Posted by Sean Aaron
The first time many saw images from Diatomic one word was in their head: Geometry Wars (okay, that's two). The similarities in appearance are definitely there: closed-border shooter (attention: new term coinage alert!) and old-school wire-frame graphics. This isn't a bad thing though, with imitation being the best form of flattery and all that. Certainly history is littered with derivative games that were regarded as great in their own right; lest we forget that Geometry Wars is essentially a marriage of Tempest and Robotron: 2084. When creating a title that is similar to an established, popular game it's important to set it apart in some way; whether it's the underlying game mechanics or by adding additional features. Unfortunately the developers of Diatomic have elected to set their game apart from similar shooters by publishing it with horrifically broken controls.
Visually the game looks pretty nice. It takes place on a single screen which is conceptually like a petri dish filled with fluid and has nice water effects as your avatar and enemies move around the screen like so many microscopic organisms. The wire-frame look is also pleasing and has a slightly rough quality like you were playing it on an old colour LCD handheld. The sound isn't too brilliant, but it gets the job done and the generic easy-listening electro tracks you hear repeatedly aren't annoying, but they're not something you'd pay money for on their own.
There's a tutorial to walk you through the basics of play. You move your critter around the screen with the , which works very nicely. The next bit you need to learn is how to attack and this is where it all goes to hell. Despite the fact that Wii has a Classic Controller with two sticks and the aforementioned Geometry Wars: Galaxies made brilliant use of the pointer as a method for aiming in 360-degrees, Diatomic uses Remote gestures to whip your critter's tail at enemies. Now we don't have a problem with remote gestures per se, but there's a time and a place - to quote Dirty Harry: "a man's got to know his limitations."
You can pull off remote gestures vertically and horizontally almost 100 percent of the time; attempting to recognise separate up/down and left/right gestures is asking more and needs a lot more finesse, but Diatomic is asking for 8-way joystick movement and it's just not going to happen. You don't need to go to beta to know that, because the Wii's been on the market for three years now and there's no one making games trying to detect diagonal movement in a Wii game using Remote swipes - well, except Grendel Games.
If you wanted to be so ambitious you'd think that there would be some kind of motion calibration settings or MotionPlus support, but there isn't. There are two primary methods of attack: you can whip your tail at enemies or hold to form a shield for collecting enemy shots which you can then fling back with - wait for it - the same remote gestures used for whipping your tail.
To say we were able to hit the target half the time would be generous. You do occasionally get lucky and there seems to be some slight guidance given to your shots, but if it takes several minutes to complete a single tutorial section because you cannot hit a slow-moving target by flinging back their bullets, then something is very wrong. Of course it would help if the tutorial wasn't interrupting every 30 seconds to tell you what you're supposed to be doing. If we were suffering that kind of short-term memory loss we would have forgotten why we were playing the game and switched it off!
There is a 3rd attack which is a spin attack, but you have no real control over where you're going. You hold and just bounce around the screen until your spin metre runs out (supposedly you can influence direction with the , but it was almost imperceptible). This is a rather critical attack because it's one of only a couple of ways to eliminate the spawners which are giant red blobs with teeth that spew out the rest of the enemies. You're supposed to destroy the spawners before they grow big enough to start shooting out mines; killing them is also the only way to progress to the next level. You can either spin them to death (multiple hits required) or hit their mines back at them with your tail, but both strategies are fraught with danger.
In order to build up your spin metre you need to collect spin energy capsules left behind when normal enemies are killed; trying to hit mines at all exposes you to the risk of being being destroyed by them when you invariably miss due to the wonderful attack system. Needless to say getting past the first stage of the game is a real accomplishment until you realise there's another 64 to go and little chance you'll ever see them.
That's because you only get one life in this game. Not one life and you can take multiple hits, but one life and getting hit by an enemy bullet or a mine is instant death (well, there is an animation of your tail acting like a fuse as a chain reaction blows you up). You have to earn continues and you only get one initially, so you basically have two lives before it's game over. The game's pacing isn't as frantic as Geometry Wars, but given you'll have trouble hitting an enemy right next to you it won't be long before the spawner is pumping out mines everywhere that only have a three-second fuse and a sizable explosion radius.
The game could be somewhat playable if you had the standard three lives (or more relaxed hit detection), but having to sit through a slowing fading "Game Over" message, the high score table and then the stage select menu to start a new game is just too tedious given how quickly you'll use up the life you have. Easy deaths and limited lives combined with a dodgy attack system make for a frustrating time and we felt lucky to get to stage two; after a dozen failed attempts to beat Stage two and a throbbing wrist it was decided to leave well enough alone and move on.
There is support for a second player, but they just get to move an on-screen cursor with their remote and press to shoot enemy bullets. We figure it's like having a designated driver: after playing a marathon session trying to get a high score the second player will be able to drive you to hospital after you've crippled yourself making scores of "precise" remote waves. Thanks to the presence of a rather detailed statistics page you'll be able to participate in a study on the long-term affects of playing Diatomic - or submit evidence in the class action lawsuit that will result if sufficient numbers of people play this game long enough to develop carpal tunnel syndrome.
Diatomic is a game suffering from an ill-placed desire to stand apart from established popular shooters on the Wii. Whilst being a bit different is certainly admirable, choosing a rubbish control system is not the best way to do it. Given the rest of the game was interesting enough, adopting a more conventional method for attacking enemies would at least have made it playable - even if it looks very much like a "mee-too!" effort. We can only suggest you avoid this and pick up a copy of Geometry Wars: Galaxies instead - you won't regret either decision.