Were it any other week I might be lamenting the lack of high profile retail releases, but as it happens, both the release of a demo for Valve's upcoming Left 4 Dead 2 and one other game have been eating up nearly all my spare time (and a good deal of non-spare-time as well), that game being:
Borderlands [Gearbox, Xbox 360/PS3/PC]
Gearbox's promise to deliver the first person, dungeon crawling shooter that Hellgate: London was panned for falling short of appears to have gone without a hitch — the result is one of the most compulsive plays I've accidentally fallen into since I first thought I'd see what this whole 'Fallout 3' deal was.
Take that game and add in a dash of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (for its less overtly emphasized narrative structure, though its own barren post-apocalyptic world is more Mad Max wildstyle to the former's dreary Chernobyl hot zone) and you've got a game that's split into a series of "one more go" pursuits, as you push yourself past that next hill and then the next, hoping to stumble across that next, procedurally generated, best-gun-ever, which in turn leads you to pushing on to just see what that one is capable of.
Its best conceit so far, though? The one-two punch of its dynamic music that kicks in a tribal hum when you've clearly got yourself in over your head — the perfect soundtrack to a hasty retreat to safer ground — and Second Wind, a mechanic that gives you some 10-15 'posthumous' seconds to take down the enemy that 'killed' you, resulting in a quick boost of health and the chance to truly rescue yourself. The generated drama is as visceral as any I've played this year — don't miss your chance to take it on for yourself.
Hook Champ [Rocketcat Games, iPhone]
Apart from spending time in Borderlands wilds, the other game burning up most of my time is Rocketcat's debut iPhone game Hook Champ. The easy and lazy description reads: Spelunky meets Bionic Commando, and for once maybe lazy says it best.
Your only goal is to travel from one side of a cave to the other, snapping up coins along littered throughout its branched paths, with two hitches: 1.) your walking speed is fractional compared to your clip when you get a steady swing working, and 2.) that wouldn't be as much of an issue if you didn't have a razor-toothed demon slowly pursuing you from start to finish.
Retro styled and far more complex than it first appears — particularly when you start to spend your winnings upgrading and unlocking new items and powerups — Hook Champ's a perfect example of the App Store's overlooked gems.
Alice in Bomberland [Sonic Boom, iPhone]
Alice in Bomberland is the first iPhone game to come from an indie dream team consisting of programmer and designer Chris DeLeon (creator of ngmoco's Topple gone indie post-Electronic Arts) and David Hellman (artist on Xbox 360 cult hit platformer Braid), and is quite what the name would lead you to believe: an explosive dodge-em-up set in Lewis Carroll's fantasy world.
Why? It's not exactly clear, nor does it seem to matter: the Looking Glass world is rife with artifacts that translate perfectly into gameplay (think: eat me/drink me cakes and potions, and a cup of the Mad Hatters tea to crank up the speed), and DeLeon's provided a fantastic amount of variety across its nearly 50 levels. Get past the essential loneliness of a score-based game without any of the now seemingly ubiquitous social elements and you'll find one of the best App Store surprises of the month.
Earth Dragon [Chaim Gingold, iPhone]
In another former-EA-turned-indie move, Earth Dragon is the first full game from Chaim Gingold, former Maxis dev best known as the original prototyper and designer of what would become Spore's Creature Creator.
A slender game that encourages break-time repeat play, the game makes full use of the iPhone's accelerometer to help fly (by 'flapping' the device itself) and tilt-guide your dragon through various challenges from coin- and princess-collecting to laying waste to the kingdom's strongholds. Built out of simple but tremendously expressive shapes, Gingold manages to capture the spirit of earth-shaking devastation with perfect-pitch in every frantic thumb-press.
Arkedo Series – 01 JUMP [Arkedo, Xbox 360]
Fresh off from creating one of the DS's most wildly original and stylized shooters (2008's Big Bang Mini, a neon- and flourescent-lit game of firework-flinging), France's Arkedo have set about to bring that hyper-style to the Xbox 360's Indies channel with a series of quickly produced downloadables based around one core theme.
The first, JUMP is still the best (and shares some basic Pitfall-type influence with Hook Champ above) — a simple but gorgeously neo-retro bomb-defusing and coin-collecting platformer. They've followed that up with tile-matching puzzle game SWAP, and promise six more in the near future — more if the audience demands it, which they very well should.