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.
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 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.
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.
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.