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Mallet Brawl: A Tale of Hittites
Physics games and the indie games scene go hand in hand, like rickety steam powered helicopters with giant hammers hanging from them. According to Hammerfight anyway, the game that poses the oft asked question “What if you could combine humanities’ two greatest inventions together?” In this case, the two greatest inventions would be the flying machine and a club.
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Trial by Bludgeon
Hammerfight is an unforgiving game, about as unforgiving as you would expect piloting a flying vehicle with heavy weights dangling from it would be.The controls are mou se driven, which will lead to much arm flailing and possible repetitive stress injury. All the movement revolves around the physics engine which has a somewhat authentic and weighty feel, though sometimes veers into exaggeration. Most weapons handle as you would expect, and the weight of your ship will affect how well you battle as well as overall mobility, because in Hammerfight, the two are inextricably linked. The entire crux of the game is weaving through the air, spinning and hopefully bashing something with a big heavy weapon.
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Beating the Drum... and Everything Else
The game takes place in an age of turmoil amongst the ruling houses of an Arabian-esque empire with our noble flying hero caught between the political unrest of the times. Surprisingly, the story is quite well fleshed out, with there being plenty of dialogue between characters as well as page after page of background between some missions, though this can become overwhelming.
While the story seems to take a back seat to the actual gameplay itself, story choices affect which path you take, and therefore which levels you experience and which items you have access to, allowing for much replay value.
The setting is executed well, with a distinct blend of a pseudo historical style and 'steampunk' contraptions. Thematically, the game is tied together very neatly, from the set piece architecture, such as gigantic wooden wheels, dank caves and duels outside palatial courts, to the music, which is culturally evocative and helps to promote the (fictional) Middle Eastern flavour.
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All in the Wrist - Controls & Interface
The use of the mouse as (virtually) the sole controller of your flying machine is an innovative idea which leads to a dynamic style of play, both fun and for the most part intuitive, but intuitive in a very imprecise way.
There will be times that you will be unable to properly manoeuvre your weapon due to everything being tied to momentum, which will lead to frustration when you are inevitably blown out of the sky. This could arguably have more to do with the physics engine and its somewhat unique use; aerial melee is something of a non genre, even amongst indie games. The controls have a very steep learning curve, which does not mix well with the fragile nature of your craft.
Combat definitely does become more rewarding with practice as combat strategies become clear, but there will still be moments of wild disorganised spinning every now and then. The idea is a strong one however, and the innovation of the concept shines through beneath some of the flaws of the implementation.
The interface is fairly self contained with a scrolling wheel to allow selection and angles of weapons (which will affect aerodynamics). There is the option to bind keys to commands for various functions, such as using ranged weapons or limited use items like poisons or healing gems and so on. They can make combat more fluid, but the mouse alone is functional, if slightly less convenient.
The health metre on the other hand could be clearer, but the gauge works satisfactorily. The red light means your ship is in critical condition (usually acompanied by your ship billowing smoke). Get used to it, you'll be seeing a lot of it in Hammerfight.
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Club Call - Sound
The music in Hammerfight, as mentioned, serves as a constant reminder of the setting and sets the tone of chapters with its various passages of tense drama or elated sheikh shuffling. Interestingly, the dramatic music is mostly composed of horns, while the lighter music is more percussive and uses more recognisably eastern instruments. Every section of the game seems to have its own music, though some more variety for the game's various moods would have been a welcome addition.
The sound effects, however, are all satisfyingly physical. Fires scorch, blades clank off armour and slice hides, wood splinters under wrecking balls. There's a real sense of damage done when blows are struck in Hammerfight and the sound effects are instrumental in making battles both as involving and as material as they are.
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Dogfight Dimensions - Visuals
Hammerfight looks good, but not as good as it could. A high point is the visual effects for particles, lighting and smoke. Without these Hammerfight would not look as good as it does. Overall the game is low resolution, though despite the small s cale, there is a notable amount of detail on display in most things. The archaic looking ships seem almost like something DaVinci would have made had he access to industrial manufacturing (and also gone through a phase of lack of inspiration), while the locales are varied enough to maintain the impression of an interconnected world of many climates and environments.
The character portraits are the weakest graphical point, as they are crude in comparison to everything else, though the scale of the occasionally featured humans is both ineffectual when used for dialogue purposes, since they are so small, and empowering since it gives a definite size to craft where it would be otherwise difficult to tell how big they are.
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Pugilist's Palette - Gameplay
Hammerfight is fast paced, furious and fun, but sometimes frustrating. The use of the mouse as the sole controller combined with the range of movement that aerial combat offers allows for a fluidity of action which can be both strategic and a twitchy mix of desperate evasive manoeuvres, artful dodges and crushing blows.
Hammerfight is consistently challenging, at first because of the foreign nature of the controls and how easily damaged your ship is. It's all too easy to have the game ended by one fatal mistake that allows for a penetrating or crippling hit. Later on, the challenge comes more from the overwhelming odds of the plentiful tides of enemies. Once a ship becomes too damaged, it becomes unresponsive and difficult, which can lead to much irritation as you scream obsceneities at the useless pile of junk you call a flying machine.
Then, of course, there is the arbitrary nature of item collection. Unless they're bought, weapons in Hammerfight are gained through mid-battle scavenging. This involves physically touching disconnected weapons. However some weapons aren't collectible and even if they are disconnected from an enemy will do major damage to your ship. Some warning might have been nice.
While the core gameplay is both novel, yet conceptually solid and consistent, a little more variety than was offered would have enhanced the game. There are game modes, such as Arena, for a gladiatorial skirmish, or a training mode to practice your shattering stroke, or Grim mode for critter hunting. There is also Hammerball, for when yo u need a break from all the clobbering (of non balls).
The story missions, however, can get repetitive. Sometimes there is a timed countdown where you must survive an army of antagonists, but no real indication of objectives (beyond the story pages). A large part of the story takes place underground or inside palace walls, but while they are supposed to be claustrophobic, with the lack of space being a game device to add challenge and force the player to think more tactically, enemies visibly going off screen whilst you are held in place makes it feel more restrictive than it need be. Perhaps elements of exploration would have interfered with the strength of the central formula. No Hammerfight review is complete without baseless speculation.
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A Smashing Time - Conclusion
All in all, Hammerfight is enjoyable and fresh, with both a new spin on the use of physics in games, as well as a fast paced, reaction based sometimes chaotic play style which is reminiscent of arcade gaming in its own way. There are plenty of nods to this with the various scores and points, but it is channeled into its gladiatorial approach with fame ratings and loot used for new weapons and armour.
Sadly some things fall flat. I personally couldn't get the multiple mouse multiplayer to work, despite following the instructions, and there is little support or documentation for this sort of thing, or Hammerfight in general for Engish speakers. The graphics and performance optimisation is lacking for higher end computers. The physics engine at times seems random in how it allocates damage and combat can degenerate into finesseless stabs in the dark. The premise lends itself completely to multiplayer modes, but there is as of yet still no option for online play.
The game can be immensely frustrating, as every Hammerfight review will attest, but also has an immense amount of character and charm. The absurdity of melee flying machines being hailed as the peak of technology alone is almost enough to sell the game on. Couple that with its wealth of gameplay content, such as branching storylines and unique physics profiles for weapons and the ability to combine said weapons together, as well as many, many stages and unlockable game modes to make it a great deal. For the price, Hammerfight is well worth it.