by Danny Kim
“Redefining the student game.”
In the same way that a lot of student films have the clear “student film vibe,” many student games created at USC have a clear “student game vibe.” It’s a completely excusable inevitability in given the fledgling talent and low budgets at this level, but that doesn’t get rid of the fact that the separation is clearly there. Whether it be because of lower quality art assets, sketchy animations, or general glitchiness, student games tend to be clearly distinguishable from their AAA cousins.
The Blink team aims to shatter this trend with their game. Led by game director Mihir Sheth (BS Computer Science – Games ’12) and producer Michael Chu (BA Interactive/BS Business Administration ’12), the team behind Blink is stocked full of some of the most talented and experienced developers from not only USC, but also the Art Institutes, Laguna College of Art and Design, and Gnomon School of Visual Effects.
In Blink, players take the role of Iris, a corporate saboteur formerly under the employ of Ardshir Industries. After an experiment-gone-awry, Iris is betrayed by her employers and finds herself on the run. But she isn’t completely helpless – the failed experiment has left Iris with the power of ‘Blinking’, i.e. short distance teleportation. And she must use this very power to defeat Ardshir’s security mechs and escape their facility.
If the whole “escaping from a high tech facility” premise sounds a lot like Portal 2, yeah, that’s what I thought, too. Blink doesn’t hesitate to borrow from the best – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all – , and in fact, the game is full of clear influences from some of our favorite games. In the character of Iris alone, the homage to Chell of Portal and Faith of Mirror’s Edge is obvious, and the mech designs are clearly influenced by the Geth of Mass Effect.
But the fact that Blink derives from these games is hardly a knock against it. In fact, the way it immediately evokes comparisons to such AAA products is a testament to the impeccable production values of the game – if the game didn’t look almost as good as those it draws influence from, the comparisons wouldn’t have materialized as easily. And taking inspiration from the big boys certainly has its upsides – from the models to the sound to the environments, most aspects of Blink look professionally done. Especially notable is the animation – it’s clear that the team spent a lot of time getting the movement and combat in Blink to feel as good as those of its retail counterparts; between the tight controls and the slick animations, Iris moves with the nimbleness of Ryu Hayabusa and fights with the grace of the Prince of Persia, complete with slomo afforded by the Reflex Mode. The smoothness of motion makes the environmental puzzles in the games a delight to play and said puzzles are laid out in such a way that they really make you feel badass when you figure them out.
However, despite Iris’s similarity in motion to Ryu, this isn’t Ninja Gaiden, there’s no combo counter, and when it comes to combat, you can’t just run into a mass of enemies while mashing X and expect to come out alive. Indeed, the combat in Blink can be considered a puzzle in and of itself, one that rewards intelligent planning rather than brute force button mashing. Stealth is encouraged to a degree, as Iris does maximum damage when enemies are unaware of her presence. The security mechs change colors between green, yellow, and red depending on their level of alertness, and when you sneak up on a green mech, just tap X to begin a beautiful kill animation and take it out in one hit.
Combine the stealth mechanic with blinking and you can take out small groups of mechs with relative ease as long as they don’t know you are there before you pounce. But even when s**t hits the fan, you aren’t left completely helpless – get in, get out is the name of the game in more hectic encounters, and Iris’s combat potential is fully on display in situations where she can blink into a group of enemies, deal some damage, and blink out, lather-rinse-repeat. It’s a well thought out system that utilizes the central mechanic of the game really well.
But no game is perfect while in development, and Blink is no exception. My biggest gripe with Blink in its current condition is the AI. It isn’t clear exactly what stimulus the mech security guards are supposed to respond to. Sometimes, I could run up to a mech in its clear forward field of vision and it would not react to me until I was really close or, worse, dancing around it. Once actually in combat, animation and collision detection presented some minor issues, with the game’s way of “locking” you onto certain targets making some questionable guesses and the occasional slice through the air doing damage – but given that this kind of animation/collision mismatch happens fairly often even in retail games, it’s understandable.
The cover system, while admirable, can also be flakey and almost seems implemented as an afterthought. It’s not clear exactly what parts of the environment can be used as cover, and the necessity of the cover mechanic is questionable at times – this isn’t a shooting game, nor is the game in any other way really reliant on the cover system. A simple crouch function combined with appropriate height obstacles to conceal you would suffice.
The blinking mechanic could use a little tweaking as well. It works great 99% of the time and on the whole the Blink team did a great job of creating a very forgiving system when it comes to trying to guess where you’re trying to go. That remaining 1%, however, can be a lethal or frustrating, with Iris blinking off ledges or repeatedly failing to land in the right place to advance an environmental puzzle.
According to Sheth, one of the things the Blink team wanted to prove was that student developers could create a polished product, one that doesn’t give off the “student game vibe” – after all, he insisted, many students our age are just a year or two away from entering the industry.
It may sound like a lofty goal to live up to, but it’s one that the Blink team seems on track to achieve. Even in its current in-progress state, it’s amazing – the visuals ooze quality, the world of the story is sophisticated, the gameplay is fluid and tight, and the presentation is impeccable. Blink is on its way to becoming living proof that AAA quality is completely possible at the student level. It raises the bar for future student games and alters the way student games are perceived. This raising of the bar is Blink‘s legacy.
Blink will be on show at Demo Day on May 2nd 2012 as well as at the Interactive Media Division and Directors Guild of America’s First Move showcase on April 26th 2012. For more information, check out the official website at www.blinkthegame.com.
Danny is an Associate News Editor for CelebritySC. His column “Cineplay” runs every Wednesday evening. Check out his blog See. Play. Live.