Flockers - Preview
Team17 are taking a break from their long-running Worms series to bring us a spin-off in the shape of their new IP, Flockers. This new game features one of the worms’ most iconic weapons, the sheep, as they decide enough is enough and undertake a perilous mission to escape a weapons factory. This factory is a dangerous place, full of obstacles, where the sheep are held before they are called upon to sacrifice themselves in battle.
The game itself draws obvious inspiration from DMA Design’s classic game, Lemmings, with which Team17 already have some development experience through their work porting the game to Sony’s gaming platforms. For those unfamiliar with the game type, Flockers involves guiding a group of sheep from the level entrance to the exit whilst avoiding a variety of traps and environmental hazards. To make life challenging, the sheep are constantly on the move until they reach a wall and will mindlessly walk into any trap or off a high cliff they encounter on their strolls. To prevent this, you have a variety of orders you can give to the sheep to help them overcome obstacles or save them from impending doom. These include a variety of Lemmings-inspired moves such as blocking to prevent your sheep wandering into hazards and bridging moves to clear gaps or reach higher platforms. As well as these classic moves, there are a few Worms-inspired moves such as super-sheep which allows them to fly up vertical walls and jumper which allows them to clear small horizontal gaps. These abilities can also be used in a variety of less obvious ways to expand the number of choices at your disposal. These include propelling sheep at specific angles by exploding another sheep in close proximity, fixing sheep in place to provide a soft landing for others above them, and preventing super-sheep from wandering into danger.
The game’s modernisation has seen the loss of one main feature from the Lemmings series - level deformation by the player. There’s no ability to dig or bash your way through the landscape at will, although there are specific obstructions you can destroy by exploding one of your sheep. Flockers provides an alternative to digging through the level in the form of of moving platforms triggered when sheep walk over specific switches. These switches can also activate traps to keep you on your toes and you may quickly need to guide your sheep away from where they were grouped after pressing a switch.
There are some nice usability improvements to the classic formula, such as the ability to toggle between giving a skill to one sheep or a group in one go, rather than having to click on each sheep individually. A big help is that bridging and blocking moves are placed on the level rather than individual sheep. This means you can place them in advance and the first sheep to reach them will carry out the appropriate task, which nicely cuts down on some split second timing that would otherwise be needed. Finally on this front, the smart level design ensures super-sheep and jumpers can’t go off in the wrong direction if you struggle to click the correct sheep amongst a mass of them in a confined area. A lot of effort has been put into ensuring players won’t be blaming the game when it all goes wrong and their sheep are dying.
The design of Flockers allows players of varying skill to play through it. You only need to get one sheep to the exit to win the level but there are optional objectives, such as freeing the Golden Fleece and trying to save as many sheep as possible. Even players who are not typically leaderboard chasers will find the desire to replay levels to save more sheep irresistibly addictive. At its most obvious, this will involve you dealing with the traps more effectively once you have become more familiar with the level. But as well as that, the level design typically allows you to free up sheep that were previously performing blocking and bridging duties and saving these sheep, whilst juggling the safety of your main flock, can make all the difference on the leaderboard. In fact, unless you have remarkable reactions, replaying levels will be pretty much mandatory. The way switches morph the levels, coupled with the fact that you collect your sheep powers as you progress through the level, make it challenging to plan the whole level in advance. This may put off puzzle purists, but the short levels, and the desire to improve your performance ensure this never becomes repetitive.
When it all goes wrong for your sheep, the brutally over-the-top cartoon violence ensures that your failure is anything but a mundane experience. Lemmings featured hundreds of small furry creatures dying in a variety of ways but the low resolution visuals and the fact that most people have probably never seen a real life lemming made the whole experience a little abstract. With Flockers, whilst you can disable the blood, the whole thing is on another level of brutality. The detailed visuals, corpses on spikes and baaing sounds ensure this. Even if they made some more of this optional, the whole concept of the game is to save the sheep from giant axes and spinning swords and sometimes, indeed often, you’re going to fail at that. That can’t be avoided and whilst the whole thing is for humorous effect, it is possible that some people may take offense.
The pre-release version of Flockers is available via Steam’s Early Access program. You effectively pre-order the game and gain immediate access to early versions of the game as it develops and then receive the final version upon release. The current version includes twenty-five levels across two themed zones with most of those levels in the first zone. The final version will add more levels to the second zone and a whole other zone. The game also includes a level editor so the game will be extended by user created levels. The game is a little unstable currently but this is to be expected with a preview game and the store page warns of this. Team17 staff are keenly interacting with players on the game’s forum and one patch, comprising mainly of difficulty curve balancing, has already been released so they are quickly improving the experience based on player feedback.
Whilst the humorously over-the-top brutal violence may put off a few people, the rest of us are looking at a potential hit here. Rather than remake the classic, Team17 have made some well thought out improvements, added some twists to the formula, and might just claim this long neglected genre as their own. Retrying levels to save one more sheep is very addictive, even for players that wouldn’t normally compete for leaderboard scores.