A man made of explosions breaks out of a lab as fleeing scientists burst into charred hams. A lame superhero's comic is canceled and he fights to get back on the shelves. An undead puppet fueled by demonic tacos rises from the grave to take revenge on his posse. If there's one thing you can count on from developer Twisted Pixel, it's an amusing premise.
Its latest game, which will launch alongside Microsoft's Xbox One, is no different. LocoCycle tells the story of I.R.I.S. (Intelligent Reactionary Infiltration System), a top secret, sentient motorcycle that has escaped her makers and is on the run from S.P.I.K.E. (Sociopathic Predatory Intelligent Kill Experiment). In tow – literally – is her Spanish-speaking mechanic Pablo, forcefully dragged along as IRIS blasts her enemies. When she can't shoot baddies, she leaps into the air, "kicking" them with her tires and swinging Pablo around like a pair of giant, fleshy nunchaku.
Like most of Twisted Pixel's games, LocoCycle relies on only a handful of simple gameplay elements with a few degrees of complexity thrown in to keep things interesting. The "melee" combat is mainly a one-button affair, with IRIS smacking jetpack soldiers with her wheels while ratcheting up a combo tally. Enemy attacks can be countered with a separate button, which helps to alleviate the feeling of non-stop button mashing. IRIS also spends quite a bit of time peppering enemy vehicles with machine gun fire, all while weaving between obstacles. And I do mean weaving.
IRIS has some very sensitive steering, and even a slight touch sent her careening from side to side, making it difficult to move and shoot accurately. That's intentional, Twisted Pixel marketing director Jay Stuckwisch tells me. "It's supposed to make you feel like you're traveling at 200 miles an hour throughout this entire game, and battling things, so just the slightest turn of the wheel or the stick is going to really jerk you to one side or the other at high speeds." Players will need to be "smooth" with their actions, he says. I'm not completely convinced that Twisted Pixel made a good design choice here, but hopefully movement becomes more natural with practice.
"It's our biggest game to date, definitely."- Jay Stuckwisch, Twisted Pixel
Pablo's involvement escalates when IRIS breaks down. In once sequence I played, a semi truck barreled toward the pair, giving the mechanic less than a minute to repair IRIS' damage and get her back on the road. These sequences play out as a puzzle of sorts, forcing you to use the analog stick to find the broken parts, then initiating a short quick time event to make the necessary repairs. "That's kind of one of the parts where you get to play as Pablo and he gets to shine as the hero," says Stuckwisch.
LocoCycle seems to stick to Twisted Pixel's strengths: simple gameplay layered with humor. For the most part, I enjoyed my time with the game. The haphazard steering, and consequently the haphazard shooting, is troublesome, though the brief demo made it tough to gauge whether the problem was intrinsic to the game or just a result of my inexperience.
The Xbox One version of LocoCycle has been in development for "probably about six months or so" at Twisted Pixel's studio in Austin, Texas. With such a short development cycle, Stuckwisch says it won't make use of all of the Xbox One's features, though it has undergone significant improvements over the Xbox 360 version (which is still coming out, incidentally). It's much prettier, he says, and it runs at 60 frames per second at 1080p.
The game runs on Twisted Pixel's in-house engine, Beard. There wasn't enough development time to give the engine many Xbox One specific improvements, though the studio plans to keep using Beard as it migrates over to the next generation. "We're pretty much sticking with it right now. We do look at other options, just to see what's out there and, obviously, keep abreast of what the new technologies [are] and stuff like that. But, everybody is so familiar with how Beard is working internally in the studio right now, that right now that's our engine of choice." Of course, ditching Beard would mean abandoning its hilarious intro sequence (above), and that just won't do.
"Yeah, I think we want to keep it going just for that reason. We'll have a good [intro] coming up for LocoCycle, and [we] can't wait to show people."
Despite its planned arrival on a new platform, Twisted Pixel promises a few Easter eggs and hidden surprises for die-hard fans of its back catalog. Stuckwisch says he isn't really worried about the game's elevated status as a launch title though, and Twisted Pixel isn't experiencing any extra pressure from Microsoft, the studio's parent company.
"I wouldn't say pressure. We've always wanted to do a launch title. We felt really strongly that LocoCycle would be a really good launch title," he says. "It's our biggest game to date, definitely."
"We've got so many game ideas we want to do. Yeah, it'd be awesome to just churn out sequels all day, but we really feel like our strong suit is coming up with these new characters and these new stories and these new worlds." Twisted Pixel doesn't even like to classify Ms. 'Splosion Man as a sequel, he says, instead thinking of it as the game the studio always wanted 'Splosion Man to be.
Beyond the Xbox One and Xbox 360 versions of LocoCycle, Twisted Pixel is also working on an unannounced third project. "Yeah, [we're] working on another new project as well. Always working," Stuckwisch admits, explaining why Twisted Pixel doesn't have enough time to develop sequels.
Whatever its unknown project is, Stuckwisch explains that Twisted Pixel has creative control of their direction, not Microsoft. When Microsoft acquired the studio in 2011, Twisted Pixel's autonomy was part of the deal. "They're actually doing this thing with the acquisition that's called the 'light touch approach,' where they're basically just ... they came in, they bought us and we keep doing what we do. It's business as usual." Apart from some new hires, nothing has changed. "Every once in a while, Microsoft pops down here just to check in and say 'hey' and eat some barbecue, and then they're back on their way to Seattle. So yeah, it's been good."
LocoCycle will launch alongside the Xbox One and will also be made available for the Xbox 360 later this year.