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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Life 07 (an entirely fictional game review)

Life 07 is no game like any other, and you’ll notice pretty quickly after opening the box: in big bold letters, you’re warned that when you die in the game, you will not be able to play again. The game makers made this possible by tapping a video console memory capacity that was unused before, according to information from video console spokespersons. “It’s true that ... there is no way to erase from memory what happens in Life 07,” one source commented.

Great visuals and sound effects

The game continues to be quite an atypical experience from the moment you insert it in your console, and make yourself comfortable sitting down with your controller, your friends, and a couple of drinks (get ready for a long play). First of all, this is strictly single-player mode, so your friends will need to either buy their own game, or just watch. But the 3D graphics of Life 07 are indeed the most satisfying to watch of any exploration game we’ve seen on the market so far. A crisp resolution, seemingly endless mirror effects, changing weather, super-realistic avatars, and no flickering, nevermind how complex the setting gets.

What’s best: the in-game sound effects equal the quality of the visuals. While the game creators, God Studios, decided to not include a soundtrack in the game – they were not available for comments to us regarding the reasons of this omission – the sound effects well make up for it. There is a near endless array of sounds attached to every object, as well as every action you apply to it (breaking, scratching, throwing and so on). Things uniquely rattle, shriek, bang, toot, vibrate, echo, buzz and hum, and merely listening to your avatar’s environment is a great deal of fun.

Training your character

Before you can enjoy the full game-play though, you need to train your character (which, by the way, is of random ethnicity and gender when you start out). Training the character is a tedious task at first; the controller fails to immediately translate your input into proper movements. Be prepared to stumble and fall quite a bit in the beginning. It will take years of game time to perfect a simple act like walking. Anything more eccentric, like jumping, playing tennis, fencing, juggling, climbing up walls and so on will take even longer than that. But eventually, you’ll get used to it. If there’s a big downside to the game philosophy, we have to say the controls are it, though. It’s unclear why God Studios put such a big hurdle right at the beginning of the game, where players are most likely to give up. But if they do, boy are they gonna miss out!

During the first game years, you can grab almost any object and have other in-game characters pay for it.

As soon as your avatar grows up, the fun really starts. With mastered controls, you can now set out to explore the world. Like with any explorative game there are certain tasks to fulfill, some fun, some more tedious, but they’re all part of the adventure. The game-play at this stage circles around going to school, receiving an education about the game world, or collecting marbles (and even collecting in-game representations of video games, which, amazingly enough, are all fully playable). Enemies are other avatars you meet, young and old, as well as animals like dogs.

Often, you need to listen closely to the stereo sound effects the environment emits; as a rule-of-thumb, the louder the sound, the more dangerous the upcoming situation. It’s often wise to just run. There is no obvious “honor” system, or any other kind of score, so you will not be directly punished for not acting like a hero. However, all your actions have a strong indirect effect in the game world. For example, if you’re seen as a weakling, other avatars may attack your avatar more frequently. Choosing a middle road between passiveness and aggressiveness was the way to go when we tested the game here.

Free game-play

When more game years pass in Life 07, you’ll be confronted with the first Free Decision obstacle. Free Decision was patented by God Studios and allows you to truly choose any available job or non-job at all. You can set out to become a barber. A writer. A hotel owner. An actor. A soldier. A politician. A programmer. A teacher. A mass murderer. You can even mix and mash your occupations, and become e.g. a politician who’s also a mass murderer. Or you can decide to not do anything at all. The only considerations for Free Decision game-play is that your avatar regularly needs to eat, sleep, and even (this may be a first for video games) do all that needs to be done during the morning toilet. Miss out on sleeping, and your character controls grow slower and slower; miss out on eating, and the protagonist grows terribly thin and won’t be able to move.

Now, here comes a big problem with the eat and sleep modus, and the game in general. The world map is generated randomly at the beginning, and you’ll be positioned in a completely random location. Sounds unfair? It is. Because depending on your luck, not your in-game skills, this location may have much less food, or a much harsher environment than other locations, making it harder to succeed by skillful game-play alone. It seems to be a major design issue, but again, God Studios refused to comment whether they’ll fix this in upcoming versions of the game.

Unfairness aside, you do have a great deal of influence over whether your character will succeed, provided your environment isn’t in a deep mess to begin with. It’s a joy to behold to see that after fulfilling tasks of your chosen occupation – we started by choosing “office worker” while test-driving Life 07, though we can’t really recommend this for everyone – you’ll end up with the in-game currency, Life Tokens, which you can spend on anything. And when we say anything, we mean anything. You can buy a TV, for example, and actually watch streaming in-game television (be warned the channels are mostly boring, but this is still a fun effect). Or you can rent a bigger apartment. Or bribe people. Or buy a car. Or if you have enough Life Tokens, you can travel to other locations on the randomly generated map and stay there for longer stretches of game time. The fun here is that these locations will have their own distinct randomized architecture, so there’s always something new to discover.

A randomized task system

If this all sounds too easy, it’s not, thanks to God Studios’ Random Barrier feature. Whenever your character settles down, or things seem to go smoothly in any way, a new randomized challenge arrives. This can be anything, from an angry co-worker, to a major sickness, to a natural disaster within the world’s environment (currently available are earthquake, thunderstorm, fire, blizzard and flooding, though the game instructions note that new disasters may be added in future versions). Disasters are rendered in extra-smooth, awe-inspiring 3D, but keep in mind that they’ll be no real fun to watch due to the game’s catch: when you die in the game, you will not be able to play again. This puts an extra-thrill to every Random Barrier you’re exposed to, and you’ll find your adrenaline level reaching new heights. It’s moments like these when the whole game feels less, well, game-like.

A minor complaint, as it was a recurring pattern throughout our tests: some of these Random Barriers are completely unfair, and they don’t “fit” the progress of the adventure story well. As an example, we were spending a lot of energy in the office job environment for 3 game years, making quite a few Life Tokens, but we were then suddenly exposed to a mischievous co-worker who turned the boss against our avatar. This quickly resulted in our avatar getting fired, though it did not become clear just why this specific event unfolded or how it could have been avoided. Random Barriers, perhaps, are a little too random. A formula like “hard work equals fast progress,” while somewhat simplistic, might have made for more fun game-play.

The good thing about setbacks in the game though is that you can start to explore alternative paths again, and explore different settings. Here the game plays out its greatest strengths, and it’s fun to just interact with in-game world objects and avatars. Drop a water-filled glass and see & listen to what happens. Build new 3D objects from existing objects – you can literally attach everything to everything else using a super-glue object – and check if they’re useful. Say “you’re so ugly” to a random avatar you meet on the streets and see what happens (we did, but we won’t spoil what happens... let’s just say the controller’s force-feedback feature greatly enhanced the effect). For some of these explorations, it would be neat to have a cheat to disable the ability of the avatar to instantly die as a result of an action. Due to this ability, we so far shied away from more drastic actions like jumping off the roof, driving our car against the wall, or entering any of the multitudes of war territories the dynamic world implements at any given time.

A word of warning to younger players: the later stages of the game (after about 14-34 years of game-play, depending on progress) contain explicit adult themes. Including, yes, varied acts of sexual recreation in a variety of in-game settings. It can be argued you’ll grow with the game and only ever see what you’re supposed to see, though, so we’re not too concerned about this.

In conclusion...

We don’t want to reveal too much at this point, but rather advice you to try out this game for yourself. Again, make the best out of it, as every acquired game will be good for only a single time. And while not without flaws, Life 07 will possibly be the greatest single playing experience you’ll ever have.


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