Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

MorphX / The Swarm (Xbox/PC, 2008-10, Russia): Humble, Earnest, Or Just Crappy?
April 4, 2011, 2:33 am
Filed under: MorphX / The Swarm (Xbox, 2008-10, Russia)

Without a doubt, “MorphX” (Xbox/PC, 2008-10, Russia) is the poster child for bottom-shelf, guilty pleasure gaming.

Oh “MorphX,” I knew ye and dreamed of ye before your publisher forced that stupid twelfth-hour name change on you. Even though you now sound like an unpopular Marvel Comics superhero whose power is to activate-into-something-or-other-that-no-one-remembers, in my heart you will always be “The Swarm.”

There are some games I have to creep up on, especially those I’ve anticipated for a long time. I’ll get them, and they’ll sit on my shelf for upwards of a year, as I wait for just the right moment/mindset/circumstance to be able to fully dedicate myself to them. Is the work schedule too tight at the moment? Am I properly focused? Are life distractions at a minimum? Is the light level right? Whatever. It’s a silly sort of ritual that puts my game-playing way behind schedule, and it is probably a behavior that is connected to the fact that I keep a copy of every game I’ve played. I am not one of those kiddies who buys “Dead Space 2” on Tuesday, and by Wednesday afternoon is listing it on Amazon Marketplace after beating it. (Or, as I suspect in most cases, not beating it. And on this note, have you ever actually examined the completion rates of games? Marketing folks actually keep track of these things. Do a bit of Google research, and you will be quite surprised by how few people actually finish the games they begin. Strange stuff.)  Anyway, the games I dedicate myself to, I seriously ponder them before playing and then hang onto forever afterwards (for who knows what damn reason—I never replay anything). Eh, I could have much more deleterious (and expensive) hobbies, I guess.

Having said all that, the humble “MorphX” was not one of those games. The only reason I raise this issue: Like about 15 other people, I stumbled upon this game somewhere 2 or 3

years ago, and I saw a tiny bit of a cutscene and a tinier bit of gameplay. (The game may or may not have actually been released in 2008 for PC in eastern Europe, but confirming that is tricky.) The entire affair was sci-fi clichéd enough to pique interest. (Well, that and it was a Russian baby, which means I’d have to blog about it.) Apparently in “The Swarm” (it’s God-given name at that point in time),  the world was overrun with Xenomorph aliens, and the game chronicled humans’ final stand in Moscow—all of this occurring 4 or 5 years after the initial invasion (so everything is pretty well apocalypt-o-sized). In the game, the protagonist you play is infected with alien DNA and is simply trying to reach a hospital for medical attention (there are very few hospitals remaining at this point in time.) As you make your journey through the requisite city streets, subways, sewer tunnels, and warehouses, you slowly transform into an alien-human hybrid with enhanced powers, fighting off aliens who target you and also humans who mistake you as an alien. (About halfway through, some of those dynamics change, and the humans inexplicably befriend you, and your reticle is squarely focused on just the alien scourge from that point onward.) Suffice to say, that was the whole narrative. Another game to scribble down in my “Will It Ever Happen?” notebook and forget about. And I did forget about it.

Then, flipping through an issue of Game Informer several months back, I see on the release calendar a game called “MorphX.” I mutter, “What is this dumbness?” and Google it. A scant article published by no one in particular popped up: “The Swarm changes names to MorphX—will release for the Xbox this year.” I blink. “What? You mean to tell me not only did this title survive, but it is actually a game made by a little known Russian developer being released on the Xbox? This can’t be right.”

And yet, here it is, appearing out of nowhere and released in 2010 without a peep for something like $29.99 new. Let me put this in perspective in a different kind of way: You know when you finish a triple-A game, the credits begin rolling, and you sit patiently, allowing the blurry list of names to zip by only to see if there is any additional content afterwards? Then, 5 minutes of names turns into 10 minutes, and you give up and go to the fridge? (I just finished “Bulletstorm,” and I think I actually napped while the credits rolled—but the

string of surprise “foreshadowing” dialogue at the end of the game was worth it, in case you missed it.) Well, when the credits roll for “MorphX,” there about 25 people listed for Targem Games, the devs. The credits take about 1 minute to crawl by, including the publisher, Buka. I’m serious. Something in the realm of 25 people made this game, fewer people published it, and it somehow managed to become part of the (not so exclusive) Xbox lineup. Coincidentally, I have seen maybe three serious reviews of this game. None of them flattering.

