Released the day before Thanksgiving 2007, Undertow was launched to the XBLA from a new developer named Chair. But even though this development studio is new, its employees are veterans of the industry, crafting such titles as Xbox’s Advent Rising and even had a hand in releasing the novel Empire by Orson Scott Card.
This industry experience is displayed in the 360’s newest Arcade title. Undertow, while playing out in two dimensions, is displayed through 3D graphics and effects. Using a similar control scheme as Smash TV, Robotron, or Geometry Wars, the player uses the left stick to move and the right stick to shoot. In terms of gameplay, Undertow is like a 2D, underwater Star Wars Battlefront where the goal is to eliminate your opponents and take over control/spawn points.
One of the reasons that Undertow works so well as an XBLA title is due to level design. Each stage has been developed so one side does not really have a huge advantage over the other thanks to short cuts, hidden passageways, and the distance between each spawn point. Because there are multiple ways to reach a destination, the action and strategy will always keep players on their toes.
When a player enters a friendly control point, one of four units are playable. These range from the speedy but weaker scuba diver, to the more powerful but slow Destroyers. Each of the four playable units has a particular strength and weakness. But if the player collects a sum of 2,000 points, one of these four units can be upgraded in mid-battle. After an upgrade of level 2, it is possible to upgrade the same unit to level 3 for the cost of 3,000 points. Once a unit has been upgraded, they stay upgraded until the match is over. Points are collected from defeating your opponent and taking over control points.
The meat of the single player experience lies in the campaign mode. Here, players will venture on a short tale that involves underwater pirates and even members of the lost city of Atlantis. While the story may not be the best thing ever written, it is a bullet point for Undertow simply due to the fact that each cut scene is narrated with full voice over, one of the few Arcade games to do so. Unfortunately, hearing the voices is a little difficult as the voices never speak loud enough, even with the voice option jacked up and all the other audio options turned down in the options menu. It is highly suggested to turn the subtitles on so you don’t ask the question “what did he just say?”
Undertow was built with multiplayer in mind. Up to 16 players can duke it out via Xbox Live, one of the few Arcade games to do so. And co-op fans can rejoice as the entire single player campaign can be played with a buddy over Xbox Live. There is even an Achievement for it.
For an XBLA game, the graphics are amazing. Water effects and bubbles are thrown in all over the place, further developing the illusion of fighting underwater. Cut scenes are presented well and the lighting and wave effects that are the result of an explosion look great. My only gripe is that each cut scene is either encased in shadow or each character wears some type of helmet. These seems like a cheap way to get out of doing extra work syncing up mouths and modeling faces. But considering this is an XBLA game built under 50 MB, it is an permissible excuse.
All in all, Undertow is an enjoyable original XBLA title. And for the price of 800MS points ($10), this game is a steal. The XBLA is geared towards the more casual gamer to play the more casual game. But as the library of online games grow, so do expectations. This original IP is sure to please the casual audience as well as those who enjoy their online multiplayer experience. Chair Entertainment is one development studio to keep your eye on.