Smooth Operators

Smooth Operators is a time sink, and I mean that in a good way.  I started playing yesterday around 11:30AM, and emerged around 8:00PM wondering exactly where the day went.  Titles like this are the alien abductions of the game world.  When you try to explain to people that you just lost eight hours of your life playing a game where you operate a call center, people look at you with rapidly blinking eyes as if you just took that last step off the deep-end.  And then you try to explain your side of the story, saying “no, no!  You don’t understand!  You have to staff out buildings and hire janitors and there’s incoming calls and outgoing calls and it’s really, really fun!”  And they just nod politely while thumbing through their phone, looking for your family’s number and wondering how they’re going to break the news.

As Brian pointed out to me back in July when this very site ran a contest to give Smooth Operators its name, the idea of a Sim Call Center is not original.  A free-to-play game called Corporation Inc has been around since at least November of 2010.  Smooth Operators is perhaps uncomfortably similar to it, but hey, some companies make billions doing this.  At least the XBLIG is both a faithful tribute and a full evolution of the concept.  Just make sure you keep an eye on your wallet in its presence.  It’s a crafty bastard.

Funny how some of the most addictive games sound like weaponized boredom on paper.

Dante, in his infinite wealth.. of knowledge, couldn’t conceive what circle of Hell has sinners forced to work a call center.  But managing a virtual one is undeniably addictive.  First you have to build an operations center.  Then you have to staff it.  There’s three kinds of duties that need to be done: answer incoming calls, make outbound calls, and back office grunt work.  A helpful meter in the upper right hand corner of the screen tells you the work load and how far each occupation has to go to complete that day’s allotment.  You also have to hire janitors, IT guys, managers, and cheerleaders.  Sudden thought: wouldn’t cheerleaders be counter productive for a call center?  All that shouting and pompom waving is bound to be distracting, especially for a job that involves talking on the telephone.  “Okay, well why don’t you tell me the nature of your computer proGIMMIE AN B! GIMMIE AN E!  GIMMIE AN C!  GIMMIE AN C!  GIMMIE AN A!  WHAT’S THAT SPELL?  BECCA!”  I wouldn’t be too happy about that, even if the people in Smooth Operators seem to like it.

There’s no real goal in Smooth Operators per se.  You just build and staff buildings to earn money to build more buildings to staff to earn more money.  So yea, time sink.  But it works, and it plays relatively well.  Shockingly, I enjoyed playing it more with an Xbox controller than I enjoyed playing the PC game it was, ahem, inspired by.  BUT, I’m not totally in love with the interface.  I don’t think it gives the player enough.  One niggling little thing that bugged me was having to click on an employee’s desk and hope they were somewhere in the building to be able to upgrade them.  The process is slow and cumbersome.  Why can’t there be a drop-down menu that has a list of every employee, so that I can attend to them that way?  Smooth Operators practically demands that you micro-manage all the dudes you hire, but as your staff increases, this becomes more tiresome.

There’s no “increase all wages” or really any helpful shortcuts at all.  I figured hiring Human Resources Managers would take care of issues like schedules and vacation time for me, but it doesn’t.  In fact, all they do is make employees work longer without them becoming less happy.  In a roundabout way, this actually made my employees less happy, as they were now clogging all the facilities and elevators in my building.  I wanted to upgrade things, but even after hiring several spendy “Project Managers” that serve to unlock goodies, unlockables just take too God damn long to get, and most of the early things they get for you are as useless as a fireproof surfboard.  What the FUCK is a potted plant going to do to increase morale when people have to wait two hours to get down one story on an elevator?  If this game were made in the United States, that potted plant would be used to bludgeon the nearest authority figure.

I guess people in Kyrksten like the increased workload and have more patience. Sigh. These are getting harder to work in.

