For reasons of journalistic simplification, the creative process of video games is often underestimated. Titles like Project Spark they are therefore useful to remind us not only that without a compelling story it is difficult to find yourself in front of a good product, but that at the basis of many choices made by programmers and developers there are lucidity and foresight unknown to most users.
You may be wondering: wasn't Team Dakota's production “simply” Microsoft's answer to LittleBigPlanet? It is actually evident from the first session that it is not a clone, and indeed Project Spark greatly complicate the formula halfway between game maker and family game which was believed to be inspired.
The experience offered by Project Spark it can be attributed to two distinctly separate sections in the start menu: the Create mode and the Play mode. The two, in some ways, are similar and merge in the unique and fluid philosophy of the new internal study of the Colossus of Redmond. A philosophy that provides for the possibility of playing while creating and vice versa, but not only: the idea is to allow you to change anything, and earn the “credit” in the opening and closing titles of the level created.
This is the Lineage system, the DNA of the level or the world whose creation is started by one user and carried out by many others, in a continuous group beta. Call it, if you like, collective development or even work group 2.0, because it allows you to come across truly collaborative characters on Xbox Live and PC, to meet online with friends and to give yourself in with your imagination, without any brake. At this point the yardstick is likely to be no longer LittleBigPlanet but Minecraft.
For users who already chew on the logic of programming, Crea is a real godsend, much more powerful and complicated than the Play counterpart. This is the most ambitious and perhaps least attractive aspect for the general public, because it pushes the user to work on all the elements of their game and not only on predefined assets.
This at a superficial level means terraforming and choice of protagonists and settings, while at a more in-depth level it provides for the essential comparison with the modulation of the “brains”. These are the intelligences that are hidden behind each character and the elements that you intend to make appear on the screen.
The brains must be assembled using a real programming language, filtered by the providential use of the graphic interface rather than by the disturbing Pascal masks on duty. Fortunately, in Project Spark there is only confrontation with “when” and “do”, as well as with a large array of modifiers and useful pages to give a sequence of desired actions. The tutorials in Italian are functional at this juncture: sometimes it seems to be back to school for how heavy they are but, you know, repetita iuvant …
The Play mode is quite different, in which it is possible to access the three macro-areas of the Community Games, Sample Mission and Crossroads. While the functioning of the first is rather obvious, with about fifteen filters (parental control included) and the “follow” button to always keep an eye on the favorite authors, it can be interesting to analyze the remaining two more closely.
The Assault Void mission is basically the main dish of the € 39.99 Starter Pack, constituting the first piece of an episodic campaign aimed at telling the story of the Spark and above all at showing the various types of video games that can be created thanks to the game maker of Dakota team.
In practice, Assault Void is nothing more than an action platform à la Skylanders with a customizable difficulty rate but tending upwards only if not addressed with a suitable character (in our opinion Karlsnor the Berserker for his melee qualities). The first chapter of the campaign is in fact characterized by the presence of four champions from which to choose a protagonist and possibly his co-op partner, with acquirable skill sets and a unique level to be advanced regardless of that of the profile.
Provided that you have unlocked the Starter Pack, three of these champions can be selected at the ready-to-go while for the fourth, a ranger, a disbursement in currency of the game is required, which can be earned slowly and inexorably over time, or can be purchased with hard currency.
And this is somewhat the logic, the logic of monetization, on which part of the good intentions and qualities of Project Spark. Unlike the Create mode, which offers freedom so unprecedented as to overwhelm the user, in Play and in this case in Crossroads it is often difficult to juggle premium and free content, the latter sometimes insignificant and yet digesting under penalty of the end of game making .
Especially in the eyes of an audience of children, led or not by their parents, it could be penalizing to be able to access enemies a bit retro like the goblins and not to the perhaps abused but certainly more modern zombies for their story.
That said, it is in Crossroads that we see the best of Project Spark, capable of offering bread for the teeth partly for budding game designers, partly for lovers of storytelling who are increasingly convinced that their pen would save the world of video games. That of Team Dakota and Microsoft is not only a tool for creating games but also stories.
Inside you write the dialogues (a little uncomfortable with the pad but still optional), you choose the artistic sector, the setting, the protagonist, the enemies, the quest and even a hint of plot. And above all, the playful material that is produced is played in real time, without any waiting time while passing through a good set of alternatives being created.
Before closing, it is worth spending a few words on the technical sector that we tried on Xbox One. In Create mode, we almost seemed to see a ring-shaped planet in the background, so much so that the proposed scenario reminded us of the Forge of the Halo series. The impact of a completely empty world to be painted literally of the colors that best suit us is splendid, and that sense of initial loss can be therapeutic and better respect the work of those who invest time and money every day in the continuous search for (our ) fun.
In Crossroads it is absolutely suggestive to play with filters to have a visual rendering now similar to the aberrant one of Limbo, now to the one about laps of the Borderlands series. With Assalto Void, in the same way, the next-gen glance is guaranteed by the “stationary” rendering and by the particle effects that derive from Spark's movements. However, serious shortcomings in the management of the frame and various uncertainties in the frame-rate should be highlighted.
Summing up, therefore, Project Spark it is an experiment that continues to arouse interest and a bit of admiration, both for the quantitatively impressive work already carried out by Team Dakota, and for what has been done by its community in the long beta phase and in the first week of availability.
Too bad that the outlay required by Microsoft is high in relation to the content offer, consisting of a sample, a handful of “accelerators” and the first step of an episodic campaign that may not arouse great interest in the most savvy users. If you are driven solely by curiosity, you can still opt for the free edition or, at the most, for some occasional digital purchase.
The Crea mode, which we praised for its richness, could finally prove to be the typical double-edged sword, seducing first and then discouraging those who did not feel they were dealing with the rudiments of programming well disguised as a game.
But in case you notice that the noble art of videogame development is not for you, you will always have much more to play and that tribute to the Final Fantasy classics signed by Team Dakota, with lots of turn-based battles, is waiting for you.