‘Duck Game’ offers excellent multiplayer value but flounders in single player

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Duck Game
Developed by Landon Podbielski
Published by Adult Swim Games
Available on PC

The recent revival of local multiplayer has been a welcome addition in the crowded, independent platformer genre. Towerfall in 2013 and Nidogg in 2014 both provided a seemingly endless source of group fun with their own particular flavor of easy to learn, difficult to master gameplay. Now in 2015, Adult Swim Games will release Duck Game on Steam (previously an OUYA exclusive), in what seems to be an attempt to bank on single screen multiplayer resurgence. ASG have a pretty excellent track record as of late, including the much praised Jazz Punk and the brilliantly old school Völgarr the Viking. Thankfully Duck Game succeeds where it matters most, with a group of friends and some genuinely unexpected moments, yet like so many of its counterparts, it leaves little for the solo player.

For the uninitiated, a useful comparison to make for Duck Game is the Worms series. Not because it features turn based combat, quite the opposite actually. The frantic, fast paced platforming combat is much more akin to the likes of Towerfall, meaning matches lasting over 30 seconds should be considered long. Yet the weapons and environment are reminiscent of the likes of Worms: Armageddon. You have your standard pistol, shotgun, assault rifle types. You have grenades, mines and even body armor; but things get really interesting when you start throwing flamethrowers, jetpacks and ninja ropes into the mix. Sound familiar? The inspiration feels more than coincidental. What’s more, the game features so many additional wacky items that you’ll pick up an unfamiliar shaped gun only to realize it does no damage to your opponents besides trapping them in a plastic bag that you must then pick up and throw off the nearest ledge before they can break free. Hilarity ensues.

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In premise, controlling Duck Game is very simple. One hit and you’re dead. After the standard run and jump, you are left with ‘pick up/throw’ with Y and ‘use’ with X, as every item must be picked up before it can be used, unless you want to throw it. The latter is less easily definable. It can mean equip but also shoot, reload, cock a weapon, swing a sword or play a drum kit. You might equip a gun, miss your first shot, try again only to find yourself stuck in place because your duck is stood there cleaning out the barrel of an old musket. It does mean the game has something of a steeper learning curve, but it also lends an added degree of mastery for each weapon. Shotguns must be cocked between shots and ‘using’ a grenade will only pull the pin; you must then throw it at the precise moment or you’ll be left holding it until you meet your untimely end. Oh, and did I mention you play as a duck?

I might have lied before because there is one more useful button on the controller (and using a controller really is the way to play). B will let out a humble quack. Useless in battle, that is until you land an absolute Hail Mary of a grenade and force your opponents to watch as you drag their corpses around the screen quacking. The game is made for those overly competitive moments, the bragging rights and the humiliation. The delicate balance between tight controls and the random nature of turning your opponent into a literal roasted duck with a flamethrower. It’s all wrapped up in a brilliantly consistent pixel style described as ‘futuristic 1984’. This is an Adult Swim game so humor is to be expected, such as in the post game wrap up reports from sportscaster John Mallard, displayed on an 80’s CRT TV. The humor runs deep though, working it’s way into places you’d never expect. Sit in the matchmaking screen and listen closely to the mellow music and you’ll hear a whispering voice say “Duck Game” and “Matchmaking” and very occasionally, “Lose Weight”.

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Yet for all its success as a multiplayer game, single player leaves a lot to be desired. It’s almost jarringly different. Whereas Towerfall has a series of progressively more difficult levels with unique AI enemies, Duck Game instead opts for smaller challenge maps that judge you on your speed or ability and reward you with a bronze, silver or gold medal. The results are mixed. Some challenges are fine, with one-off uses of the unique weapons that provide short spurts of fun. Others are just poorly designed, with maps that force you to restart should you make a minor mistake. When AI does appear its static, often not wielding any weapons, and only attacking when you put yourself directly in it’s firing range like a stationary turret. All the well designed arena combat of the multiplayer is stripped away and what is left can end up feeling like a sub-par mobile game.

If you can find a few friends to huddle around a PC, or you’re willing to play against strangers online, Duck Game will undoubtedly put a smile on your face. This sub-genre is proliferating quickly and Duck Game is a welcome addition. It’s got about as much depth as can be expected from a product called ‘Duck Game‘, but that’s actually a good thing in this case, at least in terms of multiplayer. Picking up and playing is relatively easy, yet mastering can take real strategy. If you’re looking at picking it up as a game to play alone, perhaps look elsewhere. If you just want some sweet local multiplayer, it’s time to let the feathers fly.