Because of the slowness of the upgrades, and the indifference of my employees to water coolers, my moral dipped to record lows and my employees started resigning on me faster than I could appease them.  Now, if this was Sim City, I would have responded in a perfectly calm and rational manner.  Meaning I would have sent Godzilla in to kill and eat all my employees and knock the building over.  Unfortunately, there’s no Godzilla, or earthquakes, or tornado, or alien invaders, or guys named Gustafsson who prefer to live on the 40th floor.  Sigh, God damn Andreas.  You couldn’t have used words like snickerdoodle or farfanoogin?  Those would have been easier to work in.

So after I lost over half my employees, including most of my janitors and IT guys, I surveyed the remains of my once beautiful office building.  Trash scattered everywhere.  Computers smoking.  Employees swearing at the slowness of the elevators.  Mangers swearing at the employees.  Cheerleaders cheering the one IT guy left who didn’t quit.  Money drying up.  Tasks being unfulfilled.  I thought to myself “really?  I spent the last eight hours of my life doing this and this is all I have to show for it?”  After a brief period of reflection, I did the only thing that seemed rational at the time.  I turned my Xbox back on and spent another eight hours doing the same thing.

Fuck you, Smooth Operators.  Fuck.  You.

Smooth Operators was developed by Andreas Heydeck

80 Microsoft points have no idea what a Bengan is or why it would help upgrade things in the making of this review.

Smooth Operators is Chick Approved!  Find out where it landed on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Other Smooth Operators reviews: Clearance Bin Review, TheXBLIG.com, and more to come.

Looking for cheat codes for Smooth Operators?  Look more carefully 😉

Sententia

As I noted in my review of qrth-phyl, I get called out a lot for picking on developers. I really try to avoid this and focus on the game, but sometimes my methodology on criticism can seem like I’m going after someone when I’m not. If I say a developer’s game sucks, it’s taken to mean I think the developer sucks. And if I’m especially harsh on a game, it’s thought that I need to lighten up and look for positive things to talk about and “quit being so personal.” It’s never personal. Ever. So hopefully I’ve cleared that all up and can now focus on writing a balanced review.

Sententia is the worst Xbox Live Indie Game of the year.

I spent a few hours slogging through it, including accidentally scrubbing my save file while attempting to show someone how the game began, which meant I got to start over. Of all the critics who are covering the Uprising, I’m pretty sure I made the least progress in the game. I know there are people who say that a review doesn’t count if you don’t finish the game. To that I say, unless it has a magical stop-being-crappy section, I don’t think there’s anything I can possibly miss discussing about it.

The idea is you’re some kind of demon monster thingie (I think) who is coming of age and learning to use magical connect-the-dots to um, do something. I honestly have no clue. Which is odd because there’s certainly enough writing that I would hope to grasp what is going on. Instead, a kid just kinda wanders off on the woods, sees giant-sized devil thingies, and doesn’t turn around and run home to his daddy.

Sententia describes itself as an art game in its marketplace blurb. I’m not a huge fan of games that label themselves as such, because most that do so use it as an all-purpose bullet-proof vest for criticism. It gives a developer or a game’s fans the ability to deflect any valid complaints by saying “it’s art house, it’s not for everyone.” I got this vibe when I interviewed Michael last month. I came away liking the guy and admiring his amazing effort in organizing the Uprising. I also looked at his game, compared it to the other eight games, and figured it didn’t belong. And it doesn’t.  I get no pleasure from saying that, but it’s true. It probably should have been the last game to release, so as to not taint the event.

Let’s picture non-regulars on the XBLIG scene catching wind of the Uprising through some of the big time coverage it has got. Sententia is the second game in the promotion, after the very good but also very weird qrth-phyl. Maybe qrth-phyl looked too weird to sample. Thus, Sententia becomes the first game that many people sample in this promotion that purports to show off the best XBLIG has to offer. Within fifteen minutes, everything wrong with Sententia becomes evident. Bad graphics. Annoying sound effects. Horrible play control. Sloppy interface. Bad writing. Cheap level design. Those people who think XBLIG is a joke and avoid the channel like the plague who decide to take a chance because of the hype say “this is the best Xbox Indies are capable of?” They don’t know that Sententia, and this will really sound harsh, only got in because it’s the game created by the guy who ran the promotion. So those people play this, are completely turned off by the scene, and they never come back.

