Truly new video game ideas are exceedingly rare. Pretty much every title that comes out can be slotted into a general category (strategy, shooter, RPG) and usually an even more specific sub-category (turn-based strategy, rail shooter, sandbox RPG). As with movies, everything has been done before and there is nothing new under the sun.
Except sometimes there is. The hypnotic and addictive “Osmos” (Android, iOS, Mac, PC; $2.99; rated 4+), originally released in 2009, is technically a puzzle game. But it combines several inventive design elements into a unique gaming experience. “Osmos” recently upgraded to a 2.x version, with multiplayer options on some platforms and new tweaks and fixes.
A big part of the charm with “Osmos” is its utter simplicity. You play as a “mote,” a kind of one-celled organism afloat in a Darwinian world of eat-or-be-eaten survival tactics. The game’s reality is artfully ambiguous – in some sequences it feels like you’re in a microscopic world of cells and nuclei. In others, you orbit larger motes in a way that suggests a cosmic scale.
You survive by consuming smaller motes, which are absorbed through your cell walls. You become larger with each mote you consume and, as you grow, enemy motes that were previously predators become prey.
Your mote’s form of locomotion is pretty ingenious. To move across the game’s 2-D plane, you expel part of your own mass, which reduces your size but provides momentum. It’s all strict Newtonian physics. This introduces a game mechanic in which conservation of energy and mass must be constantly weighed against the need to consume other motes. The game has a built-in timer aspect in that all the motes around you are combining and getting bigger, too.
As the levels progress, “Osmos” introduces more complications. Bigger motes might have gravitational pull, or smaller ones might have a primitive artificial intelligence that prompts them to evade predators. The game’s trickiest levels incorporate orbital physics, with multiple “attractor” motes generating overlapping gravitational fields.
It sounds complicated, but all the heavy math is under the hood, so to speak, and learning the game is a pleasant and intuitive process. The visuals are gorgeous and the game’s soundtrack is great, too, with spacy ambient tracks by a roster of electronic music composers. Headphones are recommended.
As you progress through the tutorial and the 30 or so levels of game’s Odyssey mode, an Arcade mode unlocks in stages, allowing you to return to favorite “zones” – orbital, sentient, etc. Levels are randomly populated in Arcade more, so Osmos has great replay value.
The recently upgraded 2.1 edition for iOS adds voice chat to the multiplayer mode, along with a few new optimizations. “Osmos” is a nice smart phone game – iOS or Android – but it really shines on the larger iPad screen. Highly recommended.
Also New This Week: Racing and modding with “LittleBigPlant Karting” (PS3); military strategy with “Legends of War: Patton” (PC, PS3, X360, Vita); the hugely anticipated space epic “Halo 4” (X360); and licensing gone wild with “Angry Birds: Star Wars” (iOS, Android).