Ultimately, there’s a pretty good reason for that: Dangerously-close-to-last-gen visuals; too twitchy third-person character movement (though the free-roaming camera works well); a pockmarked narrative whose foundation is a cliché; old-school animation on all NPCs that couldn’t possibly have involved motion-capture; a screen that is usually too dark; sketchy sound and music that comes and goes abruptly on its own; characters you don’t know and don’t care about. This is the kind of game that once you fire it up, your heart really does sink, and you realize you are probably about 30 years too old to be playing it (though it is inexplicably, and ridiculously, rated M for Mature). But I wouldn’t bother writing about it if there weren’t some redeeming qualities.

While pretty much nobody I know would put up with what’s being offered here, you’ve got to ask: How in the world do games like this even get made in this day and age? (And for those few enlightened folks out there who know what I’m talking about, thank God games like these get made in this day and age.) If you’ve played “Earth Defense Force 2017,” you only sorta know what I mean. At least that game has its tongue planted firmly in its old-school cheek:  “Headline! Giant space bugs (that look identical to earthly bugs only way bigger) invade nondescript city for some unspecified reason! Shoot them!” This kind of cheekiness, though, is completely absent from “MorphX” (which endears it to me even more). It takes itself with deadly seriousness; it attempts to tell a tense and hopeless human story with its deadpan narrator constantly chiming in to make sure we can follow the straight-line narrative. It’s violent and bloody and dark and SO DAMN SERIOUS! (The narrator repeats the phrase “Damn Aliens!” in his monologues multiple times, and you can find the same phrase scrawled with emphasis on the walls here and there—very clearly the game’s alluring catchphrase. Oh, and you can actually dial down the “violence” in the menus—wha?)

When you get down to it, the game reminds me quite a bit of “The Suffering,” minus all the characterization, dark humor, backstory, and the uniquely gripping “prison overrun by

hellish monsters” setting. (I know, what’s left, right?) But for comparison’s sake, your character transforms into a mutant killing machine just like Torque from “The Suffering” series; there’s lots of slice-n-dice “raging” combat, as well as gunplay; and the abandoned, wrecked, alien-infested streets of Moscow (such as they are) look as though hell has come to stay (just like the streets of Baltimore in “The Suffering II”). More folks (the dozen who have played it) seem to draw parallels between “MorphX” and  the more recent “Prototype,” but this and “The Suffering” to me are much closer—especially in their non-sandbox, lineararity—as well as graphics dating back to 2003. Yes, I’m comparing an actual last-gen game to a title released in 2010. Yeah, I’m doing that.

So, since I’ve brought up the touchy topic of graphics…What you get here is grade-Z, third-class, bargain basement stuff. Actually, the textures look barely passable (if you turn the brightness down even further), but the main problem is its scale. As a third-person shooter, the game-space (and everything in it—NPCs, buildings, tables, chairs, doors, walls, cars, weapons) suffers mightily from that “tiny, itty-bitty, dollhouse” size issue. Everything looks like a tiny cardboard cutout of something in the real world. Nothing has heft or weight, nothing looks particularly solid or real. (NOTE: This is probably my first-person shooter bias showing itself. I actually have this trouble with most third-person games where the protagonist is scaled way down on screen. Let’s round them up: Infamous, Prototype, aforementioned The Suffering, Alan Wake, The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, any third-person survival horror game. There are exceptions: Isaac, in Dead Space, is of course in third-person perspective, but he is a huge, weighty presence on screen; mostly-over-the-shoulder Leon in Resident Evil 4 is another exception.) This problematic scale, however, doesn’t stop “MorphX” from throwing you into the middle of the wrecked city of Moscow, as you run frantically away from a skyscraper-tall alien while hurdling over cars, brick walls, and city-block-sized crevices in the asphalt. (I know; it sounds like I am describing the PS3 “Resistance” series of games, but I’m not, trust me.) “MorphX” is balls-out and mega-serious about its action…but it just looks hopelessly silly while doing it. Silly like watching some headbanging kid rock out real hard…on an accordion. Silly like watching that drunk guy jam out at a wedding, then he slips and falls on his ass. The surrounding burnt out buildings look like the backdrop to a tiny puppet play about the apocalypse or something. The burnt husks of cars look like Matchboxes.  This isn’t the city of Moscow; it’s like something an amateur model builder set up in his mom’s basement on a disabused pool table to film some Claymation junk with his cellphone. And the level designs are nonsensical, convoluted, pretzel-like—you never actually feel like you are progressing anywhere as you endlessly dodge in and out

