As I said over in my PAX East roundup article, one of the most notable booths at the whole convention was the Adult Swim Games table. They showed off an array of games ranging from the astonishingly complex to the profoundly simple, each with just the right polish to catch my attention. On the “simple” end of the spectrum was the 2D shooter called Duck Game. And man oh man, does that game do a lot with a little…
In what is a largely standard choice for indie games, Duck Game has retro visuals. The limited palette and pixelated resolution are almost painfully nostalgic. At the same time, there is anything but a shortage of variety. Every weapon, and there is a staggering amount of them as we’ll discuss in the gameplay section, is visually distinct. Most of them are also instantly recognizable, despite the small size and the therefore necessarily low pixel count for each. Shotguns are shotguns, bazookas are bazookas. Sci-fi blasters are sci-fi blasters. At the first glance, never having played the game before, chances are you’ll know exactly what to expect from 2/3rds of the weapons. If you’re up on your pop-culture (particularly Adult Swim specific pop culture) you can probably bump that up to 3/4ths. And for the remainder? Well, seeing someone scramble to grab a weapon that turns out to be harmless is part of the fun.
And just as the pixels aren’t lacking in variety, they aren’t lacking in detail either. Shell casings eject from weapons. The screen fills with smoke when appropriate. Heck, in the case of the combat shotgun you can actually count the remaining rounds just by looking at the number of shells visible. And this detail and variety extends to the environment. Water coolers visibly drain. Oil cans leak their contents and thus spread their hazard. Everything that should be visually apparent, is visually apparent. And all without the need or want of cutting edge visuals. Masterful.
You may ask yourself, based on this information, how exactly you can tell the characters apart in multiplayer if they are all ducks. The answer, my friend, is hats. Unlocked through various means, there are no shortage of hats for your duck to wear. This coupled with color variations based on team, you’ll have no difficulty telling one another apart.
This is a game where the pixels are used with surgical precision, and the overall effect is superb.
Where do I begin? From simple mechanics sprout almost astounding levels of complexity in gameplay. I suppose the best thing would be to lay out those mechanics. Here are the things your character can do: shoot, run, jump, duck (ha), “trip”, pick things up/throw them, and quack. One little extra ability is, if you are running and press down, you can power slide. That’s it. Those are the only things you can do, and thus the only things you have to muster… until you take the weapons into account.
Every weapon in the game is different, and there are quite a few. And when I say they are different, I mean massively. Range, accuracy, spread, penetration, projectile speed, presence or lack of rebound, ammo count, firing rate, reload rate, kickback and probably a dozen things I didn’t notice. Oddly, just about the only thing that doesn’t vary is damage. Every weapon that does damage is a one hit kill. But even THAT doesn’t remain consistent, because there are lethal weapons that don’t do damage. How? Creativity!
Before we talk about the standard weapons, let’s talk about the creative ones. One weapon shoots plastic bags that (nearly) immobilize enemies. It can’t kill anyone, but you can pick up an immobilized character and throw it off the side. Another weapon gives you control of another character and lets you run it off the side. Flare guns can ignite leaking oil, etc, etc, etc.
Back to the standard weapons. The art of this game is learning every nuance of a weapon. Forgetting you need to cock between shots with this pistol or that shotgun will get you killed. Firing a musket and missing dooms you to having to start a VERY long reload before firing again if you can’t get a better weapon. Heck, You could even accidentally throw a grenade without pulling the pin, or pull the pin and forget to throw.
All of this is all well and good, but surely you’ll figure out the details of a weapon during a round, right? No sir. Because the rounds only last until there’s <= one duck standing. Every round is a scramble to find a weapon and kill another duck, and failing that, find a way to use the level to kill another duck. So there’s no time for thought. You need to develop a sixth sense. And even when things are perfect, the game gives people a chance to throw a wrench in the works. Have you got a gun and he’s got a sword? Careful, because he can throw the sword. Have you got armor to protect you from that chainsaw? Careful, because there’s a magnet on the board, and your armor means YOU are magnetic. Are you hiding behind a stone wall? You do know that bazooka can blow a hole in the stone wall, don’t you? Even two ducks with the same gun at the ends of a long hallway could take the game in a dozen directions, because a well-timed power slide can take you under his shot and fill his knees with lead (using the kickback to rocket you back out of the room in the process).
I could go on like this for pages (I haven’t even touched on grappling hooks, wall-jump shoes, jet packs, or riding chainsaws yet) but let’s get to the scoring system. Last Duck standing gets a point. And that assumes there IS a last duck standing, because the travel time of ballistics means you can both pull the trigger and kill each other. But assuming you survive a round, you get a point. First one to the threshold (I believe it was fifteen in the games I played) wins the game. It really is that simple. Single player is a bit different, as it is organized into groups of challenges that range from target shooting to generalized destruction, with bronze, silver, gold, and platinum rewards which can be used to buy gameplay options and accessories.
If I had complaint, and it is a minor one, the pace is SO frantic, that during a multiplayer run I actually had difficulty figuring how to stop playing. Not that I wanted to.
Dude. You can quack if you press B. I mean, sure, there’s rockin’ chiptunes, but come on. Quacking.
You’re duck who kills other ducks. Supply your own motivation.
What can I say? Duck Game is a game that’s crystalline in its simplicity yet labyrinthine in its complexity. You can pick it up in the space of a single round, but mastering it will be a perpetual process. But you will want to master it, because it was downright brilliant in its execution and butt loads of fun.
10 / 10: As near to a perfect shooter and party game as I’ve ever played.