Geometry Wars 3 is too much of a good thing, but a good thing nonetheless
Geometry Wars 2 (2008) was never a game that demanded a sequel. From the series’ birth as an Easter Egg in Project Gotham Racing 2 (2003) to finding its home on the early Xbox Live Arcade, Bizarre Creations’ Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (2005) made few drastic changes but by its second numbered iteration had refined its twin-stick, neon arcade-shooter score-chase into a neo-retro diamond. Aside from perhaps Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (2010) (which borrowed indiscriminately from Geometry Wars aesthetics and leaderboard systems) no game has greater exemplified the arcade game rebirth of the last decade as greatly as Geometry Wars 2 (2008). With Geometry Wars 2 Bizarre Creations had achieved near perfection and it is difficult to imagine how they would begin to follow up such a monumental release. But six years later what remains of the studio, now reformed as Lucid Games, attempted to do just that with the release of Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions Evolved (2014), a direct sequel that pulls ideas from both Geometry Wars 2 and the royally overlooked Wii spinoff Geometry Wars: Galaxies (2007), as well as liberal inspiration from the adjacent Super Stardust series.
The first question with a sequel like Dimensions Evolved is not “what’s changed” but “did they ruin it?” Though the return of one of XBLA’s biggest hits is more than welcome, it is hard not to see the surprise release as potentially suspect after a six-year gap and developer shuffle. The answer to that question, however, turns out to be far more difficult to answer than expected.
At first glance, Dimensions Evolved is still indisputably Geometry Wars. Bright geometric shapes zoom around spitting off particle effects as they attempt to collide with your ship, a reckless spacecraft zipping through levels shooting at anything within reach. Geometry Wars has always expertly balanced visual chaos with a focused design similar to the best bullet-hell shooters, and Dimensions Evolved hasn’t gotten sloppy in the downtime between releases. Few shooters of any variety (or hell, games in general) could claim to match the sort of sensory experience that has personified Geometry Wars’ since its inception, the act of shooting a glowing quadrilateral ranking with the likes of bopping a Goomba on the head or eating a Pac-Man ghost in regards to pitch perfect video game moments.
Like each sequel and spinoff before it, Dimensions Evolved seeks to expand upon Geometry Wars’ foundation while preserving prior games’ additions. As its title somewhat subtly implies, Dimensions Evolved sees the series expanding from its flat origins into full 3D (one can only imagine how overwhelming the game would be when viewed through a pair of anaglyph glasses) placing it far closer to Super Stardust HD (2007) than Asteroids (1979). Compared to past games Dimensions Evolved is almost blinding, the presentation a visually arresting assault of colors and explosions. But for all its technical prowess, Dimensions Evolved’s irreconcilable oversight is allowing its graphics to infringe upon its gameplay.
The tone of Dimensions Evolved is a blunt "more"
Geometry Wars has kept the same visual style for all of its releases, but aside from being characteristic of the series the stripped-down presentation also served a practical purpose of keeping the frantic action readable. It was never a challenge to understand what was happening or where enemies were coming from in Geometry Wars 2, but in its third iteration, this key design philosophy has been forgotten in favor of visually interesting but functionally impractical levels which the game’s rudimentary camera is incapable of compensating for. Levels range from simple spheres to peanut-shaped to curved planes and levels which move and evolve as you play through them. There is undeniably more going on in any given level of Dimensions Evolved, but very little of it feels as if it is adding something necessary.
The tone of every addition to Dimensions Evolved is a blunt “more.” More levels, more game types, more enemies, more stuff. It’s a predictable, if unexciting approach to a sequel, but what is so unfortunate is that additions that would have fundamentally benefited the series – such as auto-recorded replays ala-Pix the Cat (2014) or cross-platform leaderboards – are completely absent. What is present is an embarrassment of riches, different elements tacked on like a gaudy painting by an artist that doesn’t know when to quit.
Perhaps most remarkably frustrating is Dimensions Evolved’s recycling of Galaxies' drone feature, effectively different power-ups which can be equipped and upgraded to give you extra fire power, collect multipliers, or defend your ship from enemies. These drones provide Dimensions Evolved with its one source of player augmentation, which in most games would be a welcome source of variety but in a game so heavily focused on score chasing upsets the playing field and renders most scores irrelevant. Geometry Wars works so well as an arcade game because it grasps that leaderboards are most compelling when they are tightly focused. Dimensions Evolved introduces so many variables between levels and drone loadouts that attempting to gain the top spot on its hundred or so leaderboards feels like a completely hopeless and pointless pursuit.
Lucid Games seems to have realized this on some level, as alongside Dimensions Evolved’s additions, a near 1-1 replica of Geometry Wars 2 has also been included as a “classic” mode. Unfortunately, the same visual problems that plague the rest of the game persist here, rendering standbys like “deadline” and “waves” mechanically identical but distinctly less playable than in past games. These classic stages are undeniably (and perhaps unsurprisingly) the most tuned to score chasing, and in turn the portion of the game most destined to replace Geometry Wars 2’s brutal quest for leaderboard dominance, but it is disappointing that even when it adheres so closely to its predecessors Dimensions Evolved can’t quite measure up.
It is important to emphasize that despite all its missteps, there is still nothing quite like Geometry Wars and even a lesser version is still among the best arcade games in recent memory. Dimensions Evolved’s biggest strength is serving as a reminder of what an amazing series Geometry Wars has always been, and providing a reason for people who long ago boxed up their 360 to jump back in and reclaim their spot on the leaderboard. Whether that means acclimating to Dimensions Evolved’s questionable changes or returning to Geometry Wars 2 or Galaxies, the result is a net win.