of the paper mache hallways, rooms, tunnels, and “open spaces” (I’m snickering here—can you see that?). If you just “give in to it,” I guess it could become vaguely surreal. But it doesn’t quite approach that kind of cool because none of it is intentional. “MorphX” wants to be epic, and that makes you want to pinch its cute little cheek. I hope all that makes sense. If it doesn’t, play it; you’ll see what I mean as soon as the intro movie ends. (The intro movie is way cool, btw.) At this point, I am obliged to mention that graphics, as we all know, make a game not. For example, right now I am cooping “Lost Planet 2” with my partner, and it is a dire piece of beautiful, almost unplayable, garbage. Looks great, tastes like rotten seafood. Conversely, I just popped “Crysis 2” into my Xbox, just to witness its graphical holiness. Bad move. Returning to “MorphX” was like stabbing myself in the eye with a spork repeatedly.)

Regardless, MorphX is a bit of fun. As a budget title, the package actually works (that is, if you give it at least a few hours to get into it). It’s short, which helps. But the one thing that saves this game from being completely forgettable is the power-up function—the few net reviews all mention this rather surprising aspect to an otherwise hamfisted, financially-constrained title. As you progress through the game, you gather pieces of alien DNA strands here and there. You then pause the game and enter a menu that lists 7 or 8 different skills you can hone and shape by linking these DNA strands together (like a minigame, but it has a purpose). There’s the aforementioned “Rage” function where you do double melee damage for a short period of time; there’s a shield that bounces projectiles back onto enemies; there’s a skill to increase your life bar; and another skill to take control of nearby aliens and have them fight on your side for a few

moments, etc. None of this sounds particularly innovative, but two items actually make this supercool. 1) The DNA strands come in 5 or 6 varieties (shapes) and linking them together is not automatic—you’ve got to spend a small amount of time figuring out how they hook up, which at least makes this fun. 2) Once you do power up your abilities, THEY ARE NOT LOCKED IN. That’s right! You can swap and switch these suckers around as you please at any point in the game, which was a bit of genius design in my book (and simplistic to boot). So, if you encounter one particular situation where a shield would come in handy, reconfigure your DNA to provide maximum power to that; if you find you need to rage against a horde of aliens, then pause the game and power-up the Rage function. So smart and so fun. Other plusses: The controls are simple and become second nature within no time–the learning curve is mere minutes. It’s extremely old-school for a third-person game–no tiring “Gears of War” cover mechanic on show here (I’m being snarky again), not even a crouch button, or a separate run button, or a somersualt button, or a…everything is one speed–just go and shoot.

But then it’s all over. The game ends abruptly, as if it thinks there will be some kind of sequel (I mean, I guess that’s what the ending meant…). It’s  a downbeat ending (all but tiny pockets of mankind have ceased to exist), with a small reveal about the nature of your character that I won’t spoil here. I can dig it (but I’m easily pleased).

Of course, it helps that the game is a Gamerscore whore’s delight for an Xbox owner. The game dishes out achievements like beads at Mardi Gras. Some of them you have to work for, but there was a point in the game where I racked up almost 150 points in a matter of 10 minutes for doing little other than conserving some ammo and taking a few good shots. (An abundance of easy cheevies so far only surpassed in my experience by the “Saw” games, where you get G for dying.) Loving it.