up to The Case of the Black Dragon. We should continue to support indie game studios like Windstorm Studios for trying to set off in a new direction that AAA studios don't care nor wish to take. And if you're reading this Dusty, I'd say you've done a good job and deserve a pat on your back! 

    Come on people, give this game a try and relive part of that surreal taxi chase scene from The Fifth Element. Atomic City Adventures - The Case of the Black Dragon is something refreshing for a change.

    On to the next mission
    Daily PC Game Review Score: 6.5 / 10
    Review Date: 16 Nov 2011


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