And for the record, I feel like a total bitch for saying that.

Guys, next year I’m picking the order.  

Sententia’s hook is that you occasionally have to pause the game and do a connect-the-dots puzzle. Every dot has little slash-marks on it, signifying how many lines will extend from it. This is actually a cool idea for a standalone game, assuming it’s done right.  Sententia doesn’t do it right, mostly owing to the clumsy building interface. It’s slow-moving, awkward, and accident-prone. If you make a mistake, deleting a line can be an exercise in frustration. There were times where the cursor simply refused to highlight the line I wanted to delete. I had to delete all the other lines that it wanted to highlight instead before I could correct the mistake. There’s also no “clear-all, start over” button. So if you’ve totally cocked-up a puzzle (and you will do that a bunch, trust me), your punishment is to slowly clean up before starting over. I asked Michael if anyone had pointed this stuff out to him, and he said no, the play testing went well. So going off that, good job play testers! Given the nearly universal negative reaction to Sententia I’ve seen today, I can’t believe none of you thought “maybe I should say something.”

This is where I quit. The smaller, hard-to-see blocks in the center of the level drop quickly after you land on them. Because of the timing of the controls, you don’t have enough time to shoot the enemies or defend yourself in any way against them. It’s one of the most horribly conceived layouts I’ve ever seen in any game.

So the hook was botched. The rest of the game pretty much plays like a run-of-the-mill platformer, assuming the run was given to a recently lobotomized goldfish. The controls are horribly sluggish, with movement and jumping being slow. There’s a noticeable delay in responsiveness. So naturally the game has several sections that require timed-precision platforming with respawning enemies. The enemies are typically placed on narrow platforms, and will fire at you if you are on the same plane as them. Since you can’t jump and fire at the same time, you pretty much have no choice but to rely on luck and hope the game glitches out and the enemies get respawned on the wrong platform. That happens. And thankfully the enemies can’t possibly respawn on the wrong platform in a way that makes it impossible to proceed. Oh wait, that happens too. Don’t worry though, it won’t matter, because you’ll get stuck trying to walk past two respawning enemies on platforms that drop out from underneath you almost as soon as you step on them. Or “get as close to the edge as you can before jumping” platforms that are scattered all over the game. I honestly can’t come up with a single positive thing to say about the gameplay. It’s abysmal in every way a game can be.

I’m not sure how Sententia was released in the state it’s in, or how anyone, even the creator of the game, could be delusional enough to think this should have been included in an Xbox Live Indie Game showcase. A theory kicked to me on my Twitter feed is that Sententia made it in as a matter of convenience, because it was a game that was available and done. If that’s the case, I object to the use of the word “done.” Unless we’re using the “stick a fork in it, it’s done” context. Simply put, you don’t stick a game that is total and complete uncompromising and unapologetic garbage in a lineup of games designed to showcase the potential of a game platform on the grounds that there was nothing else available. It would be like not having enough food to cover a reception, so one lucky guest gets the honor of eating a plate full of shit. Again, not trying to pick on Michael Hicks. He’s a cool dude. But his game could very well be the worst game on the entire XBLIG platform, and should not have been used in a promotion designed to lure in new fans. Michael, I commend you for your efforts in the third Indie Games Uprising. You busted your ass hard for your fellow developers and you should be saluted for that. You spread the gospel of Xbox Live Indie Games like a modern-day John the Baptist. And, like John, your head ended up being served on a silver platter.

“Where the Mild Things Are”

Sententia was developed by MichaelArts

80 Microsoft Points had no fun writing any of the above in the making of this review. In fact, I feel pretty dang rotten about it. 

Also check out the reviews of Sententia from my associates at Indie Theory, Clearance Bin Review, TheXBLIG.com and more to come.

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